That was the exclamation point of a second quarter in which the Raptors held the explosive Nets to 24 points, including seven turnovers, four of them belonging to Durant. With the season debut of Pascal Siakam, the Raptors played for the first time with all three of their long-armed, versatile wings. They showed what they could do against a pair of the most explosive offensive players in the game, Durant and James Harden.
“How old is he? 19? 20?” Durant said of Barnes after the game. “Sheesh.”
“I think the second quarter — that’s how you’d draw up what it had to look like,” Raptors coach Nick Nurse said after his team lost 116-103 to the Nets. “We were everywhere. Every time somebody turned, somebody else was there and then we were out and running.”
For the rest of the afternoon, the Nets exposed what the Raptors still need to work on or, eventually, acquire. The Raptors shot 7-for-30 from deep. Barnes is a non-threat from there, which is fine so long as there are no other non-shooters on the floor. Where Siakam ends up as a deep threat will say a lot about that, and judging him on one game after a six-month absence from competitive basketball, several of which were spent recovering from shoulder surgery, is silly. In Siakam’s 25 minutes, the Raptors scored just 102.1 points per 100 possessions. Spacing was an issue, as was on-court chemistry.
“It’s us understanding our spots, knowing how I play, and me also understanding how they play,” Siakam said. “There were some glimpses, but we’ve got to get better.”
On the whole, though, it’s pretty easy to figure out: The long-term defensive plan makes a lot of sense if the Raptors can coach their trio of pterodactyl-esque defenders, and especially Barnes, on how to work together on offence. There were some moments when it all made sense, with Siakam flashing some badly needed playmaking off a drive, creating some ball movement that ultimately rewarded him on the back end with a dunk. However, there was lots of clunky offensive spacing out there. When there wasn’t, there just wasn’t enough shotmaking.
The defence should come rather naturally. Barnes had five steals, while Anunoby absorbed possession after possession of isolation defence against Durant. That left Siakam, for the most part, to fly around and threaten shooters. For the first half, it all held up pretty well. And, if the Raptors had made a few of their open looks to start the third quarter, or if Barnes didn’t get in foul trouble, the approach might have produced a close finish.
However, the difference between when the Raptors could put their best defensive lineups out there against Durant and when they could not was obvious. With Barnes in foul trouble and Siakam on the bench because of his minutes restriction, the Nets simply gave Durant the ball, set a screen on Anunoby and let the all-time great go to work on Gary Trent or Svi Mykhailiuk. The game became elemental for the Nets. The Raptors stopped switching quite so liberally in the fourth quarter, allowing slightly better containment of Harden.
To find enough shooting, the Raptors kept Mykhailiuk on the floor for too long and tried to hide his weaker defence by playing zone. That showed how important it is to be able to fill the floor with two-way players. Not every player is going to be a 40 percent 3-point shooter, but having more than one player who cannot hit 33 percent complicates things.
“At some point, we’d like to get it to where, as long as our offence can function with some space, as long as there isn’t a (weak) matchup they can go at,” Nurse said.
The “as long as ” is doing a lot of work there, at least in the short term.
“I think it’s just a reminder for the idiots on Twitter who have got to beat him for the past two years,” said VanVleet, who led the Raptors with 21 points and eight assists, in reference to some of the flack Siakam took for a poor finish to the 2019-20 season and a slow start the following year. “Like, you have to have some knowledge and some feel, and you see him out there and you say, well damn. It’s a reminder [if you haven’t seen him] … he’s a special talent.
“Obviously, once we knock those minutes restrictions out and get our rhythm and get our feel as a group with him out there, I think that we’re gonna be a really good basketball team.”
Just having Siakam in the lineup gives the Raptors options they haven’t had. Since the Nets don’t start a traditional centre, Nurse could roll out a front line featuring rookie Scottie Barnes, Siakam and the emerging OG Anunoby. There’s potential for super-sized lineups with Siakam playing something akin to point guard and super athletic lineups with Siakam playing center.
The Raptors’ best moment came in the second quarter. There was a sequence where Siakam made a steal, made an outlet for the break and then finished in transition thanks to a clever pass by Dalano Banton, another 6-foot-8, ball-handling match-up buster. A moment later, it was Siakam on a blow-by of the Nets Paul Millsap in the half court.
When Siakam went to the bench, it was Barnes stealing the ball on consecutive possessions from Durant, leading to a dunk for Chris Boucher and then one for Barnes himself. The crowd at Scotiabank loved it.
Siakam, watching from the bench where he has been the most animated Raptor all season, was more subdued on Sunday.
“It was tough, after my first three minutes, I think I needed some gas or something, my legs were heavy, I think I couldn’t breathe at one point,” he said.
But the potential was obvious as the Raptors won the quarter 34-24 over Brooklyn to take a 60-63 lead into the half, the high point of the game for the Raptors.
“[He] gives us another athletic, skillful player out there,” said Nurse. “… I think the second quarter was, that’s how you’d draw up what it [we have] to look like, we were everywhere. Every time somebody turned, somebody else was there, and then we were out and running … . The more bodies we have, the harder we should be able to play.”
The Nets weren’t interested in scripted endings. Durant and Harden attacked the Raptors clinically in the pick-and-roll in the second half. Durant had 13 of his game-high 31 in the third quarter as the Nets took an 88-77 lead into the fourth and then Harden took over, scoring 16 of his 28 in the fourth, while adding 10 rebounds and eight assists, both game highs.
Siakam’s best moment came in the fourth quarter when took a hit on his surgically repaired left shoulder on his way to the rim and made the free throws, and then muscled through the Nets Blake Griffin for an old-school three-point play a possession later to cut Brooklyn’s lead to eight points. Then, he assists on VanVleet triple to get the Raptors within seven with less than five minutes to play. Harden responded with a three and that was as close as the Raptors got. Siakam’s night was over a moment later.
But not before he punctuated his three-point play with a roar, a flex and a huge smile. It was a win in its own way. It has been a long time coming.
“One thing I learned from last year and all the losses and the season that we had is it doesn’t matter how sad you get, [it’s still a loss] the next day,” he said. “[So] I just want to be happy, give everything that I have. I just want to go out there, play as hard as I can for my team and obviously this year, we have a very good team. I think the potential is there. We just have to continue to work hard and play to our identity and hopefully we can win some games. [And] just be myself.”
Brooklyn had a total of six players finish in double figures in the road victory — Durant and Harden plus Blake Griffin (14), Bruce Brown (12), Joe Harris (11) and Mills (13). A huge factor into having six players in double-figures was the ball movement — 29 assists on 41 made shots. The Nets also had five players with three or more 3-pointers, led by Griffin’s four, the most since he joined the Nets last season.
“The defense was really strong. In the first and second, we get some slippage. I think that was down to turnovers. They got out and ran for easy baskets, so the turnovers and offensive rebounds, again were an issue. Offensively, there were pockets of play where we were really happy with,” said Nash. We still have to push to play that way naturally and from start to finish. I thought tonight, we obviously made shots but we were sharp with our intent and our purpose offensively for stretches. That’s what got us through.”
The Nets ran the same starting lineup — Harden, Harris, Durant, Brown and Griffin — for the seventh straight game. Although Brooklyn had difficulty early finding space on the offensive end due to Toronto’s length, the team found a rhythm behind the play of Durant, who scored 12 of the Nets’ 29 points to take a 29-26 lead after one. Griffin snagged six rebounds in the frame.
It was a back-and-forth second quarter, but Brooklyn’s second unit held it down defensively, holding Toronto to only 21 percent shooting from the field through the first six minutes of the second. Still, the Raptors forged a 9-2 run in the span of a minute to grab a six-point lead. Following the run, Durant picked up a technical foul for arguing with the officials over a push in the back call on Chris Boucher. “I didn’t touch him! I didn’t touch him!” KD pleaded.
In the final minute, the Raptors tough defense sent a pair of double teams at Durant in the midrange, resulting in two turnovers. Toronto, in fact, flipped Brooklyn’s nine first-half turnovers into 13 points and as the second quarter buzzer sounded, the home team hit the break nursing a seven-point advantage. The Nets did not play Griffin throughout the second quarter and instead, attempted to go small against the lengthy Raptors.
Durant led the Nets with 16 first-half points on 6-of-12 shooting from the field and 1-of-4 from deep in 19 minutes of play. Harden followed with 10 points on 4-of-11 shooting from the field but went 0-of-5 from three.
Fred VanVleet led the way for the Raptors with 21 points and eight assists, but the team struggled to shoot from the perimeter, hitting a paltry 7-for-30 compared to the Nets’ 17-for-38. OG Anunoby had a quiet and inefficient night of 16 points (on 7-for-16 shooting) and eight rebounds. Precious Achiuwa looked good off the bench, dropping 13 points and 8 rebounds. Scottie Barnes filled the stat sheet for the Raptors tonight, going for 8 points, 7 rebounds, 4 assists, and 5 steals, while picking up Durant and Harden full court:
The Nets cracked the game open in the third quarter, as they would quickly erase the Raptors’ halftime lead on a 24-7 run to start the second half. Perhaps the Raptors’ offensive futility in the half-court affected their performance on the defensive end, as there was a lot of miscommunication and poor effort on display. In the second half, Gary Trent Jr’s 12 points were not enough against the humming Nets’ offense, but he probably had his best assist as a Raptor, when he found Siakam cutting under the basket. Unfortunately, I can’t find any clips, so I can’t confirm if the pass happened.
Siakam would get his first touch early on the game against Joe Harris at the post but chose not to force it. The Raptors’ offense appeared to be off to a good start, as VanVleet hit Anunoby with an improbable pass for a dunk, and Anunoby returned the favour finding VanVleet on the perimeter for a trifecta. However, Durant started to take over for the Nets, as he racked up 10 points while going against an assortment of long defenders.
Siakam made his first shot of the season when he nailed a top-of-the-key three-pointer off a nice set play, but he would be a casualty of Durant’s onslaught at the elbow, as he picked up his second foul five minutes into the game. The Raptors’ poor shooting from the perimeter was their Achilles heel in the quarter, as Anunoby channelling “mid-range Kawhi” kept the Nets within striking distance.
Birthday boy Dalano Banton provided the spark in the second quarter for the Raptors, as he completed an and-1 and set up Siakam for a transition layup the following play. The Raptors would go on an 11-2 run to capitalize on the Nets’ mistakes. Harden tried to keep the Nets in the game, pouring in six points, but the Raptors’ defense forced the Nets to commit turnover after turnover, which led to fastbreak points, including the casual dunk from Barnes below.
The Raptors opened the second half sluggish, shooting 0-4 from the field, but more importantly, looking discombobulated on defense. The Nets took advantage, going on a 9-0 run to take the lead at 62-60, soon stretching the lead 77-67.
Finally, on Sunday the long wait for Siakam was over. A smile swept across his face as he took the court for the first time this season to the loudest applause of any Raptors starter.
The former All-Star worked his way into things early, letting Fred VanVleet and OG Anunoby take care of the work offensively while he found his groove. Then, bang. His first bucket of the season, an above-the-break three-pointer, the kind he’d struggled with so mightily last year.
The return, however, was spoiled, at least on the scoreboard, by a 116-103 loss to the Brooklyn Nets. Toronto kept it close in the first half, but a rough start to the second quarter let Kevin Durant and eventually James Harden take over. The Raptors were outscored 35-17 in the third, including 13 points from Durant and a lights-out fourth from Harden left Toronto helpless.
Siakam’s leash was pretty short for much of the afternoon. Toronto subbed him out every five minutes until the fourth quarter, but it was clear his presence allowed the Raptors to do some different things defensively.
“It’s given us another athletic, skillful player out there,” Nurse said. “I think the second quarter was, that’s how you’d draw up what it had to look like. We were everywhere. Every time somebody turned, somebody else was there and then we were out and running.”
Toronto got to flex their zone defenses and switching-everything schemes Raptors coach Nick Nurse talked about in the preseason. Sure, Durant got his buckets, scoring 31 in the game, but nobody else has really found a way to stop him this season. Instead, the Raptors forced the Nets into 17 turnovers leading to 23 points.
“We’d like to get it to where there isn’t a mathcup they can go at,” Nurse said. “That we can just switch, it’s switching to Scottie or OG, Pascal, or Khem or Precious or Chris. We should have some size out there to play against.
“Ideally to get to a one-through-five switching situation, hopefully it will enable us to keep the ball in front and not have to pay, to rotate as much, that’s kind of the idea.”
Siakam looked good, all things considered. He was a bit rusty, missing a few two-foot putts around the rim, the type of shots you would expect to see him knock down in a week or two, once he gets his rhythm and conditioning back. Admittedly, he needed to catch his breath a few times, which is understandable after such a long layoff.
“It was tough,” the 27-year-old said. “After my first three minutes I think I needed some gas or something. My legs were heavy and I think I couldn’t breathe at one point, but it was expected.”
Siakam has been practicing with the team for weeks, and was recently cleared for contact. After a quick trip to Los Angeles, where he visited with the doctor who performed his surgery, he was given the green light to return. Initially, he was expected to be back in mid-late November, so this was ahead of schedule. They thought about maybe waiting another week or two, getting him in a few more practices, but why not use game action to get back into game shape? He was capped at 25 minutes in his season debut, though he did reclaim his starting spot. Nick Nurse tried to limit him to short spurts, and he used elastic bands to keep his shoulder loose when he was on the bench.
For the most part, the fatigue didn’t show. Siakam looked spry. He ran the floor well, attacked the basket, made good reads, and was active defensively.
He drilled his first shot, an above-the-break three, early in the opening quarter. Dalano Banton found him for a transition layup in the second. He blew past the veteran for the score and blocked Griffin’s shot from the corner.
There was a play in the third quarter that served as a good example of how Siakam – even at less than 100 per cent – should help open up Toronto’s offence. He drove into the paint and took two or three Nets defenders with him before kicking the ball out. After a couple more passes, the ball found Gary Trent Jr., who got into the lane and connected with Siakam on a baseline cut under the rim. Siakam started the possession by getting the defence on its heels and the ball moving from side to side, and he capped it off with a dunk.
“He’s going to keep finding his feet, his legs, but for the first game I thought he looked pretty good,” said of Siakam, who finished with 15 points, four rebounds and a couple of blocks on 5-of-12 shooting. “It’s good to have him out there. You kind of forget how much he can do and what he brings to the table. Obviously, he’s our franchise player and this thing is not going to go anywhere without him, so it’s a good start.”
After taking a seven-point lead into halftime, the game was lost in the third quarter, when the Raptors’ scored just 17 points. had 13 of his 31 points in the frame, as the superstar forward was back in Toronto for the first time since tearing his Achilles in Game 5 of the 2019 NBA Finals with Golden State.
The catalyst, or one of the main ones at least, was Pascal Siakam, who played for the first time since early May and did not look a bit out of place.
His 15 points and four rebounds were fine but his presence was important and will be a determining factor in how good the Raptors become.
“He’s going to keep finding his feet, his legs, but for the first game I thought he looked pretty good,” guard Fred VanVleet said. “It’s good to have him out there, you kind of forget how much he can do and what he brings to the table. Obviously he’s our franchise player and this thing is not going to go anywhere without him, so it’s a good start. We didn’t get the win, but it’s a good start.”
Siakam made a seamless return to the starting lineup, joining VanVleet, Gary Trent Jr., Scottie Barnes and OG Anunoby as Nurse loaded up the first group with his best players.
The coach will, of course, more closely examine that group’s play in the next couple of days but it’s hard to see a reason to break it up after one outing.
“With me coming back, guys have got to find out, ‘Oh, what do I do?’ ” Siakam said. “I think that’s something we’re going to get better at, just figuring it out, talking it out on the court, picking our spots.
“I think Fred is always used to playing with me so it’s easier for him, a little bit more. It’s us understanding our spots, knowing how I play, and me also understanding how they play. There were some glimpses, but we’ve got to get better.”
It was an emotional day for Siakam. He had shoulder surgery in June for the first major injury he had suffered in his career. And coming off a season and a half of so-so play before that, he said just feeling the joy of playing carried him Sunday. The journey to get to Sunday was propelled by others.
“You see people that really care about you at those times and just knowing I have my circle of people — and those people are right there with me through everything — it felt great to have that support,” Siakam said. “Just knowing that, no matter what’s going on — I could score zero points and they’d still be there for me — that meant the world to me.”
Missing initially was the flow that group has shown the past handful of games without Siakam in the lineup.
VanVleet, who scored 21, admits it will take a little time, but he’s fully confident any cost will be worth it.
“I thought he looked good,” VanVleet said of Siakam. “He’s going to keep finding his feet, his legs, but for the first game, I thought he looked pretty good.
“It’s good to have him out there. You kind of forget how much he can do and what he brings to the table. So obviously, he’s our franchise player and this thing is not going to go anywhere without him, so it’s a good start.
“We didn’t get the win, but it was nice just to have him back out there.”
VanVleet clearly hasn’t forgotten the beating his good friend took on social media through his pandemic and injury hurdles. He called out those individuals when a media member marvelled at what it was like to see Siakam operate live once again.
“I think it’s just a reminder for the idiots on Twitter, who have gotten to beat him for the past two years,” VanVleet said. “Like, you have to have some knowledge and some feel and you see him out there and you say: “Well, damn.’”
For Siakam himself, the moment got a little bigger than he wanted, but in the end, other than a win, he got what he needed to get out of his long-awaited return.
“It’s a big moment, and I tried hard not to make it a big thing,” he said. “Today, I was laughing on Open Gym because I was telling them I don’t want to make it a big deal, and then (the film crew) comes to my house and filmed me going all the way to the arena, and it’s like yeah. So I tried not to, but I know how important it is, and obviously I’m super happy and super excited to be back in Toronto.