More than anything else, this Toronto Raptors season has been about the evolution of Pascal Siakam.
Save for a three-week break where he was dealing with a groin injury, Siakam has been the team’s best player, and not only an offensive focal point — but the only player living up to expectations on that end. Whether it be injuries, inconsistent play, or a lack of shooting up and down the roster, the Raptors have been a rough watch on the more exciting end of the floor. A rough watch, that is, except for the possessions that revolve around Siakam.
Tonight, the man from Cameroon had his crowning achievement. Dropping 52 points on 17-for-25 shooting, adding nine rebounds and seven assists for good measure, Siakam scored or assisted on 62% of Toronto’s points, spent a bunch of time guarding Julius Randle on the other end, and generally did everything on the court to get the Raptors the win. It’s much needed: the victory snaps a six-game slide for Toronto and ends an eight-game win streak for the Knicks.
The 50-point performance puts Siakam in rare air in Raptors franchise history, joining Fred VanVleet, Vince Carter, DeMar DeRozan and, yes, Terrence Ross as the only players to get to that point total. He’s also the first to drop 50 at Madison Square Garden since James Harden did so in 2019.
To say that the Raptors needed every bucket from Siakam tonight isn’t an overstatement. While the headline is a big, gleaming positive one, this game had all the inconsistencies we’ve seen from the Raps in December.
So, what worked besides their future All-Star going nuts? Exhibit A: a zone defense that threw the Knicks out of rhythm during different stretches of the game. Exhibit B: a 28-point performance from Fred VanVleet, who didn’t shoot particularly well at 10-for-24, but had the big shot late to give the Raptors a two-possession lead and seal the win. Exhibit C: stellar defense and 15 points from a quickly recovering OG Anunoby, who looked much more sharp tonight in his second game back from injury.
Early on tonight, Siakam’s electric start came as the Raptors started to shake off the rust on offense. By turning the Knicks over ten times in the first half, Toronto was able to create 13 fast break points to New York’s paltry two. They were also able to stay competitive rebounding the basketball thanks to energetic play from Siakam, Anunoby, fifth starter Juancho Hernangomez, and Thad Young — the latter finishing with seven rebounds, three of them on the offensive end. By easing up the usual grind of their half court offense with some easy hoops, the Raptors managed to shoot above 50% in the opening half, while keeping the Knicks’ big weapons mostly in check. Still, RJ Barrett had 19 of his 30 points in the opening 24, and New York stayed in range, trailing 63-53 at the break.
Coming out of halftime, the Knicks showed why they’re one of the top defensive teams in the NBA this year. By going to a zone look themselves, they were able to disrupt the Raptors starters and force them out of character. This was a rough stretch of minutes for Scottie Barnes especially, who stalled offensive possessions by dribbling aimlessly and launching poor percentage long twos. In an up game for the rest of the team, this was another down performance for Scottie, who went 1-for-10 from the field and was benched for Young down the stretch. More on that later.
Back-to-back transition threes from Immanuel Quickley finished a Knicks erasure of the Raptors lead, as they went up 66-65 just a few minutes into the second half. With the offense in the mud again, Toronto treaded water before Siakam got the ball and started to calm things down. Free throws started an avalanche, as Pascal gathered momentum and took off toward the end of the third — putting together the best stretch of individual offense I can remember from a Raptors player since Kawhi headed west. Just look at this!
What a ridiculous stretch from Pascal Siakam, 17 straight points to end the third quarter pic.twitter.com/FW70B3VWD4— Vivek Jacob (@vivekmjacob) December 22, 2022
Taking a five-point lead into the fourth quarter, the Raptors were once again tasked with staying afloat with Siakam resting on the bench.
VanVleet and Anunoby led a second unit with Young, Malachi Flynn and Chris Boucher and, while it won’t win any beauty pageants, the five-man unit did just enough, winning their minutes by one point and giving Siakam a lead to work with when he returned at the eight-minute mark. The closing stretch wasn’t always pretty, as the Raptors started to fall into chaos on the offensive end. Harried possessions resulted in transition opportunities both ways. The difference was simple: Siakam made the Knicks pay, while New York couldn’t generate enough good looks the other way. In the last minute, Julius Randle had the ball slip out of his hands on a sure dunk that would’ve brought the Knicks within two. The Raptors responded by scoring on their next three possessions. That’s your ball game.
Next up, the Raptors visit the Cleveland Cavaliers on Friday night — their last game before a brief Christmas break.
Now, a couple thoughts.
Do the Raptors need 50 from Siakam to win?
Okay, this is a relatively bleak way to look at a fun performance. Albeit this is pretty on brand for me, it is astounding that the Raptors played solid defense as a team all night, generated 17 fast break points, had a five-point steals advantage and still needed 52 points from their best player to win.
In reality, it isn’t so cut and dry. While Siakam was enjoying his best game as a Raptor, Scottie Barnes was experiencing one of his worst. Barnes was lost on defense through most of his 27 minutes, and Nick Nurse tried to hide him on corner shooter Quickley in a short fourth quarter stint to get him back into the flow of the game. He still managed to give up points through this, though, as he got lost in transition, then had a poor close out after to allow another three — and was benched for Thad Young.
On the other end, Barnes’ touches just don’t generate any excitement as of late. There’s a lot of aimless dribbling and a lack of confidence in what shot he wants to take, which is much more noticeable when a teammate like Siakam is red hot, waiting for the ball on the weak side of the floor.
This is all to say: the Raptors don’t need Siakam to score 50 to win. What they need is consistency from their supporting cast, and Barnes has to be able to be at least net neutral while on the floor. Posting a -16 that somehow understates how difficult a game this was is tough to overcome. Luckily, the Raptors had the superstar to do it tonight.
Malachi Flynn: everyday rotation player
The more I see Malachi Flynn, the more I want.
Flynn had one of the big defensive plays of the game tonight, recovering for a weak side block on Quickley late in the fourth quarter on a shockingly strong rotation. These kinds of defensive plays aren’t what you have Flynn in there for — he made a couple threes and led the bench with eight points — but it’s exactly what keeps him on the floor.
Flynn played 26 minutes tonight, and has firmly usurped Dalano Banton over the last week as the go-to second guard off the bench. The Raptors need shooting desperately, so it’s no surprise — but the more Flynn shows off his defense, the less likely it is that he falls out of the nine-man rotation, even as players like Precious Achiuwa and Gary Trent Jr. return from injury.