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3 Lessons: On Birch’s defense, the OG discourse, and May basketball

This week was a tough one for Toronto’s playoff hopes, but there were still positives to be taken for the direction of the team.

NBA: Brooklyn Nets at Toronto Raptors Nathan Ray Seebeck-USA TODAY Sports

The rule we established for this Toronto Raptors team in last week’s 3 Lessons has held steady. Never commit to a direction for the team, so long as you don’t want constant frustration and confusion. The play-in momentum has been cooled by a couple of tough losses with a few more tough ones on the horizon. Raptors Twitter has reversed course more times than a family road trip with a crew of forgetful children.

Luckily, I’ve finally managed to separate myself (somewhat) from the results, and just ride this thing out, win or lose. In that time, I’ve learned some. We start with Khem Birch, arguably the GROAT.

1) Birch is a perfect fit defensively

Although the numbers are over a small sample and are likely very inflated, Khem Birch has had a transformative effect on the Toronto Raptors. In his time with the team, they are 24.9 points per 100 possessions (!!!!) better when Birch patrols the hardwood, per Cleaning the Glass. Absurd. That number would be the best in the league if it were to have persisted for the entire season.

It is on both ends too, as 10.3 of those 24.9 points per 100 possessions that we gain come on the defensive end. Birch is not a Rudy Gobert or Joel Embiid, e.g a player who erases mistakes and acts as a defense unto himself. Rather, this number is a testament to his fit with the other Raptors starters, excellent defenders in their own right. With four quality defenders in front of him in the starting lineup in Pascal Siakam, OG Anunoby, Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet, and occasionally Malachi Flynn instead of one of the guards, Birch just needs to be the glue that holds these pieces together.

He just needs to be on time to help.

Or just flash to a spot with his hands up to cause enough hesitation in the opponent for his teammate to recover and keep everyone else in position. He’s fast enough for that job.

The Raptors (at least the starters) don’t leave their centre out to dry, that five-man just needs to be there when they need him. With Birch’s athleticism, smarts, and anticipation, he fits that role and more, mixing in the odd spectacular play.

I still haven’t developed a sophisticated opinion of him as a big-man stopper a la Marc Gasol, as the Raptors opted to have OG Anunoby guard Nikola Jokic for the bulk of last night’s game against the Denver Nuggets in a matchup that has been a fiesta for the past couple years. But everything else checks out.

I don’t know if I’m completely crazy, but I have no idea why we’re not just slotting Birch in at starting centre next year, provided he signs with the team. He’s unselfish, gritty, smart, athletic, a great fit, and likely won’t be too expensive at a position where there seem to be diminishing returns past a certain point unless you have a Jokic or an Embiid. I think that makes sense, and look to spend elsewhere. I am a Khem major through and through.

2) OG is playing with house money

One of the more interesting things to monitor this season has been the local perception of the players, a constantly fluctuating topic. Of Toronto’s young core, Pascal Siakam has been the most polarizing test case, with opinions of him varying wildly and shifting game-to-game, obviously a product of his inconsistency. But it seems beyond irrational at times. VanVleet is not immune to criticism from the fan base either. The discourse around OG Anunoby, however, has been consistently positive.

He’s established himself as perhaps the most impactful player on the team over the course of the season, largely because his defense, which is comfortably among the best in the NBA, stays consistent. His consistent positive effect, independent of his offense, makes it easy for him to stay on our good side. In the last couple weeks, we’ve caught a glimpse of Anunoby’s offensive potential, which is beyond that of a super-charged role player — my presumed ceiling of his offense. What I fool I am.

This evolution has been really impressive and has been thoroughly enjoyed by all. But now that it’s happened, there is no going back. When Anunoby inevitably experiences some growing pains, will the fan base turn? Perhaps it won’t be as harsh as the perception of Siakam, but it’s tough to imagine it being quite as cheery with Anunoby as it is currently.

So, let’s enjoy this moment while we can before the weight of contracts, expectations, and labels weigh too heavy on the young, budding star in Anunoby.

3) The Raptors play in May

Unless the Raptors can stand tall against some giants in the next few games and the Washington Wizards stop winning at the pace of the 2015-16 Golden State Warriors, their streak of playoff appearances will come to an end. The streak of above .500 seasons in the We The North era will also end. But we can finagle some streaks here yet.

As a result of the shifted schedule, the regular season extends deeper into the spring this year. As of now, in a typical year, we would be watching playoff basketball. Instead, we are still slogging through the regular season, and the Raptors will be playing some May ball.

So, now, when we’re making arguments about franchise prestige, we can subtly note that we’ve played beyond April in six consecutive years and then hope and pray that our adversary doesn’t take into account what that means for this season. This argument will likely gain in strength in a few years.

The Raptors are presumably set up for sustained success in the future, and if this is the case, then this pandemic season will be cushioned on both ends by playoff appearances. We can then say things like, “wow I can’t remember the last time we didn’t play in May” and be completely genuine. It’s a small silver lining but a silver lining nonetheless.

Until next week, when the Raptors have rattled off three straight against the best of the west and we once again have to shift our expectations of this season.