Three things to watch during the Toronto Raptors’ western road trip

Pascal-Siakam-Toronto-Raptors

Toronto Raptors forward Pascal Siakam (Frank Gunn/CP)

TORONTO – Things got a bit weird Friday night at Scotiabank Arena when the Toronto Raptors fell to the Charlotte Hornets 99-96.

It’s not just the fact the Hornets, one of the league’s worst teams, managed to beat the Raptors, one of the NBA’s best; it’s that the loss should’ve been way more lopsided than the final score indicated, with the Raptors shooting under 36 per cent from the field for the second straight game, and still only come within four points of a victory.

Over the course of an 82-game season, bizarre stuff like this is bound to happen and the best way to correct course usually just involves going out there and playing.

And fortunately for the Raptors, that’s exactly what they’ll have in front of them as they kick off a five-game, nine-day Western Conference road trip beginning Sunday with an encounter with the Denver Nuggets.

After the Nuggets game, Toronto will face the Phoenix Suns on Tuesday, the Golden State Warriors on Thursday and then get a couple of days off before seeing the Sacramento Kings and Utah Jazz in a back-to-back road trip finale.

Raptors coach Nick Nurse has a theory that all of this time away should pay dividends for his team.

“I think we’ve been home for a long time,” said Nurse after Friday’s defeat. “I think you guys understand that sometimes home is really busy. There’s a lot of things going on. It seems like stuff everyday. It’s almost like you get a chance to actually regroup on the road.

“I know we’ve got to get on a plane and fly somewhere, but that’s not much of the day, usually. You get a chance to put your feet up and you get a chance to get some sleep and conserve some energy.”

We’ll see if this proclamation holds water over the next week and a half among other things of note, surely.

And so, with that said, here are three things to watch for during the Raptors’ roadie.

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Siakam’s usage

Here’s an interesting stat: Despite word from Nurse that the Raptors will be looking to expand the role of Pascal Siakam as their No. 1 offensive option here down the stretch, his usage rate has actually been lower post-all-star break (25.1 per cent) compared to before the mid-season time off (28.6 per cent).

Obviously, it’s been a minuscule four-game sample size so far into this experiment, but tracking Siakam’s usage percentage is something that will still be of interest moving forward as it’s probably the only empirical way to see how Siakam’s role is increasing.

And in this vein, a positive sign from Friday’s affair was the play of Siakam, who finished with a game-high 24 points. And while not very efficient (he was only 9-of-23 from the floor), he was still trying to make things happen for his team.

This was particularly apparent in the third quarter when Siakam scored 14 on 5-for-8 shooting, helping the Raptors cut a deficit that was as much as 17 in the game to seven entering the fourth quarter.

Siakam featured a usage rate of 28 per cent in Friday’s contest, his highest since Nurse stated he’d like to increase his role. With that dominant third period a sign of what the Raptors coach wants to see more from his leading scorer, he is someone who recognizes his team is in trouble and is willing to go out and do something about it.

“I had to do something. You know what I mean,” said Siakam. “I’m just going to keep driving, and whatever happens, happens. … [It was] just one of those games. You gotta find ways to impact the game and find ways to continue to play.”

This is the attitude the Raptors want to see more of from Siakam heading towards the playoffs, and a good place to see this put into action more consistently will be on this five-game trip.

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Powell’s play

Norman Powell returned to the lineup Friday night after missing the previous nine games with a finger injury.

Powell was enjoying the most consistent NBA season of his career this season and didn’t appear to miss a beat in his return, scoring 22 points and looking like one of the only Raptors with any semblance of offensive rhythm Friday night.

One game is still just one game, however, and we’ll have a better indication of where Powell is at during this five-game trip, especially physically.

“For me it’s to continue to go out there and play and get my conditioning to a basketball level,” said Powell of the five-game trip. “I felt pretty good out there [but] playing the game is different than running on a treadmill and doing sprints and things like that. Hopefully I can pick up my reaction times on defence.”

Powell played in excess of 36 minutes Friday night, a heavy load for someone who was just returning from injury, and while he played it off like it was nothing when speaking to reporters Friday after the game – “I wasn’t complaining” – he was seen walking gingerly around the locker room, a sign the workload paid a pretty serious physical toll on him, and, most concerning, an indication he might miss more time in the future.

When asked about this, Powell was very tight-lipped.

“No comment. I plead the fifth,” he said.

Here’s hoping this was just Powell playing with the media, but it’ll probably be a good idea to keep your eye on the injury report to scan for his name during the trip.

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Status of injured players

And that brings us to the overall health of the Raptors.

On Friday, Powell and Patrick McCaw returned to the lineup only to have Fred VanVleet and Serge Ibaka be unavailable, in addition to Marc Gasol.

It’s been the story of the season, but at this point it’s got to be frustrating for everyone involved that this team can’t seem to have even a somewhat full-complement of players available for a prolonged length of time.

“We need everybody to get back,” said Kyle Lowry. “This is the time. We’re in March now and it’s time to pick it up a little bit more and try to level up a little.”

Thankfully, it looks like there’s some good news on the injury front. After Friday’s contest, Nurse said “everybody’s going on the trip,” including Gasol, who has been out since Jan. 30.

“I think it would probably be optimistic to get out there on the trip, but he’s going so we’ll see if we can’t get him back at some point on this trip, hopefully sooner rather than later,” said Nurse of Gasol.

This would be huge news for Toronto if it’s able to get all its key pieces back during this roadie and use the trip as a proper period of preparation for the battles to come.

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