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Toronto Raptors

One Play: The unguardable set the Toronto Raptors run through Marc Gasol

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Marc Gasol (NBA Getty Images)

Welcome to "One Play!" Throughout the 2019-20 NBA season, our NBA.com Staff will break down certain possessions from certain games and peel back the curtains to reveal its bigger meaning.

Today, Toronto Raptors centre Marc Gasol takes the spotlight.

Context: I was scrolling through Twitter earlier this week and came across a video posted by William Lou of Yahoo Sports Canada of Marc Gasol's best passes from this season. A couple of things came to mind when watching it:

  1. We take Gasol's passing for granted at this point. He's always been regarded as one of the best passers at his position, but it feels like we almost never talk about that part of his game anymore. It's not just the numbers that are impressive. It's the types of passes he makes. He's a good passer compared to every other player in the league, not only compared to other 7-footers.
  2. Gasol makes the game so much easier for everyone else. A lot of which has to do with his passing, but it's also the spacing he provides as a 3-point shooter. The simple act of him standing on the 3-point line draws opposing bigs out of the paint, which opens up driving lanes and cutting lanes for his teammates. None of this is new, of course, but like his passing, it's easy to take it for granted at this point.

There is one particular set the Raptors run through Gasol that puts all of that on display, known as their "Elbow" series. If you've watched a Raptors game either this season or last, you've almost certainly seen it - it feels like they run it at least once every game - but I wanted to take a closer look at it to get a full appreciation of the Gasol experience.

The play: Gasol sets Fred VanVleet up for a layup.

Breakdown: The five Raptors on the court are VanVleet, Terence Davis, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Chris Boucher and Gasol.

VanVleet brings the ball up the court and passes it to Gasol at the elbow, where he led the league in touches per game in the six seasons prior to 2019-20. Hollis-Jefferson parks himself in the corner closest to VanVleet and Gasol while Davis and Boucher spot up on the other side of the court.

After he passes the ball to Gasol, VanVleet walks towards Hollis-Jefferson on the wing and receives a back screen.

Josh Richardson gets caught up in Hollis-Jefferson's screen, which forces Matisse Thybulle to make a decision. Unfortunately for the Philadelphia 76ers, he chooses the wrong one. Rather than switching onto VanVleet, Thybulle chooses to stick with Hollis-Jefferson, who is shooting ... 28.9 percent outside of the paint this season. (You think Thybulle wishes he could have this one back?)

With Joel Embiid pressing up on Gasol to take away his jump shot, the paint is wide open.

Richardson eventually gets around Hollis-Jefferson's screen, but he can't recover in time to prevent VanVleet from getting a layup. It doesn't help that Raul Neto and Tobias Harris are stuck to Davis and Boucher on the weakside because it means there's absolutely nobody in position to cover for him.

Why it matters: Is it an inexcusable breakdown? Yes, especially for a team that's meant to be as good as the 76ers are. Are the 76ers the only team to have had such a breakdown against the Raptors this season? No. Maybe not to quite the same extent - that extent being an uncontested layup from the smallest person on the court - but the reason Toronto's "Elbow" series is so effective is because there's an endless amount of options that come from it, this being only one of them.

For example, if the defender goes underneath the screen instead of over it, the player receiving the screen can pop to the 3-point line.

If the screener is a 3-point shooter, they can pop to the 3-point line after setting the screen.

If the opponent anticipates the screen, the screener can slip the screen and attack the basket.

Sometimes the screener doesn't even need to act as though they're going to set the screen.

If the opposing team shuts down the strongside altogether, Gasol can swing the ball over to the weakside.

There are a few more options, but you get the point. Besides, the set is less about doing this or that than it is about reading and reacting, which is where Gasol's brilliance comes into play. Not only can he read what the defence is doing and make the right play while making little-to-no mistakes - Gasol is averaging 1.2 turnovers per game this season, a shockingly low number - he provides valuable spacing that opens up the paint for everyone else.

Something else that makes Gasol special? He makes quick decisions. Like, really quick decisions. According to NBA.com, he's averaging 1.41 seconds per touch this season, ranking him 84th among 98 qualified centres in that category. Gasol basically treats the ball like a hot potato when it's in his hands. (Sometimes to a fault, but there's far more good than bad that comes from his hot potato-iness). If someone isn't open, he keeps the ball moving, which encourages player movement and keeps the offence flowing.

"We've made an emphasis that whenever you're in trouble, throw it to Marc and start flying," Raptors head coach Nick Nurse said ahead of the playoffs last season. "Because he's going to find some passes, he's going to keep that thing facilitating, he's going to keep you moving. It's one thing to cut, but when you receive it once in a while, it's like that receiver running the route hard - you have to throw him the ball once in a while."

Gasol's gravity and passing becomes even more valuable on a team like the Raptors, who can surround him with ball handlers, shooters and athletes at every position. Pretty much everyone can play the role of VanVleet entering the ball to Gasol on a given possession. The same goes for Hollis-Jefferson setting the screen, as well as Davis and Boucher spotting-up on the other end of the court. That comes into play as these sorts of possessions unfold because what starts as a cut from VanVleet can quickly turn into a dribble handoff for Hollis-Jefferson or a pick-and-roll with Davis.

In the end, Gasol is the glue that holds everything together. Even in a season in which his stats are down across the board, he provides an incredible amount of value on offence, primarily with his 3-point shooting and passing. The numbers don't necessarily reflect that - the Raptors have been scoring at pretty much the same rate with him on the court as when he's on the bench - but sets like Toronto's "Elbow" series shine a spotlight on the impact he's still able to make in his mid-30s.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA or its clubs.

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