With just over five minutes remaining in Spain's game against Poland at the FIBA World Cup with a spot in the Semi-Finals on the line, Marc Gasol subbed in to stymie yet another feisty run.
Poland simply wouldn't go away.
After falling behind by double digits yet again early in the fourth quarter, the Poles cut Spain's lead to seven and appeared ready to force a thrilling finish in what at times looked like an surefire rout.
And then Marc Gasol started doing Marc Gasol things.
A dime to Ricky Rubio on Spain's next possession to push the lead back to 10.
A key defensive rebound moments later on a missed 3 from a desperate team looking to answer.
And then the most Marc Gasol play of all Marc Gasol plays.
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Following a turnover by Sergio Llull, it was the 34-year-old Gasol on tired legs that morphed into a high IQ ballerina with nimble footwork and impeccable positioning, sliding in to take a charge in transition that erased a teammate's mistake and thwarted a potentially massive turn of events.
It's the exact type of timely play that Gasol's made his calling card as he's transitioned from All-Star to trusted veteran stalwart. It's the exact reason that Masai Ujiri traded for the former Defensive Player of the Year last season and one of the biggest reasons the Raptors delivered an NBA title north of the border for the first time in league history.
If you missed Spain's knockout round game against Poland and simply catch the highlights or read up a game summary, there's a decent chance Gasol flies under the radar.
Four of his teammates scored more points including Ricky Rubio who continues to flourish on the world stage, finishing with 19 points and nine assists in what's been a remarkable tournament for the 28-year-old point guard. Rudy Fernandez shot a perfect 5-5 from downtown while the Hernangomez brothers each had arguably their best game of the tournament.
As for Gasol, he finished just 3-8 from the floor with only two rebounds and no blocked shots in 24 minutes. And yet his fingerprints were all over Spain's win, a victory that might not have happened without the Raptors vet rolling up his sleeves and doing the dirty work.
In the 16 minutes Gasol watched from the sidelines, Spain was outscored 42-32 and each time Poland clawed its way back into it from the brink of a blowout, Gasol was out of the game. In the 24 minutes he was on the floor, Spain looked to be the far superior side, outscoring Poland 58-36.
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That Gasol finished a team-best +22 should come as no surprise as he's finished with a positive plus-minus in all six of Spain's games, a fact that shouldn't be taken lightly as each of its last five games have been close since opening up the World Cup with an emphatic 39-point drubbing of Tunisia. In fact, if you throw out the first game against over-matched Tunisia, Spain has a negative point differential in the non-Gasol minutes, not exactly what you'd likely expect for an undefeated team at this stage in the tournament.
|Opponent||Gasol On Floor||Gasol Off Floor|
As has been the case in both Memphis and Toronto, there's a beautiful subtlety to Gasol's game that tends to get lost in the shuffle. A few moments after the aforementioned charge, the Raptors' centre - long regarded as one of the NBA's best passing bigs - read Poland's defence and slotted a pass to a cutting Victor Claver who slammed in the punctuation mark on Spain's win, bringing the lead to 15 and punching the ticket into the Semi-Finals.
That play was Gasol's seventh assist of the game, the second straight game he's finished with his most dimes of the tournament and one game after out Nikola Jokic-ing Nikola Jokic in Spain's impressive victory over Serbia. That outcome kept Spain on the opposite side of the bracket of tournament favourite, yet vulnerable Team USA, delaying a potential meeting until the gold medal game.
Spain might not win the tournament, but it's certainly taking full advantage of hard-earned circumstances and a now favourable draw that could result in a finish far better than anyone could have predicted. Spain might be No. 2 in the FIBA rankings but with no Pau Gasol, no Sergio Rodriguez, no Nikola Mirotic and no Serge Ibaka, this is far from the international powerhouse we've grown accustomed to seeing over the last decade. We're barely two weeks removed from watching Spain get blitzed by Russia in one of its final tune-up games.
Six games into the tournament, none of that matters for a veteran roster that's nothing short of opportunistic. By taking care of business against inferior opponents and waiting for Serbia to slip-up, Spain created the circumstances that could very well lead to it reaching the gold medal game.
It's a recipe that the Toronto Raptors could utilize in the upcoming season, one in which they project to be a solid playoff team, but not truly a threat to repeat as champions.
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Sure, the Milwaukee Bucks and Philadelphia 76ers enter the season as heavy co-favourites in the Eastern Conference, there's no guarantee of a 1-2 finish which slots them on opposite sides of the bracket and seemingly inevitable Conference Finals matchup. We just saw it in the West this past season when the Houston Rockets stumbled and ended on the same side as the Golden State Warriors, opening a spot in the Conference Finals which the Portland Trail Blazers - considered by nobody a legitimate title threat - happily seized.
From there? Anything can happen. That's why you play the games.
On the back of Marc Gasol, Spain is now doing at the FIBA World Cup what Portland just did in the Western Conference.
On the back of Marc Gasol, perhaps the Raptors can now do in the Eastern Conference what Spain is in the process of pulling off in China.
The views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of the NBA or its clubs.