Even with sights set on next season, Raptors manage Montreal spectacle

Toronto Raptors' Khem Birch (24) celebrates with Chris Boucher (25) and Yuta Watanabe (18) after Boucher scored a three-point basket late in the fourth quarter of a basketball game against the Oklahoma City Thunder, Sunday, April 18, 2021, in St. Petersburg, Fla. (AP Photo/Steve Nesius)

Three players from one city came together on one play in the span of a few seconds.

One team lost, the other won.

But for the city of Montreal? Which has history and talent but not the profile that Toronto does in the great Canadian basketball explosion?

There were no winners or losers. Nothing but love and pride.

There was Khem Birch of the Toronto Raptors stepping into Luguentz Dort of the Oklahoma City Thunder with a sturdy screen that sent the rising Thunder star to the floor with the seconds ticking down in what had been a highly entertaining and competitive game between two teams that would be as happy to improve their draft position than win at this stage of the season.

Birch’s screen – “I’m glad they didn’t call that flop, I barely touched him,” he claimed — shook the Raptors Gary Trent Jr. free of the tenacious Dort just long enough for him to snake into the paint, draw out the defence and pitch it out to Chris Boucher, a Montrealer seven years Dort’s senior, but a graduate of the same pick-up in North Montreal.

With just over 10 seconds on the clock, Boucher wasn’t going to miss. He had barely missed all night. His corner three was his sixth of the game – a new career-high – and iced a 112-106 win for the Raptors that was as fulfilling a celebration of Montreal’s place in the NBA and the Canadian game as a whole as could be imagined.

Boucher finished with 31 points and 12 rebounds on 10-of-16 shooting while grabbing 12 rebounds, including six on the offensive glass. That was barely enough to keep up with Dort who exploded for 21 points in the first quarter by going 7-of-7 from the floor on his way to 29 points for the game on 9-of-15 shooting — 5-of-8 from three — while showing his trademark defensive chops by hounding Trent Jr. into a 9-of-25 shooting night.

Birch’s numbers didn’t jump off the boxscore the same way, but he had seven points and six rebounds to go along with three assists, a block and a steal while the Raptors were plus-12 in his 29 minutes of floor time.

It was all in the service of the Raptors’ third straight win, even as they sit out large swaths of their starting lineup for injuries and rest – four of their five presumptive starters were sidelined against the Thunder. Yet against all logic, the Raptors are now 24-34 and percentage points behind the Chicago Bulls in the race for 10th place and the final spot in the play-in tournament.

If Canadians often feel under-represented and overlooked as a group in the basketball universe, Montreal feels it even more acutely, as what they have to offer is often overshadowed within Canada. It’s not a coincidence that all three of Birch, Boucher and Dort were undrafted coming into the NBA, as was long-time veteran Joel Anthony, who is in some ways the forefather of the modern scene in Montreal.

Having three of Montreal’s finest start the same game was a validation for generations of its players, known and unknown.

Former national team star and 1988 Olympian Dwight Walston – who represents the city’s roots – put the feelings out there for all to see:

The feelings were there on the floor, too.

“For me, it was more about Montreal. I really wanted to kinda put Montreal on the map a little bit, just to make people realize we have talent in Montreal,” said Boucher, who has had a breakout season at age 28. “Honestly, you’re only seeing three guys but I know a lot of guys that are from Montreal that actually are really talented, they just don’t get the chance to leave the country. That’s what was exciting for me, that all three guys really played well and it was a really exciting game just to showcase what we’ve got.”

Dort is opening eyes all on his own. The Thunder have largely sacrificed this season to player development. They have traded veteran players for draft picks obsessively and shut down their last remaining veteran, five-time all-star Al Horford, after the trade deadline, pledging to trade him in the off-season. Budding Canadian star Shai Gilgeous-Alexander may not play again this season as the Thunder take an exceedingly cautious approach to his plantar fasciitis.

The Thunder – 20-37 – have now lost 10 straight games and 13 of their past 14 in a determined race to the bottom.

But Dort’s star is rising. He carved out a niche for himself with his suffocating on-ball defence, but the six-foot-four block of granite has now scored 29, 26 and 42 points in his last three starts while going 15-of-27 from three and getting to the free-throw line 23 times.

A year ago, he was on the fringes of national-team consideration, but he’s now pushing to join Birch and Boucher on any presumptive roster that Raptors head coach – and men’s national team head coach – Nick Nurse might want to put together.

How far has Dort come from the G-League call-up who averaged seven points a game on 39 per cent shooting last season?

“Leaps and bounds. How about that for a measurement,” said Nurse. “He’s becoming a, like, force, like not just a roster player, he’s becoming a force out there. The way he can put his shoulder down and get to the rim and the way he’s starting to shoot the ball and the way he can really change the game defensively … there’s not a whole lot of guys in the league that can do that. I mean there are some but he is one of them … just seeing it live was a little bit different. I mean I think he’s got incredible demeanour. There’s no nonsense and he really does three facets of the game that are really critical. The driving, the shooting and the defending is pretty good.”

Dort, 21, was thrilled to be on the floor with his Montreal elders and says he’s determined to ‘try out’ for the national team and bring more shine to his city.

(Memo to Dort: he’s not getting cut.)

“It was cool to see three Montreal guys on the court just because Montreal is still an underdog city and we have so much talent there and there’s so many kids coming up and I feel like there’s gonna be way more NBA players from Montreal,” Dort said. “So me, Khem and Chris we all have different backgrounds and we’re all from Montreal but we all went to different places, we all had different routes so it’s not gonna be easy to get to this point and to this level but I know a lot of kids are gonna do it. They’ve just gotta work hard.”

It’s a quality Birch, Boucher and Dort share. No one makes it to the NBA as an undrafted player without being determined to do the work.

And now that they’re in the league they are each determined to grow their games. Not only was Sunday’s game a signpost moment for Montreal basketball, it was an example of how each of them are determined to create more of them for themselves and their community.

Birch has been pigeon-holed as a rim defender and lob threat for much of his career, but took 200 hundred threes after practice Saturday and another 100 before the game Sunday. He knocked down the first open three he had as part of a wild first quarter where the three Montrealers combined for 41 points out of the gate.

Birch wants more for himself and is determined to use his opportunity with the Raptors to make it happen.

Boucher has been an undersized five for his entire career, but after getting pushed around too often defensively while giving up 60 or more pounds in matchups with opposing bigs, Toronto has decided he has to play forward and Boucher is showing his offensive skills – the ability to put the ball on the floor, as an example — are growing into the task.

Similarly, Dort is in the midst of changing the perception of him as a defender who scored mostly by accident into that of an emerging two-way threat.

Not only does having three Montrealers start the same NBA game signal to the next generation of players that it’s okay to dream in both of Canada’s official languages, the way they all played on such a special stage proved that it’s okay to dream big.

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