TORONTO — Historically, Nick Nurse’s Raptors teams have done pretty well.
During the 2018-19 campaign, they became famous 17-5 on Kawhi Leonard’s load management nights, cementing their record before the Championship race.
The following season they lost Leonard and weathered extended absences of nearly all of their key players – many of them overlapping – en route to becoming the second-best club in the Eastern Conference.
Just last week, they won two of three contests without starting point guard Fred VanVleet – beating Atlanta and San Antonio by a combined 73-point margin before narrowly falling to Dallas, 111-100, Friday.
Unfortunately, just as they were mounting their comeback late in the third quarter of that game, Pascal Siakam slipped onto the Mavericks’ field and landed awkwardly. The star striker underwent groin imaging on Saturday night, revealing a tight right adductor muscle. The injury will sideline him for at least two weeks and he will be reassessed from there.
It’s a tough break for the player and the team. Siakam entered his seventh season with the stated goal of building on last year’s All-NBA Third Team selection and becoming a top-five player in the league. It was an ambitious bar to set, but one that was starting to feel more attainable through play.
A year ago, at this time, Siakam was still recovering from shoulder surgery during the offseason. Here he was healthy, coming off a strong summer and playing the best basketball of his career. Prior to the injury, he was one of three players to score 20 or more points in eight consecutive games to open the season, joining Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant. He’s one of four players currently leading his team in points, rebounds and assists, along with Curry, the formidable Luka Doncic and two-time reigning MVP Nikola Jokic.
“It’s certainly a disappointment that this happened,” Nurse said just before his team hosted the Chicago Bulls on Sunday. “He was playing really well, and how’s it going, slipping on wet ground, it’s disappointing. You have to play another game, so what’s going on? We need guys to step up. They will have opportunities to do more and we will see what happens.
The Raptors passed their first test. If they needed a plan for how they should play to win games while their all-important offensive player is away, a serious 113-104 victory should lead the way.
It wasn’t pretty. More often than not, it won’t be without Siakam, who averaged 24.8 points, 9.3 rebounds and 7.7 assists before getting injured. Predictably, the offense was clunky at times, a little scrappy with excessive perimeter dribbling, hard shots early in the clock, and guys driving aimlessly through traffic.
However, they more than made up for it with their effort and willpower. The Raptors scored 27 points on their 23 offensive rebounds. They forced 23 turnovers, leading to 23 points. They blocked 10 shots, including six from seven-foot rookie Christian Koloko, and played hard around the rim, outscoring Chicago 62-38 in the paint.
Coming back from back pain, VanVleet led the team in points (30) and assists (11). He, OG Anunoby and Scottie Barnes combined for 71 points and 18 of Toronto’s 28 assists, while Koloko had his best game as a professional, and they got good minutes from Chris Boucher, Otto Porter Jr. and used sparingly veteran Thaddeus Young off the bench.
Nurse’s biggest concern, without Siakam, was how his team would fare late in close games. Well, on Sunday, after Chicago gained six points early in the fourth quarter, Toronto closed out the competition on a 30-15 run.
With five minutes left, VanVleet walked to the bucket and pulled out a layup rim. Young followed the shot but missed a few put-in attempts; Boucher also tipped the ball over before their relentless efforts on the boards paid off, with Anunoby eventually converting and finishing the game.
Toronto spent the night aggressively doubling DeMar DeRozan on the catch, leading to a frustrating night for the former Raptor. With 90 seconds left, three Raptors players got their hands on the ball, pushing it away from DeRozan and freeing Anunoby for the dagger – a reverse slam dunk in transition, giving the home side a nine-point lead.
“It’s the NBA,” VanVleet said afterwards. “I know we dramatize every day, but every year I’ve been in the league, there have been guys [who get] injured for periods of time. So the next man and everybody stay ready and stay ready, and there will be opportunities [across] table.”
For reference, Siakam was sidelined for three and a half weeks and missed 11 games with a similar groin injury in 2019. Hope is for a quicker recovery this time around, but a return late November or early December seems realistic.
Without him in the lineup, there are 36 minutes and nearly 20 shots up for grabs each night, but it will take more than one or two guys to fill that void.
VanVleet’s role will have to look more like Sunday’s – when he attempted 22 shots, including 13 on three – than he did earlier in the season, when he played the ball more often and intentionally gave in goalscoring and playmaker functions in Siakam. and others.
With VanVleet out last week, Barnes served as the starting point guard and gained valuable rep to get the offense started, which should help in Siakam’s absence. They will continue to rely on the talented sophomore in this role.
Anunoby, who has been fantastic defensively to open the season, is clamoring for more responsibility on the attacking side. He averaged 20.6 points and looked like a star in the 10 games Siakam missed to start last season, so he’s capable of taking his game to another level as a center point on offense. It’s his chance to show he’s ready every night.
It looks like Koloko will continue to start as long as Siakam is out. This most recent performance showed how his length and ability to shield the rim can help create an attack through defense. Young, who had logged just 17 minutes in the previous six games, should be able to help starting heavy units with his assists and cuts. It will also be more opportunities for Boucher, Porter and Precious Achiuwa to make an impact off the bench.
A bit like Sunday, there will be nights when scoring won’t be easy. Without Siakam on the ground to pressure VanVleet, expect teams to attack the Raptors point guard and try to get the ball out of his hands. If he’s not looking good and the other guys aren’t knocking down their shots, you’ll feel the weight of Siakam’s absence.
Heading into Sunday’s game, the Raptors were scoring 116.6 points with Siakam on the floor. That number dropped to 109.4 without him.
Fortunately, after a difficult start to the season, the calendar begins to loosen up in November. After finishing the second half of a home-and-away with Chicago on Monday, the Raptors will face four consecutive lottery teams: Houston, Oklahoma City, Indiana and Detroit.
Regardless of the opponent, the Raptors have proven they can win without Siakam, or anyone else for that matter. Assuming they play like they did on Sunday, not only will they survive, but they might actually thrive.
DeRozan was 19 when the Raptors selected him with the ninth overall pick in the 2009 draft, and while he never lacked confidence, even though he couldn’t have imagined reaching his final milestone .
Fittingly, on a mid-range shot against his former team in San Antonio a few weeks ago, DeRozan became the 50th player to score 20,000 career points.
“Never [expected that early in my career]the Bulls forward — now 33 and in his 14th pro season — admitted to TSN ahead of Sunday’s game in Toronto. “I would be lying if I told you. Even when I got it, it tripped me up. It only hit me a few days later. That’s a lot of f—ing points.
DeRozan was lucky enough to reach the plateau at home against Indiana a few days earlier. Instead, he was happy to do so at San Antonio, where he spent three seasons, and against his former coach Gregg Popovich, who immediately called a timeout to acknowledge the milestone.
“I feel old when they do [stuff like that]“, joked DeRozan.
DeRozan joins an exclusive club, which includes the top scorers in NBA history. He is the seventh active player to hit 20K, joining LeBron James, Durant, James Harden, Russell Westbrook, Chris Paul and Curry.
13,296 of those points came in his nine seasons with Toronto. DeRozan, the franchise’s all-time leading scorer, thinks someone will pass him one day, but the closest current Raptor — Siakam, who just passed Morris Peterson for sixth — isn’t even close. half way.
At his current rate of around 23 points per game, Siakam will need to play nearly 300 more games in Toronto to catch up with DeRozan — so four or five relatively healthy seasons.
Despite DeRozan being four years old and a few teams retired from the trade that sent him to the Spurs for Leonard and ended his iconic Raptors tenure, the veteran forward doesn’t seem to be slowing down anytime soon.
Despite Sunday’s frustrating outing — he was limited to 20 points and attempted just nine shots against his former team — DeRozan remains one of the league’s top scorers.
Assuming he’s still three or four years old at or near that level, and with his incredible durability, it’s not crazy to think he could rank among the top 20 scorers of all time by the time he calls it a career.
“He can really score,” said Nurse, an assistant coach in DeRozan’s last seasons in Toronto. “And I think the mid-range jumper that he has on autopilot would be the first time that comes to mind, just seeing these come in again and again and again. Over the last few years, he plays faster he goes to the basket a lot more and really makes quick decisions i think he has also developed his passing over the last few years but this is a practice clinic video about mid jumpers of range.