We’ve often joked about how much money Lowry has earned reserve-level centres in the past, but Birch is a reminder that the centre plays a role in a tandem’s success, too. Lowry has quickly gotten aggressive with the type of passes he’ll throw a rolling Birch, whether it’s a tight pocket pass or an off-target dish to evade a tip or a lob that requires all of Birch’s arm extension. Birch was 7-of-9 for 14 points against Cleveland, with five of those field goals coming from Lowry passes.
“This is the easiest 14 points I’ve ever had in my career,” Birch told the TSN broadcast after the game.
That’s not entirely fair to his own abilities. Still, when your furthest make is a 7-foot push-shot on a great feed, your point guard is helping you out. And if Birch keeps shooting 71.7 percent inside of 10 feet, Lowry and VanVleet are going to continue feeding him. (His only two misses were on 3s.) Birch has also been a very solid addition on the defensive side, with the Raptors allowing just 103.2 points per-100 possessions with him on the floor and Birch owning a robust plus-12.2 net rating.
The Lowry-Birch pairing isn’t the only part of the starting five finding synergy. The Raptors are finishing a few more possessions via cuts the last few games, which is generally a good indicator of how their offence is flowing. That ability to manufacture easy baskets inside is paramount on nights like Monday when the team is cold from outside. Anunoby is also growing game by game as a shot-creator. Siakam remains inconsistent but occasionally dominant for stretches. On nights when Lowry and VanVleet have their 3-ball falling, it’s a tough group to figure out.
That stability flows to the bench rotations, too. Nurse has been very aggressive with the amount of time the full-starter lineup is playing together, which has put pressure on bench-heavy units to hold serve. That’s a work in progress, with Saturday’s loss to the Knicks standing out as one of the tougher nights. Knowing who will be available and starting allows for some role certainty they’ll hope gets bench players more comfortable. Flynn, Yuta Watanabe and Freddie Gillespie know where their minutes are coming (assuming Gillespie sticks around.)
When Gary Trent Jr. is back from the leg contusion that sidelined him for this game, he slots in and creates a natural nine-man rotation. Nurse’s bench has a lead guard, a scoring guard, a Swiss-army defender — Watanabe was even the “one” in some box-and-one – and a backup big. In closer games, the all-bench units that have been given brief run will (you’d hope) be shelved, with a starter or two mixing in with those pieces. Paul Watson Jr., when healthy, is a useful 10th man. It’s legitimate depth the Raptors have struggled to maintain while missing an average of 2.5 players per game this year, and it’s depth that becomes more important as the schedule gets tougher and denser once more.
That all of the pieces are ones with potential long-term futures with the team is important to keep in mind. The play-in versus lottery debate seems to be relitigated every game, but as long as wins are coming from developing pieces, it should be hard to get too bothered. Anunoby, VanVleet and Siakam are not finished products. Flynn’s growth is crucial. Watanabe, Watson and Gillespie are fighting for roles next year. Birch and Trent should be considered favourites to return as free agents, even if Lowry does push the price tag up a bit for his new pick-and-roll partner.
Three — Impressed: Nick Nurse heaped praise on his rookie point guard, lauding him for showing improvement in every facet of his game over the course of the season. Flynn’s first impression was strong in preseason, but was largely absent to start the season and was demoted to the G-League, where he lit it up for two weeks before getting an early call-up when the Raptors needed depth due to injuries. From there, Flynn wormed his way into the rotation with his pesky defense, where he showed his willingness to battle in scrums with much bigger players. Flynn’s biggest development on offense has been his ability to get into the paint, which is opening up both his own scoring and his passing. The adjustment there was for him to weaponize his quickness without rushing, which was a hard adjustment. Flynn is fast enough to get by his guy, and then it’s just about reacting to how the defense plays him. Flynn is even knocking down the outside shot at a 42 percent clip over his last 12 games after shooting 18 percent in his first three months of professional basketball.
For as well as it looked like they played, though, the Raptors were nearly undone by a truly dreadful display of three-point shooting as they went 8-for-29 from deep, with the majority of those looks being of the “wide-open” variety.
Fortunately for the Raptors, they did a great job of sharing the ball, making 32 assists on 43 made field goals. Lowry led the way with 10, half of which came from made Khem Birch baskets as it looks like Lowry’s found a new favourite target of late.
“I’m trying to get him paid,” said Lowry of him actively looking for Birch. “That’s what I try to do, I try to get my teammates paid and help us win games and make sure everyone around me is successful. I think he is a talented kid and he has this opportunity where he can be successful so why not try to make him be successful.”
Added Birch of his generous teammate: “He told me that now that I’m playing more and getting the ball more, just doing the little things, that I’m going to start getting paid. He told me that last game. I appreciate that from him. That’s the goal for this team. There’s a culture here and that’s to help each other out and I appreciate it.”
The high assist total from the Raptors was a prime example of the offence manufacturing scoring opportunities for the team, and it also helped that Toronto was able to get out in transition, something that appeared to benefit Siakam greatly, who scored a game-high 25 points on ultra-efficient 11-of-19 shooting, including a good clip from deep of 2-for-5.
The victory was a welcome one for the Raptors for a number of reasons.
First of all, this was a game the Raptors had to get. The Cavaliers are a team whose season is all but done, they were missing key players like Colin Sexton, Larry Nance Jr. and Matthew Dellavedova, and they were playing on the second night of a back-to-back.
So this was a win ripe for picking and the Raptors didn’t disappoint in that regard.
More importantly, however, this was a win the Raptors had to get to build some needed momentum for a murderer’s row week-and-a bit ahead of them.
The Cleveland Cavaliers (21-40) traveled to Tampa tonight to battle the Toronto Raptors (26-35) short a few soldiers and…well, they lost. Final Score: 96-112.
Coming into tonight’s matchup down 7 players, the Cavs found a way to keep things close through 3 quarters, ultimately falling victim to missed shots, missed players and missed dishes (13 TO).
Isaac Okoro played with creativity and excitement, and it showed on the stat sheet as he scored a career-high 20 points on 8-of-16 shooting. Finding the open lane, popping to the perimeter, dunking and digging in on defense, the 20-year-old guard proved once again that his stock is rising on the wave of his mixed skill set.
Darius Garland did his best to get his teammates involved contributing 10 assists with a lackluster 13 points. Dean Wade and Damyean Dotson chipped in a respectable 20 points coming off the bench.
The Cavs, playing a team that ranks 3rd in the league for three pointers made per game, did a solid job guarding the perimeter. The Raptors went 8-of-29 from beyond the arc, missing all eight attempts in the second quarter.
Toronto had something to fight for as they work to climb their way to a potential spot in the NBA play-in tournament. Pascal Siakam and OG Anunoby combined for 45 points on 20-for-34 shooting, while Kyle Lowry dished out 10 assists.
Monday’s result was what you might expect. The Raptors’ starters simply overwhelmed the far less talented Cavaliers, while Toronto’s bench unit was largely uninspiring and allowed Cleveland to get back into it. After a 10-2 Cleveland run to start the game, an obligatory OG Anunoby pass-deflection-leading-to-fast-break-dunk kicked the Raptors’ defense into gear, helping them go on a 20-2 run. Meanwhile, Lowry, who picked up six assists in the first quarter, was picking apart the Cavs’ defense in tandem with refreshing new addition Khem Birch. For his part, Birch finished the first half with 10 points on 5-of-7 shooting, four boards, two steals, and two blocks, and finished the game with, in his words post-game, “the easiest fourteen points of my career.”
But down Boucher and Watson, a bench unit of Malachi Flynn, DeAndre’ Bembry, Rodney Hood, Yuta Watanabe, and Freddie Gillespie started off the second quarter by going a -5 in four minutes, prompting coach Nick Nurse to sub Lowry and Birch back in. Bembry and Hood wouldn’t see the court again until garbage time, as Nurse went to Stanley Johnson instead in the second half. Meanwhile, the Cavaliers went to a zone defense in the second quarter, limiting the Raptors to just 16 points, and making it a mere one-point game at halftime. The second quarter was pretty ugly, with the Raptors allowing some easy offensive rebounds and finishing the half just 1-for-15 from behind the arc.
But in the third quarter Siakam took over, continuing his run of high-quality play. Two of his 10 third-quarter points were some of his nicest of the season, as he took a rebound coast-to-coast and Euro-stepped a defender to finish with a strong left-handed dunk in transition.
While Siakam’s fourth foul prompted Nurse to sub him out for Johnson at around the 4:30 mark, the Raptors flipped the script on the Cavs by playing zone — and overall increasing their effort level. Lowry also continued enjoying the benefits of having an athletic centre with good hands and instincts, picking up his 10th assist during the third quarter. After the Raptors extended the lead again, the Cavaliers somehow shrunk it to 74-70 — that is, until Malachi Flynn scored five in a row (including three off of maybe the worst inbounds play of all time), then picked up a steal leading to free throws for Gillespie. Just like that, it was back to 81-70 for the Raptors heading into the fourth.
A couple of poor defensive possessions to start the fourth allowed the Cavs to make it 81-76, but Johnson created some breathing room for Toronto with yet another important three. Afterwards, Fourth-Quarter Flynn, who played the entire frame and led all scorers with 11, found Watanabe on two possessions, one for an open dunk and the other a wide-open corner three. Flynn and Watanabe led the Raptors’ bench in plus-minus at +6 and +5, and both looked encouragingly decisive on offense in addition to bringing their usual high-energy defense.
Lowry, who finished with nine points and 10 dimes, assisted on five of Birch’s seven field goals. Midway though the opening quarter, he rewarded the mobile big for getting out on the break, setting him up for an easy bucket in transition. Later in the half, he gave up an open three-pointer to find the cutting Birch for an open dunk. In the third, Birch set a screen for his point guard, rolled hard to the basket, caught Lowry’s lob pass on the move and banked in a layup to complete the play.
It was the second time that Birch had matched his career-high in scoring since he was waived by the Magic and signed with Toronto less than three weeks ago. In eight games as a Raptor, the 28-year-old is averaging 9.4 points and 6.3 rebounds in nearly 27 minutes per contest after averaging 4.7 points and 4.4 rebounds and 16 minutes in three and a half seasons with Orlando.
He’s made a strong impression on his new team, and a timely one at that. He’ll be an unrestricted free agent this summer.
“I’m trying to get him paid,” Lowry said after Monday’s game. “That’s what I try to do, I try to get my teammates paid and help us win games and make sure everyone around me is successful. I think he is a talented kid and he has this opportunity where he can be successful so why not try to make him be successful?”
If Lowry seems excited by the idea of having a new big to collaborate with, it’s because he is. Since Ibaka and left in free agency last fall, he hasn’t had that trusted pick and roll partner.
Back in training camp, Lowry vowed that newly signed veteran centre would have a career year playing next to him. To say that hasn’t gone according to plan would be an understatement. Given Lowry’s track record of bringing out the best in his teammates, it’s strange that they could never get on the same page, but also speaks to what a poor fit Baynes has been in this system. He would bobble passes from Lowry and the team’s other guards or struggle to finish plays until ultimately falling out of Nick Nurse’s rotation following the additions of Birch and Freddie Gillespie.
In 525 minutes with Lowry and Baynes on the court together this season, the Raptors have been outscored by 66 points. Meanwhile, the team is plus-37 in the 91 minutes that Lowry and Birch have played together.
Like the other big men Lowry has had success with over the years, Birch checks off a few important boxes.
“The willingness to roll and be in the right spots, the willingness to understand that I am looking for them,” said the 35-year-old point guard. “Me and Serge, we had an unbelievable thing between us. And Lucas, and really all the bigs I have played with, I just try to figure them out. They don’t have to figure me out, I figure them out. I am the one that has to make the right play, but the willingness to roll, to pop, to understand where I need them [to be], to screen and to do their job is the most important thing.”
The Raptors. who live and die too often with three-point shooting, went a collecting 8-for-29 from behind the arc, the second fewest threes they made a game this year. Yet, despite not really having an inside scoring threat, they piled up a season-best 66 points in the paint.
It doesn’t make a lot of sense but in this weird season that’s unfolding with home games in Tampa and all the rest of the nonsense that’s gone on, what really has?
Toronto’s Core Four — Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet, OG Anunoby and Pascal Siakam — combined for 62 points and 22 assists but were aided greatly by a couple of unlikely offensive stars. Malachi Flynn had 11 of his 18 points in the fourth quarter and Khem Birch equalled his career high with 14 points.
Five of Birch’s seven field goals came off assists from Lowry.
“He is finding his way and he’s finding his spots,” Lowry said “We’re throwing the ball when the opportunity is there and when we’re in spacing actions and he’s getting dunks and rolls.”
Birch said he learned his first week with the Raptors that Lowry would take care of him. “Kyle told me the first game against the Knicks (April 11) that … the perception of him might be that he likes to score but he’s a pass-first guy. So, ever since he told me that, I know he’s always looking for me.”
With the Raptors missing a couple of key offensive pieces in Chris Boucher and Gary Trent Jr., Nurse said he didn’t expect any one player to pick up the scoring load.
“I think they’ve played in a variety of personnel situations,” he said. “So I think it’s back to even more of the offence creating the shots and not necessarily one-on-one individuals creating the shots. That’s probably what I’m looking for.”
It worked well most of the night as some unlikely players benefitted from good ball movement.
Birch had his season scoring high, Flynn made a couple of big buckets late in the third quarter and early in the fourth, and Yuta Watanabe had a perfect night (4-for-4) from the floor. Even Stanley Johnson, who hadn’t gotten off the bench in two games, made a big three-pointer to stop a Cavaliers run in the fourth quarter.
Still, as they enter a stressful part of the schedule — Monday started a stretch of five games in seven nights — the Raptors need some bodies back.
“I’m hoping the Gary injury doesn’t take too long because I think we need as many as healthy bodies as possible so we can play … a lot of people,” Nurse said. “I guess that’s probably what’ll happen, we’ll play a few games here and somebody, maybe Gary, will come back and then he can give somebody a rest there with his minutes.”
Another emerging trend with the Raptors is that right behind Siakam in the scoring department was OG Anunoby, a guy whose nightly defensive responsibilities include taking on the opposition’s best scorer. Lately, Anunoby has been taking on an increasing percentage of the scoring load, too.
His 20 points, second to Siakam, marked the fourth game in a row he has had 20 or more points in addition to the defensive prowess he brings.
Another source of offence is coming from centre Khem Birch who is the latest in a long list of big men who is quickly discovering just how generous point guard Kyle Lowry can be with his centres.
Lowry had 10 assists in the game, probably half of those to Birch who had 14 points in the game simply running to the basket and hauling in feeds from his point guard.
“I’m trying to get him paid,” Lowry said more or less straight faced. “That’s what I try to do, I try to get my teammates paid and help us win games and make sure everyone around me is successful. I think he is a talented kid and he has this opportunity where he can be successful so why not try to make him be successful.”
Birch arrived in Toronto knowing in all likelihood that his game would expand under head coach Nick Nurse who certainly gave Birch more freedom offensively when he played for him at the international level. He quickly found out he’d have a willing accomplice in Lowry, too.
“Oh yeah, 100%,” Birch said. “ Kyle told me the first game against the Knicks. He said the perception of him might be that he likes to score but he’s a pass first guy. So ever since he told me that I know he’s always looking for me.”
This Week: 17
Last Week: 15
Toronto’s frontcourt is bringing a new style.
The Raptors won a championship with a big, long frontcourt led by Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka. Both are gone, and the void has yet to be filled. Aron Baynes seemed like a savvy addition, but his poor shooting and fruitless defense left Toronto fans longing for something more. Two April additions might be the antidote for this season.
Khem Birch was signed via the buyout market, and G Leaguer Freddie Gillespie is in the middle of his second 10-day contract. Gillespie, who’s 6-foot-9 and 245 pounds, brings length, activity, and contagious energy to Toronto’s bench units. He’s also a wonderful singer and can be trusted to keep secrets. He and Birch are perfect complements. The Raptors are outscoring opponents by 11.6 points per 100 possessions when Birch is on the floor. It comes in only 184 minutes, but that’s an outstanding start considering he joined the team so late in the season.
Birch, much like Gillespie, brings effort on every possession. He’s always in the proper position to make a play on the ball, and he communicates. At 6-foot-9, he isn’t a defensive anchor. But he’s a glue guy, and the Raptors need more of that this season and moving forward.
This Week: 21
Last Week: 21
Toronto won four games in a row before losing to New York on Saturday to get back into the race for the 10th seed in the East. The problem is that Washington has won nine of 10 to surge past both Toronto and Chicago and into the last play-in tournament spot. The next six games will likely determine Toronto’s chances of getting back in the playoffs, as a home game in Tampa, Florida, against Cleveland is followed by another home game against the East-leading Nets. A brutal West Coast trip featuring games in Denver, Utah and against both L.A. teams follows. — Bontemps
This Week: 20
Last Week: 17
25-35, +0.6 net rating
Weekly slate: Win over Nets, Loss at Knicks
Old player to break the Power Rankings curse: Damon Stoudamire
Mighty Mouse was there to save the day! Or at least start the love for the NBA game in Toronto. The Toronto Raptors came into existence in 1995, and Stoudamire was tasked immediately with leading this team. Right out of the box, Stoudamire was putting up 20 and 10 almost nightly. Despite his diminutive size, Stoudamire played like a monster. He only lasted 2.5 years in Toronto before being sent to Portland, but you can’t look at those Raptors throwback uniforms without picture Stoudamire double-clutching a layup attempt before he had just enough room to kiss it high off the glass.
Why are they ranked here? Only two games for the Raptors this week, and they managed to split against two good teams. They’ve played better as of late, but I’m not convinced things are fixed. After the game against Cleveland, they have a brutal five-game stretch that could seal the fate of their season — good or bad.
This Week: 21
Last Week: 22
The Raptors only had two games this week, beating the Nets with a rare, full roster before losing to the red-hot Knicks. Pascal Siakam, OG Anunoby and Fred VanVleet all averaged 22 points or more in the two games, and they combined to go 27 for 34 from 3-point range. Kyle Lowry returned to the lineup after missing 10 of Toronto’s last 11 games, averaging nine points, seven assists and seven rebounds this week.
This Week: 21
Last Week: 22
Pace: 99.8 (14) OffRtg: 112.2 (13) DefRtg: 111.6 (14) NetRtg: +0.6 (14)
Chris Boucher went down with a knee injury in the fourth quarter on Wednesday. But the Raptors had their four best players back together (for the first time since March 29) last week, they played their first two games alongside center Khem Birch, and the new starting lineup outscored the Nets and Knicks by 33 points (scoring 130 on 99 offensive possessions) in 48 total minutes. Fred VanVleet, OG Anunoby and Pascal Siakam combined to shoot 27-for-54 (50%) from 3-point range over the two games.
Alas, the Raptors were outscored by 39 points in their 48 minutes when all five starters weren’t on the floor. The starters did enough against Brooklyn, but they weren’t able to recover from an 18-3 Knicks run spanning the third and fourth quarters on Saturday. Last season, the Raptors had the league’s best bench. This season, their bench ranks 18th, with only the Rockets’ bench having seen a bigger drop in aggregate point differential per 100 possessions.
The Raptors’ visit to the Play-In Club was brief and they’re now two games in the loss column behind the 10th place Wizards. They’ve already won the head-to-head tiebreaker and will have the final meeting at home, but the Raps have the more difficult remaining schedule, with a stretch of five games in seven nights this week.
The roster-churn late in the lockout-shortened season wasn’t just about lottery odds. You always hope that one or two of those players become longer-term pieces. Consider Anderson, a 29-year-old the Raptors scooped out of the G League, where he’d been having a monster season. Anderson’s story has become a more common one with the expansion of the G League — out of the league after two seasons, he spent four years overseas before using the G League as a launching pad back to the show.
The Raptors threw a truly wild amount of minutes at Anderson immediately. No other 10-day has come remotely close to the 269 minutes he played over his first 20 days, or to his 101 points. He got the nod for the rest of the year and then was an easy signing at the minimum that offseason. He still ranks in the top 100 in games, minutes, points and win shares as a Raptor. He also had two very solid seasons for Brooklyn, including a decent defensive series against the Raptors, and stuck around the NBA until 2017.
Gillespie probably needs to stick with the Raptors beyond this year to nudge higher. He should arguably even be below Slater, slotting in as the best 10-day from a single-season lens. Still, this should highlight just how rare it is for someone like Gillespie — a fairly raw, undrafted rookie — to step into a situation and contribute immediately.
Anunoby only played in 39 of Toronto’s first 60 games this season, missing 12 with a left calf issue, six while under NBA health and safety protocols, and three more for rest. Still, he is posting career highs, or close to them, in every major offensive statistical category.
Before Monday’s game against Cleveland, he was averaging 15.4 points, 5.6 rebounds and 2.0 assists per game, all personal bests, while shooting a career-high 40.2 per cent from three-point range on double the attempts from previous years.
Some of it has to do with higher usage, especially since the departure of Norm Powell made him Toronto’s most effective wing in getting into the paint with the ball, but much has to do with him simply being more aggressive. The best part — and most important for the way the Raptors want to play offence — is that he is far more decisive with the ball. He shoots, drives and moves the ball far more quickly this season than he has in the past.
“We want to play on the catch, that means if it’s coming to you, you should be ripping through it and heading to the rim,” Nurse said. “If you’ve got a shot, you catch it and shoot it, and if you feel a swing pass, you get rid of it as soon as it touches your hands.
“We need OG to be that kind of player because I think he’s going to play some wing, some two, some four. He’s going to be coming off screens, he’s going to be setting screens and when he’s setting them he’s going to get hit on the roll, so he’s got to make the next quick decision to go on.
“He’s getting better, (his) skills are getting better.”
There is still much for Anunoby to contribute this year, especially if the Raptors make some late run to a spot in the play-in series to determine playoff spots. But having him progress so much this season and knowing he is locked into a manageable four-year, $72-million (U.S.) contract starting next season settles one long-term question.
“(He’s) a guy that’s been given all this physical ability,” Nurse said. “Go to work — go to work on his skills, work on his shooting, study his shooting, work on his footwork, do the fundamental stuff, do it over and over and over again, have a super high motivation to get back in the gym and, yet, continue to go out there and go, ‘No, no, no, I’m gonna guard him,’ or ‘Coach, put me on him late in the game.’ ”
“He wants to show that he has the capability to be a really, really great defender. He’s on a path to being really, really good.”
How far can the Raptors go in the playoffs if they make it?
This is the most optimistic scenario but here it goes: Toronto makes the play-in, wins two games to claim the eighth spot, and face the No. 1 seeded Philadelphia 76ers in the first round (if the opponent is Brooklyn instead and their guys are healthy, it’s a sweep for the Nets in my opinion). Nick Nurse figures out how to contain Joel Embiid, their starters go on a cold shooting streak throughout the series, and suddenly Toronto is up 2-1 in the series. It’s not inconceivable… and let’s assume the Raptors pull off the upset they would face (at the moment) either the fourth-seeded Knicks or the fifth-seeded Hawks in Round 2, which… you could argue would be easier than their Round 1 matchup. They would have more than a puncher’s chance in that hypothetical series which would send them to the East finals. Do I think that’s happening? Unlikely. But it’s been a strange season and if the Raptors come out of this week still in a position to fight for a play-in spot, let the daydreaming begin.
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