52 reasons to smile: Siakam shines on Broadway as Raptors beat Knicks

Toronto Raptors forwards Pascal Siakam (43) and O.G. Anunoby react after Siakam surpasses 50 points for the game during the second half of an NBA basketball game against the New York Knicks Wednesday, Dec. 21, 2022, in New York. Siakam finished with 52 points and the Raptors won 113-106. (John Munson/AP)

NEW YORK – Something had to give. The New York Knicks were the hottest team in the NBA with an eight-game winning streak on the line — the product of strong play, good health and good luck.

The Toronto Raptors? Well, you know that story: all the things teams need to go well haven’t been happening, or at least not at the right time or in the right combinations. Their six-game losing streak was the longest in the league as the ball went up Wednesday night at Madison Square Garden.

But Pascal Siakam, the evidence would show, had had enough.

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The Raptors veteran and two-time all-NBA player put together the game of his career where the lights shine brightest. The Raptors rode every one of his career-best 52 points to stop the Knicks’ streak, stop their own streak and shut up the Garden crowd en route to a badly needed 113-106 win.

Siakam became just the fifth Raptor to top the 50-point mark and tied DeMar DeRozan for the second highest single-game total in franchise history. He finished just two off his pal Fred VanVleet’s all-time record of 54. Adding nine rebounds and seven assists put him on a list with LeBron James as the only visiting players to have at least 50 points, nine rebounds and five assists at MSG since 1968. He did it with the Garden crowd roaring, trying to lift the Knicks to their ninth straight win and did it when his team was desperate for something to be happy about.

“It’s cool, it’s cool,” he said about showing out at the arena that New Yorkers refer to not-so-modestly as ‘The Mecca’. It doesn’t resonate quite so deeply for a kid from Douala, Cameroon who was soccer mad until he was introduced to basketball as a teenager. “Obviously I’m not a super basketball historian. I didn’t start basketball until you know a little late and I’m learning about all these things. But I know how special [the Garden] is.

“But for me the more important thing is my team needed every bucket for us to win which is like the most important thing for me: wanting to get a win and making sure that we get back on the right track. Those guys out there are special and I just felt everyone needed that moment and I want everyone to be happy for each other and we haven’t had an opportunity to cheer for a little bit, so I think it felt good.”

Siakam delivered in every way and in every moment, including down the stretch in the fourth quarter when he was 7-for-7 from the free-throw line. The Raptors gave up an 11-point lead with 8:29 left but after Canadian men’s national team star RJ Barrett gave the Knicks the lead with 3:21 to play, Siakam responded with a pair of free throws and got some support from VanVleet’s triple (assisted by Siakam) with 1:36 left to put Toronto up by four.

Two more free throws by VanVleet, three more by Siakam and a driving lay-up by the latter in the final seconds sealed the win and made sure Siakam cracked the 50-point mark.

VanVleet added 28 for Toronto while Julius Randle and Barrett each had 30 for the Knicks, who fell to 18-14 with the loss. Toronto improved to 14-18 before heading to Cleveland on Friday to finish its pre-holiday road trip.

Siakam had been growing increasingly frustrated with the Raptors’ plight and for the second game in a row single-handedly put his team in position to win. His 38-point, 15-rebound outing against Philadelphia wasn’t quite enough as Toronto lost in overtime on Monday, but his 90-point two-game total is another Raptors record.

Siakam picked up where he left off against the Sixers and was in complete mastery as the game went on. He shot 17-of-25 from the floor (2-of-6 from three), 11-of-13 from the line and made just one turnover.

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“Special players rise to the occasion in the biggest moments, a stage like Madison Square Garden where there’s been so many historic performances, he just put his name in the books as one of those guys,” said VanVleet, who won a G-League title with Siakam when they were breaking in as rookies, an NBA title in 2019 and now shares a spot on the franchise’s all-time scoring list with his teammate.

“It’s just been a lot of fun to play alongside and watch him. When he’s got it going, he’s unbelievable, he carried us tonight on the offensive end of the floor. Just a guy you can give him the ball and get out of his way. They just didn’t have an answer for him.”

Siakam helped them got off to a solid start with a nine-point first quarter to help match the Garden crowd’s energy. He tried to end the game early with a 17-point second quarter that gave Toronto a double-digit lead going into the half.

When the Knicks clawed it all back and were down two midway through the third, Siakam scored another 17 points to give Toronto a seven-point cushion to start the final period. He was sitting on 43 points then, one off his career high and within range of VanVleet’s franchise record of 54 set during the 2020-21 season, or at least joining VanVleet, DeRozan, Vince Carter and Terrence Ross as the only Raptors to have scored 50 points or more in a game.

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The difference between the Raptors’ effort on Monday against a red-hot Sixers team and Wednesday against a white-hot Knicks club was that Siakam had more help. VanVleet was strong on both ends and O.G. Anunoby chipped in with 13 and his usual defense. Malachi Flynn was in the closing lineup in place of Scottie Barnes (1-of-10, two points) and hit a pair of timely threes.

Raptors head coach Nick Nurse was speaking before the game about the importance of his team playing to its identity as a scrappy, irritating defensive squad.

“The biggest thing for me is trying to get us back to this defensive team that I wouldn’t say people feared but they at least knew what was coming night to night: a lot of ball pressure, a lot of length, a lot of deflections, a lot of turnovers and all that kind of stuff,” said Nurse. “We got to remember who we are. It’s not quite who we are right now … but that’s where we got to keep striving to try to get back to because that still is our core of identity.”

As good an example as any came in the middle of the second quarter when for a roughly four-minute sequence at the end of the half, the Raptors looked like the Raptors.

VanVleet made a smart hustle play to secure a loose the ball after a jump ball and pitched it ahead to a breaking Barnes, who found the trailing Anunoby for the dunk. Then VanVleet and Barnes doubled Jalen Brunson on the baseline and Siakam made the steal leading to another fastbreak. Shortly after VanVleet doubled Knicks centre Mitchell Robinson to force another turnover, there was another fastbreak dunk by Anunoby. Siakam and Anunoby then followed up with threes and the Raptors were up 14 before taking a 63-53 lead into the half.

The Knicks kept coming back, but Siakam held them at bay, and his teammates delivered when he needed them too.

For the first time in nearly two weeks the Raptors could leave the floor happy.

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“Just seeing everyone cheer for each other and want to be happy, I think that we just needed that,” said Siakam. “We needed that joy and happiness for the game and for me when I see like my teammates doing well or seeing when I’m doing well that my teammates are happy for me, that gives you that that joy of the game that we’ve been missing.”

They showed their appreciation by dousing him with cold bottled water in the dressing room and presenting him with the game ball — the first of his career — after his historic night.

“I put everything in this, when I wake up that’s the first thing in my mind.” said Siakam who was an unheralded late first-round pick with just four seasons of organized basketball under his belt when he made his NBA debut in 2016-17 and has turned himself into one of the best players in sport. “It’s been a rocky season, but I think that for me, I just understand the consistency of, you know, keep putting the work every single day no matter what; no matter the result, no matter our record, and I do believe that that’s gonna always show.

“That’s just my mindset going into the game and sometimes it’s nights like this it makes me feel good and encourages you to keep going.”

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