10 things: Siakam’s performance proves Raptors should build around him

Toronto Raptors forward Pascal Siakam (43). (John Munson/AP)

Here are 10 takeaways from the Toronto Raptors‘ 113-106 win over the New York Knicks on Wednesday:

1. The Raptors finally broke their six-game losing streak, and it wasn’t easy. New York had won eight in a row and was the hottest team in the league, hosting a Raptors team sitting on just three road wins all year, but the Raptors scrapped from start to finish. It took one of the best individual performances in franchise history, innovative planning from the coaching staff and total commitment from the team, but the Raptors finally have something to feel good about and to build upon.

2. Pascal Siakam played the best game of his career. Similar to the effort against Philadelphia when he scored 38 points with 15 rebounds, Siakam was relentless in his singular focus to lead the Raptors to victory. Siakam got comfortable early, scoring off a spin move, a short stepback jumper, a putback and a pick-and-pop for three, as it became clear the Knicks weren’t equipped to stop him. Siakam then went on a tear in the second and third quarters, scoring 17 in each frame as he single-handedly pushed the Raptors into the lead. Next, he pulled them out of their terrible habit of starting slow in the third quarter, pushing them back in control before finishing strong. Siakam got past every defender the Knicks sent his way, and he was clever in how he beat the double teams by either driving away from the crowd for pull-up jumpers or by attacking quickly before the crowd could converge. He matched his previous career high in points through three quarters, and while he didn’t always have the ball down the stretch, Siakam was able to score an and-one in transition to put himself at 52 points on the night while also flirting with a triple-double.

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3. Siakam is the reason the Raptors should still look to build rather than tear down. Trade talk is premature in December because most teams are still evaluating, but the Raptors should see what they already have. Siakam is a top-15 player squarely in his prime, and the job of the front office is to find ways to surround him with ready-to-win pieces. In truth, the Raptors shouldn’t have needed Siakam for 90 points in two games, but that tells you two things: 1. Siakam has levelled up and is good enough to be your lead option; 2. The rest of the team isn’t performing well enough for him to relinquish control. Surround Siakam with a two-way centre and some shooting, and see how far it takes you.

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4. As with any coach during a losing spell, the Raptors’ Nick Nurse has come under criticism along with the rest of the team. His offensive strategy has been called uninventive and his defensive strategy dubbed too creative. But this was undeniably a great game from Nurse, who pushed all the right buttons. He started the game in a box-and-one, which surely caught the Knicks by surprise as Nurse made it a focus to neutralize Jalen Brunson, who shot 3-of-14 with five turnovers. Nurse then shifted back to zone coverage against the Knicks’ bench, which lacks playmaking and shooting in similar fashion to the Raptors. The 55-year-old coach also gave Siakam a breather to start the fourth quarter, even though the easier move would have been to ride the hot hand, but he did so responsibly by having his second- and third-best players in O.G. Anunoby and Fred VanVleet playing a two-man game that maintained the lead. Finally, when Scottie Barnes made three costly defensive mistakes in a row, Nurse pulled the plug on his prized sophomore, and closed out with Thad Young and Malachi Flynn, which showed that he was fair in his management.

5. VanVleet was up and down in the fourth, but made the biggest shot of the night to clinch the result. VanVleet was steady throughout as he initiated play to start the first and third quarters because he liked the matchup with New York playing two guards who were at his eye-level, but also took a few too many shots in the fourth when it should have been in Siakam’s hands. VanVleet took nine shots in the fourth to lead all players, as compared to just two for Siakam. Even in the process of how they attacked, it was Siakam screening for VanVleet with the ball when it should have been the other way around. But on the most pivotal sequence of the night, when Anunoby blocked R.J. Barrett and then dove out of bounds so that Siakam could dig it out of a crowd, it was VanVleet who was open on the break and he didn’t hesitate to knock in the three to push the lead to four. That’s the part of VanVleet’s game that matters the most. His inside-the-arc scoring is welcome and his drive-and-kick passing is vital, but VanVleet needs to hit his threes at an elite clip for the Raptors to be successful. He went 4-for-10.

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6. Anunoby continues to be the unsung hero. Despite another off night shooting the three, Anunoby made many timely plays to push the Raptors ahead. In the first half, it was Anunoby jumping passing lanes for breakaway dunks that pushed the lead to double digits. He won a jump ball over a seven-footer in Mitchell Robinson to save another possession. He smothered the receiver on an inbound and forced a longer pass that sailed out. He won two offensive rebounds in the fourth. And most importantly, despite it not being his best defensive outing, Anunoby comes up with the block and the save at the end.

7. The two most selfless players on the Raptors are Young and Juancho Hernangomez, who are each filling in as the glue guys for the starters and the bench. Hernangomez took the box-and-one assignment on Brunson to start the game, and it was his constant cutting and threat to shoot that created spacing for others to attack. None of it ends up on the box score but they were both key components to the win. For Young, he was the main communicator at the back of the zone, being the eyes and ears for Malachi Flynn and Siakam on the perimeter as the Raptors’ second unit won decisively against their counterparts. Both forwards rarely touched the ball and were looked off at times despite being open, but that didn’t stop them from crashing the glass with full force for six offensive rebounds. Not everyone on the team can shine on the stats sheet, but everyone can shine in their role.

8. Malachi Flynn continues to be a spark off the bench. Flynn’s confidence in shooting the three has been a real difference-maker in Gary Trent Jr.’s absence, and it could potentially even be a showcase for a possible trade down the road. Flynn has found success as an off-ball guard playing next to VanVleet and Siakam, and he’s also passing the test defensively for the time being. It was a favorable matchup against the Knicks who also rely on small guards for scoring punch, and Flynn came up with a perfectly timed block on Immanuel Quickley in the final minute. For the first time since Tampa, there is a runway for Flynn to find minutes, and he’s stayed prepared and he’s taking his opportunity.

9. Barnes needed to be more focused in this game. It’s not about the 1-for-10 shooting that included multiple airballs, because Barnes himself would tell you that his game is more than just scoring. What was disappointing were the things under his control that he didn’t do. He walked to a soft closeout on Barrett’s three to start the game, then he didn’t have a hand up on Randle’s jumper. Instead of stepping up and rounding out the drive, Barnes tried to step in for a charge well ahead of the shot, which allowed Barrett to simply drive around him to his preferred left-handed layup. A few moments later, when Barnes was playing the five, meaning that he was the back-line helper, he was caught in no-man’s land and allowed Robinson to cut behind for a dunk, then failed to help on a Brunson drive. When the Raptors later had Brunson trapped in the corner, Barnes bailed him out by pushing him with two hands instead of moving his feet to contain. All of this was in the first quarter alone, and while you can maybe excuse a slow start from a player who has shown the talent to turn it around within a game, Barnes was still unfocused in the fourth when he couldn’t cut off Randle on a transition drive to the rim, was caught out of position against a corner shooter that left him looking silly on a wild closeout that still left the three open, then failed to box out Randle for a putback. All of this left Nurse no choice but to cut him off at two minutes in the fourth.

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10. Wednesday’s game continued a strange pattern of Barnes being unable to find his game on the road. When he plays at home, Barnes is fourth in scoring at 17.7 points on 51 per cent shooting and 38 percent from three, with eight rebounds and five assists. On the road, Barnes drops to 10.9 points as the seventh-ranked scorer, on 36 per cent from the field and 23 per cent from three, with six rebounds and four assists. Granted, there is also a noticeable six-point drop from VanVleet on the road, which is also problematic, but Barnes has just been curiously lost in several road games.

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