Toronto has lost four out of their last six games, but truth be told, things are not all that bad in RaptorLand.
Despite the current slide, the Raptors are competing and keeping themselves within games every night. This has been a long-standing issue all season, with the team seemingly outmatched every night due to a variety of factors, mainly compromised depth. With their season on the line, they are still fighting, and there is something to be said for that.
This past week, after dismantling the Cleveland Cavaliers on Monday, the Raptors walked into a brutal stretch against the Brooklyn Nets, followed by four teams within the Western Conference’s top six. Battling a rash of injuries to a variety of cast members, the team managed to fight, and even came close to stealing a couple of these games, but succumbed to superior teams.
From a process perspective, there have been several bright spots. Since sorting out the big man rotation, the Raptors have looked more competent defensively. The young guys are getting a little more run and producing with expanded roles. Despite everything that has plagued the Raptors this season, their outlook heading into the final stretch of the season for what happens after this year is beginning to look bright once again.
However, as it goes with Raptor of the Week, we can only pick the brightest of bright spots. On that note, this week’s award goes to…
This Week’s Stats: 13.6 PPG, 9.4 RPG, 2.6 APG, 1.2 SPG, 0.8 BPG, 61.7% FG, 33.3% 3FG
For someone who arrived in the middle of the season with no training camp or any type of transition period whatsoever, it feels as though Khem Birch has clicked with the team instantly.
Not only has he been holding his own on the defensive end, he has looked terrific offensively in a faster pace. He has a deceivingly quick first step, much more handles than anybody realized, and is even flashing an ability to shoot the three a little bit too. In just a few short weeks, Birch has really made a strong impression with his new team.
Birch has already surpassed his career high in points on multiple occasions since joining the Raptors, including a masterful game against the Denver Nuggets in which he posted 20 points on just 10 shots. He also grabbed eight rebounds and dished out four assists, which came after dropping a double-double on the Brooklyn Nets in which he scored 13 and grabbed 14 rebounds.
When the Raptors signed him fresh off a contract buyout with the Orlando Magic, the expectation was rim protection. The fact that he’s given so much more and made such a positive impact in a short period of time is exceptional, and I think even the Raptors are a little surprised at how much he has in his arsenal. This should bode well for coach Nick Nurse, who will also have the pleasure of coaching him this summer as Canada aims to qualify for the 2021 Summer Olympic Games in Tokyo, Japan.
Birch has given the Raptors some serious optimism that he can solve the team’s big man depth issues that plagued them all year, provided they can retain him in free agency. From everything Birch has indicated so far, it sounds like this is exactly where he wants to be. After all, he is from Montreal, and the opportunity to play with his fellow Montrealer Chris Boucher under their Canada Basketball coach is a dream scenario.
Luckily for the Raptors, it happened to be the right place at the right time. Birch is flourishing, and he looks like he’s having a great time while doing so. Congratulations to Khem Birch, your Raptor of The Week!
Honourable Mention: OG Anunoby
This Week’s Stats: 4 GP, 20.8 PPG, 4.8 RPG, 3.8 APG, 1.3 SPG, 1.0 BPG, 48.5% FG, 37.0% 3FG
It would be disingenuous to not mention the absolutely dominant stretch OG Anunoby has had as of late.
Not only is his scoring up while still maintaining strong efficiency, he is getting his buckets from practically everywhere on the floor while still being the team’s defensive anchor. It cannot be understated how significant his offensive improvement is for the future of the Raptors themselves, as they look to hand the keys to the new core of Anunoby, Pascal Siakam, Fred VanVleet, and Gary Trent Jr.
Simply having another capable option out there will take pressure off of the others to force shots or over-assert themselves on the offensive end. He spaces out the floor for Siakam in particular, who is at his best when there is an open paint and he can use his speed to exploit defenders.
Anunoby may not have the highest stats on the team, but he is arguably the most important player for them to be successful going forward, simply because his presence is that big on both ends. The team has sorely missed him when he’s been out of the lineup, and the positive progression he’s had this season should really encourage Raptors fans going forward.