Siakam’s progress toward pre-injury level of play powers Raptors past Knicks

Toronto Raptors' Pascal Siakam (43) celebrates after making a three-point basket late in the second half of an NBA basketball game against the New York Knicks Friday, Jan. 24, 2020, in New York. (Frank Franklin II/AP)

NEW YORK — No one knows better than Pascal Siakam that, as wonderful as his seemingly out-of-nowhere path to NBA stardom has been, it hasn’t unfolded in a straight line.

“What was I last night, 1-for-whatever?” he said in the moments after he learned he would be an All-Star game starter. “It’s about the journey.”

He was referring to his latest bump in the road: Going 1-for-8 from three in his most recent game, a Raptors win over the Philadelphia 76ers.

But he touched on a larger point: Just as the NBA world has come around to what his teammates and Raptors fans have known for some time — that Siakam is a serious talent — he’s mired in his first slump of his breakout season.

His performance in the Raptors’ 118-112 win over the lowly New York Knicks won’t be on his season highlight reel, but there were some signs of progress.

Siakam was aggressive in attacking the defence quickly off the dribble and determined to get his feet in the paint to either score or draw attention so he could move the ball to an open teammate. His three-point stroke isn’t quite back to peak-form, but he ended up knocking down a couple of important ones.

All in all? A solid night’s work, as Siakam finished with 23 points and seven rebounds along with three assists, while shooting 9-of-15 from the floor and 2-of-5 from three.

“I thought we saw some more Pascal-like moments tonight,” said Raptors head coach Nick Nurse. “The start — [he was going] straight downhill and in [to traffic], a little bit more direct-line drives, and then obviously the finish. And that’s good.”

The Raptors were led by Kyle Lowry, who is likely to make his sixth All-Star game but will need to be selected by the coaches to earn one of the seven remaining spots. Lowry strengthened his case with 26 points and three triples as Toronto shot 17-of-35 from deep.

And while Lowry’s ability to make winning plays in big games has become his calling card, there is little question that his willingness to bring his ‘A’ game — even against the Knicks — is a part of his identity that coaches respect as well.

“I don’t know what you are talking about,” Lowry said when asked if he ever thinks twice about flinging his body all over the place in pursuit of every loose ball, seemingly. “I just go out there to win games. I do what it takes to win basketball games. That’s what I do.”

The Raptors have been winning their share, too, as they extended their streak to six, improved their record to 31-14 and are now tied with the Miami Heat for second place in the East.

Toronto now moves on to San Antonio Sunday for a matchup against DeMar DeRozan and the Spurs. Get that one and they could really build on this successful stretch, as they play the lottery-bound Atlanta Hawks, Cleveland Cavaliers and Detroit Pistons after that.

But for the Raptors to be their best they need Siakam to be at his best, and he hasn’t been as of late.

In his first six contests since returning from an 11-game absence due to a groin injury, Siakam had yet to play at the level that earned him a starting spot in the All-Star game.

Heading into Friday night’s game against the Knicks he was shooting just 20 per cent from three, and had generally not produced at an all-star level — as his 16.3 points and six rebounds on 43.7 per cent shooting and two turnovers (against three assists) in 28 minutes a game could attest.

Before he got hurt, he was averaging 25 points and eight rebounds a game while shooting 46 per cent from the floor and 39 per cent from three. Elite production.

It makes sense he would struggle, given that he was extremely limited in what he could do while out for more than three weeks.

“You spend a month without playing basketball, you can’t simulate that,” Siakam said. “You can’t practise or run or do anything to match the speed of the game. I expected it.”

Part of his struggles are attributable to Siakam still feeling out how to handle a usage rate that is among the highest in the NBA after being more of secondary player even last season.

As steep as Siakam’s growth curve has been, it’s easy to forget it’s still a learning process for him.

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Before the game, Nurse was saying Siakam’s route to his best basketball could simply be going back to his roots.

“I always say ‘you always got to go to your bread and butter,’ and his bread and butter to me is his energy,” Toronto’s coach said. “He runs the floor, he plays on the catch, he’s at the front of the rim quickly. Make sure you don’t forget about that kind of stuff.”

It’s harder to do all of that when a defence is rotating en masse to face you — something that is still new to Siakam.

“We are getting into some situations where now he’s changed his tempo a little bit,” said Nurse. “He’s getting the ball and he’s seeing three or four defenders in front of him, and you do have to survey that a little bit.

“You start bouncing it and you’ve got your head turned and there’s a lot of different scenarios that he’s trying to work his way through and kind of lock those in mentally that he can take advantage of.

“[So] take what’s there but also if they’re sending two, three defenders, you’ve got to find the right play.

“There’s still a lot of growth left there yet.”

Siakam kept things simple against the Knicks. He scored a lay-up on his first touch and sprinted out on the break for another one a moment later.

Those were bright spots, as the Raptors started slowly and trailed the Knicks 26-20 after one quarter. There were a couple more missed threes after that but, as the Raptors began to gain control of the game, Siakam began asserting himself and went into the half with two more lay-ups.

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In the third quarter he was able to mix it up – driving and finding Marc Gasol for a couple of threes; getting into the paint to score for himself and finally getting one of his own triples to drop.

The Raptors led 85-79 after three quarters and pushed that advantage to 12 early in the fourth — all while Siakam and most of the other starters sat, as Toronto feasted on an overwhelmed New York second unit.

The Raptors don’t need Siakam to play at an all-star level every night, and they certainly don’t need it against the Knicks. He was one of five Raptors with at least 14 points on the night. You figure they would have found a way no matter what.

Which is good, because there are still some edges to sand off. Midway through the fourth, Siakam checked back in, caught a pass in the post, tried to spin and was doubled, turning it over.

It’s a defensive play he should be ready for. The turnover helped spark a Knicks surge that saw them go on an 11-3 run and cut the lead to two with 5:15 to play. He fouled Marcus Morris on a three-pointer a moment later that allowed the Knicks to tie the game 103-103 with four minutes to play.

But Siakam looked fast and agile closing out on Morris on the next couple of possessions and, after an OG Anunoby three gave the Raptors the lead, Siakam cut hard for a Fred VanVleet pass, got fouled and hit a pair of free throws to put Toronto up by five.

After the Knicks pulled back to within one, Siakam’s driving dunk with 1:09 left gave the Raptors a little more breathing room and his triple with 15 seconds left iced it.

Finally, he looked like himself.

“I don’t think I felt my best, but I had a little more push, running a little more in transition — little things,” he said. “On defence also, [I’m] moving better, so I’m excited about it, getting back to being who I am. I’m not there 100 per cent, just in terms of getting that little rust off, but I’m getting in the right direction. I keep doing that and the rest will follow.”

Siakam’s performance wasn’t mission critical and maybe not close to the heights he’s shown early this season.

But there will be games where Toronto will need him to carry them to wins they don’t deserve, and games they can only win with him at his best to push them over the top.

Siakam, All-Star starter, isn’t quite there yet. But there are signs he’s back on his way.

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