Spicy Return: Pacers’ Siakam hits dagger after Raptors fans show ‘genuine love’

TORONTO — The Toronto Raptors are running out of people to say their long goodbyes to.

They’ve been fast and furious lately.

It was Fred VanVleet’s turn last Friday and Wednesday night, it was Pascal Siakam. Next month, it will be the New York Knicks at Scotiabank Arena, rolling with OG Anunoby and Precious Achiuwa.

That’s a lot of break-ups.

But it’s hard to imagine more earnest feelings than those that were showered on Siakam on Wednesday night. The newness was likely a factor. It seemed like yesterday he was wearing a Raptors jersey and having defenders grab air on his spin move. Were Raptors fans happy to see him back or sad to see him playing for the Indiana Pacers, after being one of the last remaining links to the most exciting era in franchise history?


Oh, it all ended up in the same place: a long, heartfelt, ovation for Siakam from a full house at Scotiabank Arena where he starred for seven-and-a-half seasons. The crowd had arrived early to make sure they could see the tribute video the Raptors played during player introductions and cheer him after. There was an entire section of the crowd in Siakam jerseys, a nice touch given that when he was an unknown, late first-round draft pick shuttling between the G-League and the NBA, he would chart his progress by counting how many No. 43 jerseys he could pick out of the crowd.

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“To me, just reflecting on everything, from where I come from and just to be here in a place like this, I came here as a young kid, didn’t know what to expect. I remember going to the [team] store. They didn’t have my jersey in there,” said Siakam, who was decked out post-game in a pink fleece tracksuit and toque for Valentine’s Day.

“Nobody really knew what to expect from me. And for me to come in here after eight years, just to see the reception, people being so genuinely happy for me — I think for me that was the most important thing. I got so many messages from people, just genuine love. And to me, that means everything. To see that whole section with my jerseys, yeah, that almost got me right there. I can really never dreamed of that. To have that means a lot.”

For Siakam, the love from Raptors fans was a welcome reminder that he was appreciated — something that he sometimes had a hard time fully grasping during a long, drawn-out 18 months where it was never clear if Toronto planned to trade him or extend his contract, all as the team’s competitive edge was slipping.

“I think that sometimes when you’re in the situation, when you’re going through it and maybe you’re losing games or things are happening, it feels like everyone is hating, you know?” said Siakam. “But once you kind of step out of it and see the support from people, it means the world.”

But after the kind tributes, there was a basketball game to play — the last one before the NBA all-star break, and one that was important to both teams. The Pacers, who have dealt with injury issues, are still trying to find their rhythm after the Jan. 16 trade. The Raptors have been in free fall, with a lineup that barely knows each other’s names, let alone the names of basic defensive coverages.

In the end, things played out as scripted, or at least expected. The Raptors, perhaps swept up in the emotion of the moment, played hard and well, but eventually fumbled away a winnable game with a sloppy fourth quarter in what ended up being a 127-125 loss. Toronto dropped to 19-36 on the season, while the Pacers improved to 31-25.

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Siakam was shaky early, admitting that the emotions of the occasion threw him off a little bit – he was 2-of-9 from the floor in the first half — but rallied to score 15 of his team-leading 23 points in the second half, while adding seven rebounds and five assists. He hit a fadeaway to break up a tie game with 3:15 to play and hit a floater with 25.4 seconds left to put the Pacers up by three, which proved to be the winning basket.

For all the warm feelings, the importance of getting the win was not lost on Siakam.

“I mean, you don’t want to come in and lose … when everyone was just telling me like, ‘oh, man, like I’m so happy to see you,’ like, in my head, I’m just like ‘I gotta get a win. I can’t lose this game.’ So yeah, definitely feels good.”

The Raptors shot 6-of-26 from three compared to the Pacers’ 17-of-41 and lost the turnover battle 15-8. Tyrese Haliburton added 21 points and 12 assists for Indiana, while Andrew Nembhard of Aurora, just north of Toronto, had 14 points, five assists and two steals.

Scottie Barnes was a bright spot for the Raptors. Coming off one of the worst games of his career in a blowout loss to the San Antonio Spurs on Monday night, punctuated by him leaving the bench with time still on the game clock and then hearing about it from the Raptors coaching staff, Barnes responded with one of his best outings. He finished with 29 points, 12 rebounds and eight assists. He did have six turnovers and a couple of miscues down the stretch, however. He made what would have been a game-tying three with his foot on the three-point arc, missed a lay-up from point-blank range with 40 seconds left and took an ill-advised, quick three coming out of a timeout with 17 seconds left.

The Raptors still had a chance to win or tie when they inbounded the ball with 10 seconds left, trailing by two, but a play designed to be a three-pointer ended with RJ Barrett dribbling out the clock and missing a tough, contested fadeaway in the lane that would have sent the game into overtime. Like Barnes, Barrett had some great moments on his way to 23 points, nine rebounds and six assists, but there were some breakdowns defensively and four missed free throws — two of them coming with 1:55 on the clock and the Raptors down by three — that marred his score card.

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Then again, once the Raptors decided to trade Siakam, their homegrown, two-time all-NBA player, for three first-round draft picks, Bruce Brown, Kira Lewis and Jordan Nwora, this is what they signed up for. Some highs, more lows, and a lot of learning opportunities in between.

At least Barnes got the message after a desultory all-around experience against the Spurs.

“We want him to be a dominant player like that,” said Raptors head coach Darko Rajakovic. “… We need Scottie who’s going to be playing with that kind of force. Does not matter who the opponent is. This was great experience for him to bounce back from the last game and to have a chance to compare what those two games looked like.”

It will be a learning process for Barnes, and it won’t be easy. Siakam himself went through it, and there were plenty of rough patches. It’s a big job.

“As a young man coming in, it’s going to be a lot of ups and downs,” said Siakam. “There’s going to be things that’s not going to look so good and there’s going to be days where it’s going to be amazing, it’s going to be great … [but] know that [tough days] are coming so just brace yourself. Keep the main thing the main thing and just keep moving forward.”

Over his career as a Raptor, Siakam did just that, and he did it so well that the Pacers — a team who had long admired him and who viewed him as a key to unlock a future as a contender — made a pitch to get him and are expected to sign him to a big contract in the off-season.

Siakam did things so well in Toronto that even now that he’s no longer a Raptor, a building full of fans stood up to acknowledge his contributions, and there were No. 43 jerseys everywhere he turned to look.