Marc Gasol was a late bloomer. For a while, if he was known at all by basketball fans, it was as Pau’s fat younger brother. At the same time Chris Paul was lighting up the ACC and Deron Williams was leading Illinois to a loss in the national title game, Marc was barely getting off the bench at Barcelona. In 2007, Kevin Durant posted one of the most dominant collegiate seasons of all-time at Texas and was drafted second overall. Marc put up 10.8 points and 5.5 rebounds per game for a Girona team that finished fifth in the ACB. He was picked 48th. Nobody was sure he’d ever actually make the leap to the NBA, and if he did, he wasn’t expected to be very good, which is why the Lakers felt comfortable tossing him into a trade for his brother a mere eight months after drafting him. If that widely panned deal had a crown jewel at the time, it was the pair of first-rounders Memphis eventually used to draft Donte Greene and Greivis Vasquez, not Gasol The Pudgier.
Of course Marc ended up being awesome for the Grizz, breaking out in his age 25 season and steadily evolving into a role he more or less created for himself: a passer, a screener, a defensive anchor, a reluctant but skillful shooter. He was the best player on some intensely likable Grizz squads that on several occasions fell a series or two short of the Finals, but more than that, he attacked the game on his own terms, straining with great effort and bugged out eyes to arrange the geometry of the floor in ways that pleased his sense of aesthetics, adhering to a strict code of what should and should not be done in every given situation. Marc Gasol works in sonnets. At his peak, nobody in the league played more poetically than he did. There simply weren’t a lot of better players period.
He’s 34 now, past his prime. They’ll retire his jersey and gift him an avenue in Memphis when he retires, but with that operation rebuilding, he needed to get to a contender this season. Luckily he landed on the strongest one in the Eastern Conference, an ideal situation in which he’s asked to do solely what he’s still capable of doing. In Game 1, that meant 14 first half points—threes, post-ups, trips to the line—and bothering every driver and cutter the Warriors threw at the rim. With Kawhi Leonard struggling early and Kyle Lowry flighty as ever, Gasol was the tread on the Raptors’ tires as they took a double-digit lead into halftime.
Five years ago, only the most tape-drunk basketball scouts in the profession knew who Pascal Siakam was. He had redshirted his freshman season at New Mexico State, a basketball neophyte endorsed by Luc Richard Mbah Moute, playing the game essentially because he was long and athletic and tried hard. His college career following that redshirt year was more productive than Gasol’s Spanish one, but he was still playing in the WAC, putting up impressive numbers—20.3 points and 11.6 rebounds per game—on a team that didn’t even qualify for the NCAA tournament at the end of his sophomore year. His pre-draft comps: JaMychal Green and Jordan Mickey. Sports Illustrated’s analysis when Siakam was drafted 27th overall: “C+... feels like somewhat of a reach here.”
He was a bench player last season, energy and ability not quite cohering into a neat whole. He could guard just about anybody, and he clearly had some playmaking talent, but how was he ever going to employ it if he couldn’t shoot or score? When the Raptors got swept out of the second round by the Cavs, he was one of the many bodies LeBron torched, and Cleveland ignored him camping out in the corner. When he got the ball at the arc, they sank into the paint and played him to pass. He wasn’t bad, really, but he faded into the background, as fatally limited role players are wont to do against the very best competition.
There was but the faintest hint that Pascal Siakam, coincidentally in his age 25 season too, would become whatever the hell this is: a crazy-legged slasher who can run the point, finish at the rim, knock down the odd three, and shrink passing lanes down to nothing. He hasn’t been as effective in these playoffs as he was in the regular season, and that’s not altogether surprising, given the speed he’s playing at in February is the one that everyone else ramps up to when the games get big, but on Thursday night he looked for the first time in a while faster and hungrier than the opposition, tornadic through the Warriors interior defense as he sliced and shimmied toward the basket.
Siakam played rapidly, but not restlessly. When he needed the game to slow down for a moment, as he did when he threw a gorgeous Dream Shake at Draymond Green in the third quarter, he found that he could make it slow down. He missed three shots, scored 32 points, collected eight rebounds and five assists, and was throughout the second half the primary reason the Raptors stayed comfortably ahead of the Warriors, never dipping into that worrisome zone in which a couple Steph Curry threes can flip the scoreboard.
The symmetry is nice: in Toronto’s first ever Finals victory—a long time coming in the sense that it’s been 24 years of existence without a single trip to championship tilt, longer-seeming due to their habitual postseason collapses over the past half-decade—they’ve relied on a pair of projects, one fading from stardom and one emerging into it, who took a circuitous route to top of their field. (Kyle Lowry followed a similar path, but that’s for another time, when he makes more than two buckets.)
For the Raptors, this is one victory out of the way—one in which Kawhi didn’t play particularly well, which is a good sign. For Gasol and Siakam, this is a special moment, the Spaniard contributing to a championship-caliber team in a way he’s known he can since his days of the leading the Junkyard Grizz, and the Cameroonian soccer player cum point forward greeting the most important game of his life with faultless aplomb. It’s only a moment, and there’s much more work to be done, but these opportunities are rare and to capitalize on them is rarer still. At the outset of their careers, nobody dreamed that Marc Gasol or Pascal Siakam could perform so well on a stage this massive. Maybe Marc and Pascal did, but it’s just as possible that upon receiving Thursday night’s box score as a transmission from the future, their past selves would be surprised and elated too.