‘Bad vibes’ and all, Montreal’s Khem Birch gives the Raptors what they need without touching the ball
DENVER The Raptors run Khem Birch out every game because they know what he gives them, and if it’s not numbers they don’t really care.
They give the veteran centre playing time because he knows how to play, because he’s been around a while and understands what this team needs from him.
He’s as appreciative of it as his coaches are appreciative of him.
“Honestly, I feel like with any other team I probably wouldn’t even be playing right now,” said Birch. “The fact that they just have that type of confidence in me despite all the injuries I’ve had, all the setbacks, and I’m still getting minutes tells a lot about how they feel about me, and it gives me a lot of confidence to keep going despite my injury.”
Birch probably should have gone with “injuries” to discuss his season, and he could have thrown in “illness” given all he’s been through since signing a three-year, $20-million (U.S.) contract as a free agent last summer.
Jinxed? That might be too strong a word, but it’s definitely been a star-crossed season for the Montreal native now playing for the team he grew up supporting.
The digs at him have been loud. He’s heard them, and tried to ignore them, but there are forces around him that makes him worry that something extraordinary is affecting him.
“I would say that ever since I’ve moved back home there’s been a lot of negative energy,” he said after Toronto upset the 50-win Phoenix Suns on Friday night. “I think a lot of people want to see me fail, so maybe that’s what it is. I just have bad vibes around me, but I’m just going keep pushing.”
The Raptors are giving him every chance to push through it because of the substantial defensive presence he provides.
After using a series of schemes against Phoenix guard Devin Booker on Friday night — all successful in spurts — Raptors coach Nick Nurse went back to Birch down the stretch because of his array of skills. They successfully blitzed and trapped Booker in the final five minutes — and got two crucial turnovers out of it with about two minutes left — because that’s Birch’s bread and butter.
“I think he’s clearly the best guy at doing that for us; he’s got some experience in it,” Nurse said of the six-year veteran. “It’s not easy, as you can see. They split (the two blitzing defenders) and they reject (the screen) and go the other way. There’s a lot of stuff happening out there. He got a bunch of good blitzes, and he had to cover a lot of ground a couple of times.
“Defensively, he was the best option there with the coverages we were in, and then on top of that he got a huge tip-in down there on a missed fast-break layup.”
The scoring isn’t an issue with Birch, because he plays mainly on the first unit with OG Anunoby hurt and there’s plenty of offence from Fred VanVleet, Scottie Barnes, Pascal Siakam and Gary Trent. But being able to handle the toughest frontcourt defensive assignment, switch on to guards when required and get the intricacies of Nurse’s schemes is what keeps Birch playing.
And it’s why he was out there with the game on the line Friday night.
“I feel like I’ve been like that my entire career. I’ve never been a guy to actually go out there and score 20, drop 20 and 10,” he said. “I’ve always been a guy that just wanted to win basketball games. So that’s the reason I like to be on winning teams, because I know I can make an impact without touching the ball.”