Even when the Toronto Raptors were good, Nick Nurse liked to look at the regular season as an opportunity to experiment.
Maybe not quite to the extent that Kawhi Leonard did, when he famously referred to the games before the playoffs start as “82 practices”, but Nurse was always willing to use the long regular-season grind as a chance to find something different in a lineup, tactic or player that could pay off when the games count.
But with the number of games left in the 2020-21 season now in the single digits and the draft lottery likely beckoning, the next games that count might not come until next season.
So it’s time to spark up the Bunsen Burner, swirl some potions around the test tubes and see what happens.
Which is why on Saturday morning as the Raptors were preparing to play the Utah Jazz, the NBA’s best team for most of the regular season so far, Nurse sidled up to Khem Birch, the Raptors recently acquired centre, and asked him how he felt about handling the ball on the fast break.
It wasn’t really an invitation for Birch to make like the second coming of Magic Johnson running the break for the Showtime Lakers, but it was a message: try some things; stretch a little bit.
Birch has already expanded his game and very likely his value in just 10 games with Toronto since Orlando bought out the 28-year-old as part of their youth movement. He’d only taken two three-pointers over the past three years in Orlando, but before the ball went up against the Jazz he was already he’s 5-of-12 from deep, setting up comfortably in the corner and looking like he’s taken them his whole career.
“It’s stuff I’ve worked on but I’ve never implemented it into my game,” said Birch. “But the fact that the coaching staff here allows me to do that type of stuff … it’s like starting over again. … I didn’t expect this much freedom. Honestly, I just thought I was just going to protect the rim, get rebounds and everything else. I wasn’t expecting this kind of freedom now. I was kind of expecting it maybe next season or something like that, but not right now.”
But the future is here. Whether the Raptors make the playoffs or not they are playing for next season already, so hey Khem Birch, whaddya got?
With two minutes gone in the second quarter Nurse got an eyeful: there was Birch snagging a defensive rebound, pushing the ball up the court and delivering a timely pass to a hard-running Yuta Watanabe for a layup.
It’s wasn’t pretty – Birch had a bit of a speed wobble at mid-court – but the job was done.
It’s been Birch’s story since he joined the Raptors. With the Magic he was a depth centre depended on to defend and otherwise stay out of the way. He was good at it, but wanted more. He felt like the Magic had him in a box.
With the Raptors, he’s broken out. In Orlando, his career-high was 13 points and he’d managed it twice. With Toronto, he’s scored 13 or more points in seven straight games. In the Raptors 106-102 loss to the Jazz he finished with 17 points, 10 rebounds, six assists and two steals – more than holding his own against all-NBA Jazz defender Rudy Gobert. The assists were a career-high and it marked the fifth straight game Birch has topped what his old career-best scoring mark.
“We’re unlocking him a little bit, giving him more freedom and he’s getting creative out there,” said Raptors guard Fred VanVleet, who led all scorers with 30 points. “But he’s been playing his butt off, he’s been great for us. He’s been a great addition. Scoring the ball, making reads, his passing has impressed me, his passing and reads have impressed me. He’s been a great teammate. He’s been vocal. You can tell he wants to be here and that’s the most important part. And we can definitely use him going forward.”
The Raptors as a group weren’t quite as fortunate in a game that they had a solid grasp on for most of the night even while playing without Kyle Lowry (rest); Chris Boucher (knee) and Gary Trent Jr. (bruised leg).
It was the Raptors’ third straight loss and dropped them to 26-38 and kept them three games behind the Washington Wizards for 10th place and the final spot in the play-in tournament with only eight games left to play.
It doesn’t get easier as Toronto heads to Los Angeles where they will face the Lakers with LeBron James and Anthony Davis back in the lineup before closing off their road trip with a game against the red-hot Los Angeles Clippers on Tuesday.
The Raptors caught a break in that the Jazz were without their starting backcourt of Donovan Mitchell (ankle) and Mike Conley (hamstring) and they took advantage as the Raptors were competitive throughout the game and in control for most of it.
They started well and led 33-29 at the end of the first quarter and took a 62-56 lead into the half and were up 89-85 to start the fourth quarter before they ran into the scoring droughts that have plagued them all season as the Jazz used a 13-2 run early in the fourth quarter to turn a six-point hole into a five-point lead with 5:54 to play. A lay-up by Malachi Flynn – starting in place of Lowry –around Gobert seemed to snap the dry spell but that wasn’t the case.
The Raptors held the Jazz to just 21 points in the fourth quarter but Toronto could only manage 13 of their own. They were 4-of-21 from the floor in the final quarter when VanVleet drained a jumper with 42 seconds – the Raptors first basket since Flynn’s with 4:04 to play. That cut Utah’s lead to two, but a Gobert put back immediately pushed the lead back to two possessions and Toronto never got a shot with a chance to win.
“[It’s] hard to feel pleased right now, but I am – I mean they played their hearts out,” said Nurse. “They played very well. There are a lot of great numbers there. A high assist- low turnover game [28-10]. We did a lot of really good things. Some good individual performances etc. Listen, you go in on the road and you play against one of the best teams in the league – I know they are missing a couple of guys but so are we – and you give them everything you want. We had our chances there to win that game tonight. I’m not frustrated. With the way they are playing, it’s just gotta take what comes here and try to figure out how to rev it up a little more in the fourth.”
But even as the Raptors run out of gas down the stretch, Birch is taking the chance he’s been given to show he’s a more well-rounded player than previously thought and he’s running (the floor) with it.
“I saw him in the game two nights ago that he was a little hesitant [handling the ball in the open floor] so I just asked him about it, I asked him if he could bring it and he said, ‘yeah, I can do that.’ I said ‘do it’ and he did it a few times tonight, looked good,” said Nurse. “He’s pretty athletic, pretty fast, I thought he did a good job with that. He had a great, great, great game tonight against what, an all-NBA centre? He looked really good tonight.
“He’s playing really well. I kinda like how he moves, I like his attitude, I like some things that he does and obviously he’s played very well almost every game since we’ve had him.”
There’s a practical side to it: the Raptors like to play fast and the fastest way to transition from defence to offence is to push the ball out of traffic and either move it to the next open player or take it all the way.
But it’s the broader philosophical point that really matters.
The Raptors and Nurse want their roster to be full of players who can do all kinds of things that skilled players do, as compared to putting borders around them based on their size, present-day skills or preconceived positions.
So why not find out if Khem Birch had led a fast break? Why not see if he can spread the floor with his shooting?
You just might be the lucky team that finds out the can. That’s a win for all concerned.