Siakam’s return isn’t enough to get Raptors past Nets

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Sunday afternoon marked the 2021-22 debut for Pascal Siakam. Siakam underwent shoulder surgery in June and missed the team’s first 10 games this year.

Following the game, Siakam said of his return, “it felt good. First time in a long time.”

Nick Nurse said that he would be on a minutes restriction and the Raptors forward finished yesterday’s game right at 25 minutes played.

Siakam’s road back to the court wasn’t easy, but he said his ability to return showed that he is “made of something.”

Siakam was immediately inserted into the starting lineup as Toronto embraced positionless basketball to the fullest.

Overall, he looked rusty at times, as expected when coming off an extended layoff. However, he hit his first shot of the season and was close to his usual self on the defensive end of the floor.

“I thought Pascal, for conditioning … didn’t look bad,” Nurse said after the game.

Nurse’s choice of starters (Fred VanVleet, Gary Trent Jr, OG Anunoby, Scottie Barnes, and Siakam) was interesting. However, neither Khem Birch nor Precious Achiuwa has separated in the competition for center minutes.

So rather than trying to decide whether Siakam or Barnes was better suited to come off the bench, Nurse opted just to put both on the floor.

The length and versatility that an Anunoby, Barnes, and Siakam frontcourt provides the Raptors are tantalizing. As Siakam gets closer to All-Star form, that group could help keep Toronto in playoff contention.

VanVleet is another reason that Toronto is exceeding preseason expectations.

When the Raptors closed the first half, it was VanVleet who was the driving force. He pushed the pace and helped Toronto take advantage of the Brooklyn Nets’ porous transition defense.

He finished the game with 21 points and eight assists, continuing his solid start to his first year as the team’s orchestrator.

VanVleet believes that the team is more cohesive this year, which has helped them play well out of the gates and ease the process of bringing Siakam back along.

“Our chemistry is a little bit better. We’re a little bit tighter,” VanVleet said.

Yet, the combined firepower of James Harden (28 points, 10 rebounds, eight assists) and Kevin Durant (31 points, seven rebounds, seven assists) proved too much in the end.

Harden and Durant made it known that they were anticipating the energy from the Raptors crowd.

This was Durant’s first game in Toronto since he ruptured his Achilles in the 2019 NBA Finals.

Brooklyn outscored Toronto in the first (29-26), third (35-17), and fourth (28-26) quarters. In those three quarters, Durant and Harden powered the Nets offense.

Durant scored 12 points in the first and 13 points in the third, while Harden clinched the game with 16 points in the fourth.

Toronto’s defense made life difficult for both, but great offense beats excellent defense at a certain point.

Barnes, Anunoby, Trent Jr., and Siakam all spent time on each superstar. Still, Brooklyn did a good job of using ball screens to force the Raptors into switches and provide Durant and Harden the opportunity to work against lesser defenders.

Despite the loss, this game should be looked at as a feather in the Raptor’s cap.

The second quarter, in which Toronto won 34-24, showcased the possibilities of this year’s team.

Nurse agreed. “I think the second quarter — that’s how you’d draw up what it had to look like,” Nurse said.

The length and athleticism were on full display. Barnes had a three-possession sequence late in the second, where he forced three turnovers.

First, he picked up Harden full court and hounded him until he had to pass to Joe Harris as an outlet, and then picked off Harris’ pass back. Next, he sprung a trap onto Durant as he attempted to post up VanVleet and knocked the ball away. Finally, in what is easily the most Barnes highlight of the season, he snatched the ball right out of Durant’s hands.

“We were everywhere,” Nurse said, “Every time somebody turned, somebody else was there, and then we were out and running.”

Nobody thought they would have gotten off to the start they have, and even though the final score looks a little one-sided, Toronto was right in the game until the very end.

A healthy and rehabbed Siakam could jumpstart this team to the upper echelon of the Eastern Conference, which looks a little more open than many thought through the first few weeks.

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