The Raptors lost to the Cavs on Friday night, 102-101, as an OG Anunoby fadeaway and a missed put-back attempt both rimmed out. It ended their win streak, and even featured a blown second half lead that probably never should have been blown. But whether you were watching on TV or taking it in among the 20,000 lunatics that brought playoff-level mania to Scotiabank Arena on Friday night, the loss really isn’t the important thing, heartbreaking as it may have been in the moment.
Nah, what mattered on Friday was literally everything other than the final score. This was about the Scottie Barnes-Evan Mobley showdown, the continued expansion of OG Anunoby, and the first earnest use of Money City Maniacs in crunch time in Toronto in 20 months; it was about the vibes of a Friday night home game with something resembling stakes. Some crummy luck sunk the Raptors, from a banked in Jarrett Allen 30-footer at the end of one of the better defensive possessions the Raptors strung together all night, to a somewhat dubious call that gave the Cavs the game-clinching free-throws, and the many bounces in the final seconds of regulation that kept the ball from falling in for a game-winner. None of that weirdness undercuts the progress the Raptors have made through 10 games.
As far ahead of schedule as these Raptors are, though, this game was a prime example of why they need their best player back.
It’s not like the Raptors are entirely decrepit without Pascal Siakam. They’ve gotten by on offense, and their defense has been a an iron curtain. Truth be told, if the team wanted to exercise ultra-caution with Siakam and wait until mid-to-late November to bring him back to protect against any setbacks, they’ve already banked enough wins to justify it. However, as Nick Nurse detailed before the game, it seems Siakam’s return will come a lot sooner than that — potentially as early next week in either Boston or Philly, depending on how things progress during the team’s off-days on Monday and Tuesday.
“I feel like we’re gonna be really good,” said Scottie Barnes after the game when asked about Siakam’s nearing return. “We’re already really good now, with how he plays .. we’re gonna have even more length, another scorer that can play defense, it’s gonna be really good.”
As Barnes noted, whenever it happens, Siakam will be joining a team that has already established a high baseline; one that very much looks ready to push for a top-six seed in the East. His supporting cast looks to be way more formidable than anyone could have reasonable projected even just three weeks ago.
OG Anunoby’s leap is very much happening, with another upward notch on the development curve being achieved on Friday night, with more all-important growing pains endured as well. In falling the Cavs, Anunoby put together is most polished and patient shift as the team’s go-to option to date. It didn’t come with the same shot diversity or overwhelming production that we saw on Monday night at MSG, and he did have a perimeter-bound cold spell in the third, but Anunoby’s careful mismatch hunting and calm dissection of Cleveland’s half-court defense was notable on Friday. He’s doing what every prospective star has to do to punch through to a new tier, learning and adapting to what defenses are throwing his way to create for others.
Anunoby spoke after the game about how he’s getting more comfortable dealing with what opponents are trying to do with him, and how he’s learning where to find his teammates as they flash into open space.
“It’s usually Khem,” he noted when detailing how he’s been able find guys in close quarters when extra help looms.
He matched his season high in assists, canned an enormous crunch-time triple with under two minutes to play, and was called upon to attempt the game-winner with just 4.8 seconds to work with. The shot he created — a fading 12 footer along the baseline — was a perfectly reasonable look against a ratcheted up an frankly enormous Cavaliers defense. It missed, but it was encouraging to see Nick Nurse call his number in that spot. He finished the night with 23 points, six boards and five assists on 10-of-21 shooting. All of the good certainly outweighs the result of his final field goal try. You’d like to see more than, well, zero free-throw attempts, but the refs kinda have to cooperate on that front, too.
“Yeah I don’t get any calls,” Anunoby said after the game. “Eventually they have to start calling it.”
We’re well beyond speculating whether OG can be that dude. He just is now. Siakam’s eventual return will only take that much more attention off him, though he’s done well navigating it to this point.
Barnes’ emergence is obviously another reason to believe that Siakam’s return could help kick start something pretty special. In his first game back after missing two with a sprained thumb, Barnes struggled a bit with the length of the Mobley-Allen jumbo front court, shooting just 6-of-19, but managed to weave in plenty of moments that remind you how good he already is at age 20. Though, the most impressive feat he pulled out didn’t count for a damn thing on the scoreboard.
In a just world where teams are awarded bonus points for doing cool and rad shit such as lifting enormous humans like small children, the Raptors would have had the cushion to withstand Cleveland’s second half barrage. In terms of things that count for stats, Barnes finished with 12 points, 11 boards and four assists in 38 minutes.
You can certainly point to some weak spots that ended up costing the Raptors on Friday. Toronto played hyper-aggressively on defense essentially from start to finish, and that ended up costing them just enough times to hand it over to Cleveland.
“That’s the fine line you’re walking. I think when you’re playing so aggressively, you’re gonna have to live with that sometimes,” said Nurse, seemingly at peace with how the Raptors tip-toed the aggression tightrope.
More problematic was the half-court offense, which sputtered to the tune of just 42 second-half points. Fred VanVleet hit some hilarious buckets, but bricked as many crucial attempts in the game’s waning moments. Off nights for Khem Birch and Svi Mykhailiuk left Toronto without much supplementary punch. Those issues — the overextension of VanVleet, and the reliance on deeper rotation contributions, will also be aided by Siakam’s arrival. He won’t turn them into the 2018 Warriors on offense or anything, but considering the team sports the 11th-best offense in basketball as of Friday night, he should bring enough dynamism to ensure the Raptors skew closer to respectable than they were projected to ahead of the season. With how nasty their defense is to play against, that’s a winning recipe.
More important than any of the issues Siakam stands to address once he does see game action is, however, is that is just feels weird to not see Siakam’s gleeful and vibrant stylings on the court alongside such an outrageously fun collection of teammates. This is a team worthy of the joy that comes with Siakam, and vice versa. A night like tonight, in which it truly felt like basketball was officially back in Toronto, deserved a little spin move magic.
It doesn’t seem like Raptors fans will need to wait much longer to see it, thankfully. Once the Raptors best player does return, it could be the development that puts the Raptors on the right side of the types of coin clips they lost tonight.