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‘Unselfish’ Canadian Khem Birch stepping it up with Raptors

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The best statistical stretch of Khem Birch’s NBA career came during a 19-game run at the end of last season.

After joining the Toronto Raptors when he was waived by the Orlando Magic, the big man from Montreal shot more than had at any point in his career, scored more than he ever has in his career and took different shots than he never had in his career.

As a pending free agent, he felt the need to demonstrate abilities he rarely got show as a backup with the Magic. It worked out for all concerned, but he felt like he was out of his basketball comfort zone.

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He almost sounds like he wished it never happened.

He felt like he was looking out for himself – on offence especially – and it was taking him away from the way he likes to play.

“I hate contract years just because you have to do things outside your element,” he said Thursday after the Raptors practised at OVO Center. “Last year I had to score, and all the other stuff that I don’t like to do. I just like to win.”

So what kind of out-of-character basketball was Birch playing?

Well, on a per-36-minute basis, Birch was taking 10.7 shots per game, compared to his career average of 7.8, and he was taking 1.9 threes per game after peaking at 0.8 per game when he was in Orlando. Keep in mind he was efficient – converting on 55.6 per cent of his shots. And even though his hands were on the ball more than at any time in his career, his usage rate was still just 15.8 per cent, which is low even for a role player.

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So it wasn’t like Birch was trying to hijack the offence, by any stretch. Just for comparison, last season Pascal Siakam had a 26.3 per cent usage rate and averaged 17.2 shots a game to top the Raptors in both categories.

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So, clearly, what Birch defines as hunting his own shot was an extremely mild case. But a player has his values, and Birch’s are just that: he wants his teammates to eat first, second and last, if necessary.

“Ever since I’ve been playing basketball, I never cared about stats,” said Birch, who is in his fifth NBA season after starting his career in Europe and working his way through the G-League. “I used to watch the Detroit Pistons and how they played defence, and in high school people told me they loved playing with me because I was so unselfish. I remember being ranked high in high school and I never averaged a lot of points or anything. The way I’ve played has got me to where I am right now, so I would never change it.”

He’s got no need to. The Raptors appreciated what he brought to the table at the end of last season and gave him the best contract of his career: $20 million over three years.

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“He’s got a really unselfish kind of team mentality,” said Raptors head coach Nick Nurse.

They didn’t pay him to put up numbers, which is a big reason Birch feels so comfortable now.

“What people think doesn’t matter, the organization gave me a good contract this summer, so if anything, that should tell me and other people what they value,” said Birch.

It’s not like Birch is trying to go around the practice facility and not be noticed. He’s got his own brand of confidence, perhaps best shown when he delivered the best line of the season when asked about the noticeable improvement in the defensive output by Gary Trent Jr. – another player who seems settled with a new contract in his pocket and who is among the league leaders in steals and deflections this season:

“Gary is like one of the best players I have ever seen – like, no offence – not play defence and then all of a sudden become a good defender,” said Birch. “It’s crazy. I swear I’ve never seen that before. He can be one of the best two-way players in this league. I think he leads the league in steals. That’s amazing … I told him that.”

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But other than a surprisingly good quote, Birch’s contributions are more subtle. He’s averaging just 6.6 points a game and 4.6 shots a game in 23 minutes a night but was plus-10 in 22 minutes off the bench in the Raptors win over the Washington Wizards on Wednesday and plus-20 in 31 minutes in Monday’s win over the New York Knicks.

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In the pivotal moments against the Wizards, he found a way to screen himself open for key basket in pick-and-roll action with point guard Fred VanVleet. He’s among the Raptors’ leaders in screen assists and loose balls recovered, and in net rating. He’s a smart passer, a low turnover risk and a good offensive rebounder. All the pluses add up.

The Raptors have a chance to run their winning streak to six games against the Cleveland Cavaliers on Friday night, and it’s perhaps no coincidence that their run of strong play has coincided with Birch getting back to full strength after missing the first 10 days of training camp with COVID. It kept him from the starting lineup as Precious Achiuwa’s strong pre-season earned him the nod. But as Achiuwa has struggled – the second-year big man his shooting just 28.9 per cent over his last five games – Birch has stepped in a stepped up. Nurse may or may not start him, but Birch is likely going to be a fixture in closing lineups for the foreseeable future.

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Earning that kind of trust is another category isn’t easily measured, but that’s fine too. Birch says he never looks at box scores because basketball’s raw numbers don’t really resonate with him.

But what about advanced data and player tracking information, which do a little better job of capturing how he can help a team without scoring? Don’t the Raptors have that information?

“I think they do, but they don’t tell me when I ask, so it doesn’t matter,” says Birch. “It’s just one game. You can’t dwell on one game. I just feel like you have a good game, you have to move on. You can lose and everything you accomplished before just didn’t matter. I just feel like you can’t focus on individual accolades and stuff.

“You just have to focus on team.”



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How to watch Appalachian State vs. James Madison: NCAA Football live stream info, TV channel, time, game odds

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Who’s Playing

James Madison @ Appalachian State

Current Records: James Madison 2-0; Appalachian State 2-1

What to Know

The James Madison Dukes watched the action from their couches last weekend, but are set to take to the field. James Madison and the Appalachian State Mountaineers will face off in a Sun Belt battle at 3:30 p.m. ET Saturday at Kidd Brewer Stadium. The odds don’t look promising for the Dukes, but the bigger the opponent is, the harder they fall.

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A well-balanced attack led James Madison over the Norfolk State Spartans every single quarter on their way to victory two weeks ago. James Madison claimed a resounding 63-7 win over Norfolk State at home. The game was pretty much decided by the half, when the score had already reached 35 to nothing.

Meanwhile, Appalachian State didn’t have too much breathing room in their contest with the Troy Trojans last week, but they still walked away with a 32-28 victory. Appalachian State QB Chase Brice was slinging it as he passed for two TDs and 279 yards on 34 attempts. Near the top of the highlight reel was Brice’s 53-yard TD bomb to WR Christan Horn in the fourth quarter.

Their wins bumped the Dukes to 2-0 and the Mountaineers to 2-1. Watch the matchup and check back on CBS Sports to find out who keeps up the positive energy and who hits a stumbling block.

How To Watch

  • When: Saturday at 3:30 p.m. ET
  • Where: Kidd Brewer Stadium — Boone, North Carolina
  • TV: ESPN Plus
  • Online streaming: fuboTV (Try for free. Regional restrictions may apply.)
  • Follow: CBS Sports App
  • Ticket Cost: $40.99

Odds

The Mountaineers are a solid 6.5-point favorite against the Dukes, according to the latest college football odds.

The oddsmakers had a good feel for the line for this one, as the game opened with the Mountaineers as a 7.5-point favorite.

Over/Under: -111

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See college football picks for every single game, including this one, from SportsLine’s advanced computer model. Get picks now.

Series History

This is the first time these teams have played each other within the last seven years.



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UTSA vs. Texas Southern: How to watch NCAA Football online, TV channel, live stream info, game time

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Who’s Playing

Texas Southern @ UTSA

Current Records: Texas Southern 1-2; UTSA 1-2

What to Know

The Texas Southern Tigers will take on the UTSA Roadrunners at 3:30 p.m. ET Saturday at Alamodome. Texas Southern isn’t favored, but they just beat the odds in their last game, so don’t count them out.

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The Tigers kept a clean sheet against the Southern University Jaguars last week and took the matchup 24 to nothing. The squad ran away with 21 points in the first half and mostly just sat on those in the second to pick up the victory.

Meanwhile, it was all tied up 17-17 at halftime, but UTSA was not quite the Texas Longhorns’ equal in the second half when they met last week. The Roadrunners suffered a grim 41-20 defeat to the Longhorns. This contest was a close 17-17 at the break, but unfortunately for UTSA it sure didn’t stay that way. A silver lining for them was the play of RB Brenden Brady, who threw one touchdown in addition to punching in one rushing touchdown.

Texas Southern’s win lifted them to 1-2 while UTSA’s loss dropped them down to 1-2. We’ll find out if the Tigers can add another positive mark to their record or if UTSA can shake off the defeat and take the spring out of Texas Southern’s step.

How To Watch

  • When: Saturday at 3:30 p.m. ET
  • Where: Alamodome — San Antonio, Texas
  • TV: STADIUM
  • Follow: CBS Sports App
  • Ticket Cost: $69.00

Odds

The Roadrunners are a big 42-point favorite against the Tigers, according to the latest college football odds.

Bettors have moved against the Roadrunners slightly, as the game opened with the Roadrunners as a 44-point favorite.

Over/Under: -110

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Series History

This is the first time these teams have played each other within the last seven years.



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North Carolina vs. Notre Dame live stream info, TV channel: How to watch NCAA Football on TV, stream online

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Who’s Playing

Notre Dame @ North Carolina

Current Records: Notre Dame 1-2; North Carolina 3-0

What to Know

The North Carolina Tar Heels will be returning home after a two-game road trip. They will take on the Notre Dame Fighting Irish at 3:30 p.m. ET Saturday at Kenan Memorial Stadium after a week off. UNC is expected to win — but not by much — so they will need to come into the game prepared for a fight.

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The Tar Heels beat the Georgia State Panthers 35-28 two weeks ago. Among those leading the charge for UNC was RB Omarion Hampton, who rushed for two TDs and 110 yards on 16 carries. Hampton put himself on the highlight reel with a 58-yard TD scramble in the third quarter.

Meanwhile, Notre Dame netted a 24-17 victory over the California Golden Bears last week. RB Audric Estime and RB Chris Tyree were among the main playmakers for Notre Dame as the former punched in one rushing touchdown and the latter snatched one receiving TD.

Notre Dame’s defense was a presence as well, as it embarrassed California’s offensive line to sack QB Jack Plummer six times for a total loss of 47 yards. It was a group effort with four guys contributing.

The wins brought the Tar Heels up to 3-0 and the Fighting Irish to 1-2. A pair of stats to keep an eye on: UNC enters the matchup with 310 passing yards per game on average, good for 21st best in the nation. But Notre Dame comes into the contest boasting the 34th fewest passing yards allowed per game in the nation at 184. These opposing strengths should make for an exciting matchup.

How To Watch

  • When: Saturday at 3:30 p.m. ET
  • Where: Kenan Memorial Stadium — Chapel Hill, North Carolina
  • TV: ABC
  • Online streaming: fuboTV (Try for free. Regional restrictions may apply.)
  • Follow: CBS Sports App
  • Ticket Cost: $110.00

Odds

The Tar Heels are a slight 2.5-point favorite against the Fighting Irish, according to the latest college football odds.

The line on this game has moved quite a bit since it opened, as it started out with the Fighting Irish as a 1.5-point favorite.

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Over/Under: -110

See college football picks for every single game, including this one, from SportsLine’s advanced computer model. Get picks now.

Series History

Notre Dame have won all of the games they’ve played against North Carolina in the last eight years.

  • Oct 30, 2021 – Notre Dame 44 vs. North Carolina 34
  • Nov 27, 2020 – Notre Dame 31 vs. North Carolina 17
  • Oct 07, 2017 – Notre Dame 33 vs. North Carolina 10



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