Raptors look like different team with Birch, Gillespie's added size

Gary Trent Jr. has made an immediate impact since joining the Raptors both on and off the court. The third year pro is a restricted free-agent at seasons end but can see a promising future for himself in Toronto.

Who would have thought the Toronto Raptors could screw up their centre rotation this badly twice in one season?

We’re only half kidding here.

The first time was when Raptors president Masai Ujiri and general manager Bobby Webster failed to re-sign incumbent big men Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol in free agency.

Lost was a veteran tandem that had 238 playoff games on their combined resumes and offered the coaching staff a rare blend of skills both on offence and defence.

Toronto broke training camp hoping that contributions from journeymen Aron Baynes, Alex Len and still unproven Chris Boucher would fill the gap.

Were they ever wrong.

Len was waived after appearing in just seven games. Baynes eventually proved to be nearly unplayable, no matter how willing he was to take charges and wrestle for position in the paint. As a pick-and-roll partner he couldn’t finish and as a pick-and-pop option he couldn’t shoot, and he lacked the length or quickness to defend the rim at the other end.

Nurse experimented with playing without a centre at all -- giving those minutes to Pascal Siakam and OG Anunoby in small-ball lineups -- and also played the slender Boucher enough minutes against other bigs to realize that for all his attributes at six-foot-10 and just 200 pounds, he would only ever get out-muscled on the defensive glass.

There are all kinds of reasons the Raptors have been so different from the team that posted the second-best regular-season record in the NBA a year ago, from being relocated two weeks before the season started to dealing with a steady drip of injuries to a full-blown COVID-19 outbreak that precipitated them going a potentially season-crushing 1-13 in March, but their lack of size and ability in the middle has been the most glaring from a personnel point of view.

By the time the trade deadline passed on March 25 and as the losses kept mounting, the franchise seemed resigned to a slide down the standings and take the improved draft lottery odds that came with it. The hope was that with a top-five pick in what appears to be a loaded draft, plus some off-season adjustments, they would start a new playoff streak next season when (in theory) life got back to normal.

But then the Raptors messed things up again.

Rather than let things be, by playing Baynes big minutes, allowing Boucher to be over-matched and letting the losses accumulate, the Raptors acquired Montreal’s Khem Birch from the Orlando Magic, giving them a head start on integrating the defensive-minded pending free agent into their program as a back-up next season. And then they brought in Freddie Gillespie on a pair of 10-day contracts after the late-blooming 23-year-old showed well in the G-League bubble.

Four games ago Nurse decided he would platoon them, with Birch starting and Gillespie coming off the bench, giving the Raptors 48 minutes from a pair of mobile bigs that can make plays at the rim on both ends. It’s not Hakeem Olajuwon in his prime here -- Birch and Gillespie are averaging 14.9 points, 10.2 rebounds and 2.4 blocks in their combined 43 minutes -- but it’s more than what Toronto was getting before.

The Raptors have started winning, and their draft lottery hopes are fading.

“I think it’s just fun to have bigs,” said Raptors assistant coach Adrian Griffin, perhaps unintentionally hurting Baynes’ feelings. “The last time we really had bigs was when we had Marc and Serge so having those two guys out there -- as a defensive-minded coach -- I’m licking my chops.”

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.”

But in the meantime, just doing the basics will keep Gillespie on the floor and combined with Birch -- a four-year veteran -- they give the Raptors an element they went most of the season without. Toronto isn’t looking for scoring or shooting necessarily. They need bodies that occupy opponents at the rim at both ends, and to the detriment of their draft prospects, they may have found just that.

“I think that’s a big thing coaches preach on. Look, you may not get the ball. There is no assist for it, but it shows up in the win column and if that happens then we all win,” said Gillespie of his willingness to embrace the dirty work. “It works out for all of us. That’s one thing I am looking at and the more I can do that, the more it helps the team and the more games you win. That’s ultimately what they bring us all here to do.”

It makes you wonder what the Raptors season might have looked like if they had serviceable big men on the roster from the outset. Or if they had just played the rest of the year without them.

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