Two — Shocking: Much of the Raptors’ struggles in crunch time unfortunately traces back to Pascal Siakam, who found another way to drop the ball after already seeing four of his game-deciding attempts rim out. Siakam had the ball on a 3-on-2 fast break, and he looked to be passing to Gary Trent Jr. open in the corner for three, but instead Siakam changed his mind at the last second and made a move to the rim. But in doing so, he committed a double dribble, and it essentially clinched the game. Siakam was also culpable on the Knicks’ final two baskets of the game, once getting caught ball-watching with Julius Randle flashing behind him for a dunk, and then calling an unnecessary switch to have the rookie guard Malachi Flynn on Randle, which Siakam then helped on the drive, but that only left R.J. Barrett open in the corner for 3. All three mistakes are inexcusable, and to have them all happen in quick succession is incredibly unfortunate. It’s not as if you can’t trust Siakam to defend, or for him to run a fast break, but these were just lapses in judgement that came at the worst possible moment.
The game itself was somewhat surreal also, although that makes it ordinary for 2020-21.
The turning point that wasn’t — in the end — a turning point may have come due to an 11-minute rain delay midway through the third quarter. Proceedings were halted when the roof at Madison Square Garden — recently subject to a $1 billion renovation — seemingly sprung a leak. When play resumed Toronto went on a 24-7 run, turning a double-figure deficit to a four-point lead with seven minutes to play.
The Raptors couldn’t quite close the deal from there, but it was a different way to fall short, put it that way.
Did we mention that Malachi Flynn had a key three-pointer taken away after the fact in the fourth when it was determined he’d stepped out of bounds?
Lowry finished with 19 points, seven assists and six rebounds while Gary Trent Jr. had 23 on 9-of-17 shooting. Siakam bounced back from a horrible first half to finish with 16, with 14 coming in the second and third quarters.
Barrett finished with 19 points on 12 shots and looked steady throughout.
For all the excitement around adding Birch and Birch’s excitement at coming to ‘Torampa’, expectations need to be tempered. The six-foot-10 shot-blocker has struggled to find steady minutes in Orlando even as the Magic had one season better than .500 in the four years Birch was there.
He comes to Toronto averaging five points and five rebounds a game, both of which are career highs.
But Birch showed well playing for the men’s national team at the World Cup where he was relied on heavily by Raptors head coach Nick Nurse.
“I just feel like the way that Coach Nurse plays that’s how I’ve always wanted to play,” said Birch. “And also he gives great confidence to his players. I think I need that right now just because I’ve been somewhere for four years. Just the fact that I’m going to be playing for a coach that’s coached me before I’m going to be more comfortable out there.”
Is there more there? Birch, a pending free agent, has got the remainder of this season to show it.
The Toronto Raptors have owned the Knicks ever since the Andrea Bargnani trade. This year was supposed to be different, as the Raptors have languished in their Tamp exile and the Knicks have climbed past them in the standings. New York had a chance to snag a much-needed win and climb back to .500, but such ownage does not go away overnight. The Raptors smartly turned to the Knicks’ bane, the zone defense, in the second half, and went on a 40-15 run to take a seemingly insurmountable lead.
But these are not the Knicks are yesteryear. They don’t care how many times New York has lost to those dreaded dinos. Most importantly, they have the rapidly improving RJ Barrett, and his massive cajones. The kid from Canada stuck the dagger right in the eye of his home country’s team, and the Knicks walked away with a sloppy 102-96 win.
I suppose the best thing you could say about this game was that it was the best performance from Elfrid Payton since maybe December. The much-maligned point guard helped the Knicks jump out to an 11-point first-quarter lead. The bench held the lead pretty much in tact, and the starters pushed it to 14 at halftime. But that damn zone did them in once again.
In all, as hungry as the Raptors looked last night, it seemed like tonight they just wanted to go home for a nap — at least to start. With Kyle Lowry back in the lineup, and paired with a rested Siakam, Toronto got off to a sluggish start, shooting just 24 percent in the frame (and 20 percent from three), while getting out-rebounded 14-11. Chris Boucher — despite a nifty sweeping left-handed finish for two of his team-leading six points — was bullied in particular by every Knicks frontcourt player while the team fell behind by 11 early. To make matters worse, while coach Nick Nurse now has more players to work with, he opted to play both Khem Birch and Freddie Gillespie together (along with Flynn, DeAndre’ Bembry, and Rodney Hood), which totally sewered the team’s offense to end the quarter.
The Raptors did not improve in the second — nor did the pace and style of the game. While they did manage to get their shooting up to, uh, 31 percent overall, they stayed behind the Knicks by a dozen or so (up to as many as 16) for most of the frame. The Knicks are a better opponent than the Cavaliers, but it is still comical to consider that these Raptors scored 87 points in a half less than 24 hours before, and managed just 42 points in this one. Even with an extra-eager whistle (the Raptors shot 10-of-12 from the foul line to New York’s aggressive 13-for-15), nothing seemed to juice Toronto’s offense.
The returned Siakam did not help matters. He didn’t score until almost 19 minutes into the game — and went 1-for-11 for the half. Meanwhile, outside of Lowry’s usual controlled fury (and 14 points), the Raptors saw very little offense from anyone else. Even last night’s hero Gary Trent Jr. looked off for much of the first half, chipping in with only a modest seven points (while putting up two airballs). On the plus side, Yuta Watanabe was dropping threes — he was 2-for-3, which made him Toronto’s best shooter in the half — while new addition Birch finished (two) plays at the rim in relatively smooth order. As a result of the largely negative energy though, the Raptors were still down 56-42 at the half.
In the third, the Raptors flipped it up. Leaning almost exclusively on their starters, plus a few minutes of Flynn, they threw a zone defense at the Knicks, which once again flummoxed them. New York’s hot shooting cooled, their transition opportunities dried up, and the ball movement just wasn’t there. Yes, despite being down by as many as 18, the Raptors got to within two points thanks to a 16-4 run and that zone defense. Trent Jr. shooting 5-of-6 for 14 points was huge too, along with a sudden nine-point burst from Siakam. That the Raptors also got another nine points from Boucher plus three timely blocks also made a difference. (Say what you will of Boucher, he doesn’t give up.) If not for a long rain delay thanks to a leaky MSG roof — only in New York, baby! — Toronto’s momentum might have carried them to a lead right then and there in the third.
As it happened, the Raptors quickly took the lead in the fourth thanks to a similar reserve-heavy lineup, only with Yuta in place of Gillespie (a wise choice). For an extended few minutes, Nurse was content to let Flynn sink-or-swim while orchestrating the offense. The rookie had a few pick-and-roll turnovers (3), but he also had nine points — or he would have had nine if one of his threes had not been recalled later because one of his shoe molecules was out of bounds. That’s how close it was. Though the energy had been going the Raptors’ way, their offense fell apart for too long a stretch after that, even as the starters came back into the game. It didn’t help that the Knicks’ Julius Randle would then go on to score his first of eight points in the second half to reclaim the lead for New York.
They were slow and sluggish and out of sorts for long enough to find themselves in an 18-point hole. They found a way to regroup and a lineup that was effective and gave themselves a chance to win.
And then they lost. Lather, rinse, repeat.
But for those invested in the longer term, there were some glimmers.
Malachi Flynn had another strong game and got to finish it, playing the entire fourth quarter in a close game for the first time in his career. He hit a few shots, played tremendously on defence and probably learned a lesson or two.
“I thought he looked good out there and … it is valuable for him to get out there and play in a high-level game down the stretch, a physical game,” Nurse said.
And Montreal’s Khem Birch, signed just Saturday night, played 17 minutes, shook off some early rust and showed enough that he’s likely already usurped Aron Baynes in the rotation.
“I think it’s been a little bit since he played. I thought there was a little bit of maybe just like, ‘Holy crap, I’m in a game here’ just for a bit, but … I thought he looked good,” Nurse said. “His size looks good, he made good switches, he rebounded it good, he had a couple of good rolls to the basket. I thought he was really solid.”
After almost four seasons with the Orlando Magic, the 28-year-old sees a chance at a fresh, reinvigorating start with Toronto and Nurse, his coach with Canada at the 2019 FIBA World Cup.
“I just feel like the way that coach Nurse plays, that’s how I’ve always wanted to play,” Birch said before the game. “Also he gives great confidence to his players. I think I need that right now just because I’ve been somewhere for four years.
“Just the fact that I’m going to be playing for a coach that’s coached me before, I’m going to be more comfortable out there.”
“I think that was just an unfortunate one,” head coach Nick Nurse said. “Just unlucky there.”
For the better part of 2 1/2 quarters of basketball the Raptors were a step behind the Knicks and trailing on the scoreboard by anywhere from eight to 12 points.
But a determined defensive effort for most of the night by the Raptors paid dividends as they hung around and hung around until their offence finally caught up with their defence, making this one a game.
Toronto didn’t take a lead in this game until there were just 10 minutes left in the game.
They held that lead into the final three minutes before the Knicks recovered their touch while Toronto went a little cold. It was enough to turn the game.
Barrett finished the night with 19 points, but his biggest buckets came from behind the three-point line where he was 3-for-6, including that eventual game-winner.
The game marked the return of Kyle Lowry after a six-game absence with a foot injury and the timing couldn’t have been better.
Without OG Anunoby in the lineup with the Raps in the midst of a four-games-in-five-nights and getting a much-needed rest, Lowry’s return and that of Siakam, who took Saturday night’s game in Cleveland off for the same reasons as Anunoby, Lowry’s fresh legs were needed.
He put up 14 in the first half to keep the Raptors at least within comeback range and giving some of this other teammates the time to find their own offensive games.
This Raptors season has been negatively affected in countless ways. Before Sunday’s game, coach Nick Nurse said that every time he thought his team might be getting back the way it was before five players entered COVID-19-related protocols in late February, something else went gone wrong. Since then, the Raptors have gone 4-16 and fallen outside of even the play-in tournament seeds. They have done well to not openly turn on each other, Pascal Siakam yelling at Nurse aside, but tangible joy has been wanting.
Khem Birch, the fourth-year centre from Montreal, serves as a nice change-up, then. The Magic waived Birch to create more playing time for their pair of third-year lottery projects up front, and the Raptors gladly signed him to help deal with their season-long centre problem.
“Just seeing them go through those struggles from the early 2000s to 2010s, but we always supported them just because they’re the home team, and that’s why it means so much to me,” the 28-year-old Birch said before the Raptors lost another frustrating game, 102-96 in New York. “My dad used to always complain about the team, yell at the TV and stuff, and now I’m on the team. So this is just a surreal moment.
“I can’t even put it into words. I’m just so happy to be here right now.”
It feels good to have someone feel good, doesn’t it? Even Birch’s Raptors debut was mostly forgettable, a little happy-to-be-here energy cannot be a bad thing for the Raptors. Birch had four points and five rebounds in 18 minutes, with a nice tip-in to end the first half and some fundamentally sound defence. Birch is sturdier than Chris Boucher and more able to navigate perimeter mismatches than Aron Baynes. Birch had nice moments containing Julius Randle, Alec Burks and Derrick Rose. He also showed shortcomings on the offensive end that keep his contributions limited to catching lobs and crashing the glass for potential put-backs.
To be fair, Birch’s offensive limitations stood out in particular when he was paired with the Raptors’ other new centre, Freddie Gillespie, on a 10-day contract. You have to feel for Birch, who spent the better part of his time in Orlando this year paired next to Nikola Vucevic or Mo Bamba, taking him away from his most sensible position in the modern game. There should not be much need for that in Toronto, and Nurse admitted pairing the two new players was a clunky look.
“I think it’s been a little bit since he played,” Nurse said. “I thought there was a little bit of maybe just like, ‘Holy crap, I’m in a game here’ just for a bit. … When we got him out there a few minutes later on his own, he made some nice rolls.”
Birch is more interesting for what his presence might portend for the future than what he could bring now, however. How many resources the Raptors decide to devote to the centre spot will show what they thought of their conservative approach this past offseason — namely, if the strategy was flawed or the execution was the mistake. (Clearly, that approach was in part dictated by the Raptors’ desire to maintain flexibility for this coming offseason.) There is only one available centre, Jarrett Allen, who is poised to get a lucrative offer, and Cleveland holds (and will surely take advantage of) his restricted rights. John Collins could be an option, he too is restricted, although Atlanta’s plans for him are a little harder to ascertain. After that, it gets dicier: Andre Drummond, Richaun Holmes, Daniel Theis and Kelly Olynyk are all interesting for different reasons, but they come with significant risks, too. Will the Raptors aggressively use their potential cap room to go after the option of their choice, or wait for the market to come to them, as they did last year? Given that they will also need to either retain or replace Kyle Lowry, you can see why the latter option might make more sense.
A lifetime of riding the Raptors rollercoaster might just be the best preparation for joining the team in the middle of this chaotic 2020-21 season.
With the Orlando Magic going younger in the frontcourt, the decision was made to release Birch ahead of last Friday’s waivers deadline, allowing him to choose his next team. That choice was an easy one.
The fit with Toronto made too much sense. Beyond his passport and fondness for the franchise, Birch also played for and endeared himself to Raptors head coach Nick Nurse with the Canadian national team at the 2019 FIBA World Cup in China. The fact that the Raps were in desperate need of a big man and could offer plenty of playing time at the centre position was the cherry on top. Once he cleared waivers early Saturday evening, they made it official.
Birch is the sixth Canadian to suit up for the Raptors, joining current Toronto coach Jamaal Magloire, Cory Joseph, Anthony Bennett, Oshae Brissett, as well as new teammate and fellow Montrealer Chris Boucher.
“Man, I think it’s an iconic moment,” said Birch, shortly before debuting for his new club in Sunday’s 102-96 loss to New York. “Playing for this team means a lot to me… This is a surreal moment, I can’t even put it into words. I’m just so happy to be here right now.”
“I think eventually it was going to happen… It was inevitable.”
On a team full of unlikely success stories, Birch should fit right in. Like Boucher and Fred VanVleet, he went unselected in the draft. Like Nurse, he spent time in the D-League and went overseas – playing in Turkey and Greece – before ultimately getting his NBA opportunity.
Birch isn’t going to put up big numbers – he was averaging career-highs of 5.3 points and 5.1 rebounds in 48 games with Orlando this season – but he knows his role and he excels in it. At six-foot-nine, he’s undersized for a centre but he makes up for it with his strength, physicality and toughness. He’s a solid rebounder and a very good positional and team defender.
Generally, you’re not going to find a saviour on the buyout market or on waivers, and it’s not fair to expect Birch to step in and solve the Raptors’ season-long issue in the middle, but he can help address a few glaring needs. They’re dead last in the league on the boards and have fallen to 17th in defensive efficiency after ranking second in that category last year.