Up until the moment it happened, late in the fourth quarter of Toronto’s 105–99 win over Cleveland in Game 4, not even Bismack Biyombo could have predicted that he would be serenaded with MVP chants at the free throw line. The Raptors’ reserve center had a solid regular season backing up Jonas Valanciunas, but he was still a relatively anonymous player, a former lottery pick who had carved out a respectable career after coming into the league with almost no feel for the game. While he had moments of brilliance in the second round, the Eastern Conference finals have been his coming-out party. His increased presence has been one of the keys to the Raptors’ unlikely comeback to tie the series at 2–2.
Biyombo has taken his play to the next level in Toronto’s two home games, averaging six points, 20 rebounds, and 3.5 blocks a game on 50 percent shooting. The biggest difference? He’s playing a lot more, going from averaging 30 minutes in Games 1 and 2 to 40 minutes in Games 3 and 4. Dwane Casey can’t keep him off the floor, not when his fingerprints are all over the action. Biyombo has shut down the paint and controlled the glass on both sides of the ball.
You can see his impact in the play of his counterpart in Cleveland. Tristan Thompson went from averaging 7.5 points in the first two games to averaging just one point in the past two games. Thompson is one of the most dominant rebounders in the NBA, but he has been stymied by going against someone who’s bigger, longer, and just as active. Biyombo can help off of Thompson and still recover fast enough to prevent him from getting any easy looks at the basket, which is stifling the Cavs offense. Thompson was a team-worst minus-14 in Game 4, and Tyronn Lue had no choice but to bench him for all but one brief stretch in the fourth quarter.
The Raptors have even been giving Biyombo some time on LeBron James, in an effort to counter the way the Cavs have been using him as more of a traditional big man. At 6-foot-9 and 245 pounds, with a 7-foot-6 wingspan, Biyombo can push LeBron out of the paint and make him play more on the perimeter. LeBron was still very effective in Game 4, scoring 29 points on 11-for-16 shooting, but he wasn’t able to dominate the rim like he did in the games in Cleveland. Biyombo has deterred opponents from entering the paint in general, as the Cavs’ free throw attempts have fallen in the past two games, and their average shot distance has increased as the series has gone on, from 11.1 feet out in Game 1 to 18.7 feet in Game 4.
Biyombo has started to appropriate his fellow countryman Dikembe Mutombo’s famous finger wag, and it feels deserved. The two biggest Raptors highlights from Monday were Biyombo’s statuesque rejections on LeBron (which was somehow called a foul) and Kevin Love. Just as important, though, is his ability to slide his feet on the perimeter. There aren’t many high-level rim protectors who can stay in front of J.R. Smith and block his 3-point shot as Biyombo did with just over a minute left, a play which effectively ended the game.
The Cavs were able to find a counter to Biyombo in the fourth quarter by playing Channing Frye more, an adjustment we will almost certainly see more in Game 5. Playing Frye at the 5 forces Biyombo to guard 25-plus feet from the basket, and opens up the paint for LeBron to attack the rim. Frye was a team-high plus-6 in 21 minutes on Monday, and he was an integral part of the Cavs’ comeback at the start of the fourth quarter. The key for Biyombo is to exploit Frye on the other end of the floor, by attacking him on the glass and rolling hard to the rim on the pick-and-roll.
That’s where we might see the limitations of Biyombo’s game. He’s not the type of big man who can exploit a weak defender or take over a game on offense. He’s not Jonas Valanciunas, and the Raptors may need to find a way to integrate their other center back into the rotation in the final few games of the series if they are going to be able to pull off the unforeseen upset. But even if they don’t, Biyombo himself can rest easy — he’s set himself up for a massive payday in the offseason. Despite his limitations, he’s used his increased platform to showcase the abilities that he does possess, which happen to be some of the most coveted skills in the game today.
This piece originally appeared on the Ringer Facebook page on May 24, 2016.