TORONTO — Historically, Nick Nurse’s Raptors teams have done the “Next Man Up” pretty well.
During the 2018-19 season, they went on to record a famous 17-5 on Kawhi Leonard’s load management nights, improving their record for the championship run.
They lost Leonard the following season and endured extended absences from almost all of their key players – many of them overlapping – on their way to becoming the second-best club in the Eastern Conference.
As recently as last week, they won two of three contests without their starting point guard Fred VanVleet – beating Atlanta and San Antonio by a 73-point aggregate margin before falling narrowly behind 111-100 in Dallas on Friday.
Unfortunately, as they made their comeback late in the third quarter of that game, Pascal Siakam slipped and landed awkwardly on the Mavericks’ court. The star striker underwent imaging of his groin on Saturday night which revealed a strain in his right adductor muscle. The injury will sideline him for at least two weeks and he will be re-evaluated from there.
It’s a tough break for players and team. Siakam entered his seventh season with a 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 goal, but the game seemed to make it more achievable.
At this time a year ago, Siakam was still recovering from off-season shoulder surgery. Here he was healthy, had a strong summer and played the best basketball of his career. Before the injury, he was one of three players to score 20 or more points in eight straight games to open the season, along with Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant. He’s one of four players currently leading his team in points, rebounds and assists, along with Curry, red hot Luka Doncic and reigning two-time MVP Nikola Jokic.
“It’s a real shame that that’s happening,” Nurse said just before his team hosted the Chicago Bulls on Sunday. “He played great and how it happens when you slip on a wet floor is disappointing. You have to play another game, so what happens? We need some guys to step up. They’ll get opportunities to possibly do more and we’ll see what happens.”
The Raptors passed their first test. If they needed a blueprint on how to play to win games while their key offensive player is out, a dismal 113-104 win should lead the way.
It was not nice. Most of the time it won’t be without Siakam, who averaged 24.8 points, 9.3 rebounds and 7.7 assists before his injury. The offense was predictably clunky at times, a little disjointed with some over-dribbles on the rim, hard shots early in the clock and guys aimlessly slicing into traffic.
However, they more than made up for this with sheer effort and will. The Raptors scored 27 points from their 23 offensive rebounds. They forced 23 turnovers, resulting in 23 points. They blocked 10 shots, including six from rookie seven-footer Christian Koloko, and played with vigor around the rim, outclassing Chicago 62-38 in the paint.
Coming back from a sore back, VanVleet led the team in both points (30) and assists (11). He, OG Anunoby and Scottie Barnes combined for 71 points and 18 of Toronto’s 28 assists while Koloko put on his best game as a pro, and they got good minutes from Chris Boucher, Otto Porter Jr. and sparingly used veteran Thaddeus Young Bank.
Nurse’s biggest concern, without Siakam, was how his team would fare late in tight games. Well, on Sunday, after Chicago climbed six points early in the fourth quarter, Toronto finished the contest on a 30-15 run.
With five minutes to go, VanVleet went to the bucket and had a layup rim out. Young followed the shot but missed a few put-back attempts; Boucher also tipped the ball before her tireless efforts on the boards paid off when Anunoby finally converted and ended the game.
Toronto spent the night aggressively doubling down DeMar DeRozan on catch, making for a frustrating night for the former Raptor. With 90 seconds left, three Raptors players got their hands on the ball, smacking it away from DeRozan and freeing Anunoby for the dagger — a transitional reverse slam dunk that improved the home team by nine points.
“This is the NBA,” VanVleet said afterwards. “I know we dramatize every day but every year I’ve been in the league there have been boys [who get] hurt at times. So, next man, everyone just stay ready and stay prepared and there will be opportunities [across] The whiteboard.”
For reference, Siakam was sidelined for three and a half weeks and missed 11 games in 2019 with a similar groin injury. This time there is hope for a faster recovery, but a return in late November or early December seems realistic.
Without him in the lineup, there’s 36 minutes and almost 20 shots to be won every night, but it’ll take more than a guy or two to fill that gap.
VanVleet’s role needs to look more like it did on Sunday – when he attempted 22 shots, including 13 threes – than earlier in the season, when he played ball out more often and deliberately relinquished some goals and playmaking duties to Siakam and others.
After VanVleet was out last week, Barnes served as starting point guard and got some valuable replays that started the offense, which should help in Siakam’s absence. They will continue to rely on the talented sophomore in this role.
Anunoby, who was fantastic defensively at the start of the season, is asking for more responsibility up front. He averaged 20.6 points and looked like an All-Star in the 10 contests that Siakam missed last season. So he’s able to take his game to another level as the center of offense. This is his chance to show he’s ready every night.
It seems Koloko will start as long as Siakam is out. This recent performance showed how his length and ability to protect the edge can help create attack through defense. Young, with just 17 minutes in the previous six games, should be able to help starter-heavy units with his passing and cutting. They will also provide more opportunities for Boucher, Porter and Precious Achiuwa to impress off the bench.
Much like Sunday, there will be nights when scoring points isn’t easy. Without Siakam on the ground to take pressure off VanVleet, expect teams to blitz the Raptors point guard and try to take the ball out of his hands. If he’s not handsome and the other guys aren’t blowing their shots, you’ll feel the weight of Siakam’s absence.
At the start of Sunday’s game, the Raptors scored 116.6 points with Siakam down. That number dropped to 109.4 without him.
Fortunately, after a difficult start to the season, the schedule is beginning to ease in November. After completing the second half of a home-and-home duel with Chicago on Monday, the Raptors face four teams directly tied to the lottery: Houston, Oklahoma City, Indiana and Detroit.
Regardless of opponent, the Raptors have proven that they can win without Siakam, or anyone else. Assuming they play like they did on Sunday, not only will they survive, they might actually thrive.
DeRozan was 19 years old when the Raptors selected him ninth overall in the 2009 draft, and while he’s never lacked in confidence, even he couldn’t have imagined reaching his latest milestone.
Fittingly, a mid-range shot against his former team in San Antonio a few weeks ago made DeRozan the 50th player to ever hit 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 I did it. Even when I got it, it tripped me up. It only hit me a few days later. That’s a lot of damn points.”
DeRozan had a chance to hit the plateau at home against Indiana a few days earlier. Instead, he happily did it at San Antonio, where he spent three seasons, and against his former coach Gregg Popovich, who immediately called for a timeout to honor the milestone.
“I feel old when they do it [stuff like that]’ joked DeRozan.
DeRozan joins an exclusive club that includes the best scorers in NBA history. He is the seventh active player to reach 20K after 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 top scorer, thinks someone will one day pass him, but the next current Raptor — Siakam, who just surpassed Morris Peterson for sixth place — isn’t even halfway there.
At his current pace, about 23 points per contest, Siakam needs nearly 300 more games in Toronto to catch DeRozan — four or five relatively healthy seasons.
Despite DeRozan being four years old and a few teams removed from the trade that sent him to Spurs for Leonard and ending his legendary tenure with the Raptors, the veteran forward doesn’t seem to be slowing down anywhere.
Regardless of Sunday’s frustrating game — he was held to 20 points and attempted just nine shots against his former team — DeRozan remains one of the league’s top scorers.
Assuming he has three or four years left at or close to that level and with his incredible stamina, it’s not crazy to think he could crack the all-time top 20 citing his career.
“He can really score,” said Nurse, assistant coach in DeRozan’s final season in Toronto. “And I think that mid-range jumper that he’s got on autopilot is the first time that comes to mind when I see them going in over and over again. In recent years he’s been playing faster, going into the basket a lot more and making really quick decisions. I think he has also developed his passing over the last few years. But he’s a coaching clinic video about mid-level jumpers.”
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