As Jonas Valanciunas hit the floor clutching his ankle in game three against the Miami Heat, Toronto Raptors fans held their breath. The Lithuanian was playing the best basketball of his career and sparking a Toronto team that had otherwise limped through the playoffs. From thinking about how the Raptors might match up against the Cleveland Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference Finals, the conversation switched to whether they could even get that far.
Fast forward two weeks and Toronto has found a way to keep rolling along, outlasting the Heat with a complete game seven performance, handing the Cavaliers their first loss of the post-season then following it up with an impressive game four win to level the series.
The Raptors’ resilience has come from numerous sources, but it would be tough not to put Bismack Biyombo’s contributions high on that list. The Congolese big man has stepped into Valanciunas’ shoes and given head coach Dwane Casey more than he could possibly have asked for, from rim protection to rebounding to firing up the fans.
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BIZ-Y ON THE BOARDS
Against Miami, Biyombo’s energy on both ends of the floor was a telling factor in Toronto’s final two victories. But there were question marks over how effective he could be against Cleveland, with their sharp-shooting big men dragging him out to the perimeter.
After struggling in the first two games, he was back to his best in game three, grabbing a Raptors playoff-high 26 rebounds (including eight offensive boards) and recording four blocks. He willed Toronto to a 99-84 win, even enduring a below the belt shot from Cavaliers reserve Dahntay Jones. Biyombo put in another solid shift in game four, pulling down 14 rebounds to go with three blocks, including monster stuffs on Kevin Love and Tristan Thompson.
Then there is the finger-wagging tribute to Dikembe Mutombo which follows every Biyombo block (he jokes that he got the license from Mutombo) and the Usain Bolt celebration – both of which crank the noise in the Air Canada Centre to new heights. It is not just the fans who feed off his energy, his team-mates do too.
“When he points in the air, doing the finger thing, that kind of gets us going,” DeMar DeRozan said prior to game four. “That fuels us to keep playing hard. The spirit he has out there is amazing.”
“He’s just kind of the spirit of our team,” Casey added.
While the playoffs are the only thing on the Raptors’ minds right now, they will soon have to address the question of Biyombo’s long-term future. He is a lock to opt out of the second year of his contract, with numerous teams around the league likely to have significant cap room and make aggressive offers.
It was always unlikely that Biyombo would be overlooked after an impressive regular season, but his post-season heroics have ensured he will be on everyone’s radar, with an offer close to the maximum no longer far-fetched. Toronto has already committed big money to Valanciunas, who should take on more of the offensive load next season, but Raptors general manager Masai Ujiri will no doubt take a long look at finding the right deal to keep Biyombo in Toronto.
But that conversation is for another day. The Raptors – specialists in digging themselves out of holes throughout this playoff run – have made this a best-of-three series behind Biyombo’s relentlessness and big performances from DeRozan and Kyle Lowry. There are, no doubt, more twists up ahead as the series returns to Cleveland.