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The raucous Air Canada Centre crowd’s chants crescendoed into a chorus of “MVP” as Bismack Biyombo stepped to the foul line, just four seconds remaining between the Raptors and a Game 4 victory against the visiting Cavaliers. Biyombo’s trip to the stripe provided one last step into the spotlight after two straight masterful performances in Toronto.
Two days after hauling in 26 rebounds, obliterating a franchise playoff record, and tallying four ferocious blocks in Game 3, Biyombo’s game-high 14 rebounds, three blocks and endless energy helped power the Raptors to their series-tying win. He was there to emphatically deny Kevin Love at the rim in the third quarter, punctuating another dismal road performance from one of Cleveland’s vital cogs. Channing Frye could only hang his head as Biyombo skied past him for the game’s most crucial rebound, extending Toronto’s possession with 46 seconds remaining and effectively icing the game.
The 23-year-old played 42 minutes on Monday, despite Toronto’s starting center Jonas Valanciunas being cleared for game action after missing seven games with an ankle injury. Raptors coach Dwane Casey opted to leave Valanciunas on the sidelines, wisely sticking with the hot hand that finger-wagged through these playoffs.
“He’s doing everything that he’s capable of doing. He’s a smart player, he can block shots, he can rebound, he’s a rim protector,” says Patrick Ewing. The Charlotte Hornets assistant coach texted Biyombo well wishes prior to his Game 3 breakout performance. The duo fostered a close relationship during their two seasons together in Charlotte. The Hornets allowed Biyombo to test free agency after his rookie contract expired last summer, but only after Steve Clifford’s coaching staff helped mold the breakout star of Toronto’s postseason.
Inefficiency plagued Biyombo’s first two NBA seasons, as the youngster from Congo failed to shoot over 47% from the field despite more than 68% of his attempts coming within five feet of the basket, per NBA.com. He’d awkwardly flail mid-air while trying to flip in post-up and duck-in opportunities, only to see his shots clank off the bank rim. In Biyombo’s first season under Ewing’s tutelage, 2013–14, his field goal percentage skyrocketed to 61.1% and has never dipped south of 54% since.
“We worked a lot on his hooks, a lot on his post-ups, and I think he’s doing an outstanding job,” Ewing says now. “We worked on running hooks, back-down hooks, some turnaround jump shots, some face-up, but more so his hook, trying to get both left hand and right hand and he got a lot better at it.” Roughly every two weeks, when the rigorous NBA schedule allowed extra practice time, Ewing instructed Biyombo to play 1-on-1 against Al Jefferson, heralded as one of the league’s premier low-post scorers, strictly on the block. “I thought that helped him,” Ewing said.
While Biyombo’s athleticism immediately translated into elite rim protection—he ranked fourth in the NBA in blocks per 48 minutes during his rookie campaign, per NBA.com—Charlotte’s coaching staff noticed he squandered far too many rebounding opportunities. “If he tries to just squeeze it, more often than not, his hands are already closed or they’re tight and the ball is bouncing off or ricocheting another way,” says Hornets assistant Pat Delany, who joined Charlotte prior to the 2014–15 campaign.
Delany harkened back to his days doubling as a Miami Heat assistant and head coach of the Sioux Falls D-League unit. Heat assistant Keith Askins drilled big man Joel Anthony on his hand-eye coordination by rifling basketballs off mesh baseball backstops. To aid Biyombo, Delany created intensive tennis ball exercises in Charlotte. When Biyombo wasn’t working with Ewing, he quite literally played catch with Delany for 10 minutes each practice. “I was trying to think of something from what we had,” Delany says.
“Some of it was just basic catch—right hand, left hand—in the air,” Delany says. “Some of it’s like a ground ball: You could only grab it with one hand. Some of it like a short hop: You get a lot of those ground balls during the game, those quick passes in the lane. And then some of the stuff I’ve seen the football guys do: Turn around and put your back to me, and then I’ll say, ‘Turn,’ and the ball’s in the air and you gotta find it and you gotta catch it.”
Biyombo would flip around and catch the ball with two hands to start. Soon enough, Delany was challenging him to catch five, 10 in a row with each hand. “It helped him obviously with catching [lobs],” says Hornets forward and close friend Marvin Williams. “He really worked on his game every day. He worked on his body.”
During one back-to-back last season, with practice time at a premium, Biyombo pleaded for Delany to incorporate the tennis ball workouts into his pre-game, on-court routine. “Sometimes NBA players care about who’s watching and, ‘This is embarrassing.’ But he was totally like, ‘Let’s get the tennis balls! Let’s do it pregame!’” Delany said. “He didn’t care who was watching.”
Now everyone is watching Biyombo banish the Cavaliers from the paint and clean the glass on each side of the floor in the Eastern Conference finals.