Siakam puts All-Star snub behind him, helps Raptors beat Rockets

Raptors' Pascal Siakam reacts to being snubbed at the 2022-23 NBA All-Star Game, says "I really don't have any thoughts on it, control what I can control," and says he'll keep pushing to be in a position where there is no debate. Courtesy: Raptors.

HOUSTON – It wasn’t an entirely lost visit.

On Thursday night, Pascal Siakam got to visit with his mom, who he presented with a house here on Mother’s Day a few years ago in wonderful little viral moment if you haven’t got a chance to see it.

So when the Toronto Raptors forward was learning that he’d been passed over as an Eastern Conference All-Star, at least he was in good company, with his mom, brother, and sister.

It made up for being the first person to average 25 points, eight rebounds and six assists a game and not be part of the NBA’s mid-season showcase.

“It is what it is. Out of my control,” said Siakam on riday as the Raptors were preparing to take on the Houston Rockets, the NBA’s worst team, or alone in first place in the Victor Wembanyama sweepstakes, depending on how you look at these things. “Control what I can control and keep pushing.”

It’s the Raptors’ mantra as they navigate a season that’s short on wins and running short on hope. Siakam getting passed over for an All-Star nod while in the midst of a career season and a year after making all-NBA for the second time is a symptom of a greater ill.

The NBA rewards individual success, but the tiebreaker goes to those who achieve it within a winning environment. The Raptors will be without an All-Star for just the second time in 10 years.

“We’ve benefited a lot in the past from being one of the top teams in the East and gotten a couple of All-Star picks and first-time picks,” said Raptors head coach Nick Nurse. “And this year we’re not where we’d like to be in the standings, and I think [Siakam being overlooked] is a direct result.  It’s helped us in years past [having a good record] and this year it didn’t help us and that’s disappointing because I certainly want to those guys to achieve their individual goals.”

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Their team goals are very much a work in progress as they wind down their seven-game road trip – the longest uninterrupted trip the team has had since 1997-98.

The Raptors took care of business against Houston as they shook off a slow start to push the Rockets around most of the rest of the game on their way to a 117-111 win.  Toronto led by 19 at point in the third quarter and the Raptors were comfortably in control – up by 11 – to start the fourth.

The Rockets cut it to eight midway through the fourth but couldn’t mount enough quality possessions and hurt themselves with missed free throws until they were running out of time. The Raptors weren’t exactly lighting it up either, but got a couple of buckets off Rockets turnovers to keep their lead in double figures until the final minute.

The Rockets made a flurry of free throws – benefitting from a technical foul assessed against Toronto’s Precious Achiuwa — they briefly cut the lead to six with 34 seconds left before the Raptors sealed it with free throws of their own.

The win improved Toronto to 24-30 on the season, while the Rockets dropped to 13-39, and 3-3 on their road trip which concludes in Memphis on Sunday. The trip has been played while the team has been the subject of trade speculation prior to the Feb. 9 deadline. The Rockets dropped to 13-39.

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The Raptors got another excellent performance from Fred VanVleet, who is looking like his old All-Star self in recent weeks after a poor start to the season. The Raptors point guard led all scorers with 32 points while adding four assists and five rebounds one game after putting up a 34-point triple-double.

Instead of wearing down as the road trip approaches the two-week mark, VanVleet has gotten stronger.

His secret?

“I’m a pretty decent player, believe it or not,” said VanVleet. “I take care of my body, I understand  what it takes for our team to be successful most nights. We started a little slow but I just found the aggression and tried to get the spark going a little bit, picking my spot and taking what the defence is giving me and being able to find some success there.”

Gary Trent Jr. had 29 points on 10-of-15 shooting. Both VanVleet and Trent Jr. — and just about everyone on the Raptors rosters — have had their name in trade rumours, but each seems unbothered.

“I’m open and having conversations with them,” said Nurse. “The next game and winning it is always at the forefront. But there has to be a 1A there where we’re trying, we’re doing what’s best for these guys, career wise [but] making sure when we’re talking to these guys as a subject, and then you have to put it aside and I think they’re pretty good about putting it aside when it’s time to focus in practice or in film or play the game, and that’s the reality of it. There is business going on outside of the games and you got to be able to handle that and re-focus when the ball goes up. “

Eric Gordon – the veteran Rockets guard who has been featured in trade speculation for the past two seasons – led Houston’s young team with 26 points on 10-of-15 shooting. Toronto shot 16-of-39 from three and 46 per cent from the floor. The Rockets shot 6-of-20 from deep and 48.7 per cent from the floor and had 13 turnovers to Toronto’s nine.

As inconsistent as the Raptors have been lately, even a visit with the 13-win Rockets couldn’t be taken lightly.

“They play with great speed and energy and enthusiasm as a young team would,” said Nurse. “ … they attack and they crash the glass and play pretty care free and they have some good athletes. You better match their energy and enthusiasm.”

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The Raptors didn’t initially – they trailed 9-0 after four minutes – but Nurse went to his bench early and got a quick boost from Chris Boucher (11 points, eight rebounds), who scored nine quick points who helped the visitors get their transition going. It wasn’t pretty but the Raptors were in the game, trailing 21-20 after the first quarter, even while shooting just 29.2 per cent. Toronto got its offence going in the second quarter as the Raptors knocked down 4-of-7 threes — all of them in the final four minutes of the half, with VanVleet and Trent Jr. each hitting a pair — and 14-of-25 shots overall.

The Raptors led 55-48 to start the third quarter.

Siakam finished with 23 points, six rebounds and four assists in 36 minutes on 10-of-20 shooting.

As the Raptors’ leading scorer and best all-around player, Siakam could only be sanguine the day after the snub. It’s likely a tough pill for a player who said before the season started his goal was to be one of the NBA’s top five players.

He’s been very good this season, but not that kind of good, and even over the course of the year his performance has slipped. He averaged 28.3 points a game in December after coming back from a groin injury in November but put up just 22.4 points a game in January with a decline in efficiency from a True Shooting percentage of 58.5 in December to 53.6 in December.

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“I’m not playing for those type of things,” said Siakam. “Obviously [individual awards] are  great to have, but that’s not my motivation. But at the same you want to be in a position where it’s not a debate. It’s easy to be like ‘I could have done this’ or point the finger, but it is what it is. I have to look at myself in the mirror and do everything I can to be in a position where you it’s not a debate. That’s how I take it.”

In another circumstance he might benefit from a lighter minutes load than the NBA leading 37.7 he’s been chugging along at night after night, but there’s problems with that too:

“I don’t think about those things,” he said. “I’m a basketball player, so I go out there and play and when I’m not playing basketball do everything I can to take care of my body and the rest of it I really don’t look at.” 

Besides …

“It’s hard to do load management when you’re losing every game or your record isn’t what it’s supposed to be …,” said Siakam.

Helping the team win will help Siakam and just about anyone else on the team. It’s the challenge of the NBA where individual numbers get a lot of attention, but team success is what separates the best from the rest.

“It’s a pretty common message,” said Nurse who – like all the league’s coaches – voted on the seven reserve spots after the All-Star starters are named via vote by fans, media and players.  [Winning] weighs in my voting, for sure. I think it’s real. We’ve seen it play out in our own organization in the 10 years I’ve been here.

“Mostly good, and this time bad.”

For Siakam, his visit to Houston featured a get-together with Mom, a lost all-star weekend and much needed Raptors win. With the way the Raptors have been going, two-out-three isn’t bad.

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