MikeCheck: Boosted by Memphis and 'Core Four' brothers, Gasol relishes first taste of NBA Finals

MEMPHIS – On the verge of making the first NBA Finals appearance of his 11-year NBA career up in Toronto, Marc Gasol wanted to make at least two things very clear about his journey.

First, the 34-year-old center wouldn’t change one step he’s taken on the path that got him there. And secondly, he’s got plenty of room along this Finals ride for folks in Memphis who still support him as well as those in Toronto he’s hoping to help lift to the NBA championship.

“I still run into a lot of people from Memphis, all around the NBA,” Gasol told Grind City Media. “I feel like they’re with me every game. I feel their love, their support, their pushing. I know they still cheer for me. They let me know they cheer for me. And there’s a part of them with me in every game I play.”

The next game Gasol plays will be the biggest to date of his career when the Raptors face the two-time defending champion Golden State Warriors in Game 1 of the NBA Finals on Thursday in Toronto. And much of Memphis essentially will be right there with him. While Memphis has recently ranked among the nation’s top-five TV viewership markets for the postseason and NBA Finals ratings, expect even more of a spike with Gasol literally at the center of the action.

Toronto Raptors center Marc Gasol #33 takes questions prior to Game One of the 2019 NBA Finals

Memphis Grizzlies players, from left, Mike Conley #11, Zach Randolph #50, Tony Allen #9 and Marc Gasol #33 walk to the sideline for a timeout while playing the Oklahoma City Thunder in Game Five of the Western Conference Semifinals during the 2013 NBA Playoffs on May 15, 2013 at the Chesapeake Energy Arena in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. Photo by Joe Murphy / NBAE via Getty Images.

As a three-time NBA All-Star and 2013 Defensive Player of the Year, Gasol is the most decorated player in Grizzlies franchise history. He partnered with current Memphis point guard Mike Conley and former Grizz icons Zach Randolph and Tony Allen as the ‘Core Four’ that grit 'n' grinded to seven straight playoff appearances in the most successful run in franchise history.

That group peaked in 2013 with the franchise’s lone trip to the Western Conference finals, where the Grizzlies were swept by then-burgeoning star Kawhi Leonard and the Spurs. A year later, San Antonio would win its fifth NBA title in a span of 15 seasons as one of the NBA’s rare dynasties. Ironically, both Gasol and Leonard are now teammates tasked with dethroning the league’s current dynasty in the Warriors, a three-time champion and the first team in 50 years to play in five straight NBA Finals.

“You’ve got to grind it out always,” Gasol said of the obstacles the tough-minded Raptors continue to face, even evoking a familiar moniker that described his former team’s DNA. “I kept telling these guys, there’s a little bit of grit and grind in that (Toronto) locker room now.”

After the Raptors closed out a six-game series win over the top-seeded Milwaukee Bucks on Saturday, Gasol told reporters that he’s symbolically carrying former teammates, namely Conley, Randolph and Allen, with him onto the next challenge in the Finals. Conley immediately responded on social media to congratulate Gasol. The message from Gasol also resonated strongly with Allen, who appreciated the sentiment and responded both during and after his weekly appearance on Grind City Media’s Chris Vernon Show.

Allen reached the NBA Finals twice with Boston, including winning a title in 2008, before joining the Grizzlies. Conley and Randolph have yet to make it past the conference finals, so Allen could definitely feel the sincerity in Gasol’s words.

“He’s my brother, and it just feels like my brother is speaking to us a long way from home,” Allen said of Gasol. “It’s one of those situations where it's like your brother goes off to college and he graduates – it’s one of those types of feelings. You just get excited and happy for the moment.”

Allen is among the ‘Core Four’ teammates who regularly texts Gasol during the playoffs. The Raptors' postseason path began with Gasol successfully defending All-Star Nikola Vucevic in a five-game series win over Orlando in the first round and then a hard-fought battle with Joel Embiid that ended with Gasol compassionately consoling the Sixers' All-NBA center after Game 7.

And then came the resilient performances against the Bucks, who held a 2-0 series lead before Leonard took over with dominant play and Gasol contributed his best outing with 16 points, 12 rebounds, seven assists and five blocks in a Game 3 win to spark the rally. Gasol then followed 17 points, seven rebounds, five assists and two blocks in Game 4 to help even the series for the Raptors, who eventually won four straight.

Toronto Raptors center Marc Gasol #33 takes questions prior to Game One of the 2019 NBA Finals

Toronto Raptors center Marc Gasol #33 takes questions as the Toronto Raptors and Golden State Warriors host open practice and media day on the eve of the NBA Finals in Toronto. May 29, 2019. Photo by Steve Russell/Toronto Star via Getty Images.

“After a tough Game 2 personally, you wanted to come out and get rid of the bad taste you had that pretty much sticks to your stomach for 48 hours,” Gasol said during a postgame appearance on TNT midway through the Raptors-Bucks series. “You look back on tape and you say, ‘Well, I should have been aggressive here and I wasn’t.’ And the times I was aggressive, I was misreading the situation. I was rushing some shots. I’m trying to find my place on the floor, but first I have to look at the basket and what my team needs. That’s what the team needs. You can be selfish by being too unselfish at times.  I’m a team guy, obviously. When a team needs me to be aggressive, I have to be aggressive.”

Allen has seen Gasol struggle with that balance throughout his time with the Grizzlies. But he’s also monitored recent games and has seen Gasol gradually regain some defensive timing and instincts that once defined his peak as the Grizzlies' interior anchor. Gasol is averaging 8.6 points and shooting 40 percent on threes in the playoffs. His defensive presence and intelligence have made a significant difference. Per 100 possessions, the Raptors are a plus+5 with Gasol on the court in the playoffs and a minus-2 when he’s off the floor. He’s averaged 31.2 minutes over 18 playoff games.

“I definitely text him everything that I see as far as the game goes,” Allen said of Gasol. “So it’s good that he’s said (we’re right there with him). Because I see some of the things that me and him used to talk about in Memphis defensively. And to see him over there with one of the greatest defenders in the world in Kawhi Leonard as well as Serge Ibaka and Danny Green, I’m just excited to see that defensive mindset and that camaraderie that they have on the defensive end.”

Whereas Leonard arrived last summer in a blockbuster trade from the Spurs, Gasol departed Memphis at the Feb. 7 trade deadline in exchange for Jonas Valanciunas, Delon Wright and C.J. Miles. Key players in both trades had promising or productive seasons, but the Raptors’ gamble to go all in for a shot at the NBA title has cashed in. They have a chance to win it all. And if all goes well, Gasol would finally add a NBA title to those two EuroBasket championships and the FIBA World Cup he won internationally as a star member of Spanish national teams since 2006.

Gasol hasn’t forgotten anyone or anything that’s helped put him in position to move from a Grizzlies team transitioning between eras to a Raptors squad in full win-now mode. Both Leonard and Gasol have options this summer to test free agency. As it stands, Toronto enters the Finals with the NBA’s fourth-highest payroll, and Gasol holds the team’s second-highest salary at $24.1 million this season. His $25.6 million option for the 2019-2020 season is the last year of the deal he originally signed with Memphis in 2015.

Gasol hasn’t given any indication of his future plans, but he’s well aware of both his place in the offseason business pecking order behind Leonard as well as his current role on the court in the Finals alongside Toronto’s catalyst. That said, the Warriors’ penchant for going small and speeding up the pace could also impact the extent of Gasol’s role in the series. For instance, the Raptors may use the quicker and more athletic Ibaka at center instead of the more cerebral and methodical Gasol in stages.

Marc Gasol and rapper, Drake, celebrate after Game Six of the Eastern Conference Finals

Marc Gasol #33 of the Toronto Raptors and rapper, Drake, celebrate after a game between the Milwaukee Bucks and the Toronto Raptors after Game Six of the Eastern Conference Finals on May 25, 2019 at Scotiabank Arena in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images.

The Raptors have faced this dilemma along the way since Gasol arrived from Memphis.

And for Gasol, the solution is always very simple: Whatever it takes to win.

That was the case in Game 56 of the regular season when he got to Toronto.

It’s the case entering Game 1 of the first NBA Finals of his career.

“Every game goes its own way, has its own wrinkles,” Gasol said. “You’ve got to be ready for whatever is thrown at you. It’s one possession at a time. You can’t overthink it. Take the shots when they’re there, attack the paint, when it’s not there move the ball, help out and do your job defensively. It’s not complicated. And that’s been what’s worked for us throughout the playoffs.”

Now, there's one more gigantic step to go. And Memphis will be largely taking it with these Raptors, who boast two national imports with deep ties to the Bluff City. It’s where Gasol has been grinding since prep school. And where Drake garnered his performance grit on childhood visits to his dad, who was a Memphis-based musician.

These northern and southern cities are separated by 978 miles and the US-Canadian border.

For this NBA Finals matchup, they’ll be connected on the court by No. 33.

The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Memphis Grizzlies. All opinions expressed by Michael Wallace are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Memphis Grizzlies or its Basketball Operations staff, owners, parent companies, partners or sponsors. His sources are not known to the Memphis Grizzlies and he has no special access to information beyond the access and privileges that go along with being an NBA accredited member of the media.