ZICARELLI: Getting crushed on the glass won’t cut it for Raptors

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One was picked up on NBA waivers, the other signed after auditioning in the G-League bubble.

No one is going to confuse Khem Birch or Freddie Gillespie as the second coming of Dennis Rodman, Moses Malone or any other rebounder capable of controlling the glass.

No one expected either Birch or Gillespie to suddenly turn a team competing for a play-in berth into a title contender, but their presence has underscored what many saw way back when the Raptors first set up shop in Tampa.

Toronto’s lack of size in the frontcourt was the one area the franchise was never able to fill or address.

This guard-oriented, wing-dominant unit relied too heavily on three-point heaves and would routinely get crushed on the boards.

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In basketball, size does matter.

Too small, too vulnerable, too bad, because this season — once it’s over — will require some honest discussions on why this lack of rebounding was able to persist this long.

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As well as Birch and Gillespie have played, neither should be considered as the answers to what ails this team when so much work needs to be done with only four players — Fred VanVleet, OG Anunoby, Pascal Siakam and rookie Malachi Flynn — vsigned to fully guaranteed deals next season.

Gary Trent Jr., a trigger-happy scorer, and Chris Boucher, who has been asked to shoulder too much of the rebounding load, are likely to be back as well, but no one knows when so much is unknown.

What is known and what this season has proven is the need to rebound.

There’s the obvious need for a closer, but that’s an elusive piece.

Addressing the frontcourt shouldn’t be an issue.

Teams can’t win if they can’t rebound the ball, especially defensively when in an inability to control a miss leads to second-chance points.

When they beat the San Antonio Spurs on Wednesday night, the Raptors won a rare game when playing the back end of a back-to-back.

Even rarer was the rebounding edge the Raptors would enjoy. Toronto would haul down a season-high 54 rebounds.

When the Raptors have tied or emerged with an advantage on the glass, they have gone 13-3. When the Raptors have been outrebounded, they have gone 9-31.

A bad start to the season, too many in-game stretches when the offence goes dry, late-game sequences when the ball bounces out, COVID-19, playing what is essentially a season of road games — there’s a lot to dissect in breaking down why the Raptors go into tonight’s game against lowly Orlando with a 22-34 record.

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Aron Baynes hasn’t played in three straight games. Alex Len was jettisoned seven games into his run as a Raptor. Boucher, while he has emerged as a piece, isn’t a centre and is too often overmatched and overwhelmed when opposing legitimate bigs.

Necessity and lack of productivity at the centre position forced the Raptors to go small, even though it wasn’t sustainable.

One of the main off-season items on the to-do list is rebounding.

If the Raptors can’t rebound, there’s no way this team will be able to rebound from what is a completely lost season, even if they are able to make it to the play-in format.

BIRCH’S MAGIC MOMENT

Birch took to social media last week to break the news of his signing with the Raptors and to thank the fans of Orlando and the Magic for his time.

For the first time, he’ll face his former team.

“It’s going to be emotional, I feel like,’’ Birch said after the Raptors beat the Spurs in Tampa on Wednesday night. “Orlando’s all I knew before I got here.

“Without Orlando I wouldn’t even be here. I want to win, obviously, but at the same time I think it’s going to be kind of weird playing against those guys and the organization that I’ve been (with) for four years … You just come out with the W and hope I don’t get too emotional.”

Minutes became an issue for Birch in Orlando and then came the trade the Magic swung for Wendell Carter Jr., on top of the need to give Mo Bamba extended playing time.

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Birch has fit in well with the Raptors.

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“It’s lovely,’’ he said. “I drove down here, an hour away. It was only an hour. I went into the hotel, it was perfect. I just brought one suitcase and that was it. It was a great transition.

“Also, yeah man, I feel like playing with this team, I’m getting out of the box. I was in a box in Orlando. Not to be disrespectful, when I came over there I was really raw. So I guess that’s what they expected me to be.

“But I work on my game a lot. The pandemic helped me out. I was in the gym a lot. I always knew I could be doing this type of stuff. I don’t even think I’m at my full ceiling right now.

“I think I can do more. I don’t have as much confidence as I’m supposed to right now, but I’m gradually getting that right now.”

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