By benching Siakam, Raptors risked much-needed win to emphasize team culture

Toronto Raptors guard Norman Powell (24) shoots over New York Knicks guard RJ Barrett (9) during the second half of an NBA basketball game Thursday, Dec. 31, 2020, in Tampa, Fla. (Chris O'Meara/AP)

Looking to shake up his team in the midst of a three-game losing streak, Toronto Raptors head coach Nick Nurse hinted before Thursday’s game against the New York Knicks he would be considering some lineup changes.

Maybe it was time to see what rookie point guard Malachi Flynn might be able to contribute to a flailing second unit, or second-year wing Terence Davis, who has been a ghost in the early going.

The crisis, it seemed, was what to do in the minutes Kyle Lowry didn’t play – given that, heading into Toronto’s matchup with the Knicks, the team had been outscored by 40 points in the 33 minutes his veteran point had sat.

But Nurse didn’t mention the biggest lineup change of all: the decision to sit Pascal Siakam, who Nurse referred to as the team’s “closer” during the fifth-year wing’s struggles down the stretch of Toronto’s loss to Philadelphia on Tuesday night.

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At the end of that game, Siakam was seen walking off the floor and down the tunnel after fouling out with 26 seconds left to play.

It wasn’t a good look – especially from a franchise cornerstone – and Nurse addressed it at the Raptors’ morning shoot around, telling the team Siakam would be watching from the bench in street clothes and that Norman Powell would start.

“[There’s] just a certain way we want to do things and everybody’s got to be a part of that, as simple as that,” was all Nurse would say about what was otherwise deemed an internal matter.

Whether it was a case of using a hammer to kill a fly, or an admirable example of an organization establishing expectations of behaviour even if it meant sitting one of their best players, might depend on where you sit.

But one way or the other, it worked out as the Raptors got their W with an encouraging 100-83 win over a competitive, young Knicks team (2-3) to improve their record to 1-3 before they head to New Orleans to take on the Pelicans Saturday night.

It was a strange New Year’s Eve – very 2020 in that sense – but in the end a happy one from a Raptors point of view, so maybe it bodes well for what is to come. Here’s hoping.

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With Powell getting the start in Siakam’s place, Nurse and the Raptors chose to emphasize rules and culture in the big picture even while playing what Lowry had referred to as a “must win.”

No one blinked.

“[He was] just letting everybody know what the situation is, what went into making the decision and what the decision is and the rest of us fall in line and go from there,” said Raptors guard Fred VanVleet, who led all scorers with 25 points while adding seven assists. “So this is not gonna linger around us. [Siakam] was great. He was great, he handled it very well, he was a great energy for us on the bench tonight even though he wasn’t playing and we can’t wait to get him back out there with us.”

The Raptors already knew something had to give in any case. This is not a group used to losing three games in a row, let alone three to start a season and they were going to raise their standard regardless of what message was being sent by the coaching staff.

“You can find yourself cruising a little bit, and forgetting how hard it is to win in the NBA and forgetting that somebody has to make plays, it’s like a group-think thing where everybody is waiting on the next guy to make the play, but you’ve got to do your job individually and make plays and it’s not just offence,” said VanVleet, referencing a play Lowry made in the fourth quarter to back into the paint and fight among the bigs and come up with what a loose ball. “It was not a 50-50 ball, it was an 80-20, 20 per cent chance he got it, and he went and got it, and I don’t think we looked back after that moment.

“So it’s those types of plays that you gotta imprint on this team and continue to make those types of plays and that’s what we needed to do to win. We’re not going to go out there and out-talent anybody this year, we’ve got to do the little things.”

Powell will have to be part of that if the Raptors are going to do anything this season and he showed signs of breaking out from a 4-of-23 slump to start the season, scoring a season-high 17 points on 13 shots while Lowry offered 20 points and four assists.

“I just made the effort to go out there and play my game,” said Powell. “Go out there and do what the team always asks me to do – attack, get the rim, read what their bigs are doing, finishing. If they come over to help, kick out, letting the game flow and come to me and that’s what I did.”

The Raptors held the Knicks to 36 per cent shooting and were able to pull away in the fourth, as Chris Boucher gave them a spark in the final quarter with a key triple and a fastbreak dunk. A VanVleet three was part of an 11-0 run that gave the Raptors a 14-point lead with 5:44 left that the Knicks couldn’t overcome. The Raptors’ cause was aided by the Knicks shooting 3-of-36 from three. The Raptors played zone for much of the second half and the Knicks couldn’t crack it after finding their way too easily to the rim in the early going.

“I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a [3-of-36 three-point shooting night] in my coaching career before,” said Nurse. “So they obviously didn’t make some shots tonight, and we’re probably fortunate in that stance. But we did make some adjustments for those two reasons – to stop the driving and continue to hope they wouldn’t make them.”

Among the culprits was Knicks second-year forward RJ Barrett of Mississauga, who scored just 12 points and was 0-of-8 from deep against his hometown team.

Siakam had lots to cheer about on the sidelines and he was active in doing so. If he was upset about being sat out he didn’t let it show. According to a source, Siakam was frustrated at not being able to play and help his team, but understood the decision.

The biggest factor in the game wasn’t – in the end – Siakam sitting or Powell finding his games. It was the Raptors mostly managing their minutes without Lowry. In the first quarter they only gave up a point in the two minutes Lowry was out, and in the second quarter broke even in four minutes, although the game was tied 42-42 at the half.

Regardless of the Siakam situation, Nurse was looking for solutions coming into the game and wasn’t shy about where he would look for them.

He gave significant minutes to Davis in the first half for the first time this season, which created the awkward spectacle of Davis – who is facing seven charges for an alleged domestic assault in the off-season – getting minutes in the absence of Siakam.

Not seeing the floor was the rookie Flynn or sharpshooter Matt Thomas, but Yuta Watanabe did make his Raptors debut. Then out of nowhere came 11 third-quarter points from Len, playing in place of Aron Baynes, who took a hard knock in a collision with Julius Randle. Len spotted up for three corner triples and made them all. Those timely contributions and eight more third-quarter points from Powell allowed the Raptors to take a 71-64 lead into the fourth quarter and Toronto didn’t look back.

The longer-term question is what effect the unusual decision to sit out an all-NBA player will have on the relationship between Siakam and Nurse and the rest of the organization.

It certainly sets an unusual precedent. The only other comparable disciplinary action by the team during Masai Ujiri’s tenure came when Serge Ibaka was suspended for one game on Dec. 29, 2017 after getting into an altercation with one of the team’s support staff on the bus following a road loss in Oklahoma City.

Siakam was not suspended – saving him a $420,000 game cheque – but it was still a significant gesture in response to what was clearly a moment of frustration for the 26-year-old, who is in the first year of a four-year maximum extension worth $136 million.

The team could have fined him, or taken him out of the starting lineup, or dealt with it behind closed doors, or done nothing at all.

All would have been more common approaches. But the Raptors and Nurse chose to emphasize culture and rules, even potentially jeopardizing a much-needed early season win.

Would Lowry be treated the same way? It’s hard to imagine.

But Nurse made his call. He made a number of them, and the Raptors got a needed win and were able to make a point all in the same night.

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