It's the human and fun side of our sports heroes

Gasol adjusts quickly to make big impact for NBA Raptors

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Marc Gasol dislikes speaking about himself, but the Spaniard is the talk of the NBA Finals for how well he’s playing only four months after joining the Toronto Raptors.

The 34-year-old center, whose older brother Pau won two NBA titles with the Los Angeles Lakers, scored 20 points and grabbed seven rebounds in Toronto’s 118-109 victory over Golden State in the best-of-seven opener.

“There’s always a sort of kind of comfort when he’s on the floor,” Raptors forward Pascal Siakam said. “He’s so smart and reads the defense and he’s able to protect the rim for us. It’s definitely great to have him, a vet that’s been through it.”

Gasol went 6-of-10 from the floor, 2-of-4 from 3-point range when the Warriors “gave him a couple of dare shots and he knocked them down” in Golden State coach Steve Kerr’s words.

“He turned himself into a very good 3-point shooter,” Warriors guard Klay Thompson said. “Great passer. Very good defender at the rim. That pickup turned out to be huge for them.”

The Raptors swung a February trade deadline deal to obtain Gasol, a two-time Olympic silver medalist and 2013 NBA Defensive Player of the Year, after he spent a decade in Memphis.

Ask about the excitement of his first NBA Finals and he’s as low-key as his chilled-out teammates.

“I don’t get caught up in those things,” he said. “I’m not doing that, I’m sorry.”

And the tension of the NBA’s ultimate stage?

“My brain doesn’t function that way,” he said. “You’re playing basketball like you did your whole life and it’s the most fun. You got to stay poised during the whole game so your brain can’t go anywhere else but every possession.”

So Raptors coach Nick Nurse spoke of how Gasol handled tough times, praising his “strong ability” to bounce back.

“He got into maybe one of the lowest points of his career in these playoffs,” Nurse said. “He had a 1-for-9 game. People were basically writing him off.

“I did talk to him about it. He just didn’t waver at all. ‘Tomorrow, it’s going to be great,’ was his answer. I told him several times: ‘You’re a great player because you’ve lifted the level of who our team thinks they can be and you lift the level of other players’ play.’ That’s, to me, what great players do.”

Fast tempo is Toronto’s strength but Gasol’s defensive work gives others freedom to attack.

“He has been great,” Raptors star Kawhi Leonard said. “He’s a good rim protector. He has been guarding everybody. Another smart player on the floor that has been through the ups and downs of the NBA. Veteran guy who is just ready for the moment.”

And his mellow attitude fits well on a selfless squad.

“He’s a true professional,” Raptors guard Kyle Lowry said. “Goes about his business. He blends in well. He’s just an easygoing guy.”

– Relentless mindset –
Instead of slowing the Raptors, Gasol is a 7-footer who can launch fast breaks with his defensive work.

“You run at them and be aggressive,” Gasol said. “To be able to run, you have to get stops. And to get stops, you have to communicate, be physical, do all the little things. Being physical starts with pressuring the ball. You have to do it all the time. You can’t relax.”

It’s that relentless attitude Gasol sees as vital to a championship run.

“It’s about the mindset and trusting the guy next to you,” Gasol said. “You cannot overreact. You have to cover a lot of ground, do a lot of talking, lot of running.

“It’s how you stay in the moment and continue to play the next possession. Get one more stop. Get one more good shot. Eventually, you put enough of those together, you’re going to have a pretty good chance of winning.”