If there were still questions about why the Toronto Raptors made a move for Marc Gasol at the trade deadline, he answered them loud and clear in the first round of these playoffs with his defense on Orlando Magic All-Star Nikola Vucevic.
Gasol will now have to do the same in the second round for the Raptors to advance further, this time against Joel Embiid, who was both an All-Star and MVP candidate this season.
Embiid will test Gasol in ways Vucevic couldn't in the coming weeks. As talented of a scorer as Vucevic is, Embiid is one of the most dominant centres the league has seen in a long time. He's coming off of a season in which he averaged 27.5 points, 13.6 rebounds and 1.9 blocks per game, which are numbers we haven't seen since Shaquille O'Neal almost 20 years ago.
He did more of the same in Philadelphia's first-round series with the Brooklyn Nets - 24.8 points, 13.5 rebounds and 2.8 blocks per game - even though he was dealing with a knee injury.
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Like O'Neal, Embiid creates the bulk of his offence out of the post. According to NBA.com, he generated just under a third of his scoring with his back to the basket this season, the fifth-highest mark in the league behind LaMarcus Aldridge, Robin Lopez, Enes Kanter and Karl-Anthony Towns.
Embiid was incredibly efficient working out of the post, ranking in the 78th percentile with an average of 1.05 points per possession.
That number was boosted by him drawing a shooting foul on over a quarter of his post-up possessions, which, once again, was one of the highest marks in the NBA. It helped him become one of two players to average 10-plus free throw attempts per game, the other being Houston Rockets superstar James Harden.
All of that is to say: Embiid is an absolute nightmare on the low block.
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Fortunately for the Raptors, Gasol has been one of the NBA's best post-up defenders since the team acquired him back in February. He rarely fouls and he was among the league leaders in forcing turnovers in the post.
He wasn't quite as effective in that regard in the first half of the season when he was with the Memphis Grizzlies, but Gasol still gave Embiid trouble in both of their meetings this season. According to NBA.com, Gasol limited Embiid to 17 points on a dismal 6-for-18 (33.3 percent) shooting from the field when they were matched up together.
Embiid also committed seven turnovers against Gasol. Myles Turner and Al Horford were the only players to force more turnovers against Embiid during the regular season, per NBA.com, but they both played two more games against him than Gasol did.
The same tools that gave Vucevic problems in the first round will help Gasol as he looks to contain Embiid in the second round. Not only does he have the size to battle with Embiid in the post as a 7-foot-1 centre who weighs an almost identical 255 pounds...
...he has the length to make him uncomfortable, beit when he's looking to score or make plays for others.
There is more to Embiid's game that post-ups, but with that being the primary source of his offence, Gasol's ability to defend him 1-on-1 without needing much support from his teammates would be a huge win for the Raptors.
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Gasol's offence will also be a major factor in this series. The Raptors will likely need him to be more aggressive than he was in the first round, when he averaged only 5.6 field goal attempts per game. A more aggressive version of Gasol is critical in order to draw Embiid out of the paint and away from the rim.
In addition to being one of the league's leading shot blockers this season, Embiid led the league in the amount of shots he contested within 6-feet of the basket. He held opponents to 52.2 percent shooting in those situations, putting him on the same page as Rudy Gobert, who was last season's Defensive Player of the Year.
Gasol hasn't been shooting nearly as many 3s with the Raptors as he did with the Grizzlies over the last couple of seasons, but he's proven he can space the floor out to the 3-point line at a reliable enough rate for opponents to respect him from distance.
If Gasol can do both of those things - make life difficult for Embiid on offence and make him defend in space - it would swing the series in Toronto's favour in a big way.
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