Of course it was tempting to assume the Raptors would easily win every game going forward once Pascal Siakam got back on the court. Especially games against teams under .500, as Sunday evening’s opponents, the San Antonio Spurs, most definitely are. Siakam has been Toronto’s most electrifying player, and this had been his breakout season going on two months before injury struck back in mid-December. In that time, Toronto has laboured to keep its place in the Eastern Conference — but it was clear they needed him back if they were ever truly going to return to form.
In a surprise, coach Nick Nurse announced pre-game that Siakam would indeed be back against the Spurs, along with the confirmed return of Norman Powell. Yet as it turns out, the Raptors are not suddenly an invincible squad, and they are still not whole in more ways than one. What’s more, tonight’s contest turned into yet another game of late — the third by my count — in which Toronto controlled things the entire way and somehow found a way to lose. Against the Spurs, they took the lead 2.5 minutes in and grew it to as much as 18. But a late flurry led by former Raptor DeMar DeRozan (with no Kawhi around to ruin his day) spoiled Siakam’s grand return, and handed the Spurs the 105-104 win after a failed rally by Toronto.
How this situation created itself once again for the Raptors is easy enough to explain. After a hot start from Siakam, whose 12 first quarter points paced Toronto to a comfortable lead, the Raptors fell into a couple of familiar patterns. In 38 minutes, Kyle Lowry once again fired up a lot of threes (12 in total), on his way to a 16-point, 15-assist night. His veteran pal Serge Ibaka went to work down low, leading the team with 21 points and 14 rebounds. But if Toronto’s leading scorer is Ibaka, sorry to say, that’s usually a bit of a problem. On the plus side, his contributions were met by Powell, whose return to the lineup was smooth; he had 20 points on 8-of-14 shooting and for the most part did not look rusty at all. As for Siakam, well, he managed just three more points for the rest of the game.
As that ominous tone suggests, the flow of the game eventually got choppy for Toronto. While they were able to generate far more threes than the Spurs (48 to 32) and hit far more of them too (17 to 7), it somehow didn’t put the game out of reach for San Antonio. Thanks to DeRozan’s 25 points and his craftiness at getting to the line — a skill we know well — the Spurs were able to hang around and make a push in the third quarter. Yes, the Raptors lead got as big as 18 in that very frame, but it also saw Toronto expose themselves again with lineups that continue to get them into trouble.
From both the end of the first and into the second, and again from third to fourth quarters, the Raptors played all-bench units that featured Patrick McCaw, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Chris Boucher, Terence Davis, Matt Thomas, and even a little bit of Oshae Brissett. Against a savy team like the Spurs, this group suddenly had to find a way to bust a zone defense. And once again they mostly looked overwhelmed in the attempt. McCaw was a -18 in his 19 minutes, Davis went 0-for-6 despite being perhaps the most dynamic offensive player of the bunch, Thomas canned a couple of threes but couldn’t do much else, Hollis-Jefferson missed a gaggle of shots at the rim, and poor Boucher had his soul snatched by DeRozan on a brutal dunk. These minutes didn’t overtly decide the game — the Spurs did their best to hand the result back to Toronto at times too — but they seemed to warp the Raps’ overall energy.
This, admittedly, feels a bit like punching down. We can’t necessarily blame the Raptors loss on, say, Davis missing all his shots, or McCaw putting together another run of blank minutes — or at least we can’t blame them anymore. Yes, they did those things, and they hurt, but the Raptors are supposed to then turn to their stars — Lowry, Ibaka, Powell, and especially Siakam — to turn things around. For much of the rest of the fourth, it was that group (plus Anunoby) who let the Spurs go on a 17-0 run and eventually take a 9-point lead into the final 2.5 minutes of the game. That the Raptors were just good (or lucky) enough to hit three straight 3s — one each from Lowry, Powell, and Ibaka (a classic no, no, no, yes attempt) — to make things interesting again suggests once again how good the Raptors are when they really put their efforts together.
In those final 2.5 minutes, the Raptors put the Spurs back on their heels and reclaimed control of the game — and the lead, thanks to Siakam going one of two from the free throw line. A Marco Belinelli three put the Spurs back up by two, and the ball ended up in the hands of Pascal again to tie things up. He missed the easy bunny, a shot he probably makes 999 times out of 1,000 if he hadn’t just come off a month-long absence. The mad scramble of the final 17 seconds — with the Raps struggling to foul, and LaMarcus Aldridge missing both his free throws — almost made us believe the Raptors could pull off another miracle. But it wasn’t to be, as Siakam’s heave bounced harmlessly off the backboard. Just like the recent games against OKC and the Trail Blazers, Toronto simply ran out of chances. There’s still work to be done.