TORONTO – Things will get better from here.
And if he doesn’t quite match up with some people’s picture of the ideal franchise player, he’s the closest thing the Raptors have to one, and he’s pretty damn good.
And he’s been missed.
For the first time in more than 600 days, he took the floor at Scotiabank Arena and felt the warmth of a crowd the Tampa sun could never quite replace. And for brief spurts he felt his body moving the way countless hours have trained it to do. He felt unburdened and free and ready to play.
The Raptors couldn’t quite handle Kevin Durant and James Harden and the Brooklyn Nets who spoiled Siakam’s season debut in his return from off-season shoulder surgery as they combined for 33 second-half points in the Nets’ 116-103 win.
But they showed signs that at some point in the near future they just might. You didn’t have to look too hard to see the outline of a team that could well be the surprise in the Eastern Conference.
With Siakam on the floor, they looked almost complete.
But it wasn’t an afternoon to be evaluated by results or stats.
It was a day to feel good, to believe in what’s possible. It was a happy day for Siakam, who was embraced by his friend and teammate of six years, Fred VanVleet, in the tunnel as they ran out to the floor, smiles all around.
“I tried hard not to make it a big thing. Today I was laughing on Open Gym [the Raptors in-house documentary crew] because I was telling them I don't want to make it a big deal, and then [they came] to my house and filmed me going all the way to the arena,” said Siakam. “So, I tried not to but I know how important it is, and obviously I'm super happy and super excited to be back in Toronto.
“It's been so long, playing in this arena, and just playing with my teammates and seeing the fans, so yeah, it was a great moment and obviously wanted to get a win. But it is what it is.”
It was the opposite of the moment Siakam got the news this past summer that he would require surgery to repair a torn labrum in his left shoulder.
"[It] felt good, felt good, again, [for] the first time in a long time,” Siakam said after the game. “I just think [I’ve] been through a lot. I remember when [Raptors vice president of health and performance Alex McKechnie] was telling me, 'Oh, you have to get a surgery,' and it was like my first surgery, obviously [I was] super scared. I remember crying.”
“I don't think I've cried like that since my dad passed away, I think just because of the season that we had [in 2020-21]. I just wanted to go back into the summer, I had so many things I had planned, and it just felt like another blow, like you have to get through surgery, talking about six months, [it was] just really tough moment for me and I remember thinking it was the end of the world.
“Obviously, I know people go through a lot more or a lot more difficult situations, but it was just tough and I was just really sad and devastated.”
The payoff could be coming. Siakam joined a team that’s better than most expected, but with plenty of promise. The loss to Brooklyn – widely tapped as championship contenders – left Toronto 6-5 on the season, while the Nets improved to 7-3.
But there were plenty of moments, both for Siakam and the team a whole. He was limited to 25 minutes spread out over four shifts of roughly six minutes. He provided 15 points, four rebounds, two blocks and a steal. The minute he touched the ball it was easy to see he’s still the Raptors most polished front-court player, giving head coach Nick Nurse some needed offensive punch to go with platoon of rangy defenders – where Siakam ranks near the top of the class also.
He made plays look easy. He showed trademark bursts of athleticism and skill. He stepped into a deep three and blew by defenders to get to the rim with equal levels of ease. He slid laterally, chest-to-chest with Durant and forced the Nets star to give up the ball.
He did a lot for guy who hasn’t played 5-on-5 basketball for six months and is using NBA games to get back in peak shape.
“I think it's just a reminder for the idiots on Twitter who have got to beat him for the past two years,” said VanVleet, who led the Raptors with 21 points and eight assists, in reference to some of the flack Siakam took for a poor finish to the 2019-20 season and a slow start the following year. “Like, you have to have some knowledge and some feel, and you see him out there and you say, well damn. It’s a reminder [if you haven’t seen him] ... he’s a special talent.
“Obviously, once we knock those minutes restrictions out and get our rhythm and get our feel as a group with him out there, I think that we're gonna be a really good basketball team.”
Just having Siakam in the lineup gives the Raptors options they haven’t had. Since the Nets don’t start a traditional centre, Nurse could roll out a front line featuring rookie Scottie Barnes, Siakam and the emerging OG Anunoby. There’s potential for super-sized lineups with Siakam playing something akin to point guard and super athletic lineups with Siakam playing center.
The Raptors' best moment came in the second quarter. There was a sequence where Siakam made a steal, made an outlet for the break and then finished in transition thanks to a clever pass by Dalano Banton, another 6-foot-8, ball-handling match-up buster. A moment later, it was Siakam on a blow-by of the Nets Paul Millsap in the half court.
When Siakam went to the bench, it was Barnes stealing the ball on consecutive possessions from Durant, leading to a dunk for Chris Boucher and then one for Barnes himself. The crowd at Scotiabank loved it.
Siakam, watching from the bench where he has been the most animated Raptor all season, was more subdued on Sunday.
“It was tough, after my first three minutes, I think I needed some gas or something, my legs were heavy, I think I couldn't breathe at one point,” he said.
But the potential was obvious as the Raptors won the quarter 34-24 over Brooklyn to take a 60-63 lead into the half, the high point of the game for the Raptors.
“[He] gives us another athletic, skillful player out there,” said Nurse. “... I think the second quarter was, that’s how you’d draw up what it [we have] to look like, we were everywhere. Every time somebody turned, somebody else was there, and then we were out and running ... . The more bodies we have, the harder we should be able to play.”
The Nets weren’t interested in scripted endings. Durant and Harden attacked the Raptors clinically in the pick-and-roll in the second half. Durant had 13 of his game-high 31 in the third quarter as the Nets took an 88-77 lead into the fourth and then Harden took over, scoring 16 of his 28 in the fourth, while adding 10 rebounds and eight assists, both game highs.
Siakam’s best moment came in the fourth quarter when took a hit on his surgically repaired left shoulder on his way to the rim and made the free throws, and then muscled through the Nets Blake Griffin for an old-school three-point play a possession later to cut Brooklyn’s lead to eight points. Then, he assists on VanVleet triple to get the Raptors within seven with less than five minutes to play. Harden responded with a three and that was as close as the Raptors got. Siakam’s night was over a moment later.
But not before he punctuated his three-point play with a roar, a flex and a huge smile. It was a win in its own way. It has been a long time coming.
“One thing I learned from last year and all the losses and the season that we had is it doesn’t matter how sad you get, [it’s still a loss] the next day,” he said. “[So] I just want to be happy, give everything that I have. I just want to go out there, play as hard as I can for my team and obviously this year, we have a very good team. I think the potential is there. We just have to continue to work hard and play to our identity and hopefully we can win some games. [And] just be myself.”