Siakam shines in Raptors win just hours before trade deadline madness begins

Toronto Raptors forward Scottie Barnes (4) pushes past San Antonio Spurs centre Jakob Poeltl (25) during first half NBA basketball action in Toronto on Wednesday, February 8, 2023. (Arlyn McAdorey/CP)

When the ball went up, everyone was where they were supposed to be.

Toronto Raptors guard Fred VanVleet had gone through all his typical pre-game routines. Pascal Siakam did his. As veterans and holdovers from the Raptors 2019 championship team, each stopped and signed autographs on their way off the floor and were announced as starters moments before the time. Gary Trent Jr. was the fourth starter announced, per usual.

And on the other side of the floor, there was old friend Jakob Poeltl, the Raptors’ first-round pick in 2016, a champion with Raptors 905 and one of the pieces that Toronto used to acquire Kawhi Leonard in the summer of 2018.

And when the game started, he was where he was supposed to be too: jumping at centre.

So for the moment, all was as it should be. That was until just hours after the game, when ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported that the Raptors had traded for Poeltl, in exchange for Khem Birch, a protected 2024 first-round pick and two future second-round picks.

Not a shock to anyone, as the Raptors were the focus of league-wide conjecture about their plans or their path forward. It was hard to ignore.

“We’ve got a lot of good players on a team that’s not winning so that’s pretty much it,” said Fred VanVleet, who has been the focus of a lot of speculation as he heads into an off-season with the choice of becoming a free agent.  “We haven’t played up to our standard this year and so we put ourselves in this position and you gotta deal with it. You gotta understand there’s probably every team in the league calling, we got a lot of guys that a lot of teams would want, and we’re not in a great situation so the front office will do their thing and do what’s best for the organization. The rest of us will come to work tomorrow, get a good practice in, and see what happens, just focus on the work at hand.”

As of Wednesday afternoon the Raptors intentions remained a question mark.

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“There’s no clarity on what direction their going,” said one league executive.

It’s been the same for weeks now. It could all be a smart use of smokescreens, the Raptors disguising their true intentions by providing wrong information or no information at all until they perceive the timing is right to jump in. Or it could be because the Raptors prove too passive and miss an opportunity.

But something will have to give. Even doing nothing is a choice and the clock is ticking.

Closer to game time Marc Stein – a well-connected NBA journalist with his own substack – began reporting that the Spurs were open to trading Poeltl, a 27-year-old, seven-year veteran who doesn’t really fit their rebuilding timeline. He added that Raptors were among the teams interested with a deal that could involve Gary Trent Jr. heading to San Antonio.

It checks out: while the Raptors have given plenty of consideration to dealing away members of their core as part of a retooling strategy, there have been plenty of talks also about adding a piece or two that could fill some of their considerable gaps. A defensive-minded big man is one of those. The Raptors have long considered Poeltl “elite” in that niche category.

There did seem to be some legitimacy to the report that Poeltl could be moving. One league source texted me just before the game just to double-check that Poeltl was indeed dressing and playing for the Spurs – had he been held out, it would have been an obvious tell that something was up.

Poeltl did play, though he didn’t have a notable impact. The Spurs aren’t very good, and the Raptors – no great shakes themselves – won 112-98.

The big Austrian finished with 12 points and seven rebounds in 28 minutes but was just 4-of-11 from the floor while dropping some passes and missing some easy looks at the rim, which is unlike him given he came into the game shooting 62.5 per cent.

Small sample size and all that, but it’s hard to imagine the Raptors or anyone else meeting the two first-round picks the Spurs have been holding out for since teams began sniffing around Poeltl this time last year. It will be interesting to see where it goes. Like Trent Jr., Poeltl is a pending free agent and expected to be looking for a deal in the $20 million range over four seasons.

It was Toronto’s third straight win and improved their record to 26-30, the closest they’ve been to the .500 mark since mid-January. They’ll have a chance to get to three under the break-even point for the first time since Dec. 16th when they host the Utah Jazz on Friday. The Spurs fell to 14-41.

By then, Toronto will know who is playing for them and who’s not. So far the uncertainty hasn’t affected the product on the floor.

“For a team that has been in all the talks and all that I think we’re doing a really good job to stay positive and stay together,” said Boucher who was averaging 11 points and 7 rebounds on 55 per cent shooting over his past nine games before going 6-of-10 from the floor and 2-of-4 from three against the Spurs. “You just never know what is going to happen, so we just try to stay together. We want to win games. That is the only focus we have now.”

Still, If it should come to pass that Poeltl ends up in Toronto again, which it did, well, it sounds like Raptors head coach Nick Nurse will be thrilled.

“We loved him when he was here,” said Nurse, who worked closely with Poeltl in his role as an assistant to then-head coach Dwane Casey. “Just a really good, smart, tough, hard-working, does a lot of the game, right? He’s a screener, a rebounder, rim protector, pretty smart on ‘D’, not necessarily a shot blocker but a body-up rim protector kind of guy … his passing has really improved.

“That’s pretty good on the list of big guy things to do: If you can rebound, protect the rim, and pass the ball, set a few screens, he can handle it and get it to the rim and finish a little bit, too. Yep, we really liked him when he was here.”

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All that said, it wasn’t a particularly impressive audition by Poeltl – or maybe he really didn’t want to leave Texas, a no-state tax jurisdiction. He was often a step slow defensively and wooden offensively, even by his standards, though he did find his teammates on cuts with some nice passes, including an especially nifty one-handed pass backwards out a post-up in the second quarter.

But in the early going, Siakam worked switches so he could isolate against old teammate Poeltl and proceeded to have the best first quarter of the season with 18 points on seven-of-seven shooting as Toronto jumped out to a 34-24 lead. Siakam led all scorers with 37 points on 15-of-21 shooting (3-of-3 from deep) while adding nine rebounds and seven assists in his best outing in weeks.

Still, the Raptors relaxed a little bit at that point, something Nurse was concerned about given they were coming off a two-week road trip and hosting a 14-win team aimed squarely at improving their draft lottery odds. The Spurs jumped out on a 23-11 run against the Raptors bench and briefly took the lead. Toronto responded with a quick 8-0 run capped by a fastbreak lay-up from Trent Jr., who scored nine of his 15 points in the first two quarters, helping Toronto take a 57-54 lead into the half.

They took control of the game in the third quarter as Trent Jr. hit a pair of quick threes and Siakam and Scottie Barnes hit one each as Toronto jumped out to a 13-point lead that grew as large as 18 with 3:35 left in the quarter. They didn’t allow the Spurs to get within double digits the rest of the way.

All five Raptors starters finished in double figures while Chris Boucher continued his excellent run of play off the bench with 18 points and 11 rebounds in 29 minutes.

Whether adding a much-needed rim-protecting big is worth giving up your most reliable three-point shooter (Trent Jr.) from a roster that is woeful in that category too, well that’s why Raptors president Masai Ujiri and general manager Bobby Webster are one of the best-paid executive pairings in the league.

It’s their job to figure this stuff out.

One way or another we’ll get to see what they’ve been thinking soon enough.

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