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Bismack Biyombo's Dirty Work Has Gotten Toronto This Far

Bismack Biyombo is a backup big who can't shoot, and an unlikely postseason hero. But his rebounding and defense dragged Toronto to the Eastern Conference Finals.

by Joseph Flynn
May 17 2016, 3:31pm

Photo by Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports

This article is part of VICE Sports' 2016 NBA Playoffs coverage.

Have you caught Eastern Conference playoff fever yet? If so, please consult your physician, bathe in antiseptics, and burn all your clothing. Splitting the East bracket in half has provided two very distinct basketball experiences. On one side of the bracket we've watched two teams' brief, pitiful struggle against the Cavaliers three-point blitzkrieg, and the other has been a quagmire of closely-contested and aesthetically butt-nasty matchups. The former was lopsided but intermittently impressive to watch. The latter was a rock fight in a swamp.

From that muck emerged the Toronto Raptors. They fought off a hard-nosed, offensively inept Pacers club and then a hard-nosed, offensively inept Heat club. It took them the full 14 games, including three overtimes, a stretch during which they averaged a woeful 94.3 points on 41.3 percent shooting but somehow still survived. In surviving the onslaught of bricks, turnovers, and fouls the Raptors relied heavily upon the lightly regarded big man Bismack Biyombo. It was perhaps the most perfect convergence of player and moment in recent history. It didn't happen as quickly or as beautifully as it might have, for the Raptors or Biyombo, but what matters is that it's happening at all.

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On the surface, Biyombo's story would appear as a simple case of a backup excelling in place of an injured starter. Kyle Lowry had struggled until very recently, DeMar DeRozan never stopped struggling, and so when young center Jonas Valancunias—who was, at the time, the one and only Raptor enjoying a postseason surge—went down in Game 3 of the Miami series, the team needed a boost wherever it could find one. Biyombo provided it by stepping into the starting lineup and scoring in double figures three times, including a season-high 17 in Toronto's Game 7 triumph.

But the Biyombo Effect goes way beyond four surprise starts. It has been apparent since Game 1 of the first round that this Raptors' team needed a savior built to excel in the grimiest basketball conditions, and this Congolese big man is just that. Everything about his game is a bit off aesthetically, but aesthetics have had no place in the non-Cavs half of the Eastern Conference's playoff brackets, which means Biyombo has been right at home. He is a 23-year-old who looks about 35, an undersized 6-foot-9 center who makes up for his height with a freakishly long wingspan; his post game is objectively ugly, and as a shooter he is mostly useless beyond three feet. But the dude can defend and rebound with the best of them.

If you are experiencing symptoms of Eastern Conference Playoffs Fever, seek help immediately. Photo by Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports

Consider for a moment just how valuable those particular set of skills can be, particularly against a Miami team that was utterly incapable of hitting outside shots (they finished at 30.4 percent from three in the series). Miami could only score by taking the ball to the rim, and Biyombo has been one of the most effective rim protectors in these playoffs, holding opponents to a 45.2 percent field goal percentage. As well as Valanciunas has played, Biyombo has been the superior defender in the postseason, and just what Toronto needed.

Biyombo was never going to match Valanciunas's scoring, but he proved equally effective on the offensive glass—which has been a must, given the brick-tastic performance turned in by Toronto's guards. Judging by his postgame interviews, Biyombo took a great deal of pride in his ability to handle the offensive boards.

Unfathomably, the Raptors have made it through two rounds of the NBA playoffs with only two regulars who can boast a positive net rating: Kyle Lowry, at +5.3 points per 100 possessions, and our dude Bismack...at +5.3 points per 100 possessions. Not bad for a glorified garbage man, all in all.

In the Eastern Conference Finals, the Raptors will face a very different and far more potent challenger in the Cleveland Cavaliers. Valanciunas has already been ruled out for Game 1 and is listed as doubtful for Game 2, which will mean more Bismack in the monitors. Logic would suggest that the big man won't have nearly the same impact against a three-bombing Cavs team that hasn't really needed to venture into the paint thus far in the postseason. It will be on the Raptors guards to force Cleveland shooters into Biyombo's kill box. In the meantime, he will have his hands full with Tristan Thompson, the top offensive rebounder among regulars in this postseason. If Toronto is going to have any chance against Cleveland...well, a lot will have to go right, but they will need to eliminate Cleveland's second-chance opportunities.

Regardless of what happens in the Conference Finals, Biyombo has already guaranteed himself a significant amount of loot this summer. He failed to garner any serious interest as a free agent in 2015 despite similar contributions as a backup in his final two seasons with the Hornets/Bobcats. It was a script as old as free agency itself: strong defender with lack of scoring touch gets overlooked on the market. Toronto GM Masai Ujiri, who has built his team's second unit through savvy deals like this one, stepped in with a two-year, $6 million deal with a player option after the first season. It would be shocking if it winds up as anything but a one-year deal. Given the truckloads of cap space around the league this summer, and because he's shown himself to be an ace defender and rebounder who knows his limitations, your man Bismack is about to get paid.

And if Bismack Biyombo should leave the Great White North for a far richer deal, if these are his final few games as a Raptor, the good people of Toronto should remain thankful for all he has done. For the low price of $3 million, the man with the long arms and awkward game helped drag this flawed, fitful club to the best postseason showing in its history. It wasn't pretty, but pretty is not what Bismack Biyombo does.