It's hard to look at the 2019 Toronto Raptors and not think about the 2014 San Antonio Spurs.
Both are up against a two-time defending champion superteam.
Both rely on the two-way brilliance of superstar Kawhi Leonard.
Both have an international flavour with a roster representing all corners of the globe.
Both are deep teams that share the ball, shoot well from the outside and lock in defensively.
Beyond Leonard and Danny Green, also a member of that Spurs team, it's hard to look at Marc Gasol and not think about Tim Duncan.
Taking a closer look at the way in which Gasol impacts the Raptors reveals that this version of the Spaniard is even closer to the 2014 version of San Antonio's Hall of Fame than you might first think.
Before diving into all the ways in which they're the same, we'd be remiss if we didn't first point out some disclaimers, most notably relating to age and style of play.
Gasol is a 34-year-old veteran in his 11th season. Though he's certainly been around the block, he's not exactly at the same stage as Duncan was in 2014 who turned 38 during that playoff run and was in his 17th season in the NBA.
The actual game itself has dramatically changed over the last five years as well. When the Spurs won the title in 2014, their style of play was a bit ahead of its time. In an NBA that was largely still iso-heavy and star dominant, the Spurs succeeded by leaning on ball movement and spacing, even deploying Boris Diaw for extended minutes as a 6'8" pick-and-roll, dime-dropping centre. When the Warriors began their run of dominance the very next year, they did so by taking that San Antonio style and leaning into it even more.
It was the exception, not the rule.
As such, the role of the centre has shifted dramatically.
Even on that Spurs team, Tim Duncan still operated predominantly out of the post with the occasional move up to the elbows or top of the key. If he wasn't turning over either shoulder on the block, he was facing up in the mid-post and softly kissing jumpers off the glass.
Gasol, on the other hand, lives at the elbows and at the top of the key. He's facilitating, finding cutters and living largely on an offensive diet of uncontested 3-pointers. Even the biggest stars at the position, think Joel Embiid and Nikola Jokic, occupy a much different space than they would have as recently as five years ago.
Taking their ages, eras and stylistic differences into account, it's still beyond apparent that 2019 Gasol is essentially functioning as a 2014 Duncan in these Finals.
Best bigs in the series
Chris Bosh was clearly not himself during the 2014 Finals while DeMarcus Cousins is playing hurt and nowhere near the dump-trucking All-Star, he projects to be when healthy.
That leaves Duncan and Gasol as the best true bigs in the series, especially with Draymond Green hardly logging any time as a centre and masquerading as more of a point guard than big. Though Duncan certainly had help in the form of Diaw who left his mark on that series, there's no disputing that Duncan stood taller than any other big.
The interior rim protectors, vocal leaders and defensive anchors for both teams.
The 2014 version of Duncan didn't blow anyone away with elite bounce and shot blocking in the mould of DeAndre Jordan, Anthony Davis or a then 24-year-old Serge Ibaka.
Similarly, the 2019 version of Gasol doesn't wow you in the same way that Rudy Gobert, Joel Embiid or Giannis Antetokounmpo do.
Both rely on smarts and instincts, using their superior basketball IQ and knowledge of positioning to force turnovers and bad shots. They are unquestionably two of the best interior defenders of the 21st century.
Duncan was still an elite defensive player in 2014 as he ranked among the top five in blocks and was still a year away from making his final All-Defense team. While Gasol may no longer be a Defensive Player of the Year type of player, it's hard to argue with his impact thus far in the Finals. With him on the floor, the Raptors are allowing just 101.6 points per 100 possessions, a number that spikes all the way up to 116.5 whenever he's sat.
The public is pulling for them
Según un estudio, así está el apoyo en estas Finales 2019.- Sergio Andrés (@SergioACNBA) May 30, 2019
Casi todo el mapa de Estados Unidos (salvo Nevada, Hawaii y, por supuesto, California), prefiere que gane Raptors, la franquicia canadiense (@blogTO). pic.twitter.com/GjzQBMvgJW
It happened the moment LeBron James joined the Heat.
It happened the moment Kevin Durant joined the Warriors.
Given the collection of stars, both teams became the singular focus of the other 29 fanbases, especially in the United States. Even though Durant has not yet played in this series, public opinion around the United States is emphatically in favour of the Raptors, just as it was with the Spurs back in 2014.
The Kawhi Factor
In 2014, Duncan - while still very good - was no longer the dominant superstar he once was.
Similarly, Gasol is no longer the star he was a few years ago in Memphis.
It just so happens that both ceded the spotlight to the same player: Kawhi Leonard.
A very good role player leading up to that postseason, the 2014 NBA Finals is when Leonard truly made his mark as a household name. Coming off a regular season in which he averaged just 12.8 points per game and made 2nd-team All-Defense, nobody could have predicted his meteoric rise to win Finals MVP. By the time the Spurs won Game 3 to take a 2-1 series lead, it was obvious that Leonard was the team's best player.
What transpired in that 2014 Finals is what ultimately led to the 2019 version of Leonard that's averaging over 30 points per game in the playoffs and in the midst of one of the greatest extended postseason runs in NBA history.
Evolution and an undervalued role
Duncan retired just as the NBA began to drastically evolve. As mentioned previously, the role of the big man has shifted dramatically over the last several years. Duncan never truly had to learn to adapt. Gasol's career has seen that evolution from start to finish and he's managed to adapt perfectly. Watching Gasol knock down 3-pointers and whip passes around the perimeter makes you wonder what Tim Duncan's career would have looked like had his career began a few years later.
One of the most skilled players in the history of the league, it's not hard to imagine a world in which Duncan was even more dominant playing in an era that emphasized skill moreso than strength.
Despite his obvious Hall of Fame pedigree, Duncan was somewhat still undervalued as recently as 2014. Though certainly past his prime, Duncan was still an incredible player and even came back the following season to make his 15th and final All-NBA team. Sure, he wasn't going for 20 and 10 with gaudy block totals, but he still orchestrated everything San Antonio did on the defensive end while playing a key role in maintaining offensive fluidity.
Gasol, like Duncan in 2014, serves as the cornerstone of the defence and the more he's played so far against the Warriors, the better it's been for the Raptors. In the two Toronto wins, Gasol is averaging 18.5 points per game on 10.5 attempts.
Just as Duncan did when he went for 21 points in the tone-setting Game 1 back in 2014, Gasol scored 20 in Toronto's tone-setting Game 1 of this series.
Kawhi Leonard may have been the biggest keys to success in 2014 and 2019.
But not far behind are the contributions of the two men in the middle. For the Raptors to finish the job, they'll need Marc Gasol to continue to walk in the footsteps of Tim Duncan.
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