Raptors defence getting back on track as Siakam sets the tone on offence

Toronto Raptors forward Pascal Siakam (43) puts up a shot over Washington Wizards guard Spencer Dinwiddie (26) during first half NBA action. (Cole Burston/CP)

Hey man, how you been? It’s nice to see you again.

The Toronto Raptors defence took a mid-season holiday recently. You may have noticed. They just took off for a couple of weeks.

The Raptors went from being 48 minutes of hell as they went from playing the passing lanes like lasers covering the floor in a high-tech security system to a warm blanket the opposition could take comfort in.

But Toronto is beginning to show their teeth again. Or maybe they just really have something against the Washington Wizards.

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Why the sudden turn, defensively?

“That’s all we do at practice,” said Chris Boucher. “… Coach hads made a great emphasis on guarding the ball, and pressuring, getting deflections … the last few practices that we had – after we just didn’t show up, I think against Boston — since then all we do is defence.”

It’s working.

And then there’s the promising return to form from Pascal Siakam, who led all scorers with 31 points as he keeps looking for peak form after missing six months of live action following off-season shoulder surgery.

His reasoning was a little less conventional but endearing for anyone who’s ever held an infant without a diaper.

“So, my brother, he has a kid, my niece, and usually I don’t like carrying newborns. I don’t know. They’re just so fragile,” said Siakam. “She’s like two months old, and I’ve been putting off just picking her up because I’m like, ‘I don’t know’. And then yesterday [Saturday], I picked her up, and yeah, and she peed on me. I don’t know. Maybe it was that. I don’t know, man. My brother was kind of laughing, saying, “hey, you’re gonna play well tomorrow.” So maybe it was that.”

Whatever it takes.

Fittingly, it wasn’t a pretty win, but the Raptors are fine with that. There were hands in the lane and bodies on the floor when they weren’t flying at Wizards shooters.

The box score told the story as Toronto held Brad Beal and the Wizards – one of the East’s pleasant surprises thanks to an off-season makeover and a 14-9 record that had them in 4th place in the conference when the ball went up – to just 41.7 per cent shooting from the field. Beal – one of the NBA’s true 30-point-a-game threats – managed just 14 on 4-of-12 shooting.

“We were really connected,” said Nurse. “Just not a whole lot of mistakes and most of the shots had somebody in front of them, one way or another and it’s good to see. I thought that group that started setting the tone, but I also thought every single guy that came in off the bench brought the same kind of energy and maybe even a little more, that’s kind of what we’re hoping for it to look like, but it was a good all-around team effort defensively.

The Raptors jumped out to a quick early lead largely because Washington started off shooting just 2-of-15. That wasn’t going to last but the Raptors never really came close to squandering their early fortune.

Even as the Raptors stalled out at points offensively, their defence never went missing.

Offensively Toronto was sparked by Siakam who had his best moments during a red-hot stretch in the second quarter but still had enough left in the tank to hit a key jumper in the lane with 3:37 left that kept at bay any hopes the Wizards had to steal a road game they had no business winning.

He’s still not quite at his peak: after his jumper in the lane Siakam missed two more mid-ranged attempts and turned the ball over on a drive, but the Raptors defence was able to hold the fort.

Chris Boucher had 14 points as the Raptors bench had a positive impact and on Giants of Africa night Precious Achiuwa – the Nigerian centre who got his start at a GOA basketball camp – had 10 points and 14 rebounds.

Boucher in particular was sharp, as he finished 5-of-7 on the floor and looked his old, opportunistic self after spending the first quarter of the season pressing and – by his own admission – hunting threes rather than focussing on smaller details and letting his offence find him.

“I think I came into the game and I miss one [three] and I was like ‘Oh no.’” said Boucher who is shooting just 18.5 per cent from deep after shooting 38.3 per cent in his breakout last season and says pre-game meditation sessions with long-time athletic therapist Ray Chow had helped calm his mind. “I can shoot but I’m not showing it right now … but I also feel like at the end of the day, it’s going to fall eventually but if I’m not looking for it and just taking it when it comes, it’s a lot better.

“I can do a lot of different stuff. I can set screen and roll, cut, slip screen. There’s a lot of stuff I can do I kind of forgot trying to figure out where my three was.”

But ultimately the Raptors will go as far as their defence takes them, so it’s even more encouraging that they have now held their opponents to an average 93.7 points over their past three games.

Prior to their showing against the Wizard, the Raptors had put in two of their better defensive efforts of the season in consecutive games – a loss to Memphis on Tuesday and a much-needed win over Milwaukee on Thursday. In those two games, the Raptors allowed just 101 points per 100 possessions – fourth-best in the league and miles better than the 12-game stretch previously when they went 3-9 and were allowing 116.7 points/100.

They took it up a notch in the first half. Toronto led 23-11 after the first quarter as they held the Wizards to 5-of-22 shooting which was important because the Raptors hadn’t exactly gotten on track themselves, as they shot just 8-of-23, with Siakam clocking in at 1-of-6.

But Siakam began to find his legs, something that’s been an uneven process as he tries to get up to speed after missing the summer, training camp, the exhibition season and the first 10 games of the regular season after having shoulder surgery in June.

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His overall numbers have been more than fine as he’s averaged 19.4 points, 7.5 rebounds and 4.1 assists while shooting 47 per cent in the 10 games he’s played since a minutes restriction was lifted.

But Siakam hasn’t dominated stretches of games very often.

That changed in the second quarter against the Wizards as he caught fire and hit seven straight shots in the space of seven minutes for 17 points. He scored easily too. There was only one triple – a wide-open look from the top. He cut for a lay-up, scored one in transition, and otherwise worked to get himself into comfortable mid-range looks. It helped that a rare spark from the Raptors bench had staked Toronto to a 21-point lead by the time Siakam checked in for his second-quarter shift.

The Wizards eventually joined the party, sparked by Caldwell-Pope who had nine of his 26 the second quarter himself, but by the time Siakam was done his scoring binge, Toronto led by 24 on their way to a 63-42 halftime lead and Siakam had 24 points.

Could he be making a point of picking up his niece more often?

“I don’t think I can see her every day, every game,” said Siakam. “I hope. I mean, yeah. I don’t think it’s possible, but whenever I can. There’s something about those babies man.”

From there the defence held firm and that is another cause for optimism as Toronto tries to stay in contact in the Eastern Conference – they are a game behind Atlanta for 10th place and a spot in the play-in tournament while they wait for the likes of Khem Birch (knee) and OG Anunoby (hip) – pretty sturdy defenders themselves – to return to the lineup.

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