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Biyombo’s departure leaves big void for Toronto Raptors

Bismack Biyombo hangs on the rim after a slam dunk against the Clippers during a game in Toronto, Sunday January 24, 2016.

Mark Blinch/The Globe and Mail

Kyle Lowry says there were times last season when the Toronto Raptors wouldn't worry about being half a step behind on defence.

They weren't being lazy, they just knew Bismack Biyombo was guarding the basket and more than happy to deal with anything that came his way.

"You'd get beat and you'd say: 'Biz is there,"' said Lowry, quickly adding: "Biz is not there now."

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No, the six-foot-nine Biyombo won't be there anymore, having moved on from the Raptors after one memorable year with the team. He gained near folk-hero status with fans in the regular season before being thrust into the playoff spotlight when centre Jonas Valanciunas was felled by an ankle injury.

There was shot blocking and ferocious rebounding — a franchise-record 26 boards in one post-season win — not to mention the odd finger wag or Usain Bolt-like pose for the crowds at Air Canada Centre.

But knowing he could cash in this summer, Biyombo opted out of his contract after the Raptors were eliminated in the Eastern Conference final and eventually signed a lucrative free-agent deal in Orlando.

"Last season we were able to be 0.8 seconds late or even a second late and Biz would be back there to clean up," said Lowry, Toronto's starting point guard. "This year we have to be a second early to make sure that we make up for the shot blocking that we don't have."

A native of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Biyombo averaged eight rebounds and 1.6 blocks in 22 minutes a game for Toronto in 2015-'16. He didn't offer much at the offensive end, but it was his work ethic and leadership — despite being just 23 years old — that most endeared him to teammates and fans.

And while Valanciunas is healthy again, Biyombo's departure leaves a massive hole in the rotation off the bench.

"I love Biz to death, but he's not here," said Raptors head coach Dwane Casey. "All I'm concerned about now is going forward."

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The way forward is a bit unclear at this point as Toronto prepares for its first exhibition game on Saturday against the Golden State Warriors in Vancouver.

The Raptors have three players at training camp they hope can fill the void — 2016 first-round picks Jakob Poeltl and Pascal Siakam, along with second-year man Lucas Nogueira — but Casey isn't expecting any one of those untested youngsters to step up on his own.

"It's going to be by committee," he said. "We need rim protection, we need paint protection from those big guys."

Toronto added power forward Jared Sullinger, who could play centre if Casey decides to go small. But the Raptors know they need to recommit to team defence, regardless of the personnel.

"Everybody's got to step in and bring everything they can, especially defensively, and understand that was what got us where we were last year," said guard DeMar DeRozan. "It's tough to replace a guy like Biz, but we've got to figure out ways. It's got to be a collective effort with everybody."

And while no one is expecting Biyombo's replacement to completely fill the charismatic centre's shoes, Casey is confident the job can be done.

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"They're not going to be the high-flying, shot-blocking, energetic type," he said. "They may be more cerebral ... anticipation, getting to a spot, understanding the schemes a little bit more, playing within the schemes. The schemes will take care of it if you're where you're supposed to be."

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