Raptors win ugly; snap three game losing streak | Siakam growing into being the man | Lowry in The Nutcracker
Two — Clutch: Was it the plan for Norman Powell to deliver the goods with two layups and a key defensive stop down the stretch? No, but there didn’t look to be much of a coherent plan on the whole and Powell capitalized in the chaos. Powell picked off Lauri Markkanen, converted a driving layup in transition over three defenders, and hit the game-winning push shot with the shot clock expiring. Powell didn’t quite have his rhythm from deep, but he was persistent all night in his efforts to get to the rim, and it paid off.
Over the Raptors’ last four games now, they’re only shooting 40.6 per cent from the field and are 41-for-144 from three-point range, going from the most accurate three-point shooting team to one of the worst.
This is turning into a disastrous-looking trend for Toronto as this is a team that ranks among the top-10 in three-point attempts per game. If the three-ball isn’t falling then this club’s offence basically falls apart.
And this really has been the case for Raptors star Pascal Siakam, who was shooting only 14.3 per cent from deep coming into Monday’s game and ended up with a 2-of-6 mark from outside the arc. Sure, he scored 22 points – and he was averaging over 18 per game in the three prior to Monday’s – but it hasn’t been very efficient as it appears as if teams have begun to figure out how to contain him and, thus, a large chunk of Toronto’s offensive game plan.
Just about the only positive for the Raptors on Monday was that their downward trend on defence took a turn for the better as they held the Bulls to 39.3 per cent shooting from the floor and 26.1 per cent from beyond the arc.
This comes with the caveat that, like the Raptors, the Bulls were playing on the second end of a back-to-back and, as the clearly inferior team, poorer results on such evenings should be expected.
The Raptors shouldn’t get, nor deserve, that kind of benefit of the doubt. The level of defence they showed is what we expect of them now, but, as they showed all of last week, if their offence can’t regain form soon, that level of defence will be rendered moot against stiffer competition.
It was one of those games where those easy buckets stand out more. Nick Nurse spent a lot of Monday experimenting with lineups in the absence of Fred VanVleet, who was on the bench but out of the game with knee soreness. Both in the first half and the second half, Nurse trotted out lineups with four forwards on the floor, playing Chris Boucher next to Siakam, Ibaka, and Anunoby. The idea might’ve been to make up for Toronto’s lack of shooting depth (no VanVleet, still no Matt Thomas) with some hustle points on the glass. It didn’t turn make a meaningful difference, though, as the Raptors surrendered a monster game to Bulls rookie Daniel Gafford, who had 14 points on nine shots and marked a +14.
Still, Chicago looked as disoriented as the Raptors with both teams on the end of a back-to-back. LaVine led the team with 20 points, but didn’t score after halftime and finished 6-for-18. On the last possession of the game, he drove into a Raptors triple team and completely missed a rolling Gafford who could’ve dunked in a Chicago win. Markkanen had 13 points but couldn’t get a late game shot over Marc Gasol (he can still reach pretty far, you know). Wendell Carter Jr. had 14 points but fouled out and was a -15.
The Bulls are the Bulls, I guess — 8-17 and seemingly without focus, despite constant big brain basketball-isms from Jim Boylen. At one point in the fourth quarter, you could hear the Bulls’ bench boss whistling at his team to get into the huddle. You have to wonder how stuff like that goes down behind closed doors.
The win can also be a bit of a warning call for the Raptors, who now look ahead to an important game against the Clippers on Wednesday. With Kawhi Leonard in the house, Toronto will look to avenge a narrow loss from earlier this season. It’ll also be a chance to put another an energetic, definitive win on their resume. Though it’s only been a few games since the last one, having that return to form would feel really good after tonight.
1. The Struggles of Pascal Siakam
Let’s just say the timing of this recent slide by Siakam is, uh, not great. On the heels of myself calling him team MVP and citing him as a reason for hope about the Raptors playoff ceiling, Siakam has looked more like Andrew Wiggins than Kawhi Leonard over the past week — inefficient, passive, and allergic to playmaking. What could have initially been chalked up to the effect of Bam Adebayo, a tailor-made Siakam stopper, these struggles have carried over against a team with no real answer for Siakam in Houston, and a Philly team that he had success against earlier this season.
Over these three games, Siakam has shot 21-of-54 from the floor and 2-of-14 from three-point range. He has had five assists total, with six turnovers. Oof. Siakam’s stats do not tell the whole story either — he has not looked himself in general. One of the most positive signs of Siakam’s start to the season was his mentality. He had multiple starts to a game where he shot poorly, but kept attacking and making plays, grinding his way to a solid outing. Lately, however, he has looked shook after some early misses and afraid to make a mistake as the game progressed. Case in point: Siakam shot only one time in the fourth quarter and overtime against the Heat. What’s more, he’s lacked that energy and burst Raptors fans have come to expect from him. This is easily the worst we’ve seen of Pascal Siakam this season.
Why it Won’t Last:
When there is a significant statistical outlier in any direction, regression to the mean is a virtual certainty. For Siakam, who has proven to be a solid-to-good shooter, these numbers will pick back up. Additionally, there are only three other games this entire season where Siakam has only had two assists or less, meaning, once again, that these games are the exception, not the new norm.
As far as the energy and the mentality goes, this is much more difficult to assess and explain. Maybe the adjustment to life as a number one option has caught up with him. Known as a tireless worker off the court, perhaps Siakam is expending too much effort practicing, and his increased role with the team requires him to better balance his activities. Though not quantifiable, this aspect of Siakam’s struggles also feels like an outlier, and he is someone who has consistently said the right things, then followed it up with on-court results. Expect a bounce-back from Pascal Siakam.
With 8.1 seconds to go, the Bulls put the ball in Zach LaVine’s hands, but his drive to the rim was gobbled up once again by Gasol and the loose ball picked up by Norm Powell. The game ended with Kyle Lowry firing the ball long into the stands at the opposite end.
Needless to say, there wasn’t a lot of celebrating going on afterwards. Pascal Siakam wound up with a team-best 22 points on 7-of-18 shooting. Powell had 17, including six in the final quarter. Lowry was limited to 11 points, but had seven assists and seven rebounds. His biggest contribution might have come in the third quarter when he called an impromptu players-only meeting right in the middle of the game.
“I asked coach to call a timeout and I pretty much brought us together,” Lowry said. “It’s that time of the year when it’s a month and a half in, two months in. You know, guys coming back from injury and we just kind of hit a big, tough part in the schedule. We just had to start being on the same page, be dogs again, be aggressive and be assertive. I think we did a good job of just weathering the storm and then they hit a good run and we finished the game out.”
Normally, these players-only meetings happen after games, but with the Bulls up by five, Lowry felt this couldn’t wait.
“It was just time for that,” Lowry said. “It was just needed at that moment and it helped us and I think it will help us long term.”
Nick Nurse and his entire coaching staff stayed out of the huddle and, while it didn’t exactly help the team make any more shots, it did get them back playing more cohesively on defence.
Nurse came into the game desperately hoping the Raptors’ fourth-quarter effort — albeit in a losing cause — on Sunday in Philadelphia would carry over to Monday night.
Timely to see if they could snap out of a week-long funk they’d been in, timely to see if there was any carryover from a rather solid finish in a losing cause Sunday in Philadelphia.
Timely because they needed to staunch the bleeding and Nurse had looked for some solace in the way Sunday finished.
“Let’s see if there’s some carryover to that,” he said. “I hope there will be. I think there will be. I think it’s a good trait of this team.”
Just good enough.
A flurry of solid defence down the stretch allowed the Raptors to steal an unlikely 93-92 win against the Bulls on Monday night, snapping a three-game losing streak.
Kyle Lowry lost the ball out of bounds with 7.9 seconds left — a call that had to be made by video review — to give the Bulls one last shot to win but Toronto clogged the lane and Chicago never got a good look at a game-winning shot.
The Raptors, without Fred VanVleet, were playing with a limited, makeshift lineup but that shouldn’t have mattered. The Bulls are not particularly good, Chicago missed 18 of the first 22 three-pointers it tried and even a half-baked Raptors roster could have — and should have — put the game away early if not for a series of missed easy shots and a series of scary defensive breakdowns that had them fighting from behind all night.
It may not sound fair considering basketball is a team game, but a No. 1 option has to have a selfish bent to him. Regardless of the results of a particular night, a No. 1 option has to keep on shooting.
There’s a mindset necessary to be the No. 1 option and Siakam admits that right now he doesn’t always have that mindset.
Sunday’s loss to the Sixers saw Siakam attempt just eight shots in the first half. Siakam was not shooting the ball well and made the decision to try to find another way to impact the game.
For any other player on the roster, that decision would be deemed a good one. For Siakam, it’s not.
Siakam is the Raptors best scorer. He can get to the rim against almost any defence. He can score from the outside. He is the Raptors best option.
He can’t stop shooting.
But there have been nights where Siakam has done just that. The ball might not be falling for him and he backs away.
Siakam himself knows he can’t do that.
“Not making shots, not being aggressive enough,” Siakam said explaining a poor shooting night in Philadelphia. “I’m going to keep saying that. I have to shoot 30 shots before feeling like (I can back off). That’s the type of player I have to be.”
7. Toronto Raptors
Week 7 ranking: 7
The Raptors just completed a tough four-game stretch that saw them face the Jazz, Heat and Rockets at home before going on the road against the rival 76ers. They stumbled a bit during this stretch, especially defensively, but are still right in the mix with the five Eastern Conference teams vying for second behind the surging Bucks. The Raptors also got Kyle Lowry back, reintroducing another strong perimeter threat to a balanced unit that currently ranks 10th in offensive efficiency at 110.1 points per 100 possessions. — Snellings
9. Toronto Raptors (Previously 3rd), 15-7 (+6.5 net rating)
Here’s something fun and terrifying for the rest of the NBA. Pascal Siakam has actually come back down to earth over the last 14 games of the season. During the first eight games of the season, the Raptors’ new star was obliterating the field. Siakam averaged 27.9 points, 9.3 rebounds and 3.6 assists with 51.9/41.3/95.0 shooting splits. Those numbers seemed too good to be true, and in a way, they absolutely were. Taking over the top spot on the hierarchy of their attack while increasing efficiency just doesn’t make any sense. People were waiting for Siakam to come back down to something far more terrestrial and that’s absolutely what happened.
In those 14 games, Siakam is averaging just 22.8 points, 8.1 rebounds, and 3.7 assists while throwing down 42.8/34.1/73.0 shooting splits. During that time, the Raptors are 9-5 and they’ve been without some pretty key players at various points in this stretch. Those are Siakam’s slumping numbers as a top guy for a top team in the Eastern Conference. If that’s the baseline, the ebbs and flows of this NBA season are going to be smooth sailing for the Raptors.
He’s still learning to stabilize his own attack as the number one option, and he doesn’t have very many bad games in a row. He usually bounces back with a great effort the next night. Siakam just continues to blow everybody away with his maturation process on the court.
Why did the Raptors fall this week? Both are totally justifiable losses, but losing back-to-back home games against Miami and Houston meant the Raptors were going to drop some. Three games in a row after dropping one to Philly too? Raptors had to take the hit this week as everybody else surged.
9 Toronto Raptors
Last week: 3
Pace: 101.2 (14) OffRtg: 110.1 (10) DefRtg: 103.7 (6) NetRtg: +6.5 (5)
The champs have come back to earth a bit, losing three straight games to fall to 3-7 against the other 12 teams that currently have winning records. They’ve allowed more than 112 points per 100 possessions over the losing streak, but the bigger difference between their numbers in games vs. the good teams (104.8 points scored per 100 possessions) and their 12 games (all wins) against everybody else (114.6 per 100) has been on offense. It starts with Pascal Siakam, who has averaged 26.9 points on effective field goal percentage of 56.4% in the other 12 games and just 21.9 on 46.0% in the 10 games against the tougher opponents. Overall, his effective field goal percentage and true shooting percentage are now way down from last season. One of those tough opponents was the Clippers, Siakam shot 6-for-17 in L.A. on Nov. 11 (when he was mostly guarded by Maurice Harkless and Patrick Patterson), and the rematch is Wednesday.
Toronto suffered tough losses to the Heat and Rockets at home to start the week before dropping a road game to the 76ers on Sunday, as Kyle Lowry re-entered the fold. The Raptors aren’t a worse team with Lowry, but they had things clicking so well without him that there would inevitably be a period of adjustment. They’re still one of the top teams in the league in net rating, so a subpar week is no cause for panic.
The Raptors’ ownership, Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, could have avoided some of this noise by simply giving Ujiri an extension and a blank cheque this past summer but – contrary to a report that Ujiri turned down an extension – there has never been one been offered, according to sources.
Which is understandable in some ways. It’s not like Ujiri’s current deal didn’t have lucrative bonuses tied to winning a title. And in most businesses – even with NBA stars – discussion doesn’t typically begin for extensions until a year before a current deal expires.
From MLSE’s point of view, having to talk contract with their well-compensated executive every time a trainwreck of a franchise has a tantrum elsewhere is hardly a way to run a business.
The downside is that even with Ujiri under contract through 2021, the door is open for speculation about what happens next – no differently than a slow news day around the league can be filled projecting where Anthony Davis and James were going to end up in years past or Antetokounmpo will in years to come.
Could Ujiri not being locked up even plant the smallest seed of doubt in his mind about how he’s valued?
Who knows, but as Ujiri’s end date grows closer the drumbeat about his future will likely only get louder.
It comes with the territory when your career winning percentage as a general manager or president in your 10th year with two franchises is .651 – a 53-win pace – and your teams have made the playoffs every year on your watch.
Or that you assembled a team that won the 2018 NBA title without a single lottery pick on the roster – an NBA first.
Sources also say Ujiri would be intrigued by the challenge of fixing the Knicks, the chance to build something from scratch and, not insignificantly, by the opportunity to elevate his Giants of Africa philanthropy by working in the New York market.
Influential voices in the NBA have strongly advised Ujiri not to take the job, if it’s ever offered, sources say. But those same sources say Ujiri might do it anyway, if the money is right, if he’s granted the necessary autonomy and if Dolan funds Giants of Africa as generously as the Raptors ownership group has.
Ujiri’s contract is believed to run through 2021 but with an out clause under certain circumstances. He turned down a lucrative extension last summer, sources said, leaving the impression that he wants to keep his options open.
“He is one of the top executives in the NBA,” Beck said on Good Show. “So whether it’s Washington, whether it’s the Knicks, whether it’s anybody else, you’re going to continue to hear, until he either goes or doesn’t, you’re going to continue to hear teams wanting to chase him. Especially those in large markets with a lot of cash to throw around.”
Despite the Knicks’ evident longing for Ujiri, the reasons for him to balk at the opportunity are plentiful. Dolan is at the root of those reasons, as he’s been a constant meddler in the team’s affairs since becoming the owner in 2000, creating havoc in a multitude of ways, from forcing Glen Grundwald’s hand in the 2011 Carmelo Anthony trade and the Andrea Bargnani trade in 2013 to ejecting Charles Oakley from the Garden in humiliating fashion in 2017.
Ujiri also famously told George Stroumboulopoulos on his show in 2014, during a previous period in which the Knicks were looking to pursue him: “Please clap after this: I hate the Knicks. I don’t care.”
And while that comment certainly holds less weight almost six years later, Ujiri more recently told reporters — this past June, in fact — curious about his future plans that “For me, it’s always been about Toronto… For me, the blessing is being wanted here and finding a place that makes you happy and finding challenges that really make you grow as a person. And this place has made me grow as a person. I identify with this place, and I love it. In my mind, I’m here.”
Still, there’s an allure to the notion of saving such a discombobulated franchise, says Beck. And if the Knicks are dangerous in any way, it’s in the fact that honour and glory undoubtedly awaits the individual who finally manages to right the ship in one of the league’s largest markets.
“He probably thinks,” Beck said, “as many others have: ‘If anybody can do it, I can. And if I pull it off, I’ll be celebrated like a hero like no one else has before.’ That’s attractive to people who are competitive.”
“We’ve been loading up and trapping and flying around, and we can do that better, and we still have to rotate and make our reads out of that,” Toronto’s Fred VanVleet said after watching most of Sunday’s game from the bench when a right knee bruise forced his departure in the second quarter.
The frustrating part for the Raptors is they’ve been tremendously successful at times this season in scheming to stop stars and not being beaten by secondary guys.
They did a great job limiting LeBron James and ended up beating the Lakers in Los Angeles. They shut down Damian Lillard and didn’t let any of his teammates do much damage in a victory in Portland. And they made Embiid a nonfactor in an early game against Philadelphia when Thybulle was invisible.
Some of it is attributable to secondary players having great one-off games but Toronto’s defence has been slacking just a little bit too much some nights.
“I need to look at it but what I always say is what we’ve always been really good at it is getting back out on the weak side,” coach Nick Nurse said. “Covering the rim and getting out, at least contesting those shots and it seems like we’re missing a few rotations here or there or we’re just not respecting a certain guy.
“We’re gonna be one of the better teams in the league. Obviously right now we’re on a little losing streak, but it’ll turn around. We’ll keep growing and working throughout the season and try to give ourselves a chance in the playoffs to do some damage. We don’t really worry about what other people estimate.”
Belief, though, can get a team only so far. And for the Raptors, the losses over the past week to the Miami Heat and Houston Rockets, plus Sunday’s loss to the Sixers, are a reminder that there still remains much to be learned about just how real so many of these teams atop the Eastern Conference really are after seven weeks.
For Toronto, the learning process is going to take place at the offensive end of the floor. Defensively, there are few issues. Even without Leonard and Danny Green, the core of the defensive unit that tore apart every team it played in the playoffs en route to the franchise’s first NBA title remains. The starting lineup — featuring VanVleet, Kyle Lowry, OG Anunoby, Pascal Siakam and Marc Gasol — has premier defensive talent across the board.
Offensively, though, is where the Raptors will determine what Toronto’s level ultimately is. And the past week was a reminder of why there are lingering questions about the Raptors’ ability to score at such a level.
“The offense [before this week] maybe wasn’t spectacular, but it was pretty composed, and pretty smart,” Raptors coach Nick Nurse said. “It doesn’t look as composed. The rhythm has changed a little bit, we have a couple different pieces in there, and we’re just not quite executing at a high enough, fast enough level at that end, I think, and that’s part of the rhythm that I’m talking about.”
Toronto Raptors all-star Kyle Lowry is set to be a point guard in “The Nutcracker.”
The NBA champion is among the Canadian celebrities who will grace the stage as “cannon dolls” in the National Ballet of Canada’s holiday production.
The ballet company enlists notable personalities to make cameo appearances in each show at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts.
The colourfully costumed characters show up as a cannon goes off to begin the battle scene in the first act, which is set in a winter wonderland in 19th-century Russia.
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