Raptors’ Siakam recaptures trademark energy in lopsided win over Hornets

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Toronto Raptors forward Pascal Siakam (43) shoots through Charlotte Hornets defenders during first half NBA action. (Frank Gunn/CP)

TORONTO — It had been a quiet start for Pascal Siakam when, nearly five minutes into his night, the Toronto Raptors point-forward spun out of a screen he’d set for Fred VanVleet, accepted a pass, and casually drilled a three-pointer from the elbow.

Head up and expressionless, he jogged back to the defensive end to try to help his team get a stop. That ultimately proved unsuccessful. But on the ensuing offensive possession, Siakam worked another little two-man action with VanVleet but this time rolled straight to the paint where he cut through a frozen Charlotte Hornets defence like he was on rollerblades, finishing off the backboard and in.

It’s just business. Cold, transactional buckets. The kind of high-volume scoring teams ask for from their No. 1 options on a game-by-game basis. The kind of success Siakam couldn’t buy a couple of nights earlier.

Sure, the effort shown by the Toronto Raptors throughout Monday’s 132-96 outclassing of the Hornets was a collective one. Seven Raptors put up double-figures. All five starters finished plus-19 or better. OG Anunoby scored 16 of his career-high 24 points in the third quarter alone, while Norman Powell chipped in double-digit points for the fifth time in his last six games.

But Siakam’s quietly efficient 20 points, eight rebounds, and five assists — not to mention a game-high plus-36 — was as encouraging of a stat line as any of it. Not so much for its impact on what happened Monday, as nice as that was. But for what happened the last time he was on the floor.

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Saturday’s loss to the Dallas Mavericks was Siakam’s worst game in ages. He struggled to finish at the rim; he left shot after shot short of the basket; he lacked the boost and aggressiveness he normally uses to beat defenders and create havoc for whoever he’s guarding. Playing over 40 minutes for a fourth consecutive road game in the span of seven days, Siakam looked tired.

As he should have been. He’s blessed with the motor of all motors, but he’s still flesh and blood. He still fatigues. And when you play as many minutes as Siakam has during a breakout season — not to be confused with last season’s breakout season — in which his usage has increased 10 percentage points, something’s bound to give. His shot chart that night, all 6-for-24 of it, wasn’t pretty:

It’s not so easy being the guy — carrying the offensive load for your team night in and night out while not being a liability on the defensive end. The echelon of marquee players Siakam’s been pushing to enter since signing his max extension is a rarefied one for a reason. There just aren’t many athletes who can exist there over the course of weeks, months, seasons. Who can find ways to remain effective despite being the focal point of the opposition’s defensive strategy every time out.

And even the game’s greatest have their off nights. It happens to everyone. The separator is not letting one bad night become two. And then a bad week. And now you’re in a slump. And everyone wants to know when you’re going to pull yourself out of it.

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To Siakam’s credit, he’s consistently found a way to rebound from tough performances. Two games into the second round of Toronto’s championship run last spring, when Joel Embiid and the Philadelphia 76ers were giving him all kinds of trouble with their length and paint-clogging tactics, Siakam responded with one of his best games of the playoffs in Toronto’s 36-point victory in Game 5.

A couple of weeks later, when Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks frustrated Siakam into fouling out of Game 2 of the Eastern Conference Finals, he answered with a 25-point, 11-rebound night in Game 3 as Toronto won its first of four straight to take the series. Not long after that, he was posing problems the Golden State Warriors couldn’t solve on the league’s grandest stage.

So Monday’s performance wasn’t necessarily a surprise — it was what we’re coming to expect from Siakam as he takes his latest leap. Even if his 20 and eight snuck up on you, as so many of Siakam’s productive nights this season have.

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While everyone was blinking their eyes in amazement at Rondae Hollis-Jefferson’s first half, in which he scored 15 points and pulled down three offensive boards in 12 minutes off the bench, and shaking their heads in bewilderment at Powell’s, in which he alternated between athletic finishes through traffic and maddening misses on wide-open looks, Siakam just chugged along putting up numbers.

He hit the second three-pointer he attempted late in the first quarter — after missing his final five vs. Dallas — kissing it off the backboard from an unorthodox angle. He finished an and-one over Devonte’ Graham moments into the second frame. He drilled another three right in front of his bench late in the first half to put the Raptors up seven. He dropped an emphatic hammer during Toronto’s third-quarter run like only he can:

It must be said — the Hornets and their many small lineups provided about as favourable of a matchup as Siakam could’ve asked for in pursuit of a bounce-back performance. Four of Charlotte’s five starters stood well short of the six-foot-nine Siakam, meaning he could almost always shoot over whoever was guarding him. And centres Cody Zeller and Bismack Biyombo were too busy being pulled out to the arc by Marc Gasol to clog the paint, which left plenty of room for Siakam to drive.

Still, you’ve got to take advantage of the opportunities you’re afforded. And Siakam seized his, recapturing the trademark energy his game lacked against the Mavericks and getting back to the business of operating as the team’s primary option. Back to cold, transactional buckets. Back to being himself.

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