Siakam’s encouraging peformance not enough as Raptors fall short vs. Hawks

Toronto Raptors forward Pascal Siakam (43) grabs a rebound in front of Atlanta Hawks forward Onyeka Okongwu (17) during the first half of an NBA basketball game. (Chris O'Meara/AP)

TORONTO – Pascal Siakam has had a bizarre season thus far.

His second as the team’s No. 1 offensive option, on one hand, you can say he’s performed well as the team’s leading scorer, coming into Tuesday night’s action averaging 20.6 points per game.

On the other hand, however, Siakam’s shot just 44.5 per cent from the field and 28.4 per cent from three-point range this season and has notably come up short a number of times this season in clutch moments, most recently on Sunday when he double-dribbled in transition with about 12 seconds to play and Toronto down just two, essentially ending the Raptors’ chances against the New York Knicks.

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But as infamous as Siakam’s gaffes have been this season – and they’ve undoubtedly been bad – there have also been moments of brilliance and well, such as what we saw from him on Tuesday night against the Atlanta Hawks.

Siakam finished with 30 points, seven assists and six rebounds as Toronto fell to Atlanta 108-103 Tuesday night.

The Raptors needed all Siakam had to offer Tuesday as they were once again shorthanded with Fred VanVleet and Jalen Harris missing games again with ongoing hip problems – issues Raptors head coach Nick Nurse said he didn’t think it was great news in regards to them – Kyle Lowry missed another game, this time for rest with the Raptors playing the first game of a back-to-back Tuesday, Paul Watson Jr. once again missing time still stuck in the NBA’s health and safety protocols and, just about 90 minutes before the game tipped, word came out that DeAndre’ Bembry would miss the contest with right hamstring tightness.

The Hawks were also shorthanded Tuesday as star point guard Trae Young was a late scratch, too, along with Danilo Gallinari, John Collins, Cam Reddish, Kris Dunn, De’Andre Hunter and the man who buried the Raptors the last time these two teams met, Tony Snell.

So, for as banged up as Toronto was Tuesday, the Hawks were walking just as wounded, but it didn’t seem to matter as they got fantastic performances from Clint Capela (19 points and 21 rebounds) and Bogdan Bogdanovic (23 points on 5-for-8 shooting from three).

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Siakam got cooking early, opening the first quarter, scoring 11 points and finishing the half with 21 on 9-for-12 shooting, doing all he could to help keep the Raptors in the game as Toronto trailed 66-54 after the first 24 minutes.

Unfortunately for Siakam, while he was dominating, the rest of his team just couldn’t provide enough support as the team as a whole was just 10-for-39 from three-point range and only managed 16 assists on 42 made field goals, with many would-be dimes rimming out on open looks from three.

Part of this lack of ball movement from the Raptors Tuesday could be chopped up to the fact Siakam was the primary point guard for most of the game and, as skillful as he is, isn’t a natural at the position, even though he looked to have some fun running the offence.

“I think I like it. It’s something different and, obviously, it’s about getting more comfortable and just being out there and having a different role than just getting points or anything like that,” said Siakam. “I just think it makes me see the game a little more in a different way — you’ve gotta find a way to get other people involved and things like that. I think that’s fun and I’m learning. Obviously, I’m not a point guard by any means, but I just think that being in that position to kind of control the game, it gives you a different feel, a different vibe into the game and I kind of like it.”

For the most part, though, Siakam played well, dropping seven dimes and initiating offence for others. If some of his teammates like OG Anunoby (1-for-5) or Gary Trent Jr. (0-for-7) could’ve knocked down some of the open threes Siakam set up for them, he probably would’ve been in line for a big-time assist game.

But as as Siakam’s supporting cast was for most of the night though, Raptors rookie Malachi Flynn did provide some late-game heroics, hitting a three-pointer to pull Toronto within eight points with 1:12 to play in the fourth quarter, then drilling another one with 33.2 seconds to play to pull the Raptors within five. After that, the Hawks’ Brandon Goodwin missed a pair of free throws and Flynn hit another miraculous three, cutting Atlanta’s lead to 105-103.

An incredible 9-2 run from Flynn as part of a career-high 22-point night from the rookie.

“That’s who he is, I think he’s a pretty tough kid, he competes, you can see that on the defensive end how he competes and scraps for rebounds,” said Nurse after the game of Flynn.

Unfortunately for the Raptors, Flynn missed a look from three with 4.2 seconds to play that could’ve brought Toronto within three. Game over.

It’s been quite the little stretch for Flynn over the last couple of weeks, filling in admirably for either Lowry, VanVleet or both and you can see the confidence swelling in the young man with every opportunity he’s being given.

“I think it says a lot and I think it’s really valuable for him to be out there,” said Nurse when asked about the value of Flynn playing crunch-time minutes. “[The] last two games he’s out there down the stretch in a real tough game at Madison Square Garden and then tonight he was pretty much our offence down the stretch, right?

“You kind of get to that point where he just kind of say, ‘Well, might as well go for it.’ We’re down 10, 12, might as well go for it and he starts banging in a couple and playing carefree and playing hard at the defensive end too, made some plays there. So it’s good, it’s good experience for him.”

Despite the loss from his team, Siakam was still fabulous Tuesday night. In particular, what stood out about his game was how efficient he was, ending Tuesday’s contest going 13-of-19 from the field. His three-point shot was still wonky – he’s now mired in a 27-of-101 (26.7 per cent) slump from deep in his last 22 games – but, overall, he was scoring in a way that Nurse and the Raptors’ coaching staff would rather see.

“I think for everyone, and especially Pascal, I want to see efficiency go up,” said Nurse before Tuesday’s game. “I don’t want 7-for-20, 6-for-19 game after game after game, right? He has to get his efficiency up and so does everybody. That’s what I’m stressing as an improvement area.”

It would seem Siakam got the message Tuesday as he looked to be making an effort to get into the paint and to the basket where his bread-and-butter is.

And, very interestingly, when the paint was cut off, Siakam was featuring a rarely-seen mid-range game that appeared to pay dividends for his confidence going against the Hawks who looked helpless to even try to slow him down.

“They’re just so conscious of him driving that they’re backing off him so much that when he starts working in there he’s almost gotta take some of those,” said Nurse of the five mid-range looks Siakam took, hitting four of them.

Added Siakam about those shots: “I think those are the kind of shots that I have to take just to continue to expand my game. Obviously, I’m not shooting great from three but I just think that finding ways to take what the defence gives you. You’re not gonna get to the front of the rim every time. I mean, I wish I could, but it’s not gonna happen and there’s some shots that you’re gonna have to take sometimes and that’s one of them. And I work on those every day, so why not?”

There’s been understandable frustration from Raptors fans around Siakam and the max contract he signed, but performances like Tuesday evening are why the Raptors had confidence in making him the franchise cornerstone.

The inconsistency can be maddening at times, but the talent is undeniable.

So, yes, the Raptors lost again, but it was encouraging to see Siakam break out like he did and, for those on Team Tank, it was gravy that he played well and the team still managed to keep up their draft lottery odds, to boot.

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