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Josh Lewenberg

TSN Raptors Reporter


TORONTO – With Brooklyn making one final push late in what turned out to be a 114-103 win for Toronto on Wednesday, Pascal Siakam caught the ball at the logo and sized up his defender, Nets forward Joe Harris.

After taking some time off the clock, Siakam made his move. He went left, blew by Harris and drew the attention of the other four Nets defenders as he drove into the lane. DeAndre Jordan left his man, Khem Birch, to slide over and help.

Siakam did most of the heavy lifting on the play, but the team and its fans won’t take Birch’s role in making it happen for granted, not after everything they’ve seen this season. As Birch snuck in along the baseline, Siakam threw a quick pass over the outstretched arms of the 6-foot-11 Jordan and found the Raptors centre for the two-handed slam-dunk. On the next possession, he knocked down a three-pointer from the corner, assisted by Kyle Lowry.

In less than two weeks with Toronto, Birch has already earned the trust of his teammates and coaches. For Siakam or Lowry to throw him the ball with the game on the line, or for Nick Nurse to call his number in that situation, speaks to how well he’s fit in. But it also speaks to how low the bar had been set prior to his arrival.

For years, the Raptors reaped the benefits of having high-end talent and depth in the frontcourt. But after losing Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol in free agency and failing to fill that void during the off-season, they’ve been in desperate need of competent and consistent play at the centre position for the bulk of the campaign.

It hasn’t taken long for Birch and Freddie Gillespie, who is on his second 10-day contract with the team, to make their mark.

In Wednesday’s win over Brooklyn, Toronto’s new centre tandem split the position evenly, with Birch starting and finishing the game and Gillespie bringing energy off the bench. It was the team’s 59th game of the season and the first time that Nurse has been able to have a traditional big man on the court for all 48 minutes.

“They manned the position very well,” the Raptors head coach said afterwards.

With the exception of Gillespie’s five blocks, their numbers won’t jump out at you. Birch finished with eight points and seven rebounds, while Gillespie had four and five, respectively. However, they continue to give Nurse exactly what he’s been searching for at the position; size, toughness, physicality and relentless effort, in addition to a few other things he probably didn’t expect to get.

Birch’s late game three-pointer was his third on six attempts in just six contests as a Raptor. He went 4-for-23 from beyond the arc in three and a half seasons with the Orlando Magic. He’s also shown the ability to make plays out of the low block. Working the pick and roll with Lowry midway through the third quarter, Birch caught the ball on the move and fired a pass to OG Anunoby in the corner for a three. On the next possession, Birch set up Siakam for three in the opposite corner, this time with an impressive two-handed, cross court assist.

Like Birch, Gillespie is listed at 6-foot-9 but his motor, physical strength and nose for the ball more than make up for any size disadvantage he might have against bigger fives.

“It’s definitely a good fit,” said the 23-year-old Gillespie. “I think the Raptors looked at my skill set and said that’s something we could use. When a team brings you in clearly you offer something that they need.”

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

It’s hard to quantify their impact, but we can try. Since Gillespie signed his first 10-day contract, the Raptors have won five of seven games. They’re 4-2 with Birch in the lineup. Prior to April 10th, Gillespie’s debut with the club, they were dead last in the NBA in rebounding and had been bested on the boards in 39 of 52 games. Since then, they’ve out-rebounded five of their seven opponents and are tied for 13th on the glass over that span.

All of this begs the question, why did they wait so long to address their most glaring need? Gillespie and Birch aren’t exactly Rudy Gobert and Nikola Jokic. The Raptors didn’t have to trade away multiple first-round picks for Nikola Vucevic or move Norman Powell and others to match Andre Drummond’s salary in order to upgrade at the position. Gillespie, a G League standout, would have been available to them all year. Birch, who was waived by Orlando after the trade deadline, wouldn’t have cost more than a future second-round pick to acquire sooner.

Instead, they opted to leave multiple roster spots open for as long as the league’s collective bargaining agreement would allow before making a move. After waiving Alex Len less than a month into the campaign, the Raptors went most of the season with only one traditional centre in uniform, the disappointing Aron Baynes, who has fallen out of the rotation entirely since Gillespie and Birch arrived.

Without the benefit of hindsight, the Baynes signing made plenty of sense at the time. Once Ibaka and Gasol were off the board, the 34-year-old was widely considered to be the best big left on the market. He was never going to fill their shoes, but the expectation was that he would come in and be serviceable, like he had been for Phoenix and Boston. The real mistake was waiting until April to adjust.

Now, after months of force-feeding Baynes minutes or playing small by necessity, Nurse finally has a pair of big men he can trust and it’s helped stabilize the rotation. Chris Boucher no longer has to play out of position at the five, where he’s often physically overmatched. Siakam and Anunoby can also go back to their natural positions.

There’s a couple of ways of looking at it. Would the season have played out differently if Birch and Gillespie were around since the outset? Or, would they have been judged differently and appreciated less if they were coming in to replace Ibaka and Gasol instead of Baynes and Len?

They can’t worry about what could have been, though. There’s far too much at stake now. Gillespie’s second 10-day contract will expire next Wednesday, at which point he’ll almost certainly get a new deal for the rest of the season, perhaps with a non-guaranteed team option for next year. Birch will be a free agent in the summer.

Regardless of how these final games play out, the Raptors are looking to see who could factor into their long-term plans and, so far, Birch and Gillespie have both aced their auditions. We don’t know what would’ve happened if they were around to open this season, but it’s not hard to see both of them sticking with the team for the start of next season.

“It’s definitely a blessing,” said Gillespie. “Its not [an opportunity that] every player gets. I’m excited about how I can contribute. I think at this level there’s always pressure, but it’s fun. It’s really fun, honestly. I’m having a blast. Everyone gets a little nervous, everyone has their moments of self-doubt and all those things, but all the preparation I’ve put in and all the steps I took to get here have prepared me for this opportunity.”