DIFFICULTY: With Leonard unavailable, Raptors coach Nick Nurse put the ball in Siakam’s hands on the final possession. Siakam was checked by Suns rookie Mikal Bridges, who forced Siakam to use his left hand. Still, Siakam bulldozed his way to the rim with the clock winding down, and despite a challenge by Deandre Ayton, was able to bank in the game-winning layup as time expired. The basket was confirmed following a review.
GAME SITUATION: After a Devin Booker 3-pointer gave the Suns a 107-105 lead, Siakam sank two free throws to tie the game with 1 minute, 16 seconds remaining. After a defensive stop by the Raptors, Serge Ibaka’s hook shot put Toronto up 109-107. Ibaka then fouled Bridges, who made both free throws with 13 seconds left.
CELEBRATION: Siakam’s teammates mobbed him after the shot and the high fives continued down the bench and into the locker room. Siakam said he appreciated the fact that his team entrusted him with the ball with the game on the line. “To be honest, I didn’t know what I was going to do,” he said. I just had to make sure that I took the last shot.”
Phoenix never saw it coming. No one saw it coming. But the Suns in particular figured the final play had to go through Lowry. How could it not?
“I’d say we were surprised,” said Suns head coach Igor Kokoskov. “Hell of a shot.”
“I was honestly just waiting for someone to set a screen, or him to pass the ball,” Phoenix forward Josh Jackson said. “And he went to the basket and made a really tough shot.”
What a difference 24 hours can make. Wednesday in Boston, the Raptors were completely ineffective during crunch time, scoring only four points in the game’s final four minutes and over-relying on Kawhi Leonard, who wasn’t able to create for himself.
The next night in Toronto, against a much weaker team but in a similarly tight situation, Nurse opted to try something he never had before. Something he should probably try again.
“I just thought he could beat somebody off the dribble,” Nurse said. “Ended up the right decision. … I thought we’d just give him some space and let him go off the bounce and see what he could manufacture.”
A scary thought for the Raptors as they ponder a potential postseason showdown with the boys in green is that Irving may have been better on Thursday’s than he was in that November meeting in which he finished with 43 points and 11 assists while scoring or assisting on Boston’s final 13 made field goals.
27 points and a career-high 18 assists adds up to accounting for a whopping 67 of Boston’s 117 points.
And he did it while staring down Toronto’s best wing defenders. Unlike the last meeting in which he was guarded primarily by Kyle Lowry with a second helping of Fred VanVleet, Irving spent the majority of Thursday matched up against the Raptors’ stable of perimeter length who in theory would at least have the range to make Irving more uncomfortable.
To a certain extent, the theory held up. All seven of Irving’s turnovers came against 6’6″ Danny Green, 6’7″ Kawhi Leonard, 6’9″ Pascal Siakam and 6’4″ Norman Powell, who provided more resistance than either the 6’1″ Lowry or 6’0″ VanVleet.
Green and Leonard, two of the very best perimeter defenders in the entire league, are the two Raptors who guarded Irving the most according to player tracking data courtesy of Second Spectrum and it simply didn’t matter as he shot 5-10 against them with nine assists.
“To be honest, I didn’t know what I was going to do. I just had to make sure that I took the last shot,” he said.
“It was ‘Pascal get the ball and get some spice a little bit,”‘ Siakam, wearing a T-shirt that said Hot Stuff, added with a laugh.
Lowry had 16 points and eight assists. He and Serge Ibaka, who finished with 22 points, turned it on in the fourth quarter but the Suns refused to go away.
Just who got the game ball remains a mystery.
“I think Kyle stole it,” said Siakam. “But that’s cool. Kyle can have that.”
Asked if he had it, Lowry said: “Nah, I lost it.”
There was a basketball in his locker, however.
The final seconds helped erase memories of an early 16-point lead that Toronto squandered.
After a Devin Booker three-pointer gave the Suns a 107-105 lead, Siakam sank two free throws to tie it with 1:16 remaining. A Raptors defensive stop and Ibaka hook shot made it 109-107 Toronto.
Man of action: Kyle Lowry was expected to sit out Thursday night’s game until less than two hours before tipoff, when coach Nick Nurse deemed him fit to start. And he almost had a triple double for his efforts, with 16 points (on 4-for-15 shooting), nine rebounds and eight assists. Kawhi Leonard still has yet to play in both games of a back-to-back this season. But he made a rare off-night appearance on the bench in the second half, a move sure to give fuel to the will-he-or-won’t-he-stay debate among fans.
The good: A few threes can really come in handy. The Raptors went on an 11-0 run about six minutes in, spurred by baskets from beyond the arc by Lowry, Danny Green and Fred VanVleet. Miles would add another three before the end of the quarter. It’s closer to what coach Nick Nurse wants to see from his team from the field.
Ugly: The Raptors did the bare minimum to get the 111–109 win on the second night of a back-to-back. Phoenix paraded to the line in a sloppily officiated game, and nearly forced overtime if not for an unlikely hero.
Clutch: Pascal Siakam drove in for a lefty layup at the final buzzer for the game winner. Raptors coach Nick Nurse drew up the final play for Siakam to attack in isolation from the top of the floor, and he blew past both Mikal Bridges at the point of attack and finished over Deandre Ayton at the rim for the incredibly difficult finish. Siakam also timed the move perfectly as he didn’t start his drive until there were only three seconds left on the clock, which left no chance for the Suns to respond.
Hub: The Suns doubled Siakam for most of the game despite him finishing with just 10 points, which is a credit to Siakam’s improvements this season. Siakam leveraged the added attention into five assists, and was a factor on the boards.
Audible: Kyle Lowry was initially ruled out as he was scheduled to rest the second end of the back-to-back along with Kawhi Leonard. However, Nick Nurse explained that Lowry was suiting up instead because he needed game reps to get his conditioning back, and to find his shot.
Performance: Lowry was labored in his movements, but he was a positive contributor with 16 points, eight assists and nine rebounds. He worked magic with Serge Ibaka in the pick-and-pop, came up with a clutch defensive stop by forcing a turnover in the last minute of the game, and successfully lobbied the referees for cheap calls.
And down the stretch of a tight game, Lowry started pick and rolls but didn’t finish them. He finally looked for his own shot up two with 15.7 seconds left, a kill shot. He missed a long two-pointer. Pascal Siakam got the ball on his own and drove for the left-handed game-winner at the buzzer, and Lowry watched. He still doesn’t look like himself.
“No, not really,” point guard Fred VanVleet said. “It’s going to take some time; we were laughing about it in the game, how it’s going to take some time just to get his flow back, to get his rhythm back. I think he’s in his head right now, probably, shooting the ball, and getting the best looks that he could ever imagine. He’s going to get back to where he wants to be. Got to be patient. He was out (nearly) a month. It takes time.”
“I’m still a little bit out of shape, conditioning, everything,” said Lowry, who is also sniffling from the kind of cold dads of little kids get. “I mean I literally couldn’t run, do anything for a while; the back is pretty tough to come back from. I mean, I’m trying to do everything I can do to get myself back to tip-top shape. Get into a rhythm. After the first couple months of the season I’ve kind of lost a rhythm, and I’m just working to try to get it back.”
It’s not urgent; Toronto is still winning. But as the Raptors continue to gear up towards the real test, the biggest problem to solve isn’t so much Leonard as the gap between him and everybody else.
“The ball’s gonna play through Kawhi mostly, like it does for Kyrie and like it does for (James) Harden and LeBron,” Raptors coach Nick Nurse said before the game. “It’s gonna play through him, and then the other guys gotta be ready to be spaced right, be ready to step in and take ’em, be ready to make the next pass if it’s there, punch into the paint, et cetera. I think we were not using Kawhi enough late.”
So you might be surprised to hear the Suns had a lead in the final two minutes? Why yes. That actually happened.
But then the Raptors raptored. Pascal Siakam drew a foul made the free throws to tie it, then Kyle Lowry got a very physical throw-TJ-to-the-floor-while-grabbing-the-ball steal and Serge Ibaka made a hook shot to give the Raptors the 109-107 lead.
Mikal Bridges tied the game with a pair of free throws, 109-109, with 13 seconds left, leaving the Raptors with a chance for the final shot.
That just set it up for Pascal Siakam to make a driving left-hand layup at the buzzer to win. The Raptors had cleared the floor, sending Ibaka to the far corner, and given Siakam the ball way outside the three point line. Siakam drove left on Bridges. Ayton, who started out outside the paint, slid too late to help. Kelly Oubre stayed on his man in the corner. Ayton contested without fouling (and free throw would have won the game too), but Siakam got the scoop shot long lefty layup up from outside the paint as the buzzer went off. All Ayton could do was drop his jaw in disbelief.
“It’s a heck of a luxury to be able to just give it to Pascal and just get out of the way,” said Fred VanVleet, who scored 15 points.
“Well, it just was thought he could beat somebody off the dribble,” said Raptors head coach Nick Nurse. “We’ve practiced with him, working the clock down, and ended up the right decision. He made a great move and finished it off.”
The 34-13 Raptors prevailed 111-109 over the 11-35 Phoenix Suns to move back to the top of the Eastern Conference standings.
A night after a slugfest in Boston, Kawhi Leonard sat out, but Kyle Lowry surprisingly did not and contributed 16 points, nine rebounds and eight assists. Serge Ibaka had 22 points, VanVleet 15, and Siakam 10, 12 rebounds and five assists. C.J. Miles chipped in 13 off of the bench for a Raptors team that struggled mightily with its shooting, hitting only 28% of its three-point attempts, including a run of 10 straight misses after the first quarter.
Lowry had been expected to miss the game after playing 34 minutes a night earlier at Boston – the team announced as much earlier Thursday – but Lowry had other plans.
“We check him out and get home and bring him in in the afternoon here, and he just felt like he was ready to go and felt like he wanted to go, and continue on his path to kind of conditioning himself back into playing shape a little bit more since he was out for such a long stretch,” said Nurse.
No matter that the Suns spent Tuesday night in Toronto, patiently awaiting Wednesday’s game, while the Toronto Raptors were in Boston, waging an emotionally-draining test of wills with a reeling-yet-motivated Celtics outfit that ultimately concluded in dispiriting defeat. If you have to play less than 24 hours following a game like that, it might as well be against Phoenix.
And yet, as they are wont to do, the Raptors made it so much harder than it had to be. It was still a hard-fought, bounce-back victory, 111-109, in the end. But it was far from as effortless as it should have been. Toronto was up a dozen after the first. But a combination of Phoenix’s youthful exuberance and Toronto’s dreadful three-point shooting allowed the Suns to hang around, and even take a one-point lead into the game’s final quarter.
Surely, that’s when Toronto’s experience and all-around superior talent should have taken over. But there the two teams were, going back and forth in the dying minutes until they were deadlocked at 109 with 13 seconds remaining. That’s when Raptors head coach Nick Nurse drew up an isolation play for Pascal Siakam, who charged straight into the paint and rolled a left-handed — left-handed! — bucket in over two Suns defenders.
“I just thought he could beat somebody off the dribble,” Nurse said. “Ended up the right decision.”
With under three minutes to go and the Suns down by one, Booker used the extra attention from the defense on a hard drive to find Mikal Bridges open in the corner for a deep two that gave the Suns the lead.
After Toronto answered, Booker hit a three to put the Suns back up two. Toronto continued to overload their defensive coverage to contain Booker, which led to a missed open three-pointer by T.J. Warren.
That was followed by two free throws for Siakam that tied the game at 107 with 1:16 to go. Once again, the Raptors forced Booker to pass, which led to Warren turning the ball over. A quick two on the other end put the Suns down two, and after Booker set up another open shot, Kelly Oubre Jr. missed a corner deep ball with 36.1 seconds left.
Mikal Bridges drew a loose ball foul to tie the game at 109 with 13 seconds left, leading to Siakam’s game-winner.
Booker bounced back after a rough 4-of-12 outing in his return from a three-game absence on Tuesday, scoring 30 points and dishing out eight assists, all eight of which came in the second half.
Deandre Ayton had a strong first half but didn’t touch the ball much in the second. The Suns continued to either not run plays to give him the ball in the post or not get him the ball in that position. Warren, most notably, had Ayton open with a guard defending the big man late but missed him.
A weird second half
The third quarter was a different story.
Whereas the Suns scored 29 points on 9-for-17 shooting from the field, the Raptors put up only 20 points on 7-for-22 shooting. They missed all seven of their 3-point attempts and turned the ball over four times, with Greg Monroe accounting for two of them.
It set up a back-and-forth affair in the fourth quarter that saw a total of nine lead changes. Booker led the charge for the Suns with 10 points and four assists, and Serge Ibaka led the way for the Raptors with eight points.
Lowry also made an impact in the fourth with five points, five assists and six rebounds, but it was Siakam who stole the show down the stretch.
With the game tied at 109, Lowry handed the ball to Siakam at the top of the perimeter to go to work against Mikal Bridges in isolation, and he delivered.
At this pivot point in the Raptors season, it still feels like there’s unsettled business with this team. There’s no obvious dysfunction, as with the Celtics’ or Sixers’ loud airing of grievances, just a low level hum that suggests not everything is yet as it should be. Beyond the clutch struggles — which are overblown thanks to recency bias — and obvious injury problems, a general theme has emerged: what if all these Raptors were all playing well… at the same time?
Because he’s in the midst of a wildly up-and-down season, all eyes were on Kyle Lowry tonight. He wasn’t even supposed to play until coach Nick Nurse announced suddenly pre-game that in fact he would. It was something of a twist — this Phoenix contest was indeed on the second night of a back-to-back, right after a game in which it looked like Lowry had faded down the stretch. Would he be able to orchestrate things with any clarity? How would his sore back be feeling? Is any of this a good idea? After Lowry put in almost 40 minutes of work, Fred VanVleet confirmed who was calling the shots, “I’m sure they don’t want [Lowry] playing back-to-backs, and you can probably guess how the rest of that conversation went.”