At this point, we’re looking for signs of the Raptors of old, that plucky and exciting squad from as recently as last season, the franchise that had taken to cracking off 50-win seasons as a matter of course. On Wednesday night against the Phoenix Suns, we didn’t get that, but we did get something else: the undisputed return of Pascal Siakam. The man some call Spicy P showed up and out with some of the old flair, calming the nerves of Raptors fans everywhere in the process. That was the good part of the evening. The bad part? The Raptors still lost, 123-115, leaving them at 1-6 on the year.
For the Raptors, searching as they are, coach Nick Nurse has given himself license to continue his experiments. Tonight, that led to a stretch in the first quarter with a lineup of Fred VanVleet, Norman Powell, Pascal Siakam, Chris Boucher, and, in a twist, Yuta Watanabe. While that group was resonsibile in part for a 10-0 run — which included a three from Watanabe — Phoenix was able to keep things close and within three points after the first 12 minutes. Credit to Siakam though, he looked energized from the tip, finding a few different ways to score his first 11 points.
Speaking of which, after a quiet opening frame, the classic Lowry-plus-the-bench lineup got going in the second quarter. For this iteration, it was Lowry paired in the backcourt with rookie Malachi Flynn (much to the delight of Raptors Twitter), along with Boucher (who was replaced by Alex Len once Deandre Ayton returned), Watanabe, and OG Anunoby. It’s worth mentioning the lineup situation again because it was clear Lowry was the only guy making things happen. He had 12 points and six rebounds in the frame, including a pull-up three, an and-1 at the rim, and a scrambling put-back/steal/lay-up combo that helped push the Suns back again. That wasn’t enough to break the game open either though.
Before we jump into the second half, it’s worth repeating: there was a stretch in the second quarter during which Siakam legit looked like the Spicy P of old. After the brief shooting exhibition of the first quarter, Siakam went to work on Jae Crowder in the second, putting in a series of lay-ups and flip shots that were his bread-and-butter less than a year ago. He even tried his signature spin (though he missed the attempt). Siakam also went to the free throw line three times in that first half, which helped get him to 19 points across those two quarters. This level of play continued in the second half too as Siakam finished his night with 32 points (on 11-of-21 shooting), nine rebounds, three assists, and a total of 14 free throw attempts. Other than some cold shooting from deep, it was the kind of performance we’d been hoping to see from Pascal.
The oppositional problems for Toronto from there were two-fold: they couldn’t keep the Suns from hitting 3s and they couldn’t keep them off the offensive glass. The latter helped fuel the former — first with Crowder lighting it up, and then the dangerous Devin Booker. And then, at a certain point, the rebounds didn’t matter. With Chris Paul orchestrating, the Suns were able to take a four point lead into the second half and then grow it to seven early in the third. Even with Siakam cooking, the Suns just kept shooting their way out of trouble. By the end of the third, with Pascal sitting on 29 points, the Raptors were still down by nine thanks to Booker’s 15 points in the frame — and the team’s 55 percent shooting from deep.
The Suns aren’t the best team in the league, but they’ve got shooters and they definitely took advantage of the various gaps in the Raptors’ defense. And when Toronto’s defense was stout? Well, they made those 3s any way, finishing the evening with 21. Meanwhile, as continues to be the case, the Raptors just don’t have a lot of other options here. We saw how that played out in the fourth, as both teams went to their reserves, but to different effect. While Phoenix saw their lead grow to 15 — with help from a pair of threes from Cameron Payne — the Raptors had to sweat through it. In all, Toronto’s bench was outscored 42-26 on the night and looked hapless for most of their run. To be clear, it’s not that they weren’t working hard; it’s just that it didn’t really matter.
In the final frame, the Raptors shot an anemic 38 from the field and 33 from three. Still, thanks to the return of the starters in a small-ball configuration with Powell, they were able to push the Suns down the stretch. Siakam’s outstanding overall play gave Toronto the confidence to return to that lineup — and it almost worked. The Raptors shrunk the Suns’ lead down to as little as six points a few times, but couldn’t string enough stops and points in the time left to retake the lead. Now, we’re no longer in the business of handing out moral victories here — we left that sentiment in the pre-title era — but tonight’s contest did settle a few things for Toronto.
If the team is going to fail this year, it won’t be because of Siakam, which is nice to know. It’s also confirmed that the Raptors will need to figure out what to do with their starting centre position, as Aron Baynes continues to be a non-factor. They also really do need to figure out who, if anyone, can string together some consistent minutes and actually produce for this team. On a night that saw Toronto get another solid 24-9-6 from Lowry in 38 minutes, 20-and-8 from OG (on 80 percent shooting), 13-and-7 from Fred VanVleet, and the aforementioned line from Siakam — and still lose? That’s a team that needs help. Here’s hoping the Raptors can get it before it’s too late.