Morning Coffee – Tue, Mar 3

Siakam's fine. Really, he is.

Siakam’s fine. Really, he is.

Pascal Siakam not shying away amid current challenges with Raptors –

Just two years removed from being a Raptors super-sub, Siakam is learning on the job and he knows it, but he’s not one to grasp for excuses. His five-year max extension doesn’t kick in until next season, but Siakam’s sense of responsibility already has.

“As (a) leader of the team, you gotta play better,” he said as the Raptors were digesting their thumping loss Sunday night to the Denver Nuggets in which Siakam turned in one of his weakest performances of the season. “You can’t have games like that and I feel like it’s been too many of those.”

The numbers do tell a story. Siakam was 6-of-21 from the floor, 1-of-7 from three and turned the ball over four times in nearly 40 minutes of play. He was 1-of-7 in the first quarter alone as the Nuggets came very close to blowing the Raptors out before the game was 12 minutes old. According to Basketball-Reference, it was Siakam’s fifth-worst game of the year by GameScore at 6.0 and his minus-13 was his fourth worst.

Yet even in his fourth season, Siakam understands that bad games happen to good players. But his comments hint at a broader trend that is concerning.

Even though he’s posting career-highs in points (23.5) rebounds (7.5) assists (3.5) and made threes, Siakam has struggled against some of the NBA’s best teams.

It’s a small sample size – Toronto has only played the other nine teams in the NBA’s top-10 just 11 times this season so far – but Siakam’s numbers take a hit when they do.

He’s averaging just 18.8 points a game in those contests on 43.4 per cent shooting – down from 46.8 overall this year — and his turnovers are up too.

Digging a little deeper, it’s been a while since Siakam has been able to turn it up against a high-end opponent. Two of his best games in the sample – a 33-point outing against the Celtics in the second game of the season and a 35-point burst against Utah on Dec. 1 – feel like a lifetime ago.

In between, there have been some clunkers – games against Denver, Milwaukee, Philadelphia and Miami – where Siakam has struggled mightily.

Q&A: Jack Armstrong on 25 years of Raptors memories, favourites and what-ifs – The Athletic

“I think the next 25 years are going to be better (than the Raptors’ first 25 years). How many championships? I don’t know. How many wins? How many losses? I don’t know. I just know our sport is here to stay.”

If the sport, and the Raptors specifically, are connecting with more people in Canada than ever before, then Armstrong is a big part of the reason why. The 57-year-old Brooklynite became the radio analyst on Sportsnet 590 The Fan in 1998, partnering with the colourful Chuck Swirsky. Soon after they became the television crew, with Swirsky’s irrepressible enthusiasm and Armstrong’s passion, strong New York accent and assortment of catchphrases drawing in listeners and viewers. Armstrong came to broadcasting intending to only take a short break from coaching after Niagara University fired him as its men’s basketball head coach earlier that year. When he thought about getting back on the coaching track, which would have likely included being an assistant at a major college before getting another head coaching gig, many of his friends had the same message for him.

“I had those opportunities my first couple of years. Thank God, I had a few people say to me, and excuse my French, ‘Are you fucking nuts? Don’t do it.’ They could see how much fun I was having and that I was actually getting my natural personality back,” Armstrong says. “I feel like I was mentally, emotionally, spiritually, physically drained during my last few years of coaching. And I wasn’t having fun. I feel like I have fun with what I do. My friends in coaching were telling me, ‘You’re happy.’”

As such, Armstrong (@HelloooJack) has been part of the soundtrack for 22 of the Raptors’ 25 years of existence. He is now the television analyst on TSN alongside Matt Devlin, and the radio analyst alongside Paul Jones on TSN 1050 when TSN does not have the television rights to a game. In honour of the team’s 25th season, Armstrong spoke to The Athletic about the time he nearly moved into a front office role with the Raptors, his favourite cities to run in around the NBA and the time he had a quiet chat with the most iconic player in Raptors history at the most awkward time possible.

‘It’s got to be on me’: Pascal Siakam’s struggles at the rim are a new challenge – The Athletic

Last year, the favourite approach to guarding Siakam was to put a bigger player on him and sink back into the paint, daring him to shoot and making his quirky, energetic drives more difficult. Siakam has progressed beyond that strategy as a shooter, hitting 36.4 percent on 5.9 threes per-game, including a respectable 34.2 percent on 2.5 pull-ups. That, combined with the loss of Leonard and Siakam’s resultant spike in importance, have changed the strategy some. Now, Siakam is seeing the opponent’s best defender (position-dependent) and having to navigate more traps, double teams and extra bodies sliding into the paint to help on those drives.

The result has been a change in Siakam’s shot profile, one that has made it a little more difficult for him to maintain his previous level of efficiency. The average distance of his shots has increased by over three feet. Shooting more 3s is a positive in that regard, and if Siakam were trading good 2s for 3s exclusively, it might end up a wash. Instead, Siakam is also giving up shots at the rim for shots in the mid-range, which is more difficult. Siakam is shooting at a 70th-percentile volume for a forward in the mid-range (30 percent), per Cleaning the Glass, and he’s only hitting those shots at a 46th-percentile rate (34 percent).

Is Adversity Catching Up To The Toronto Raptors?

With their 14th different starting lineup this season, the Raptors have started a five-game western road swing, and it didn’t start off so well Sunday in Denver. Playing without Marc Gasol, Serge Ibaka and Fred VanVleet, Toronto fell 133-118.

It was the largest point total that the Raptors have given up all season, and comes on the heels of losses to the first-place Milwaukee Bucks and the lowly Charlotte Hornets.

A big problem for the Raptors was a size mismatch. For the second consecutive game, Toronto started 6’ 6” Rondae Hollis-Jefferson at center. He was no match for Denver’s 7-foot Serbian Nikola Jokic, who was the Nuggets’ best player and controlled the game with his shot-making, defense and passing.

Jokic finished with a triple double, accumulating 23 points along with 18 rebounds and 10 assists.

Toronto is in trouble most nights when they have to give up a size advantage, and coach Nick Nurse knows it.

“I just think it seems like it catches up with you just a little bit here and there, and that’s kind of just the difference in the game,” Nurse said. “Like, there’s a putback here and putback there, and just some pretty easy offense when he (Jokic) just goes down and parks in front of the rim and they throw it into him. There’s not much we can do because of the sheer size and strength of it.”

Raptors' Ibaka, VanVleet questionable for Tuesday's game vs. Suns –

Toronto Raptors centre Serge Ibaka and guard Fred VanVleet are listed as questionable for Tuesday’s game against the Phoenix Suns. Centre Marc Gasol, meanwhile, has been ruled out as he recovers from his hamstring injury.

Ibaka (right knee soreness) and VanVleet (left shoulder soreness) have missed the team’s previous two games against the Denver Nuggets and Charlotte Hornets.

The Raptors’ Pascal Siakam will improve on his last three games — he has a history of improving, after all | The Star

Siakam’s recent woes are easy to figure out. He has missed 11 of his last 12 three-pointers — all of which were “open” or “wide open” according to’s shot assessments. Worse still was the fact Siakam missed four shots within four feet of the basket against the Nuggets, an outlier in the totality of his season.

He is shooting a bit too early, perhaps — in his past three games, he has had six shots per game in the first six seconds of the shot clock — and he has looked indecisive on attempts with the clock winding down.

“It looked like he was on his way to driving and he’d pull up midway and not get a very good look up or whatever,” Raptors coach Nick Nurse said. “His three-balls were pretty clean looks. And those weren’t really falling and most of his drives just were not quite in the rhythm of getting to a spot and getting on balance and things like that.”

All fixable. Siakam has the ability to shake off the odd bad game and get back to being his usual dominant self.

“I’ve got to play better,” he said. “As leader of the team, you got to play better. You can’t have games like (Sunday) and I feel like it’s been too many of those. It’s frustrating, but at the same time, you trust your work. I’m going to continue to do me, I’m going to continue to play hard, and like I said, I have to be better.

Do Celtics have an edge on Raptors in race for East's No. 2 seed?

If you’ll forgive the pun: The “March” to the NBA playoffs is officially on.

The Boston Celtics (41-18) exit February half a game behind the Toronto Raptors (42-18) for the Eastern Conference’s No. 2 seed with 23 regular-season games remaining.

Securing the No. 2 seed, as NBC Sports Boston’s Chris Forsberg has discussed, would allow the Celtics to avoid a tough first-round matchup with the No. 6 seed Indiana Pacers and give them home-court advantage in a potential second-round playoff clash with Toronto.

LIVE stream the Celtics all season and get the latest news and analysis on all of your teams from NBC Sports Boston by downloading the My Teams App.

So, who is better positioned to win what’s essentially a dead heat between Boston and Toronto for the No. 2 seed? (Neither team is catching the Milwaukee Bucks, who are 10 games clear of the Raptors at 52-8, while the Miami Heat are 3.5 games back of the Celtics at 38-22.)

Glad you asked.

First, here is each team’s strength of schedule, defined as the combined win percentage of their remaining opponents:

Celtics: .497 (17th-hardest)
Raptors: .500 (15th-hardest)

Overall, the Raptors’ remaining schedule is slightly more challenging than the Celtics’. Toronto also plays just nine of its remaining 23 games at home, while Boston plays 12 of its last 22 at TD Garden.

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