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3 Lessons: On the rules, Siakam’s little run, and Khem Birch

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A .500 week does little for the Toronto Raptors in either direction, but some interesting developments occurred nonetheless. 3 Lessons checks out those developments.

NBA: Los Angeles Lakers at Toronto Raptors Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

As Toronto Raptors Twitter has constantly noted this season, nobody does a fake comeback like the Tampa Dinos. The combination of the team’s competitive spirit and the fact that our brains are broken from multiple improbable comebacks last season has removed many a Raptor fan from their window for a quality night’s sleep as we stay up in hopes that, maybe, the team might make it all the way this time.

Matt Devlin’s relentless optimism certainly does not help those of us who want to start the bedtime routine. But calling it a night early only to find out your team pulled it off is like leaving the roulette table right before the number you’ve been zeroed in on finally hits.

Once again over the past week, however, the Raptors came up short, twice, and here we are, a fanbase divided. But this week was at least interesting, so let’s dig into what we learned, beginning with the melee that wasn’t.

1) The NBA still hates nuance

In the aftermath of the (maybe accidental?) takedown of Dennis Schroeder by OG Anunoby, we waited for the punishments to roll in. Surely at least a fine was coming for Anunoby, and perhaps for Montrezl Harrell, as both players were ejected from Tuesday’s action. Nope! Instead, the players who received the most severe punishments were Fred VanVleet, who literally pointed at Trent Jr. and indicated that he was just trying to get him out of the mix before pulling his teammate out of the fray:

And DeAndre’ Bembry?

Talen Horton-Tucker also received a game for his role.

I do understand the rule, and I understand why the NBA does not want players to leave the bench. But we are all adults here. It does not have to be so hard and fast. Yes, VanVleet and Bembry left the bench, but they were not looking to pour gasoline on the flames. Nonetheless, they were suspended a game, and the perpetually shorthanded Raptors added yet another wrinkle of stupidity in an increasingly stupid season.

What message does this even send to Fred, DeAndre’, and the rest of the NBA? Does it even send a message? If there is a legitimate fight, would this even cause a hiccup for a player on the bench who wants to get in there? It was a situation that was eerily reminiscent of the infamous Boris Diaw and Amare Stoudemire suspensions in the 2007 playoffs when they played for the Phoenix Suns, albeit with much lower stakes.

We don’t need a magical barrier that doles out a suspension if it is so much as tip-toed over. Instead, I humbly offer an alternative. Why not just identify aggravators and mitigators?

If a player leaves the bench and aggravates the situation, suspend him, fine him, do what you will. If he is mitigating, then let the man play basketball. If there is grey area, you can lean on the side of punishment, that is fine! The severity of one’s actions are dictated far more than whether or not they leave the bench, in my personal opinion.

Let’s step back, analyze the situation, and see who made it worse and who did not.

2) Pascal Siakam is gaining positive momentum

For an article that bases the bulk of its content on the past week, Pascal Siakam has made my life easy by having his best stretch of basketball since returning from presumably having COVID-19 fit neatly into the past seven days. In that time, he has averaged 28 points on 53 percent shooting, while going 89 percent from the line on seven free throw attempts. On one hand it is alarming, yet notable on the other that he has only shot 5-for-21 from the three-point line in this team. That means, of course, that he is really winning his matchups, and eatin’ good around the rim.

Other than the game against the Los Angeles Lakers, when Siakam had a personal fake comeback to boost the stat sheet, he has been fully in control over this stretch. It should be noted that he’s laid waste to a bevy of bad defenders in bad defensive systems, victimizing Juan Toscano-Anderson and James Wiseman on switches against the Golden State Warriors, Deni Avdija against the Washington Wizards, and Nikola Vucevic against the Chicago Bulls, but he also is by far Toronto’s best offensive option so the opponents can really hone in on him.

Siakam dominating mismatches like this reminds me of the 2018-19 season, when he would often draw weaker defenders, ones without the physical tools to slow him as he used his abilities to capitalize. Vucevic simply is not quick enough to contain this:

Neither is James Wiseman:

As I noted in last week’s iteration, we’re more looking for positive signs for the future instead of wins at this point, and Siakam’s re-renaissance is a major one. It really seems like he is a momentum guy, so to muster some of that in a good direction going into the offseason will be important for Siakam. With trust in his off-the-bounce game, he can shift his focus to fixing up that inconsistent shot of his in what projects to be a long offseason. For now, I just want to see his confidence keep going up when he attacks.

3) We can finally test our centre theory

Although pen has yet to be put to paper on the Khem Birch signing, reports all but confirm that he will be Raptor in the near future after being bought out by the Orlando Magic. This is exciting on two levels for Raptors fans. One, he is Canadian. Two, he is a centre.

Of all the issues plaguing the Raptors, the most consistent on-court one has been the lack of a consistent big man to steady the rotation. The abysmal rebounding, the strain on Anunoby, Siakam, and Boucher, the lack of roll-man putting consistent pressure on the rim, and the absence of a last line of defense all are the result of inconsistent and often, downright bad centre play. Raptors fans, myself included, have believed that this team, when healthy, would be significantly improved with simple adequacy from the 5.

Now, asking Khem Birch — a consistent backup with a bad Orlando Magic team — to be our knight in shining armour may be a little unfair to the young man. That said, the team is in such dire need of a skill set like his that I would be shocked if his presence is not a notable improvement.

Birch brings solid interior defense and rim protection and can roll to the rim hard for dunks or a short little push shot that he has in his repertoire. He also crashes the offensive glass hard, and can help steady the defensive rebounding for the team. He averaged 5.1 rebounds per game over about 20 minutes, which can be stretched out to 9.2 per 36. Extrapolating in such a manner is flawed as he won’t maintain the same energy levels over 36 minutes, but it still shows that he is doing his part on the glass.

Even more importantly, Birch drives team rebounding. When he has played centre for the Magic, opposing teams pull down offensive rebounds at a rate somewhere between 22 percent and 24 percent for his career, a far cry from the 28.2 percent that the Raptors a currently allowing, per Cleaning the Glass. Toronto’s present number is good for worst in the league, and leads to the most hair-pulling and face-palming amongst fans. Once again, we’re not bringing in Shaq, but Birch fills such an obvious need that it is hard to see him not helping the team win.

Now, is winning more games better for the team? I really am conflicted, but I’ll never flip on a Raptors game and want to lose it, so it’ll be nice to see Birch at least help the Raptors out on the glass.

Nonetheless, we at least get to see how it works, and maybe we’ll get a chance to dissect the new add in next week’s 3 Lessons.