Maybe it’s his beard because our Old Man rocks a nice shaggy spread these days, but we’ve been thinking about how Marc Gasol is one smart Spaniard. The Grizzlies center was in true, though clandestine, form during Game 2’s win over the high-octane Warriors. While most of us were marveling at the gutty performance of Mike Conley upon his return from a facial fracture, we spent the majority of the second half eyeballing Gasol on nearly every possession. He affects the game in such a myriad of ways, it’s nearly impossible to spot them if you’re following the narrative casual fans cozy up to on the couch.
Before this turns into some prosaic soliloquy about the nature of that which is intangible,* lets tip this off by fast-forwarding to the last two minutes of the Grizzlies’ surprising Game 2 win.
Up 90-80 with two minutes remaining in the game, most people were still watching despite the late hour, and the double-digit advantage Memphis had. Our estimable E-I-C certainly knows why.
But this is where we nearly became engorged at the sneaky brilliance of the younger Gasol. That’s because he spotted a pet Dubs play early, and didn’t even pay attention to Draymond Green as he offered up an obstacle to what may have turned into another historic Dubs comeback.
Instead, Gasol squashed a possible open Klay Thompson look at a three before it even materialized. First, look at where his attention is right here:
Green is an incredible player, one deserving of the max he’ll likely get this summer, but Gasol wasn’t worried about him at all here. He was watching the action on the other end of the floor, and rightfully so.
The Warriors were running a fun little sequence where Harrison Barnes seemingly sets a back screen to spring Klay, who instead of receiving the pass as he glides through the paint, goes to set what looks like a nice pin-down screen to free Andre Iguodala to pop out into the near wing. This is the Dubs in a nutshell; misdirection and disguise where the Grizzlies just plow through plays designed like Ronald Reagan is still pretending not to notice Gorbachev’s birthmark.
But Iggy doesn’t show for the ball. Instead, he loops around and sets a screen to free Thompson, now cutting to the far corner. The whole freaking time Gasol is noisily (no one talks more than Marc on defense) peering at the opposite side of the court like Dr. T.J. Eckleburg only with that gnarly beard we mentioned earlier.
Instead of coming free in the far corner like he’s done so many times when his defender, the irascible Tony Allen, goes under the far screen by Green, Gasol steps out near the sideline and just blocks Klay’s path. That’s it.
It doesn’t seem like such a big deal on the surface, and it really isn’t. It’s so easily overlooked, we spent 30 minutes last night re-watching the final six minutes of the fourth halfway convinced we’d dreamed the whole thing. But it happened, and it might have prevented what could have been a momentum-changing three by Klay.
That’s not the only thing that stuck out about Gasol’s performance, even if his box score left a lot to be desired. He wasn’t particularly accurate from the field in the latter stages of the game, going 2-of-6 in the second half after a 3-of-4 opening couple of sessions. He finished with 15 points, six rebounds, three assists and two steals. Not earth-shaking numbers, but there was a lot lurking beneath that static box score.
Take this tricky screen he set on Stephen Curry in the opening moments of the game. At this point Mike Conley had already knocked down a couple shots and Gasol was just springing him for one more. Notice how he flips the screen on Steph from the direction he’s coming fro – an ol’ KG trick:
Steph smacked into that big body, and Gasol’s laments the preceding day the series wasn’t nearly physical enough in Game 1 immediately sloughed off the skin of the game. This was gonna be a different Grizzlies team, and a different Gasol, one spurred by the urgency of a possible 0-2 deficit in a return to Memphis and ne where punishment would be doled out for those slick Dubs guards, even if Oracle tore the arena down around them with their complaints.
It’s not like Game 2 was bereft of Gasol moments that were a little more blatant than those first two clips we mentioned. He still knocked down a few mid-range shots to keep Andrew Bogut kosher, and abused Mo Speights anytime the Dubs backup was tasked with guarding him:
Gasol wasn’t awarded any blocks in the boxscore, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t affect Golden State at the rim. Here are a couple examples. In the first one, he tracks David Lee bumbling down the right side of the court. Yes, there are two other Grizzlies riding his Lee’s hip, but only Marc has the size and poise to offer an obstacle and change the angle on his subsequent layup attempt:
This next one is more of the same thing, even though he’s on an island against a hard-charging Green. Same perfect placement by Gasol, and a lack of that downward swipe that gets so many inexperienced big men in foul trouble. He very sneakily uses his left hand down low on Green’s hip to throw him just off balance enough to miss the attempt.
Gasol also messed up Golden State’s offense in more tactile ways than the one’s we’ve shown previously. Here, he’s behind Andrew Bogut but trusts Z-Bo will rotate over, and slips past the Dubs big man to cut off any shot attempt or baseline drive Klay might have gotten after the hand-off with his big Aussie screener.
But then Gasol, still not sure Randolph had rotated over to cover Bogut, stuck his big paws in the passing lane that had opened up to Bogut, and stole the ball.
That’s some gorgeous team defense right there. Coaches should show young basketball players that clip after practices rather than doing a trust ladder or whatever other yuppie crap kids do in school these days.
This next one is a little more imperceptible, but the result isn’t.
Gaol handles a side pick-and-roll between Green and Curry perfectly. When Steph tries to go over Dray’s screen, he momentarily loses Conley. So Gasol shows high, but unlike a lot of big men, he doesn’t over-commit. Instead, he shows for just the perfect amount of time so Conley can get back into the play and ride Steph’s hip hard as he veers into the middle of the court.
Gasol’s timing to show and recover so well also means Dray is never open on the wing for one of those behind-the-back lefty dishes Steph performs so well. Instead, Curry gets forced into making a dangerous cross-court pass to Klay – and Allen is ready to pounce.
The result is a steal and dunk, but it all originated with the expert way Marc Gasol navigated that high screen and roll.
Which brings us to the bottom mural of Gasol in Memphis that’s been going around the Internet for a couple days now. It shows him clad as a matador on the side of a brick building, and it’s pretty freakin’ cool (good job Memphis).
It’s a nice shoutout to Gasol’s native land, and conjures up Hemingway novellas and sangria on scorching afternoons where everyone’s wearing wide-brimmed hats and loose guayaberas (OK, that’s probably just us). But a matador is the exact opposite of the Gasol we envision on defense. Instead, he’s sticking the bull right in the horns, and never relenting.
Take a quarter or two on Saturday night to just watch Gasol instead of the ball. You’ll be surprised at the treasure trove of ways he affects the game when fans and players least expect it.
*The poetry of Emily Dickinson can open up that gloriously shrouded world a lot better than we can.