The Raptors minus Serge Ibaka could be in for a bit of trouble. Meanwhile, minus Kyle Lowry would be a huge problem. That’s exactly what happened tonight against the Pelicans, and it was something approaching a worst case scenario — two rotation players down, including the guy who makes the whole team go. However, thanks to the Pelicans being bad, and Toronto’s star attraction, Pascal Siakam, being awesome, the Raptors led from the second quarter on, and won 122-104 in New Orleans.
Still, that bad news: Lowry (6 points, 5 assists in 16 minutes) appeared to hurt his surgically-repaired thumb while swiping at the ball from Derrick Favors in the second quarter. Apparently it was just a hurt fingernail, but Lowry sat the rest of the game anyway — hopefully just out of caution (or because he figured Toronto would have no trouble putting this Pelicans squad away). [UPDATE: It’s more serious than that.] Ibaka’s situation looks worse by comparison. He came down on Chris Boucher’s foot while going for a rebound and was down for some time. It’s been labelled an ankle sprain; we’ll just have to wait and see how severe it turns out to be.
On the court, it could indeed have gotten much more severe for the Raptors in the second half. Despite a 45-point second quarter (which led off with a carried over 18-0 run), a 75-point half, and an offense and defense that was firing on all cylinders, Toronto found itself opening the third with Norman Powell in place of Lowry, and a bench absent of any known quantities. The Raps then watched as their lead, which got as big as 29, slowly trickled down to 11. The Pelicans — namely Frank Jackson and Canadian Nickeil Alexander-Walker — were suddenly everywhere all at once. They overwhelmed the already overwhelmed Raptors’ bench, which meant more minutes for the starters — but it also led back to an easy path for victory.
It can’t be overstated just how good Siakam was across his 39 minutes on Friday night. He opened the game with 16 points in the first quarter, 10 in the scond, eight in the third, and then another 10 to slam the door on New Orleans. It tied Siakam’s previous career-high total of 44 — this time on 17-of-28 shooting, including 5-of-10 from three — to go with ten rebounds and four assists. Siakam wasn’t the only reason Toronto won tonight’s game, but when things started to get out of control in the fourth quarter, he was the primary reason it was set right. True to his new form, Siakam was also getting it done from wherever he liked on the court, the mark of a true superstar.
The other conditions of this win were a little more of a mixed bag for Toronto. The Raptors continue to get solid games out of OG Anunoby. He had 21 points on the night (going 5-of-7 from three), with seven rebounds and four assists. What’s more, OG continues to look so confident out there for the Raptors. He’s playing with the ball in his hands, making the right reads and passes, and bringing that fearsome long-limbed and quick-footed defense. It says something that beyond Siakam, and perhaps Fred VanVleet, it was most comforting to see Anunoby on the floor tonight for the Raptors.
VanVleet’s night was a bit more up and down. His final line of 12 points and 11 assists is solid, and the Raptors definitely needed him to play point guard after Lowry went down. But FVV also shot 3-of-15 and was unable to get anything at the rim with the Pelicans swarming his every step into the paint. This is wild speculation but it would really suck if the ankle injury VanVleet sustained in the first game of the season has already robbed him of the burst of those three quarters (also against the Pellies!).
Fortunately — and surprisingly, and thankfully, and mercifully — Norman Powell was there to pick up the slack for the bench and Toronto’s backcourt. While his start to the season has been, as per usual, a tad confounding, Powell found himself tonight against the Pelicans lax defense. In his 29 minutes, Norm had 18 points on 6-of-10 shooting, which made the difference. By point of comparison, his bench partner Ibaka put in eight points and grabbed six boards in 12 minutes before going down — and that alone was still more than the rest of the bench unit.
Ah yes, the bench unit. We’ve written about it no more than three times this week and it will continue to be a point of contention for the Raptors this year. Tonight, Toronto rolled out Matt Thomas, Terence Davis, and Chris Boucher early, went to Malcolm Miller in the fourth, and even tossed out Stanley Johnson in the game’s final garbage time minute. Their collective effort: eight points, 12 rebounds (8 from Boucher), two assists, and three turnovers. Nothing really stood out during their minutes unless they were paired with Lowry (in the first half) or bailed out by Siakam (in the second half). Or I should say, something did stand out: during the deep bench minutes was when Jrue Holliday got cooking and, later, when the Pelicans’ comeback was almost mounted.
Siakam made sure that didn’t happen. By the end, after a run of offensive genius, VanVleet was just straight up feeding Pascal the ball to get him his new career-high. Siakam didn’t quite make it — he needed one more point — yet there’s no question that there’s no limit to where Pascal can go next. Yes, it’s true the Pelicans are the worst defensive team in the league; and it’s also true Siakam made them pay dearly for that fact.
Now, can Siakam do it again? He and the Raptors are heading to a back-to-back in Los Angeles starting on Sunday night. They’ll face off against LeBron James (and Danny Green) and the Lakers and then say hello to their old friend Kawhi Leonard and the Clippers. For the wonderful play of Siakam to mean anything this season, he’ll have to show it against teams like that. And if Lowry and Ibaka can’t go, well then, Siakam has to know all eyes will be on him — even more than they already are.