The tank never felt so good.
Meanwhile, Boucher carried the Raptors’ offence early on, as both Trent and Malachi Flynn clanked midrange shots. Boucher’s optimal role is still as an energy player, but he is capable of some expansion. He handled the ball more than on most nights, finding Birch in the corner for a 3-pointer on one play, and stepping into long 2 when the defence dropped back on another. He even dusted Aleksej Pokusevski before hitting a 3.
Birch, whose skill set is the most limited of the three players, is also showing some growth since coming over to the Raptors. He thanked Orlando for taking a chance on him, but said he felt like he was “in a box with the Magic” as his time there wound down. His advancement is more subtle: a dribble, providing the threat of a drive, to get the hockey assist the first basket of the game, or catching the ball as the roller and tossing a perfect pass to the corner. He is mostly in Toronto to rebound, defend and finish around the bucket, but he’s proving a bit more well-rounded than just that.
“Oh man, it’s historic,” Birch said of the night. “It’s something I can tell my kids in the future. Hopefully, there’ll be more in the future. But right now (it) is extraordinary.”
The Raptors were without four-fifths of their starting lineup on Sunday. Kyle Lowry missed his fourth straight game because of “rest,” having played only one of the eight games prior because of a toe infection. Raptors coach Nick Nurse has mentioned Lowry’s toe infection as something they were monitoring the entire week, but rest was the official reason. OG Anunoby, whose reason for missing Friday’s game changed from rest to knee swelling, sat out Sunday because of the left calf injury he suffered earlier in the season. Fred VanVleet missed six games because of a hip injury, the next game to serve a suspension, returned on Friday to play 23 minutes, and then sat on Sunday, with Nurse saying he wasn’t 100 percent Friday, and his hip was sore. (Never mind that he was taken off the injury report to serve the suspension.) Pascal Siakam, who rested on Friday, sat out Sunday with a left shoulder injury. How did he injure it?
“I don’t know. I didn’t ask him,” Nurse said.
Because obviously, a coach wouldn’t check in with one of his stars about an injury that was causing him to miss time in normal circumstances.
Two — Finish: The Raptors held OKC scoreless for a four-minute stretch, which earned them a five-point lead in the final minute. But the Thunder made it a one-possession game on an and-one drive by Lu Dort, and the Raptors looked to be in trouble after burning their last timeout after a failed inbound. On the ensuing play, the Raptors inbounded to Khem Birch, who quickly flipped it to Gary Trent Jr. with Dort pestering him. Birch then set a crushing screen to pop Trent Jr. open, he got downhill and drew the help, and Trent Jr. kicked it to Chris Boucher who swished the three and clinched the win. In a season where so many bounces have gone against the Raptors, it was a relief to see them execute and finish strong for once.
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.
Birch is just so dazzlingly competent. And after calling out Orlando’s development staff for missing the mark with his growth in recent years, you can see Birch testing the bounds of his largely untapped skillset with the Raptors already. We know the defense is there. He’s as sound as they come, capable of hanging with smaller ball-handlers in a pinch on the perimeter, while offering up steady rim protection when perched near the basket. He’s also got that heavy-hand syndrome that seems to afflict every member of the Raptors. Opposing slashers and bigs alike are liable to get the ball slapped loose by Birch if they’re not attentive in close quarters. Offensively, he looks like a kid learning about the magic of walking after only ever knowing the art of the crawl. Birch slung a pair of assists on Sunday, along with a couple other heads up dishes either on the dive or after snaring offensive rebounds. After the Thunder game, Birch is now just two made threes away from matching his career total with the Magic: four. If Birch is auditioning for a spot on next year’s team, I’m guessing he’s already earned a callback.
Birch’s second-unit pick-and-roll partner continues to stake his claim to a significant role on next year’s Raptors, too. Making his sixth start of the season as the only point guard available to Nurse on Sunday, Flynn put together one of his tidier efforts of the season, a 15-7-5 line on 6-of-14 from the field, 3-of-5 from deep. Two-point efficiency remains a bit of a sore spot for Flynn, but a handful of deft finishes against OKC suggest that hurdle shouldn’t be all that challenging for him to clear with more time and reps. His ball security continues to be well beyond rookie-grade; he now boasts 23 assists to just two turnovers in the last four games, all of which have seen him log more than 30 minutes of action. Pair Flynn’s calm organization with the flamethrower that a cooking Gary Trent Jr. can be (he had 23 on an inefficient 9-of-25, but was 5-of-10 on threes), and Boucher’s work as a power forward next to a stable center, and Toronto’s bench of the near future looks to be in good and very exciting hands, especially if Paul Watson Jr., Watanabe and Freddie Gillespie are also involved. The latter two combined for 20 points on 70% shooting against the Thunder, with Watanabe closing in place of Watson, who started but struggled on the heels of his career-high 30-point effort on Friday. In fairness, the issue appeared to be fatigue, which you might expect after 11 missed games in the COVID protocols.
With the win, the Raptors keep pace with the Wizards and Bulls in the race for the 10-seed, all the while leaving the most taxing stretch of their schedule behind them. With three-straight wins now in the bank, and the possible returns of their big four on the horizon with just two games on the schedule this week, the final 14 games, like it or not, are sure to be all about the play-in. And all of a sudden, the Raptors have themselves a roster deep enough to make the push they’ve been flirting with all season long.
By now, it’s become abundantly clear that Toronto has shifted its focus to something other than winning in the short term. Most understand what they’re doing and why they’re doing it, but that doesn’t mean everybody has to agree with it or feel good about it. You can include the head coach and his players in that group, which should continue to make for an awkward working environment over this final month of the season.
The front office would prefer not to win games. They’re content to play it safe with the vets, pepper the young guys with reps and opportunities to develop, and collect lottery balls along the way.
The guys on the court are playing for something different, though, and they’re not going to lie down. With Sunday’s 112-106 victory over Oklahoma City, the Raptors have now won three games in a row. Despite being 10 games under .500 with 14 contests left, they’re three percentage points ahead of Chicago and Washington, who both have a couple games in hand, for 10th place in the East and the final spot in the play-in tournament.
With two fewer games and a tougher remaining schedule than either the Bulls or Wizards, their path to the play-in, and potentially the playoffs, is anything but easy. But they aren’t out of it either, in spite of the team’s intentions. The reality, and the irony within it, is that they can continue to sit guys out, and they likely will, but somebody has to play and those guys have their own agendas.
For the most part, they’re playing for their next contract, their next job, and they couldn’t care less what pick the Raptors have in a few months from now. Paul Watson, whose deal isn’t guaranteed for 2021-22, scored a career-high 30 points in the win over Orlando. Yuta Watanabe, who’s on a two-way contract and will be a restricted free agent in the summer, also had a personal-best with 21 points in that game. Chris Boucher went off for 31 points and hit the dagger, a three-pointer with 11 seconds to go, against the Thunder. The Raptors will almost certainly pick up his option for next season, but as of now, his future is also out of his hands.
Even the players that have guaranteed deals for next season, they’re competitors, they want to be on the court, not resting on the bench.
An exciting game, indeed. No matter which regulars didn’t play or how much the game dragged at moments, it was competitive and close and fun. Neither team led by more than 12 points — Toronto’s six-point edge at the buzzer was its largest lead of the night — and the fourth quarter featured six lead changes and three ties.
And it was finally settled when Birch screened off Dort to give Trent enough space to get into the paint and kick the ball to Boucher in front of the Thunder bench. Boucher’s sixth three-pointer of the night put the Raptors up by six with about 10 seconds left.
“I’m happy they didn’t call that flop,” Birch said. “I swear I barely even touched him, that’s how I felt.”
The win kept the Raptors in touch for a spot in the play-in portion of the NBA playoffs. The last time they won three straight was part of a four-game streak in mid-February.
Once again missing a huge portion of their offence — Fred VanVleet, Kyle Lowry, OG Anunoby and Pascal Siakam all out — the only way for to hang around was to play unselfishly and hope someone got hot.
“I think that is the way, in my ideal offensive world, that it operates,” coach Nick Nurse said before the game. “That there’s a whole bunch of guys in double figures and a couple guys, the ball’s finding them and (they’re) in a groove and in a rhythm and having a big night.”
The Thunder had control of the game in the early going but a greater defensive focus in the second half on the part of the Raptors steadily pulled the Thunder back allowing Toronto to get the lead into the final moments of the third quarter. As good as the Montreal contingent was, it was the play of Malachi Flynn in the final half of the final quarter along with Boucher’s scoring that was the difference in this game.
Raptors head coach Nick Nurse mentioned Flynn as a guy he was going to be watching closely through the final portion of the schedule as the Raptors first-round pick gets tons of playing time to develop his game.
Flynn rose to the occasion down the stretch, finding the right shooters and coming up big on the defensive end as well, as Toronto finished up strong.
Boucher, who got off to that stellar start had a similar finish with 10 points in the final two minutes as Toronto pulled away from a game but overmatched Thunder team.
Boucher finished with 31 points, two more than Dort who looked like he had won the battle of Montreal with two free throws he earned going hard to the basket against, who else, but Boucher in the final minute. Instead Boucher hit a three-pointer with just 10 seconds remaining to grab the Montreal honours.
“I really wanted to kinda put Montreal on the map a little bit, just to make people realize we have talent in Montreal,” Boucher said. “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.”
Birch had a huge role in that deciding three-pointer as he flattened Dort with a screen allowing Trent Jr. to get the ball to a wide open Boucher.
“I would like to play when I’m able to, but I understand the other side of things,” VanVleet said Saturday, when he was asked about the possibility of sitting out down the stretch. “It’s just one of those things where we’ve gotta come together as a team and as an organization, and have that open line of communication. But yeah, I’m open to everything. Doesn’t necessarily mean I agree with it or believe in it, but I’m certainly not gonna cause any disruption. So that’s a tough question to answer publicly, for sure. I think that I’m on board with this franchise in whatever direction that we’re going.”
Here’s the thing, though. Even if the direction is clear — even if the Raptors seem to be doing their best to be something less than their best — the desired destination is far from guaranteed. For all those key absences of late — and we’re not even counting Gary Trent Jr., the pleasant surprise of a trade deadline acquisition who missed the past two games with right ankle soreness — the Raptors have actually been moving up in the standings. They entered Saturday holding a share of the 10th and final play-in seed along with the Chicago Bulls, a position that coincides with only the 10th-best odds in the June 22 draft lottery. Which goes to show you: Tanking, even if it can look like a team is taking a credible shot at it, is easier said than done.
If the goal is to reside nearer to the basement, here’s one of Toronto’s chief problems. When you’re running a franchise that’s bent of procuring a collection of next-generation talent that’s young and hungry, and if those next-gen performers are going to get their chance to shine while the veterans sit, sinking deeper in the NBA standings is more difficult than it sounds. Given the megamillions available in today’s NBA, after all, every opportunity for playing time granted to every NBA hopeful is a chance to chart a potentially lucrative future.
Even if these games can seem relatively insignificant to a fan base spoiled by a 2019 run to a championship, these are big moments for bottom-of-the-roster players suddenly thrust into more prominent roles.