Biyombo faces Raptors for first time since leaving (Dec 18, 2016)

BY AP • December 17, 2016

The clock was quickly ticking toward midnight on June 30 and NBA free agency was about to begin.

Bismack Biyombo was about to get swamped with offers after his stellar playoff run. What team in the league does not need a rim-protecting center?

But Biyombo was still on the phone talking with his Toronto Raptors teammates. The group he became so close with during his only season in Toronto that took the franchise to its first Eastern Conference Finals.

There was little reason for Biyombo to leave.

Except he wanted more. And when the Orlando Magic came calling at midnight on July 1, offering a four-year, $70-million contract, Biyombo wanted to take the chance.

Leaving his former teammates was tough, but Biyombo said he wanted to be part of a rebuilding process and help a team grow from the ground up, rather than joining it midstream as he had with the Raptors.

This was his opportunity, not only to cash in as a free agent, but to be part of the change in a franchise's culture.

"In the end, it was tough," Biyombo said. "At some level, I think what we did in Toronto was special, but I wanted to go back through the process and do it again.

" ... When I had the opportunity to come (to Orlando), it was to go back and do it again. I believe there have been a lot of stories here. I want to be able to help to go back and make some more."

Biyombo, who will face the Raptors for the first time at Amway Center in Orlando, helped the Magic's defense improve. But that process has taken some time to develop and jell.

The Magic are 12-16 and fighting to stay in the early playoff race.

The Raptors are thriving and perhaps playing better for the experiences they shared last year.

Toronto has firmly planted itself as the second-best team in the Eastern Conference, for now. A place they expected to be.

Their replacement options for Biyombo as backup center -- Lucas Nogueira, Pacsal Siakam and rookie Jakob Poeltl -- have performed admirably.

But none of them have provided the same defensive presence and timing Biyombo brings.

Toronto struggled with its defense in a 125-121 home loss to the Atlanta Hawks on Friday. It has been a larger theme throughout the season for the Raptors despite their success.

"It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out where our problem is," Raptors coach Dwane Casey told Doug Smith of the Toronto Star. "We've got to have defense in the game. We can score. I'm not worried about us scoring.

"Until we individually make a decision to guard your man ... we're going to be an up-and-down team."

The Raptors have won games this year with one of the best offenses in the league. But their defense is middle of the road. They give up 105.8 points per 100 possessions and average 4.4 blocked shots per game, 22nd in the league.

The Magic have used Biyombo -- along with Serge Ibaka -- to rise to 5.6 blocked shots per game, sixth in the league. Their defense has played well with Biyombo as one of its anchors in the paint.

For sure, both Biyombo and the Raptors will be happy to see each other before the game. Then it will be back to business at tip-off.

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