TORONTO – One win away from his first NBA championship, Marc Gasol casually swished a jumper from the top of the key at the end of Toronto’s practice, walked across the crowded court and submerged himself into a sea of reporters along the baseline for his media session.
The Raptors carry a commanding 3-1 series lead into Game 5 of the Finals tonight against Golden State. With a victory, Toronto will knock off the two-time defending NBA champions and capture the first title in franchise history. So, yes, they’re on the cusp of one of Canada’s biggest sporting achievements.
But, no, the gravity of the moment isn’t overwhelming this team.
“Nothing else matters at this point,” Gasol insists. “How we got here doesn’t matter. It’s all about what we do and doing it the right way over and over right now. We’ve put ourselves in (good) position, playing the right way. This is probably going to be the hardest game we’ve had to play all year.”
Meanwhile, 978 miles to the south, Gasol’s former team is also approaching a pivotal moment that could set the tone for the next several seasons in Memphis. In many ways, the final verdict of the Feb. 7 trade deadline deal that altered the course for both the Raptors and Grizzlies could be determined this week for the two 7-footers who anchored the transaction.
With Gasol within reach of an NBA title and Jonas Valanciunas closing in on Thursday’s contract option decision in Memphis, the trade four months ago can prove to be a win-win for both organizations. Coming off the most productive stretch of his seven-year career after landing in Memphis, Valanciunas can opt into the final year and $17.6 million left on his contract for next season. Or, the Lithuanian center can notify the Grizzlies that he intends to opt out of the last year on his deal and enter free agency July 1.
How we got here doesn’t matter. It’s all about what we do and doing it the right way over and over right now … This is probably going to be the hardest game we’ve had to play all year.Marc Gasol
Valanciunas has given mixed signals in terms of his intentions. Immediately after the season, he was optimistic about returning to the Grizzlies – either by opting into the final season on his contract or opting out and signing a longer deal to stay. But circumstances in Memphis changed when coach J.B. Bickerstaff was dismissed after the season in April and the Grizzlies landed the No. 2 overall pick in May’s draft lottery for the June 20 NBA Draft.
Valanciunas apparently indicated in Europe-based media reports that he would like to see who the Grizzlies hire as their next coach before he determines his status. The Grizzlies had been conducting follow-up interviews and meetings with top candidates in recent days, but it’s unclear if Memphis is on course to finalize a hiring prior to Valanciunas’ option deadline on Thursday.
What’s evident is that the team’s recently restructured front-office staff has shown keen interest in leading assistant coaches from playoff teams who have strong track records with player development. To that end, Grizzlies executive vice president of basketball operations Zach Kleiman has said the organization is thrilled with the prospect of building around the No. 2 pick and NBA All-Rookie First Team forward Jaren Jackson Jr., the fourth pick in last year’s draft.
Ja Morant is interviewed during Day One of the 2019 NBA Draft Combine on May 16, 2019 at the Quest MultiSport Complex in Chicago, Illinois. Photo by Jeff Haynes via Getty Images.
On Monday, the Grizzlies wrapped up a two-day visit in Memphis with presumptive No. 2 pick Ja Morant, the Murray State point guard who became the first player in NCAA history to average at least 20 points and 10 assists last season. Morant recently underwent a minor knee scope procedure and is not participating in extensive workouts with top lottery teams during the process leading to next week’s draft.
With Duke’s Zion Williamson expected to go No. 1 overall to New Orleans, Morant has been slotted to land in Memphis by almost every reputable national scouting report and mock draft. Morant was not scheduled to meet with the media during his Memphis visit, but has repeatedly said he’d embrace whichever team selected him in the draft. This marks at least the second time in less than a month the Grizzlies’ top brass has had an exclusive window to meet with Morant.
After emerging from his session with the Grizzlies at last month’s NBA Draft Combine, Morant said he was aware of reports that Memphis has zeroed in on him as their pick. But he also insisted he was not told directly by the Grizzlies at that time that any definitive decision had been made.
“Regardless where I go, I’m going to be the same Ja as I was before the lottery,” Morant said at the time. “I’m going to continue to work, and whichever team drafts me has obviously seen a lot in me, and I’ll be happy to go there. I’m just going to come in and try to make an immediate impact. Not just on the court, but off the court as well – being a positive role model to look up to.”
Beyond the looming decisions on Valanciunas’ contract this week and the likely formality of selecting Morant next week, the Grizzlies are also deliberating options regarding the future of veteran point guard Mike Conley. Both Conley and team officials have been relatively quiet this offseason about potential next steps. The Grizzlies initially expressed interest in trading Conley and Gasol at the February deadline, but ultimately kept the franchise’s career leader in scoring and assists through the end of the season.
Regardless [of] where I go, I’m going to be the same Ja as I was before the lottery. I’m going to continue to work, and whichever team drafts me has obviously seen a lot in me, and I’ll be happy to go there.Ja Morant
Conley, who has spent his entire 12-year career in Memphis, said after the season he’d prefer to play for a team contending for a deep playoff run and not one entering a rebuild at this stage. Conley has two years remaining on the five-year, $153 million contract that was the richest in NBA history at time he signed to stay with Memphis in 2016.
So plenty of moving pieces remain from the major trade that propelled Gasol into the Finals and the Grizzlies into an immediate future with compelling options. And while much of Memphis is pulling for Toronto, several of the Raptors have not forgotten the contributions of former teammates who were also part of the trade between the two teams.
Jonas Valanciunas #17 of the Memphis Grizzlies attends a game between the Orlando Magic and the Toronto Raptors during Game One of Round One of the 2019 NBA Playoffs on April 13, 2019 at the Scotiabank Arena in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. Photo by Ron Turenne via Getty Images.
Kyle Lowry, Pascal Siakam and Fred VanVleet have all kept in touch with Valanciunas, Delon Wright and C.J. Miles since the trade and mentioned how vital they were in helping the Raptors develop.
Valanciunas and Lowry entered the season as the longest-tenured Raptors before the trade, having spent six years together. Valanciunas also went back to Toronto after the Grizzlies’ season ended to attend the Raptors’ first-round playoff series. Wright was Toronto’s first-round pick in 2015 and spent time in the development pipeline with Siakam and VanVleet, who have become breakout role players throughout this postseason. And Miles was the steady veteran who displayed leadership and a strong voice in Toronto’s locker room along the way.
“They’re definitely a part of what we created, that blueprint,” Siakam told Grind City Media of Valanciunas, Wright and Miles. “They’ve definitely been a part of that foundation of what Toronto basketball is about. And outside of that, we always keep in contact and remain good friends and I’m sure they’re happy to see us at this level. I talk to Delon most of the time. The connection is always there. And at the end of the day, beyond basketball we’re friends.”
VanVleet echoed that sentiment.
“They contributed to the culture here, to the growth of the young guns for sure and the bench, the way it’s all evolved,” said VanVleet, who plans to share a family vacation later this summer with Miles. “We owe those guys a lot. Their imprints are in this franchise forever and they contributed to this thing just as much as the rest of us.”
They’ve definitely been a part of that foundation of what Toronto basketball is about. And outside of that, we always keep in contact and remain good friends … At the end of the day, beyond basketball we’re friends.Pascal Siakam
Wright, Valanciunas and Miles each had their best games of the season after they were traded to Memphis. Miles has already opted into the final year of his contract to stay with Memphis and Wright can become a restricted free agent next month, with Memphis in position to match any outside offer.
CJ Miles #6 and Delon Wright #2 of the Memphis Grizzlies react to a play during the game against the Portland Trail Blazers on March 5, 2019 at FedExForum in Memphis, TN. Photo by Joe Murphy via Getty Images.
While Wright was encouraged by his late-season play – he finished with three triple-doubles in his last four games for Memphis – he also wonders what might have been had he maintained a role in Toronto. Still, tonight will play out like most nights when the Finals are on. Wright will gather with a few friends in Los Angeles around a big-screen TV somewhere for Game 5. He’ll laugh, reminisce and root for the Raptors to win.
“It’s bittersweet because we were just with them a couple of months ago and now they’re in the Finals,” Wright said. “Ever since I’ve been there, I felt like we were so close, but we just couldn’t get past LeBron James. And now they’re where we’ve been trying to reach all of those seasons. But it’s been fun to watch. They’re there and so close to winning it all. I’m just happy for them.”
So much has happened since the Feb. 7 trade deadline for both teams.
One squad is eager to move one step toward a title in the NBA Finals.
The other is finally eager to step decisively forward into a bright future.
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