Return of Siakam, Powell could make Raptors legit threats in East again

Toronto Raptors forward Pascal Siakam (centre) shoots over San Antonio Spurs' DeMar DeRozan. (Chris Young/CP)

TORONTO – It was an evening of returns at Scotiabank Arena on Sunday.

The visiting San Antonio Spurs brought with them a slew of former players who used to call the building home: Jakob Poeltl, DeMarre Carroll, Rudy Gay, Marco Bellinelli and, of course, DeMar DeRozan.

With this many alumni in the house, there were many tribute videos to be had from the Raptors’ game ops, including those held for Poeltl and one for the man of the night himself, DeRozan. He finished with a game-high 25 points in a solid return to Toronto that included a few highlight-reel dunks – and one absolutely nasty one on Raptors centre Chris Boucher.

It wasn’t just former Raptors making triumphant returns to the Scotiabank Arena floor, either, though. The actual Raptors, themselves, saw a couple of key men return to the lineup after they each missed the past 11 games: Norman Powell and Pascal Siakam.

Coming into Sunday’s affair, it was expected that Powell would return to the lineup as Raptors head coach Nick Nurse made allusion to this fact Friday. Siakam was a bit of a surprise, however, as he had only just recently had been cleared for practice and there still wasn’t much indication when he would make a return.

Either way, this was about as good news as the Raptors had in nearly four weeks, and the results from this positive pre-game update were mixed as Siakam finished with 15 points on 6-for-17 shooting, while Powell had 20 on 8-for-14 shooting, including 4-for-7 from three-point range, as the Raptors collapsed in the fourth quarter, falling to the Spurs 105-104.

Things started positively early for the pair as, after getting nice, warm ovations from the Raptors faithful when they were introduced before the ball tipped, Siakam received a post pass on the Raptors’ second possession of the game and the crowd once again came to life, crescendoing with each dribble he made.

Then, using his patented quickness to turn around and create separation from former franchise icon DeRozan, Siakam feathered in an easy looking bank shot and the crowd erupted.

The groin was looking alright.

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Nearly three minutes later, there was Siakam again, hitting a pull-up jumper. About 90 seconds after that, Siakam then nailed a ridiculous, off-balance fadeaway jumper and that’s when you could tell not only was the groin looking all the way back, the man himself was looking like it, too.

“It felt good,” Siakam said after the game of how it felt to be back playing after the 11-game lay-off. “Obviously happy to be back. Definitely a little tired, but I’ll take that after being out for a month, I haven’t played significant basketball. I felt good though, felt good to be out there.”

Siakam would go on to hit a pair of triples in that frame to close out a dominant 12-point first quarter that saw him shoot 5-for-7 from the field and help the Raptors to a 28-21 advantage after the first 12 minutes of action.

Unluckily for Toronto, though, that would basically be it for effective play from Siakam on this evening.

Siakam would only go on to score three more points and shoot 1-for-10 from the field for the remainder of the game. And as part of the Raptors’ fourth-quarter meltdown, he was very ineffective, going 0-for-4 from the floor and 1-for-2 from the free-throw line.

So as hopeful as that first quarter looked, it’s clear there’s still some kinks to work out for the Raptors star as he gets his sea legs back underneath him.

“I feel like I kind of lost my rhythm a little bit,” Siakam said. “I wasn’t able to get back into it. It’s just going to take a little bit, I’m sure.”

For Powell, he didn’t immediately start cooking until the second half, but when he got going he looked every bit the player he had been before he got hurt in Detroit.

Before his injury, Powell was really finding a grove with his game and playing some of the most consistent basketball of his entire career, averaging 19.2 points per game on 56.5 per cent shooting from the field and 45.5 per cent from three-point range in the 10 games before he was forced out of the lineup.

He scored eight of his 20 in the third quarter alone, drilling a couple of beautiful, in-rhythm, high-arching, threes in the period, like we had grown accustomed to seeing from him before his injury.

Powell, who’s coming off a shoulder injury, echoed Siakam’s sentiment of being out there again after nearly four weeks off.

“It felt good to be back out there, running up and down, competing,” Powell said. “Physically, my body felt good. My legs took me a second to get underneath me, but other than that everything was good.”

On a minutes restriction as he makes his return, however, Powell did express some frustration with how he was utilized Sunday.

“I was mad when I first got subbed out the game with the minutes restriction,” he said. “But it’s just trusting the training staff. They’ve done a great job here with all of us and making sure we’re healthy and ready to compete at 100 per cent.

“So it’s just trusting them and knowing they have a job to do and doing what they need to do to keep us out there. It is what it is, so I’ll just continue to go with it and make the most out of the minutes [I’m] getting.”

Getting pulled a little earlier than he would’ve liked aside, this strong third-quarter performance from Powell helped the Raptors to an 82-69 advantage heading into the fourth.

And maybe if there wasn’t a minutes restriction, some prolonged run from Powell could’ve helped the Raptors avoid what was to come next in the fourth quarter.

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As part of a 15-0 run between the third and fourth, the Spurs came back from as much as 18-down to take a one-point lead with 6:34 to go in the fourth and then extended that lead to seven before the Raptors took a timeout with 3:35 left to play.

Siakam was shaky during this stretch, picking up three fouls in less than a minute.

After the timeout, Powell hit a corner three-pointer with 1:43 left to play just after Kyle Lowry came down and hit an above-the-break three to pull the Raptors within three. In the immediate ensuing Raptors possession, Serge Ibaka hit his own top-of-the-key triple to tie the game for Toronto at 100-100.

Siakam, who was 0-for-4 in the fourth quarter, then drew a foul on DeRozan with 41.3 to play, but continued to struggle, missing the first free throw, but then drilling the second to put the Raptors up 101-100.

Unfortunately for Toronto, Bellinelli hit a three to then put the Spurs up 103-101 with 28.8 left, forcing the Raptors to then foul DeRozan with 9.3 to play, who then put the Spurs up by four.

Siakam had an opportunity to tie the game back up with 19.2 remaining, but saw a point-blank lay-up attempt lip out, an indication that he may not be all the way back like he was trending towards in the first quarter.

Lowry hit a three-pointer with 4.8 seconds left to draw the Raptors within one again. With four seconds left to play, the Raptors fouled Spurs forward LaMarcus Aldridge. He missed both free throws, but without any timeouts remaining all the Raptors could muster was a desperation three-point attempt from Siakam racing down the floor and missing as the buzzer sounded.

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Regardless of the wobbly and disheartening finish though, the play of both Siakam – porous in the fourth quarter it may have been – and Powell is still an encouraging sign for the Raptors moving forward.

This is a team that weathered the storm in their absence, going 6-5 during that span, but only scoring 108.8 points per 100 possessions during that time, a mark nearly a full point per 100 possessions worse than the 109.2 per 100 possessions they were averaging in the 27 previous games before they were both forced out of the lineup after that Dec. 18 game against the Pistons.

Additionally, the Raptors’ pace was greatly affected without Powell and, especially one-man fast-break Siakam, as they averaged just 97.2 possessions per 48 minutes in the 11 games without them and had been averaging 101.48 possessions per 48 minutes before they were both forced to miss time.

In other words, there’s a real tangible benefit for the Raptors’ offence when they have their best and probably third-best scorers back healthy and on the floor.

This seems obvious, and it is, but that doesn’t make it any less important to understand about what could potentially be a really strong upwards trajectory for these Raptors moving forward.

Coming into Sunday’s contest, the Raptors were tied with the Atlanta Hawks for the weakest remaining strength of schedule, facing teams only with a combine winning percentage of .475, according to Tankathon.

If you then compound this with the fact that, to borrow Nurse’s words, Marc Gasol — also out since that Detroit game — is “coming around the mountain,” you have a situation that sees the Raptors’ best defensive player and ultra-important secondary play-maker on the verge of being back, drawing the Raptors that much closer to full health and their optimal level with the returns of Siakam and Powell Sunday.

The only missing ingredient, at this point, is Fred VanVleet, but compared to where the Raptors were in mid-December, and what they’ve been through after that, his return would just look like icing on a lethal-looking Raptors cake.

Perhaps the return of the Raptors as legitimate threats in the East, tough loss aside, of course.

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