Fontajau arena in Girona hosted a regular-season showdown between two of the top three teams in the ACB League, Tau Vitoria, second but with the same record as #1 ranked Real Madrid, and Akasvayu Girona, third prior to this game. Both teams have been very successful in their European tours; Tau has qualified for the Euroleague quarter-finals with home-court advantage, while Akasvayu has clinched a spot in the FIBA EuroCup Final Four. Still, both squads were dealing with some bad momentum in the ACB League: Akasvayu had lost its previous three games at home, while Tau was winless on the road over the last four games. So it was an important game to change gears and strengthen the teams position in the standings.
Marc Gasol is one of the reasons why Akasvayu Girona is having such a strong season so far. In just a few months he has gone from total oblivion in F.C.Barcelona to one of the hottest and steadiest centers in the ACB league while on loan in Girona. Entering the game, he was averaging 10.8 points and 5.8 rebounds in less than 23 minutes per game, while shooting 59% from the field.
Tiago Splitter has been delivering in the ACB League for some seasons now, and after his health issues with chronic lumbago in his back, he seems back in shape, fresh off his season-high scoring mark in the previous ACB game (22 points vs. Menorca). Prior to this game, he was averaging 10.3 points and 5.1 rebounds in less than 23 minutes, shooting 60.6% of accuracy from the floor, indeed very similar numbers to Gasols.
Tau Vitoria dominated the scoreboard for most of the game, including the first minutes. Tiago Splitter started for Tau as usual, while Gasol waited in the bench for his opportunity. The Brazilian had his share of responsibility for that strong start, with 6 early points. As usual, Tiago got open looks near the basket while playing without the ball, often after pick and roll settings, and was being fouled on many occasions to avoid easy baskets. He particularly shined in a one-on-one low post situation against Dalibor Bagaric that Splitter easily resolved with a right-handed jump hook.
Although playing center on the offensive end, on defense Tiago handled the opponent power forward for the most part, and his usual match-up was the veteran Euro star Gregor Fucka, a very skilled and versatile 7-1 big. Splitter did a nice job on him whenever the Slovenian came close to the basket (either in the low post or in slashing moves), but he conceded too much space for the easy jumpers that Fucka can consistently knock down. Still, it could have very well been a coach decision, as there wasnt much of an adjustment, with the priority apparently placed on locking down the lane against the super-sized Akasvayu frontcourt.
Gasol entered the court mid-way the first quarter and soon showed his improved conditioning as he dunked the ball off a pick-and-roll play in a fairly quick move, also drawing a foul from Splitter, who was a bit late on the defensive rotation. On defense, he regularly took care of Tiago. Still, the only face-to-face duel they displayed in the first quarter took part on the other end of the floor, as Splitter eventually guarded Marc after a defensive rotation. Tiago stayed very aggressive, pushing Gasol out of the paint (certainly not an easy task), so when Marc received the ball in the post, the opposition he was facing, the fact that a teammate was open in the perimeter and his own passing skills invited him to send the ball back out.
Gasol took over the second quarter with his rebounding production and passing game that provided nice offensive fluidity to his team. He also scored off offensive rebounds (on one occasion delivering a nice put-back dunk) and cuts that left him open near the basket. In one of these situations he netted the ball against the opposition of Splitter, who just stood with his arms raised; on other occasion, he easily converted a right-handed hook. Still, he mostly focused on passing the ball, being generous almost to a fault. Splitter enjoyed his only minutes of rest in the game during this quarter.
Tiago came back strong in the third. Although he missed the lone jumper he took all game long early (he passed up on various open looks from the mid-range distance) he soon recovered to amass 10 points in the quarter. The Brazilian suffered from the length of his rivals all game long, as Akasvayu regularly filled both inside positions with seven plus footers, but he tried to adjust. After being blocked by Bagaric once as he tried to go up from under the rim, in the following opportunity he had a clear option next to the basket against the Croatian he opted to use his right hand as shield and release a short left-handed shot with nice touch and good result. However, he repeated this formula once again in the last quarter and wasnt successful with the shot. Back to the third period, Tiago also had a great tip-in by quickly anticipating Bagarics rebounding move.
With Luis Scola in foul trouble, coach Maljkovic decided to leave Splitter alone in the frontcourt and surround him with small perimeter players. They suffered with the defensive rebounds, but also enjoyed more spaces on the offensive end. Matched up against Gasol, Splitter beat him in the low post with some nice moves, again looking very reliable with his right-handed jump-hook. He also took advantage of his superior quickness over Gasol from the high post to put the ball on the floor with his left hand and score a right-handed lay-up. As for Marc, it wasnt his best quarter, although he forced Scola to foul him early on after putting the ball on the floor and beating him off the dribble when the Argentinean was guarding Gasol too close around the three-point line.
Tiago played the entire second half, and managed to stay active all game long, but he lost a lot of accuracy from the field in the last quarter, missing shots and being blocked twice, once surprisingly by point guard Victor Sada as he tried a reverse layup (to be fair, Sada is a long and athletic defensive-minded point guard, able to deliver those kind of plays), and another by Gasol himself, who was just standing with his arms high as Tiago tried to attack the basket. On the defensive end, as Akasvayu was playing with only one big, he matched-up against the athletic wing Dainius Salenga for a couple of minutes with mixed results: Splitter perfectly stopped him on a slashing attempt, but arrived late to contest a three-point shot that went in.
Meanwhile, Marc was trying to be more productive from the low post, always against the Brazilian. He netted a right-handed hook right as the shot-clock ran out once, but the possession had already run out. He missed another hook shot, although he probably was a bit far from the basket; and he forced a foul on Splitter as he tried to release a short shot off a nice post move. He was attacking Splitter spinning going to his right shoulder, but since he doesnt have much of a left-handed hook, opted for a shot.
Tau kept the game under control and came away with the victory, not allowing Akasvayu to ever get ahead in the score during the last three quarters.
Marc Gasol: 29 minutes, 16 points, 13 rebounds, 1 assists, 2 blocks, 5/6 FG, 6/7 FT
Tiago Splitter: 36 minutes, 20 points, 10 rebounds, 2 assists, 2 steals, 1 turnover, 6/16 FG, 8/10 FT
Both Splitter and Gasol were cornerstone pieces for their teams, and we cant really call anyone the winner here. Certainly Marc committed fewer mistakes, but the Brazilian was more of an inside reference for Tau and took more risks.
Standing over seven feet, Gasol displays an excellent combination of strength and aggressiveness to operate in the lane. As we saw against Tau, he establishes and holds his position on a regular basis, becoming a serious threat both in terms of scoring and passing, which often ultimately ends up unbalancing the entire opposing defensive scheme. Hes not the most skilled low post guy around, but he uses his body very well and stays physical on his match-up. Hes steadily gaining accuracy with his right-handed hook, although as he showed in this game, he doesnt seem to have much ability finishing with his left and prefers to go for the turnaround jumper. Indeed, he has some range and decent accuracy with his shot, even if he didnt put it on display in this game.
Sometimes he gives up a decent scoring option and prefers to pass the ball, usually looking for an open teammate on the perimeter. Gasol is not one of these impressive post passers a la Divac or Sabonis. You will rarely see him delivering flashy assists; indeed, despite his excellent passing performance against Tau, he only added one assist to his stat-sheet. Actually, thats more or less his average. Hes more of a passer within the flow of the game, showing a quick mind, a good basketball IQ and very nice court awareness. His passes might result in open baskets, but not necessarily for the man receiving the ball, but perhaps after the next pass.
The downside of the aforementioned physical strength for Gasol is his well-known poor conditioning and lack of athleticism. Ever since he came back from Memphis almost four years ago (apparently the Tennessee diet wasnt too keen on him), he has steadily improved his conditioning, and even if he cant be considered an athletic player, his mobility has significantly improved, even exceeding some expectations. Still, his lack of quickness eventually gets exploited in extended half-court sets, when his opponent takes him out of the paint or in pick-and-roll situations. Gasol makes up as much as hes able to with very nice positioning and good use of his body. Despite the few rejections he had on Tau players, hes not much of a shot-blocker (averaging one per game) due to his limited athleticism. Still, his positioning, good hands and effort reaps a nice amount of rebounds for him every game
Will this make the cut in the NBA? It very well could, although on a nightly basis it would also depend on which particular rivals he faces. Anyway, this game has only solidified his draft stock, and the way hes playing in the worlds toughest domestic league outside the NBA could make teams take a long look at him at the late first round.
The best news about his game revolves around his low post abilities. He looks more comfortable there every day, and as we have been predicting for some time now, hes becoming a serious threat from the paint in one-on-one settings. Its possible mainly thanks to his improved right-handed jump hook, that has gained accuracy and some elevation. Now he doesnt need to always beat his match-up to look for the layup, but he will just release his jump hook over him.
On the negative side, apart from his well-known struggles with his mid-range jumper, its a bit concerning to see the problems he eventually shows converting his off-the-ball moves into easy points under the rim. He usually suffers against bigger players, and it was particularly obvious facing Akasvayu Girona, a team that featured three players who are over seven-feet, sharing both inside positions for most of the game. There are a couple of key factors working here. First, Splitter is a bit slow taking the ball up when he decides to attack the basket. Second, hes not great at playing above the rim, as he lacks some leaping ability. The result was being blocked four times and crediting a poor 6/16 from the field. It might also be a sign that his back is not completely healed.
Were also seeing how his rivals blatantly opt to foul him rather than concede two easy points. Obviously they prefer to send him to the free-throw line, where hes not the most reliable shooter-- although hes slowly improving, getting close to the 60% mark in the ACB League. With Tiago theres also a small risk of fouling him and still seeing him convert for the And-1, as hes not very strong keeping control of the ball once hes fouled.
The rest was there, such as good defense, good movement without the ball (particularly setting picks), and nice activity and staminaas he stayed very active for the entire 36 minutes he played. He proved once again to be capable of successfully becoming the inside reference of a top-European team such as Tau Vitoria.