Raptors stars’ off-night can’t take shine off Siakam’s rise

Matt Devlin and Leo Rautins breakdown the New Orleans Pelicans' victory over the Toronto Raptors, pointing to the backcourt of Jrue Holiday and E'Twaun Moore as the dominating factor.

TORONTO – If you’re trying to reverse engineer the foundation of the Toronto Raptors‘ championship aspirations, you need to look beyond the obvious.

For one – obviously – they won’t win every game at Scotiabank Arena, as they proved Monday night dropping a 126-110 decision to the visiting New Orleans Pelicans.

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The loss was their first at home, their first with Kawhi Leonard in the lineup, and just their second in 14 games. The loss came against a Pelicans club Raptors head coach Nick Nurse called an ‘offensive juggernaut’ in the morning and wasn’t proved wrong in the dark. The Anthony Davis-led Pels shot 55 per cent from the floor and never really allowed the Raptors to feel like they were ever going to control the game.

“It just felt like we were just not quite with much pace and readiness on defence wasn’t good enough,” said Nurse. “And I give them a lot of credit and you know this is going to happen in this league. They’re going to see a team that was 12-1, right? They’re coming in after a couple of wins, they’re very talented, they were ultra-focused and they made a lot of shots and they played great.

Those details aside, if the Raptors (12-2) somehow end up playing for a title, we can assume that the acquisition of Leonard will be a big reason why. And the late-career surge of Kyle Lowry will be essential – his 1-of-9 showing Monday evidence of what happens when he struggles while commanding the good ship Raptors. Danny Green’s arrival as the central casting veteran role player with championship experience will matter, too, and don’t forget about the revival of Serge Ibaka.

None of them were in top form against the Pelicans and – predictably – Toronto struggled.

But as much as the big names matter, it’s becoming clear the Raptors’ playoff fortunes will also ride on their decision to use a late first-round pick on an unknown ‘tweener playing at a mid-major far out of the view of college basketball’s big time.

It might be a stretch to say the Raptors will go as Pascal Siakam goes, given he was playing as an under-sized centre at New Mexico State just four years ago, but it wouldn’t be one to say he could be the difference between Toronto following through on this magical start and them falling short.

Siakam was good again on Monday night – maybe the Raptors’ best player with 22 points on 12 shots in 28 minutes – but he can’t overcome blah outings from Lowry, Leonard (20 points on 7-of-20 shooting) and the rest. The result was predictable, particularly with Davis (25 points and 20 rebounds) and Jrue Holiday (29 points and 14 assists) having their way and – in Holiday’s case, having his way with Lowry on both ends. It’s not often Lowry is going to get man-handled 29-2.

“Jrue always tried to guard the best perimeter guy,” said Davis. “He did a good job on Lowry, made him take some tough shots. He didn’t have it going tonight. Jrue’s first-team all-defense for a reason, he takes every match-up personally and I think he did a good job.”

But given the nature of the NBA salary cap, it’s almost impossible for a team to acquire enough elite talent from outside the organization to build a championship roster from scratch. Developing from within is essential. Do that and you can trade for a superstar of Leonard’s quality and have him join a roster with enough depth and versatility to build a winner around him.

The Raptors weren’t necessarily thinking that way when they worked out Siakam in Buffalo prior to the 2016 draft. They liked him but were hoping to grab him in the second round. As things developed, they decided his energy and passion were enough insurance that at the very least he’d have a chance to hustle his way into an NBA rotation, and if he could figure out how to shoot? Who knows?

So they pulled the trigger on Siakam with the No. 27 pick and then tried to figure out what they had.

“I knew from the first day he worked out for us in Buffalo [he’d be something],” said former Raptors head coach Dwane Casey who gave an over-matched Siakam his first NBA start in his first game as a rookie. “He couldn’t throw rice in the ocean out of a rowboat at that time, but … the kid has an NBA motor, and I knew that, and his heart and spirit are in the right place.”

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Even the most optimistic projections didn’t have him earning Eastern Conference player-of-the-week honours at the outset of his third NBA season, and establishing himself as a key starter on a team that had the NBA’s best record through Monday night.

“Definitely a cool moment,” said Siakam after the game. “It just gets you to continue to work hard, you know, you don’t want to stop anymore because you’re getting recognized and your hard work is paying off, and you just wonder what level you can get to.

He did it his way: efficiently finding ways through the cracks in the defence, taking what the game is giving him and using his tireless energy and high-flying athleticism to grab what’s there when it doesn’t. Siakam averaged a team-high 20 points and 4.3 rebounds in three wins before Monday’s game, but did his damage on just 29 shots – which could quite possibly be the lowest number of shots ever taken by a player-of-the week winner. It helps when you make 21 of them.

He continued his ultra-efficient approach against the Pelicans, starting the game with a three-point play, knocking down a triple and then hitting a funky runner in transition. Another three-point play midway through the third quarter gave Siakam 16 points on just six shots on his way to another big night of offence.

The best thing about Siakam is he seems to improve before your eyes. While he can finish in all manner of ways around the rim – his spin moves over either shoulder are a delight and nearly unstoppable, particularly when they come in transition as he rips down a rebound and forces the ball down the opponents’ throat at high speed. Until recently, his biggest issue thus far has been his ability to spot up and shoot.

But he hit three triples in setting a career-high against the Knicks and two of his first four against the Pelicans to bump him up to 31 per cent for the season. The steady calm of a sniper doesn’t come naturally for a late bloomer who earned his way to the NBA due to his furious energy, but he’s not opposed to hard work.

“I mean, I always improve. I feel like from my first time ever shooting a three, which was like maybe three years ago, to now, it’s improving, man,” said Siakam. “I’m working really hard at it. I think most of it is just confidence and just letting it translate to the game. I know what I do, how many hours I put in, it’s just about me doing it in the game and me being patient and not being frustrated.

His fearlessness and relentlessness has the same effect on people as watching an enthusiastic puppy chasing a ball through the leaves. You can’t help but root for him.

“I think you have seen it with him coming out with the ball and it was all great with Pascal handling and everything,” said Raptors head coach Nick Nurse. “Then you saw where there was a game or two where it got right on the edge of craziness, squirting away from him …. sometimes he’ll start this way and start this way, start this way and it takes a little bit longer than you want, too many dribbles … and then he gets his back on somebody and he spins, he’s at the rim and laying it in so …. it’s kind of okay”

If you’re looking for an interesting comparison for where Siakam can fit and what he can aspire to there is Draymond Green, in many ways the heart-and-soul of the three-time champion Golden State Warriors. Like Siakam, Green was mostly an afterthought in his draft year, done in by concerns about position and shooting ability. He didn’t become a starter until his third season and, even then, his numbers – 11 points, eight rebounds and four assists – didn’t jump off the page, but Siakam is in that neighbourhood this season with 13.9 points on 64 per cent shooting and 6.3 rebounds — and he’s just getting started.

And hey, Green didn’t win player of the week honours until his fourth season.

It didn’t work out Monday night for the Raptors, but however it works out this season for both team and player as they try to play into June, one thing is for sure:

“He sure has developed nicely,” said Nurse, shaking his head. “Great pick.”

No team with championship dreams do it without them.

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