Coincidence or not the Raptors will take a four-game winning streak into their Saturday afternoon match-up with the red-hot New York Knicks and Toronto is looking like a more likely bet to move up the standings and make some noise as the kind of dark horse playoff match-up that could be stumbling block for any contender hoping for a soft first-round matchup.
The sample sizes are small and it’s not like the Raptors have prevailed against a murderer’s row in streak — even second-play Brooklyn was playing without Kevin Durant and James Harden and on the second night of back-to-back — but Toronto looks like a different team.
Defensive possessions end with rebounds. Shots get blocked. Lobs get dunked and offensive rebounds either put back or pitched out to organize another possession.
“I mean it’s just the little bailouts, you know, the small bailouts when you get beat and they’re there to block a shot or when you work your butt off for 23 seconds out of possession and you actually come up with the rebound instead of the other team getting it or it going out of bounds,” said Raptors guard Fred VanVleet on the difference Birch and Gillespie have made. “Those are morale plays… [it’s] deflating to work that hard and not come up with the rebound or play perfect defence and you’re just not big enough to know what I mean… it’s just good to have those bodies down there, offensively and defensively.”
The numbers bear it out:
The Raptors have been 29th or 30th in the league in defensive rebounding percentage all season, grabbing 71 per cent of opponent misses through the first 55 games, but over the last four games they’re pulling down 73.8 per cent of the available boards, good for 14th.
Toronto ranked 10th in opponent’s field goal percentage from games 1-55, allowing 45.8 per cent, but in the Birch/Gillespie era they are fourth, allowing opponents to shoot just 42.9 per cent from the floor during the four-game win streak.
That improvement has come in particular in the paint, close to the rim. Opponents were making 61 per cent of their shots within six feet of the basket but over the last four games are limiting the opposition to 52.9 per cent on those shots, which is third-best in the league over that stretch.
There have been some rough spots. Gillespie has quick feet, a wide body and tremendous reach and seems to have a high basketball IQ, but he’s still just a couple of seasons removed from playing Division III basketball in Minnesota and has a lot to learn when it comes to the nuances of screen-and-roll basketball, as an example. And while Birch is more polished, he’s got a long way to go to match Ibaka’s ability in the two-man game.
“There are times like I think the first quarter last game where I set [a screen for] Fred VanVleet and it didn’t quite work,” said Gillespie. “He was like ‘roll to the rim and I can work out of that’ [but] I think I did a short roll. So that’s the type of communication we have and it’s an adjustment, but we’ll figure it out. We’ll learn. I think more and more, the more I play with them the more I pick up and the more I think we’ll make that pick and roll a threat.”
In less than two weeks with Toronto, Birch has already earned the trust of his teammates and coaches. For Siakam or Lowry to throw him the ball with the game on the line, or for Nick Nurse to call his number in that situation, speaks to how well he’s fit in. But it also speaks to how low the bar had been set prior to his arrival.
For years, the Raptors reaped the benefits of having high-end talent and depth in the frontcourt. But after losing Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol in free agency and failing to fill that void during the off-season, they’ve been in desperate need of competent and consistent play at the centre position for the bulk of the campaign.
It hasn’t taken long for Birch and Freddie Gillespie, who is on his second 10-day contract with the team, to make their mark.
In Wednesday’s win over Brooklyn, Toronto’s new centre tandem split the position evenly, with Birch starting and finishing the game and Gillespie bringing energy off the bench. It was the team’s 59th game of the season and the first time that Nurse has been able to have a traditional big man on the court for all 48 minutes.
“They manned the position very well,” the Raptors head coach said afterwards.
With the exception of Gillespie’s five blocks, their numbers won’t jump out at you. Birch finished with eight points and seven rebounds, while Gillespie had four and five, respectively. However, they continue to give Nurse exactly what he’s been searching for at the position; size, toughness, physicality and relentless effort, in addition to a few other things he probably didn’t expect to get.
Birch’s late game three-pointer was his third on six attempts in just six contests as a Raptor. He went 4-for-23 from beyond the arc in three and a half seasons with the Orlando Magic. He’s also shown the ability to make plays out of the low block. Working the pick and roll with Lowry midway through the third quarter, Birch caught the ball on the move and fired a pass to OG Anunoby in the corner for a three. On the next possession, Birch set up Siakam for three in the opposite corner, this time with an impressive two-handed, cross court assist.
Like Birch, Gillespie is listed at 6-foot-9 but his motor, physical strength and nose for the ball more than make up for any size disadvantage he might have against bigger fives.
“It’s definitely a good fit,” said the 23-year-old Gillespie. “I think the Raptors looked at my skill set and said that’s something we could use. When a team brings you in clearly you offer something that they need.”
“I think it’s just fun to have bigs,” said assistant coach Adrian Griffin. “The last time we really had bigs was when we had Marc and Serge, so having these two guys out there, as a defensive minded coach, I’m licking my chops.”
It’s hard to quantify their impact, but we can try. Since Gillespie signed his first 10-day contract, the Raptors have won five of seven games. They’re 4-2 with Birch in the lineup. Prior to April 10th, Gillespie’s debut with the club, they were dead last in the NBA in rebounding and had been bested on the boards in 39 of 52 games. Since then, they’ve out-rebounded five of their seven opponents and are tied for 13th on the glass over that span.
There is enough belief that the Raptors, if they remain healthy for the most part, can be a dangerous team if they can sneak into the post-season.
Swaying the go-for-it mode has been the combination of their recent play along with some new-found confidence at the centre position.
All season, the Raptors have struggled to find consistency from the five-spot, whether that was an undersized Boucher or an ineffective Aron Baynes.
Now Nick Nurse has settled on two newcomers to the team in Canadian Khem Birch and G-League standout Freddie Gillespie to handle the 48 minutes at that position.
What Birch and Gillespie give up in offensive upside, they more than make up for on the defensive end, where both are above-average rebounders and rim protectors. Offensively, they still contribute as well as being willing screeners and decent pick-and-roll options.
There is no question the Birch/Gillespie tandem gives the Raptors as good a pair of options at centre as they have had all year.
Adrian Griffin, the assistant coach who took over Nurse’s media duties yesterday, is clearly excited about the arrival of and the faith his head coach is putting in Birch and Gillespie.
“I think it’s just fun to have bigs,” Griffin said. “The last time we really had bigs was when we had Marc (Gasol) and Serge (Ibaka) so having those two guys out there — as a defensive-minded coach — I’m licking my chops.”
With Birch starting and Gillespie coming off the bench, the days of the Raptors continually giving up additional possessions to their opposition because they couldn’t rebound the basketball are behind them.
In a league in which some coaches seem afraid of driving their teams too hard, lest they draw the ire of the sports-science department, Thibodeau is an old-school outlier who sees value in regular-season victory.
“We all believe in Thibs,” second-year guard R.J. Barrett, the GTA export, was telling reporters this week. “He’s been doing just a tremendous job in the way he’s turned everything around, the way he has us playing hard every single night. And we’re getting wins … night in and night out, every day, working hard, just pushing and pushing. It’s a great feeling.”
Barrett’s ascendance has been among the biggest reasons for New York’s playoff-worthiness. After a ho-hum first year saw him left off the 10-player all-rookie team, Barrett, the No. 3 pick in the 2019 draft, has clearly been at work on his weak spots. A below-average 32 per cent three-point shooter as a rookie, he’s improved to a more formidable 39 per cent this season (and he’s on a 32-for-64 tear from deep in the month of April). A dismal free-throw shooter last season (61 per cent), he’s upped that number to a more respectable 74 per cent this year. That’s good for the Knicks and good for Canada, considering Barrett figures to be a go-to bucket getter for the national team on this summer’s road to the Tokyo Olympics.
Until then, there’s more heavy lifting to be done. While most of a league manages its load, Thibodeau piles it on. Knicks resident all-star Julius Randle is leading the league in total minutes; Barrett ranks second. The 26-year-old Randle has played 59 of the Knicks’ 60 games. Barrett has played all 60.
Are they actually trying to win? They’re maxing out their chances like almost nobody else. In today’s NBA, it amounts to a counterintuitive concept.
Remember the other week when we said this: “Realistically, the Raptors are fighting with Chicago, Washington and Cleveland for the final play-in spot. Is it possible they go on a tear and one or two of Miami, Indiana, Charlotte or New York plummet? Sure, but more likely, they’ll battle it out for 10th — feel the excitement.
“To refresh, if the Raptors should even get to 10th, they’d still have to beat the No. 9 team on the road and then the winner of No. 7 vs. No. 8, also on the road, just to win the right to sneak into the playoffs to battle either Brooklyn or Philadelphia, both title contenders.”
Well, since then, the Nets got bad injury new on James Harden and Kevin Durant had a setback. All of a sudden Milwaukee is in range of the Nets (assuming Giannis Antetokounmpo’s toe issue doesn’t keep him out of the lineup any longer).
Cleveland looks cooked. Charlotte is slumping, Chicago is a huge disappointment and Washington and Toronto are surging.
With less than 15 games remaining there isn’t a ton of time for anyone to make a major move, but possibilities are still on the table.
Again, Toronto has a particularly tough schedule to end the regular season, but if this group can stay on the floor, we figure they’ll get to ninth, maybe even all the way to eighth.
The dreams of a top draft pick amongst the fanbase are starting to fade. You can pretty much take it to the bank that six teams will have greater odds than the Raptors and we could easily see four more teams finishing with worse records.
Remember when Anunoby couldn’t shoot free throws? (63% as a rookie, 58% sophomore, 71% last year). He shot 83% in February, 79% in March and currently 84% in April. Just shy of 78% for the season. That’s impressive.
Every dollar a player is fined by the NBA’s league office, for a technical foul, an ejection, a slur, a punch, a wisecrack toward a referee, and suspensions (which mean forfeited game checks) — all of it goes to charity. The players, as Green acknowledged, are generally aware of this.
What happens next? The Athletic sought to find out. After a player is fined, where does the money actually go, beyond the blanket word, “charity?” Who is helped? Are there children fed, and clothed, or homes rebuilt? Are scholarships awarded?
Through dozens of interviews and data-driven reporting, The Athletic found numerous, flesh-and-blood examples of people who are a little better off because the NBA docked a player’s pay. But when it came down to answering Green’s question — where, exactly, did his money go? — the system is set up specifically to prevent any tracing of an individual fine all the way to an individual charity.
The reason, according to the officials inside the union who designed the system, is to avoid even a hint of impropriety. Players have charities themselves. They sit on boards. If the fines they pay for bad behavior just funnel back to the charities they oversee, at minimum, it would look bad, and soil the really good story the union has to tell about its expansive giving program.
Also, the union’s previous executive director, Billy Hunter, was fired in part for his questionable management of the millions from fines that flow into the union’s coffers — for doing the very things the system is now designed to prevent.
“We never want it to be that a guy comes into the (NBPA’s charitable) foundation thinking they have privilege to get more money because they were fined more,” said Sherrie Deans, who now oversees the union’s charity program. “There are guys who will never be fined that are able to access the funds.”
Following the Raptors’ 114-103 win over the Brooklyn Nets, Kyle Lowry engaged in playful banter with reporters after Acadia University announced earlier Wednesday that he will be receiving an honorary degree.
He began the session by telling reporters that once he gets his doctorate next month from the Nova Scotia university, he would only respond to questions if reporters addressed him as Dr. Lowry.
When asked by Toronto Star’s Doug Smith what type of doctor he will be, Lowry responded, without missing a beat, “a doctor of greatness.” That got a chuckle and a big smile from Lowry.
When Sportsnet’s Michael Grange wished him good luck in his studies, Lowry said “doctors don’t need to study as much.”
But even Lowry acknowledged that he’d be the second greatest doctor from Philadelphia.
There’s only one Dr. J after all.
Lowry will be one of seven people to receive an honorary doctorate from Nova Scotia’s Acadia University in the Class of 2021, according to a press release from the school.
“He rallied the nation when he led Canada’s only NBA franchise to a historic NBA championship victory in 2019,” said the release. “Lowry and his wife, Ayahna Cornish-Lowry, are committed to improving the lives of the disadvantaged in Toronto and Philadelphia to help them experience a better quality of life. Together, they set up the Lowry Love Foundation, a charity that gives back to community.”
The virtual convocation will be held May 9, with a keynote address from former prime minister Paul Martin, another one to be honoured that day.