TORONTO – All around, they were standing and screaming inside the Air Canada Centre, celebrating the vanquishing of the Cleveland Cavaliers for the first time in the Eastern Conference playoffs. When the Toronto Raptors turned to congratulate the most improbable savior of the season, they found him crumpled on the court, gasping for air. Finally, Bismack Biyombo had been brought to his knees, with the Cavaliers’ Dahntay Jones walking briskly from the scene of the crime.
“He hit me in the nuts,” Biyombo told The Vertical late Saturday night.
In the final seconds of a 99-84 Game 3 victory for the Raptors, the Cavaliers had punctuated a nauseating night of basketball with a retaliation for a flagrant foul on LeBron James, the Mutombo-style finger pointing, the rejections at the rim, and a historic night of muscle and sweat and chasing down missed shots. Biyombo was a menace, and changed the course of these Eastern Conference finals. “Our lion,” Kyle Lowry told The Vertical.
Biyombo had the best night of his basketball life, 26 rebounds and four blocks and six of seven points in the fourth quarter. He crushed James on the foul and turned back Kyrie Irving at the rim. When he inspired a mid-court confrontation with his alter ego, Tristan Thompson, it triggered Thompson swinging his arm to untangle himself – and backhanding James in the mug.
For the Raptors, it was a chance to end the Cavaliers’ 10-0 run through these playoffs. For Biyombo – who’ll assuredly reject his 2016-17 players option and move into free agency – he could be the most interesting test case of a free-agent market flushed with television money. He can barely catch the ball, but could command $12 million-$14 million a year on this free-agent market. Surround him with shooters, and let the man loose.
Only three previous players in the past 32 years of NBA playoff history had ever delivered 25-plus rebounds in a game: Hakeem Olajuwon, Dwight Howard and Tim Duncan. The great North American writer Bruce Arthur had delivered that fact to Biyombo on his walk from the postgame news conference. “Wow,” Biyombo beamed. “Oh, wow.
“Thank you,” he said.
Olajuwon. He’s the patron saint of every young African player, which is why it pained Toronto general manager Masai Ujiri to tell Biyombo the truth. Never mind that Charlotte drafted him with the No. 7 overall pick in the 2011 draft. Never mind that young teenagers dream of becoming an NBA star. Charlotte owner Michael Jordan was enamored with him – only to see that he had misjudged Biyombo’s broader abilities. Charlotte let him walk – and Biyombo needed to get over the fact that he was never going to be an offensive talent. How he played in Game 3 – how he has played most of this season – is how he’d flourish in the NBA.
After Ujiri signed him to a two-year, $6 million free-agent contract, they traveled together to South Africa for the NBA’s Basketball Without Borders program. Olajuwon was there, and Biyombo swooned. He wanted to work out with Olajuwon. Suddenly, it was Ujiri with the Mutombo finger wag.
“He sees Hakeem, and he wants to work out with him,” Ujiri told The Vertical late Saturday night. “So I called him into the room, and said, ‘Biz, with all due respect, I’ve had all kinds of guys go work out with Hakeem. At the end of the day, there’s only one Hakeem in the world and there will never be another one. That guy was a ballerina. I don’t care what you think you’re going to do with that guy but … no, forget it.’
“Go watch Tyson Chandler. Rebound. Block shots. Run. That’s your bread and butter. Listen, Biz, I don’t know if anyone’s throwing you the ball in the post.”
Charlotte coach Steve Clifford always believed Biyombo would be better on his second stop in the NBA because he would no longer be carrying the burden of that high draft selection. Such immense expectations had been thrust upon him as a young teen in the Congo, when those endlessly long arms and disposition to physically dominate inspired professional scouts to discover him. At 16 years old, he traveled to Qatar for his first pro tryout. And then Jordan. And Lebanon. Yemen. For half a year, he chased tryouts throughout the Middle East. Finally, he was signed and whisked away to the Spanish ACB League – a 17-year-old far from home and learning the hard way.
“It helped me grow up,” Biyombo told The Vertical. “It helped me become a gentleman. My dad allowed me to start making a lot of decisions, and he let me make a lot of mistakes. You grow fast. A lot of time, still now, people say that I look older than my age. I stopped playing video games because I thought I was wasting my time. I started reading books – book after book after book.”
At 23 years old, Biyombo has had the self-awareness, the conviction, to transform himself into the player he can be in the NBA – not the player he imagined. He always wanted to be a blend of Olajuwon and Dikembe Mutombo, and here it was in the Eastern Conference finals on Saturday night: Everyone was talking about Biyombo because the rebounding, the blocks, reminded them of the great Africans.
“Once [Mutombo] gave me permission to use his finger wag, I just want to leave his legacy,” Biyombo said.
Finally, Bismack Biyombo had left his impression on LeBron James on Saturday night, on Raptors history with the franchise’s first conference finals victory. For now, Toronto’s back in this series, and Cleveland’s Jones could be living with a Game 4 suspension for the lowest of blows. Biyombo raised hell in the Air Canada Centre, dropped James to the floor and himself ended Game 3 gasping for air, a nut shot for a night of sheer nuisance. Welcome to the NBA, Bismack Biyombo. It’s been waiting for you.