As Raptors’ playoff possibilities dwindle, Birch continues to run with opporunity

Even when the Toronto Raptors had been good, Nick Nurse appreciated to take a look at the common season as a possibility to experiment.

Perhaps not fairly to the extent that Kawhi Leonard did, when he famously referred to the video games earlier than the playoffs begin as “82 practices”, however Nurse was at all times keen to make use of the lengthy regular-season grind as an opportunity to seek out one thing totally different in a lineup, tactic or participant that would repay when the video games depend.

However with the variety of video games left within the 2020-21 season now within the single digits and the draft lottery possible beckoning, the following video games that depend won’t come till subsequent season.

So it’s time to spark up the Bunsen Burner, swirl some potions across the check tubes and see what occurs.

Which is why on Saturday morning because the Raptors had been getting ready to play the Utah Jazz, the NBA’s finest staff for many of the common season thus far, Nurse sidled as much as Khem Birch, the Raptors not too long ago acquired centre, and requested him how he felt about dealing with the ball on the quick break.

It wasn’t actually an invite for Birch to make just like the second coming of Magic Johnson operating the break for the Showtime Lakers, nevertheless it was a message: strive some issues; stretch a bit bit.

Birch has already expanded his recreation and really possible his worth in simply 10 video games with Toronto since Orlando purchased out the 28-year-old as a part of their youth motion. He’d solely taken two three-pointers over the previous three years in Orlando, however earlier than the ball went up in opposition to the Jazz he was already he’s 5-of-12 from deep, organising comfortably within the nook and looking out like he’s taken them his entire profession.

“It is stuff I’ve labored on however I’ve by no means carried out it into my recreation,” mentioned Birch. “However the truth that the teaching employees right here permits me to do this sort of stuff … it’s like beginning over once more. … I did not anticipate this a lot freedom. Actually, I simply thought I used to be simply going to guard the rim, get rebounds and every little thing else. I wasn’t anticipating this type of freedom now. I used to be sort of anticipating it possibly subsequent season or one thing like that, however not proper now.”

However the future is right here. Whether or not the Raptors make the playoffs or not they’re enjoying for subsequent season already, so hey Khem Birch, whaddya received?

With two minutes gone within the second quarter Nurse received an eyeful: there was Birch snagging a defensive rebound, pushing the ball up the court docket and delivering a well timed move to a hard-running Yuta Watanabe for a layup.

It’s wasn’t fairly – Birch had a little bit of a pace wobble at mid-court – however the job was performed.

It’s been Birch’s story since he joined the Raptors. With the Magic he was a depth centre relied on to defend and in any other case keep out of the way in which. He was good at it, however wished extra. He felt just like the Magic had him in a field.

With the Raptors, he’s damaged out. In Orlando, his career-high was 13 factors and he’d managed it twice. With Toronto, he’s scored 13 or extra factors in seven straight video games. Within the Raptors 106-102 loss to the Jazz he completed with 17 factors, 10 rebounds, six assists and two steals – greater than holding his personal in opposition to all-NBA Jazz defender Rudy Gobert. The assists had been a career-high and it marked the fifth straight recreation Birch has topped what his previous career-best scoring mark.

“We’re unlocking him a bit bit, giving him extra freedom and he is getting inventive on the market,” mentioned Raptors guard Fred VanVleet, who led all scorers with 30 factors. “However he is been enjoying his butt off, he is been nice for us. He’s been a terrific addition. Scoring the ball, making reads, his passing has impressed me, his passing and reads have impressed me. He is been a terrific teammate. He is been vocal. You’ll be able to inform he desires to be right here and that is a very powerful half. And we are able to undoubtedly use him going ahead.”

The Raptors as a bunch weren’t fairly as lucky in a recreation that they’d a strong grasp on for many of the night time even whereas enjoying with out Kyle Lowry (relaxation); Chris Boucher (knee) and Gary Trent Jr. (bruised leg).

It was the Raptors’ third straight loss and dropped them to 26-38 and saved them three video games behind the Washington Wizards for tenth place and the ultimate spot within the play-in match with solely eight video games left to play.

It doesn’t get simpler as Toronto heads to Los Angeles the place they’ll face the Lakers with LeBron James and Anthony Davis again within the lineup earlier than closing off their highway journey with a recreation in opposition to the red-hot Los Angeles Clippers on Tuesday.

The Raptors caught a break in that the Jazz had been with out their beginning backcourt of Donovan Mitchell (ankle) and Mike Conley (hamstring) they usually took benefit because the Raptors had been aggressive all through the sport and in management for many of it.

They began effectively and led 33-29 on the finish of the primary quarter and took a 62-56 lead into the half and had been up 89-85 to start out the fourth quarter earlier than they bumped into the scoring droughts which have plagued all of them season because the Jazz used a 13-2 run early within the fourth quarter to show a six-point gap right into a five-point lead with 5:54 to play. A lay-up by Malachi Flynn – beginning instead of Lowry –round Gobert appeared to snap the dry spell however that wasn’t the case.

The Raptors held the Jazz to simply 21 factors within the fourth quarter however Toronto may solely handle 13 of their very own. They had been 4-of-21 from the ground within the remaining quarter when VanVleet drained a jumper with 42 seconds – the Raptors first basket since Flynn’s with 4:04 to play. That minimize Utah’s result in two, however a Gobert put again instantly pushed the lead again to 2 possessions and Toronto by no means received a shot with an opportunity to win.

“[It’s] onerous to really feel happy proper now, however I’m – I imply they performed their hearts out,” mentioned Nurse. “They performed very effectively. There are a number of nice numbers there. A excessive assist- low turnover recreation [28-10]. We did a number of actually good issues. Some good particular person performances and so on. Pay attention, you go in on the highway and also you play in opposition to among the best groups within the league – I do know they’re lacking a few guys however so are we – and also you give them every little thing you need. We had our possibilities there to win that recreation tonight. I’m not pissed off. With the way in which they’re enjoying, it’s simply gotta take what comes right here and check out to determine easy methods to rev it up a bit extra within the fourth.”

However even because the Raptors run out of gasoline down the stretch, Birch is taking the prospect he’s been given to point out he’s a extra well-rounded participant than beforehand thought and he’s operating (the ground) with it.

“I noticed him within the recreation two nights in the past that he was a bit hesitant [handling the ball in the open floor] so I simply requested him about it, I requested him if he may convey it and he mentioned, ‘yeah, I can try this.’ I mentioned ‘do it’ and he did it just a few occasions tonight, seemed good,” mentioned Nurse. “He’s fairly athletic, fairly quick, I believed he did job with that. He had a terrific, nice, nice recreation tonight in opposition to what, an all-NBA centre? He seemed actually good tonight.

“He’s enjoying very well. I kinda like how he strikes, I like his angle, I like some issues that he does and clearly he’s performed very effectively nearly each recreation since we’ve had him.”

There’s a sensible facet to it: the Raptors wish to play quick and the quickest method to transition from defence to offence is to push the ball out of site visitors and both transfer it to the following open participant or take all of it the way in which.

However it’s the broader philosophical level that basically issues.

The Raptors and Nurse need their roster to be stuffed with gamers who can do all types of issues that expert gamers do, as in comparison with placing borders round them based mostly on their dimension, present-day abilities or preconceived positions.

So why not discover out if Khem Birch had led a quick break? Why not see if he can unfold the ground along with his taking pictures?

You simply may be the fortunate staff that finds out the can. That’s a win for all involved.

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