The Toronto Raptors finally get to go home, even if home is in Tampa. They have spent 14 of 16 days on the road since Christmas, playing games in seven different cities and trying to keep track of six different time changes. They stayed over in Portland Monday night and expect to fly back to Tampa on Tuesday where they will begin a 10-day homestand.
They should be feeling better about their overall game but are still grasping for wins as they dropped their second-straight at the buzzer, falling 112-111 to the Portland Trail Blazers, again with Pascal Siakam having a shot to win rattle in and out as the clock ticked down.
With the loss, the Raptors fall to 2-8 on the season and 1-3 on the trip, even though the moral victories are adding up. They may have run out of gas against Portland, playing on the second night of a back-to-back and their third game in four nights. Now they’ll get a couple of days to fuel up before playing Charlotte in Tampa on Thursday.
A night after missing a turnaround jumper to win against Golden State, Siakam missed a right-handed jump hook over Robert Covington that could have sealed a win over Portland. His frustration was palpable as he walked down the floor expressionless before dropping a screaming F-bomb that could be heard over the continental divide. It was the one sour note on an otherwise fantastic night for the surging 26-year-old.
“Yeah, I thought that was going in,” he said. “Tough one, man. It sucks.”
But there was much more good than bad.
“He’s back to playing sort of the way we used to see him play, you know, like a year ago,” said Raptors head coach Nick Nurse. “And that is creation, getting to the basket, getting other people involved on some cuts and some kickouts, etc. But just an overall gait that looks better. There’s some speed up the floor, there’s much better movement and connectivity on defence. Just playing all around like he’s capable of or like we know him to have played prior. So it’s good to see, really bright spot on this trip for sure.”
Just over a week ago it was fair to wonder if Siakam’s status as a rising star was in question.
It wasn’t just that he’d been so out of sorts that the team had benched him for walking off the floor after fouling out against the Philadelphia 76ers, it’s that his run of poor play seemed to pick up exactly where everyone had hoped he’d left it off — after his disastrous playoff performance in the bubble at the end of the 2019-20 season.
Now, it looks like the second-team all-NBA player is on the verge of a whole new level.
After coming within a rebound of his first career triple-double on Friday against Sacramento, Siakam seemed determined to get it before the first quarter was over on Monday. He hit a pretty turnaround on his first touch and has never looked better toggling between attacking to score and finding his teammates. His highlight was jab-stepping baseline against Carmelo Anthony from the left wing, driving hard to the middle with his right hand before whipping a behind-the-back pass to Chris Boucher under the basket who converted the three-point play.
Siakam had 12 points, seven rebounds and five assists in the first quarter alone. He kept coming.
Through three quarters, he had 12 rebounds and got his ninth assist after kicking out an offensive rebound for a Fred VanVleet three just before the end of the period. His 10th assist – the one that gave him the triple-double – came with 7:33 left to play when he found OG Anunoby for three to put the Raptors up 101-92, at which point Toronto looked to be home free.
— Sportsnet (@Sportsnet) January 12, 2021
It was the first triple-double by a Raptor other than Kyle Lowry since Jose Calderon did it back in 2012, and made him the 10th player in franchise history to achieve the milestone.
Siakam finished with 22 points, 13 rebounds and 10 assists. The guy who was driving talk-show chatter about his ability to be a primetime player? Over his past five games he’s averaging 23.6 points, 9.8 rebounds and 6.2 assists on 51.8 per cent shooting.
The Raptors had it all under control until they didn’t
The Blazers led 61-60 early in the third quarter before the Raptors went on a 12-0 run and seemed poised to run away with it — but Portland wouldn’t go away.
Trailing by 13 with eight minutes left, the Trail Blazers chipped away until Anthony (20 points) side-stepped a flying Boucher in the corner to hit a three and cut the Raptors’ lead to two with 3:53 left. The 18-year veteran tied it a moment later and Damian Lillard gave the Trail Blazers a lead with a triple at 2:36 left to finish a 10-0 run.
A pair of Siakam cuts to the rim and a triple by Boucher put Toronto up 111-110 with 54 seconds left before CJ McCollum (30 points) took VanVleet the length of the floor and hit a jumper with 9.6 to play that proved to be the winner.
“I thought our guys were fighting really hard and I just think they got some big shot-makers and they just made a whole bunch,” said Nurse, as the Blazers scored 22 points in the final 7:11 on 7-of-10 shooting, led by Anthony’s 10. “There wasn’t any misses out of ‘em, even on some pretty good defensive rotations out and they’d just, you know, they just hit one after another after another.”
The Raptors’ hole in the middle
For fairly obvious reasons, the Raptors have rotated away from playing any centre at all as this early season has progressed. Between Aron Baynes and Alex Len, they’ve been getting next-to-zero production from their traditional bigs – one point combined in Toronto’s last five games.
Neither saw the floor against Golden State and Baynes – signed to a $7.5 million deal in the off-season and the starter out of training camp – hasn’t played a minute in three games after being scoreless in the two before that.
But with the Trail Blazers starting Jusuf Nurkic – all seven-feet and 290 pounds of him – Nurse went back to Len to try and match. His time on the court, however, was relatively brief with just 7:23 in his first-quarter stint and the Raptors didn’t mind sending Boucher out against Nurkic and then Enes Kanter — Portland’s almost as imposing back-up big, with the slender Montrealer giving up nearly 100 pounds.
“I mean, listen, that’s where we are, we gotta search a little bit, it’s gonna change probably depending on who we’re playing, depending on who’s available, things like that,” said Nurse before the game. “I do think that both Alex and Aron are valuable pieces to this team and we need to use ’em. They can’t just sit there night after night after night, so we need to figure it out and get ’em accustomed and get accustomed to playing with them.”
Happy birthday Boucher
Fortunately for everyone involved, Boucher has been a revelation.
The third-year pro turned 28 on Monday night and he’s been a gift to the Raptors, who raised some eyebrows when they signed the restricted free agent to two-year deal for $13 million – even with the second year as a team option.
Could he really translate his per-minute production – mostly racked up in spurts when the Raptors were short-handed last year or in garbage-time minutes – into a larger role?
Turns out he absolutely can. The 23.7 points per 36 minutes he was averaging entering Monday’s contest marked a career-high and his 4.4 blocks/36 were ahead of the 2.7 he managed last season, though behind the 5.3/36 he put up in 28 games in his first year with the Raptors. Even before Boucher put up 20 points, eight rebounds and three blocks in 32 minutes against Portland, he had been the Raptors’ best big man by a mile.
Nurse has been hesitant to start him because he loves the energy and pace he provides off the bench. But after 10 scoreless first-half minutes from Len, Nurse started Boucher in the second half, and you wonder if he might not make that change permanent.
“He’s certainly been a real bright spot,” said Nurse. “I think he plays with great tenacity and always puts you in a good position. He’s fighting on the glass and blocking shots here and there; he’s running the floor and plus the offence has been good … he’s been great.”