It was late in the third quarter against the Brooklyn Nets that Khem Birch did something the Raptors haven’t seen from the center position since Marc Gasol was a Toronto Raptor. Birch set a screen for Kyle Lowry and rolled hard to the left. Perhaps overeager in his new center rotation, Lowry threw a creative but wayward pass to Birch on the roll. He tried to bend the basketball like Wanted around the defenders, tossing a bounce pass along the outside-in curve to try to reach Birch as he curled towards the rim.
Then Birch worked a small touch of everyday magic. He gathered the ball — a small miracle in itself! — and found himself surrounded by defenders, so he turned without hesitation and fired it to the corner behind him to OG Anunoby, who splashed the triple.
Centers are supposed to be advantage converters, in that they finish shots created for them by other players, but rarely are they advantage extenders. It’s a rare center indeed who makes snap decisions and throws pinpoint passes to the corner through fields of arms. That Birch — with a career per-game assist average of 0.9 — managed to mimic a Hall of Fame passer in Gasol was spectacular.
Then he did it again on two possessions later. This time Lowry threw a too-floaty lob that was intercepted by a crowd of Nets. Birch, though, came down with it, and immediately spun and fired to Pascal Siakam in the opposite corner, who also hit the open jumper.
“[Those passes] were great,” said Lowry after the game. “I think Khem is just feeling his rhythm a little bit. I think with us out there — myself, OG, Pascal and Freddie — I think he understands that he is going to be the guy who is going to be the open guy and the one that makes the plays. That is where he is going to continue to get better and grow. And there is no replacing Marc Gasol. Marc is one of one, honestly. But if you can get some type of pass and make that player create and make a nice pass and get an open jump shot or even a dunk, you take advantage of it.”
Birch finished with three assists, which marked only the fourth time in his career that he’s had back-to-back three-assist games. It’s a long road, and Birch is early on in the expansion and development of his skills. That’s to say: he’s not Marc Gasol. Lowry is right about that. But he’s a plus passer, and he fits in smoothly with Toronto’s offensive identity. That’s a huge relief to have at the center position.
Birch tossed in the other elements that are traditional to receive from the center position. He blocked a shot, gathered loose balls, and attacked the offensive glass. He snuck in from the dunker spot for dump-off passes, and he back-stepped from the dunker spot for an open corner triple. That’s all normal stuff to get from a center. But the passing? That’s what has to have the Raptors salivating.
Yet Birch isn’t the only center impressing for the Raptors. Freddie Gillespie is young, and he’s an undrafted rookie straight out of the G League (sounds like a Raptors prospect!), and he’s raw, but he sure can offer a lot on the floor. If Birch’s passing stood out the most during his minutes, Gillespie’s shot blocking was his calling card. He has a 7-foot-6 wingspan, and he chases shots without sacrificing positioning. He finished with five blocks, but he forced plenty more misses than those.
“Freddie has five block shots,” said Nick Nurse after the game. “It’s probably been a while since we’ve had that happened. Maybe in the Serge Ibaka days but I can’t even remember those either.”
For the record, Chris Boucher has five five-block games this season, and then the last time it happened was Serge Ibaka, who recorded two five-block games in 2018-19. Perhaps the reason why Gillespie’s five-block game stood out was because of his imprint on the game. Boucher blocks a lot of shots, but he often sacrifices rebounding positioning to do so. Gillespie uses his body and length to take up space at the rim. Opponents feel him on a huge percentage of shots. He’s present. At one point, Kyrie Irving snuck behind the defense and seemed to face an open rim. But Gillespie tracked him when most centers would have given up and pinned the unwitting layup attempt on the glass. Gillespie has a lot of tools on which he can improve going forward. The basics of rim protection, though, are there.
Between Birch and Gillespie, the Raptors filled all 48 minutes of center play. That’s not to say the Raptors are down with small ball, as Nurse said after the game he was actually planning on finishing with OG Anunoby at center. But the Raptors have capable centers who can fill a whole game. If the Raptors need passing or shooting or switchability, they have a club in the bag. If they need rim protection, they can let the big dog eat. The weapons are there, now, in a way that they haven’t been all game.
This was Toronto’s first game with all the pieces (or, virtually all of them, with Paul Watson Jr. out of the game) available. They started Birch, and the fivesome of Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet, Anunoby, Pascal Siakam, and Birch went plus-16 in 22 minutes. With Gillespie at the center spot alongside the Big Four, the Raptors went plus-8 in 7.3 minutes.
The center depth is there. And with the Raptors apparently no longer resting players, so too is the rest of the talent. With Birch and Gillespie on board, it’s time then to gear up for the playoffs.