You could hardly be blamed for finding the persistent references to Montreal’s burgeoning basketball scene and its history of producing guys Leo Rautins is friends with a little odious on Sunday night. This happens on the broadcast for Canada’s lone NBA team from time-to-time, and it can certainly get exhausting to hear the same rehashed talking points about the growth of the game north of the border that we were hearing in like 2011.
On a night like Sunday, though, with the meaning of this season having been all but sapped, Toronto down its four best players, and a G-League team in NBA clothes rolling through town, it was pretty damn fun to latch onto Montreal’s finest trio as the main point of interest.
Khem Birch and Chris Boucher for Toronto, Luguentz Dort for the Thunder; without their work, Sunday’s game would have gone down as wildly forgettable, as opposed to the sort of amusing affair it ended up becoming. Boucher and Dort were the story of the first half. Their first quarter tête-à-tête, at the end of which both dudes had accounted for well over half of their team’s points, was one of the most deeply enjoyable stretches that any game in the last couple months has produced. National team coach Nick Nurse was, presumably, a little randy watching it unfold, too.
Ultimately, it would be Boucher who’d win the duel with Dort thanks to his critical late-game shot making.
With 3:05 to go, Toronto trailed 102-100, with Boucher having been mostly silent in the second half. At 2:51 he got fouled and hit both free throws; he drilled a three from the left wing 24 seconds later, then converted a lay-up off a slick Yuta Watanabe pass on the Raptors’ next trip down. Then, with the Thunder down three and playing out the shot-clock hoping for a stop and a chance to tie, Boucher coolly drained a corner triple, completing a personal 10-2 run in the closing three minutes. He finished with 31 points, 12 boards, two assists, a block and steal on 10-of-16 shooting, and the Montreal hoopers championship belt, if such things exist.
Boucher started and finished the job, but the 112-106 win would not have been possible without the work of five or six other members of Toronto’s skeleton crew. His fellow closing time teammates Malachi Flynn, Gary Trent Jr., Watanabe and Birch were particularly crucial to the effort.
If you’ve found yourself thinking “damn, I wonder what the Raptors might look like in the first four minutes of second quarters during the 2021-22 season,” like some kind of freak, Toronto’s starters against OKC offered a bit of foreshadowing. Give or take a Moses Moody or Jaden Springer type, Toronto’s closing five very well could be the first five off Nick Nurse’s bench next season, assuming a Kyle Lowry return and a starting center acquisition.
This lineup could quite literally be the Raptors' 2nd unit next year.— Blake Murphy (@BlakeMurphyODC) April 19, 2021
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.