It’s hard not to miss Bismack Biyombo.
Even if you’re not a Toronto Raptors fan, there’s reason to miss the 6-foot-9 defensive warrior that gave the city of Toronto, and the NBA, some sense of hope for a competitive Eastern Conference.
On Sunday afternoon, instead of taking a step forward after last year’s result, the Raptors had become like every other team in the East, accepting defeat at the hands of a Goliath in LeBron James.
In their second go-around against the Cleveland Cavaliers, the Raptors went away from what had made them successful just a year ago when they pushed “the King” to six games. It wasn’t a rash decision that led to their most recent sweep, instead it was the impending result of last year’s free agency when they allowed Biyombo to sign with the Orlando Magic.
In 2017, the Raptors’ dominos started to fall with Biyombo’s departure. They weren’t winning games with their defense any longer, instead they were pushed back miles away from the Cavs as they tried to execute a game plan that’s always been far out of reach.
Relying on hero-ball, and trying to go toe-to-toe offensively by trading buckets with the Cavaliers has become an impossible feat. Since James returned to Cleveland, teams have gone a combined 0-31 in regulation when allowing the reigning champs to score at least 100 points in the playoffs.
Last summer, the Raptors’ management made the mistake of trying to shoot for the stars, instead of immediately positioning themselves to play the same gritty defence that had won them a pair of games in the Eastern Conference Finals.
The Cavaliers took advantage, averaging 116.3 points a game against the Raptors in their 2017 Eastern Conference semifinal matchup. Their hot offence led to a demoralizing sweep that included a 125-point massacre in Game 3, tying a franchise playoff record for the most points allowed in a game.
It became clear. The Raptors didn’t have a defensive force like Biyombo to fall back on any longer against the ever so powerful Cavaliers.
Throughout the 2015-16 season, Toronto was home to a team brimming with confidence as they made their way to their first conference finals just weeks after notching their first 50-win campaign. When it was their turn to face up against LeBron and Co., the Raptors didn’t wither. Instead, behind Biyombo, they grinded their way to a feat that remains their biggest accomplishment to date.
Throughout last year’s series with the Cavaliers, the Raptors gave up a much more reasonable average of 105.8 points a game. Their shining moments came in Games 3 and 4, when Biyombo took over as they limited the Cavaliers to under 100 points in both contests.
In their first matchup in the Air Canada Centre, Biyombo pulled down a franchise-high 26 rebounds, to go along with four blocks. Well five, if you want to count this blown call by the referees:
His emergence in the playoffs wasn’t a fluke. He proved himself on the biggest stage after finishing the 2015-16 season with averages of 2.6 blocks and 13 rebounds per 36 minutes, the third and sixth highest clip in the NBA, respectively.
In Game 4, Biyombo’s defensive prowess also led to a game-high 14 rebounds, a nasty swat at the peak of a Kevin Love dunk attempt, another blow call against “the King”, and some well-deserved MVP chants in what would be his last game in the ACC as a member of the Raptors:
The Raptors would go on to lose the series in six games, but at least it felt like they had a clear sense of direction after suffering a humiliating sweep to the Washington Wizards a season prior.
“We still have some unfinished business,” said Biyombo during last year’s free agency period. “It was so much fun to see the team go from last year to this year making the Eastern Conference finals. Be it would be fun to go even further next season.”
Instead of providing their defensive force with another opportunity, Masai Ujiri decided to put his fate in the Raptors’ offence. There was no “hometown discount”, instead Biyombo walked to Orlando, as the Raptors stumbled back into thinking Jonas Valanciunas— an offensive centre— was the starter they needed, while also signing an out of shape Jared Sullinger in an attempt to put even more points on the board.
The Raptors would eventually realize their mistakes, trading Sullinger to the Suns for some much needed defence in the form of P.J. Tucker, while also starting to use Valanciunas off the bench in the playoffs.
They also acquired Serge Ibaka from the Magic, but his attention to defence wasn’t anywhere near that of Biyombo’s. Instead, his trade to Toronto gave him an opportunity to prove himself offensively as a stretch five before heading into free agency.
It was the opposite of what the Raptors truly needed, knowing that “defence wins championships.”
It’s a saying that holds especially true when going against LeBron James, and becomes even more necessary when the Raptors’ core consists of a pair of guards who both hover around 40 per cent from the field throughout their playoff careers.
To take down LeBron in the East, a team needs to take on the same approach that’s commonly seen in the NFL. You need to construct your roster to be able to contain the best team in your division. If your opponent has a pair of dynamic wide receivers, you better sign a safety tandem that can hold their ground.
Against LeBron, you need to always have a bevy of bodies to put in front of him like DeMarre Carroll, P.J. Tucker, Patrick Patterson and Powell. But if you don’t have a rim protector, you can kiss your playoff hopes goodbye.
It’s a recipe that’s been followed by each team that has taken down “the King”: with the Warriors using Draymond Green and Andrew Bogut in 2015, the Spurs relying on Tim Duncan in 2014, the Mavericks having Tyson Chandler in 2011, the Celtics’ core consisting of Kevin Garnett in 2010, and the Magic being anchored by Dwight Howard to take down LeBron in 2009.
A rim protector is so pivotal because it’s frankly impossible to stop James in one-on-one situations, which is also starting to become the case with Kyrie Irving, too.
So instead of the Raptors being able to press up against the Cavaliers’ ball handlers throughout their 2017 conference semifinal, with the insurance of a rim protector behind them, other players were forced to leave their man to come and help.
If you’ve watched LeBron long enough, you know that’s a recipe for disaster, since it creates open looks for the bevy of 3-point shooters that have surrounded him since his days in Miami.
The Raptors gave up 54 wide-open looks to the Cavaliers in these playoffs (the NBA categorizes an ‘open look’ as a shot with the nearest defender being at least 6-feet away). The Cavaliers converted on 61.1 per cent of those looks, and a terrifying 59.5 per cent of their 37 wide-open looks from 3-point distance.
Without a defensive force, the Raptors were also out-rebounded 171-143 throughout their 2017 series against the Cavs, while also only registering 16 blocks. It’s a low number considering Biyombo had 11 blocks all to himself in last year’s Eastern Conference Finals.
Looking at the past is a dangerous road teams should be wary of travelling, but it’s hard to imagine the Raptors not feeling some sort of regret, especially where they’re currently headed. Their upcoming summer is filled with tough decisions, with Lowry, Ibaka, Tucker, and Patterson all facing free agency.
With two of those players capable of attracting max offers, money is bound to become an issue, something that didn’t seem to bother last post-season’s MVP.
“At the end of the day it’s for fun, not money,” said Biyombo. “It’s not always about money. Money is great, but at the same time I ask ‘how much fun am I going to have? The city is great, the team is great, and we’re winning.”
Little did Biyombo know, that aura around the Raptors would change with his departure.