TORONTO – Good news for the Toronto Raptors: Pascal Siakam is back, seemingly ahead of schedule, and didn’t look too shabby in the minutes-restricted 25 minutes he played in his return to the lineup Sunday afternoon against the Brooklyn Nets, finishing with 15 points on 5-of-12 shooting.
Bad news: The Raptors fell to those Nets 116-103 on Sunday, as the superstar duo of Kevin Durant and James Harden combined for 59 points – doing a lot of their damage in the second half – and proved to be too much for the Raptors.
Still, just the sight of Siakam back out on the floor was a win in its own right for the Raptors.
“We didn’t get the win, but it’s a good start. It was nice just to have him back out there,” said Raptors guard Fred VanVleet of Siakam after Sunday’s contest.
With Siakam back into the fold, the business of this 2021-22 Raptors season looks like it can truly begin in earnest.
Over the course of the team’s first 10 games without Siakam, the Raptors went a respectable 6-4. With Siakam they should be that much better – even with him playing under an apparent 24-25-minute playing cap as he eases back into game shape from off-season shoulder surgery.
However, as evidenced by what occurred Sunday, this adjustment won’t come instantly, and the Raptors may stumble in the short-term as a result.
“Everybody else is kind of affected by him coming back,” said VanVleet. “He’s going to play heavy minutes and have the ball and he’s going to be a big part of the offence. So, offensively, I think it’s just finding our rhythm and spacing and the flow and learning how to play with Pascal. For me it was great. I missed playing with him. The other guys who were playing with him for the first time, there will probably be a little bit of a learning curve.”
To VanVleet’s point, the return of Siakam changed how head coach Nick Nurse went about going through his rotation, with the biggest modification being what he did to his starting lineup.
Raptors big man Precious Achiuwa had started each game this season, but on Sunday he came off the bench for the first time as Nurse immediately inserted his all-star Siakam and started a lineup without a traditional centre.
This change seemed to unlock something in Achiuwa, who probably had his best offensive game as a Raptor yet, scoring 13 points on 6-for-11 shooting and even hitting a triple.
“It was good,” said Nurse of Achiuwa’s performance Sunday. “I think it kind of suited the rotations that they have as well, you know bringing Aldridge off the bench. We kind of needed a big to play him (against), and we didn’t have to go to too much other scheming etc. But yeah, I thought he played good.”
Nurse made the decision to have Achiuwa come off the bench mainly because he wanted Siakam to start, but he could’ve chosen Gary Trent Jr. or even Scottie Barnes instead.
The reason why didn’t do that is because, outside of core players like VanVleet, Siakam and OG Anunoby, his starting lineup is likely to be a more fluid situation than most teams, depending on where he sees a stronger defensive matchup.
“I would probably say it’s mostly defence driven,” said Nurse of how he would determine his starters on Saturday. “I think that we’ve got matchups where we don’t feel like we’re in too big a bind and have to go to something that has to take us out of our defensive character right now, because I like our defensive character right now.”
A perfect example of what Nurse was talking about was seen in his decision to have Achiuwa start off the bench.
Trent has emerged as one of the team’s premier perimeter defenders, and the length and the versatility that a combination of Siakam, Anunoby and Barnes provides on the defensive end gave flashes of truly enticing potential.
“I think that experience last year for Pascal and OG to see what it was like and kind of see maybe how we have to play as a unit, it is a little different,” said VanVleet of the Raptors playing without a traditional centre. “But they got put through the wringer last year at the four and a five when we did play small a lot so having Scottie out there helps with another big body and then we just keep rotating guys in and out.
“The (defensive) rotations will get better and we'll find our flow. We just didn't play good enough to beat that team tonight but I thought we played hard. We played together, and we’ll get back to work.”
But when will the Raptors put it all together with Siakam back? That's the top-of-mind question.
“We’ve got to figure it out,” said Siakam. “With me coming back, guys have got to find out, ‘Oh, what do I do?’ I think that’s something we’re gonna get better at, just figuring it out, talking it out on the court. Picking our spots, guys like OG, knowing what to do. I think Fred is always used to playing with me so it’s easier for him, a little bit more.
“It’s us understanding our spots, knowing how I play, and me also understanding how they play. There were some glimpses, but we’ve got to get better.”
Siakam is the Raptors’ franchise star and his return can only be viewed as a positive for the team, even if it means there may be some re-adjustment required on the part of other players on the roster.
“I think one thing we feel that is a little different from last year is our chemistry is a little bit better, a little tighter,” said VanVleet. “There is just an understanding, less confusion. Everyone puts winning first, plays the right way, everybody will eat, everybody will score, everybody will have stats. You win and all the accolades and everything you could ask for will come and I think we have an understanding of that as a group.
“As long as we focus on winning and playing the right way, all that other stuff will come. The guys in the locker room have an understanding of the pecking order and what that means when we’re out there on the floor.”
All pieces are in place now for the Raptors. It’s time to see what this team is truly made of.