Fan Duel Toronto Raptors

Siakam’s homecoming is a night of inversions … but still a loss

The Raptors had a game of change. Necessary change. All except for the result.

It happened midway through the third quarter. The Toronto Raptors entered the ball into the post. A hard dribble, another. Contact on the body. Then a nimble spin towards the baseline, shedding the defender, for an uncontested layup. Scotiabank Arena has seen the move 1000 times with Pascal Siakam in the house, and just one more with him back. Except this time it was Siakam stumbling forwards, falling off the offensive player, and Jakob Poeltl spicing up the offense for the basket. It was an inversion, but a welcome one for Raptors fans. 

“That was bad. I slipped, man,” said Siakam of Poeltl’s spin move. “That was a good spin, though. I’ll give him that.”

There was an inversion worse, though, than Poeltl’s spin move was positive. The Raptors lost, of course. And it was Siakam the closer finishing them off, throwing in a runner off glass to push the lead to an unreachable three. Toronto had a variety of chances to tie. In the last minute or two, Gary Trent jr. had multiple 3-point attempts that would have tied the game, and he missed them. Barnes missed one pull-up jumper to tie, had his foot on the line on a make, and missed a layup attempt to tie. RJ Barrett ultimately had the ball in his hands on the last possession, and his jukes and shimmies and fakes and fades all led to nothing, as he missed his short jumper on a zero-pass possession to end the game. Rajakovic explained after the game that that was not what the play called for.

The game was a welcome inversion in other ways, though. As in: The Raptors finally bothered trying. It was a good-habit loss, which is welcome. It helped that the Indiana Pacers didn’t bother playing defense for the entire game. But Toronto’s effort on the offensive end has been solid, even if the execution has been sketchy at times. It was on the defensive end, guarding Indiana’s world-beating offense, where Toronto finally flexed its latent muscles and proved it could do more than it has been. 

That was the most important part. Trying. Defense. If the Raptors are ever going to be good again, the habits on that end of the floor need fixing. And, yes, Indiana scored 127. But the defense was committed and consistent, regardless of Indiana’s incredible scoring. 

Poeltl had enormous responsibilities. He was Toronto’s primary check on Siakam, sticking with the star on his bevy of in-between-space tricks and traps. He also helped keep the paint clean, sidling over to deter shots at the rim, blocking shots when he had the chance. And with Poeltl engaged as the wall, Scottie Barnes was the rebounding crasher, swallowing every miss as it rolled off the rim. He finished with 12 rebounds.

Even Gary Trent jr. got in on the fun, blocking Haliburton straight up on a mid-range jumper. Trent battled, boxing out, fighting, and playing one of his most solid defensive games as a Raptor. His shooting wasn’t there, and the misses at the end of the game will stand out. But Trent won his minutes, and he did it through his defense. 

At one point, the Raptors switched their behemoth center Poeltl onto Indiana’s ballerina point guard Tyrese Haliburton. There were two heartbeats of panic before the Raptors unveiled their master plan — it was a switch-to-blitz! Bruce Brown jumped back onto Haliburton, and together he and Poeltl forced a high, arcing swing pass to the other corner. It was off enough, and the clock late enough, that a shot-clock violation resulted. Siakam saw doubles virtually every time he touched the ball, and Toronto rotated well behind him (most of the time). Siakam ended up scoring 23 but shooting 8-of-17. 

When Toronto has stuck to its scheme, the defense has been solid. Going forward, it’s about ensuring that scheme is clear and committed. Toronto needs to solve its defense, and this was a step forward.

There were other significant changes. After Barnes’ disengaged game against the San Antonio Spurs, leaving the court early, he was a terrific leader. During Barnes’ final shift on the bench in the fourth quarter before he came in to close, he was on his feet coaching from the sideline. With Toronto’s bench in front of its own hoop, he was calling out instructions while Toronto was on the defensive end. During a break in play he called out specifics to Quickley. For a young star who is learning his new leadership role, it was a step forward. 

“He had a great voice with the whole team today,” agreed Rajakovic. “He was lifting his teammates. We talked about it. It’s going to be a ride. It’s going to be [a] journey. I don’t expect from him to be perfect. But I expect him to learn from his mistakes, and not to make the same mistakes. I want him to make a different mistake, and to learn from that one, and to get better. And to get another mistake, and learn from that one, and move forward.”

And after all of Toronto’s effort, the game eventually came down to the show everyone came to see: Siakam versus Barnes. Siakam hit a pull-up jumper — he thought it was a triple to tie, but his foot was on the line. Then he stepped up too high in the pick and roll, letting Isaiah Jackson slip behind him, but, miracle of miracles, Barnes dashed back to recover to block him from behind. He threw in a quick crossover the other way, getting to the rim, but missed. (Or was fouled.) And Siakam tossed in a runner off glass to push Indiana’s lead to three. It was Siakam the closer, this time, but not for the Raptors.

“Everyone was saying, ‘oh man, I’m so happy to see you.’ In my head, I was like, ‘I gotta get this win, I can’t lose this game,’” said Siakam after the game. 

The Raptors inverted expectations in so many ways against the Pacers. The defense was up, and the spin moves were down. Siakam was the opponent, and Trent was blocking Haliburton. The Raptors needed inversion. They needed an emotional boost. They got both. It would have been nice to invert the result, too.