It’s been a strange first 20 games for the Toronto Raptors.
Normally the 20-game mark is a good time to take stock of where the NBA sits. Frankly, not much changes between now and season’s end. Sure, injuries and slipups will mar one or two teams’ seasons but the standings generally stay the same from here on out.
So what do we know about these Raptors at the 20-game mark? Well, not much.
“You can’t really read a lot into any of it,” Raptors coach Nick Nurse said. “We need to get these health issues behind us, though, so we can grow a little bit from where we were looking like we were getting to there [before injuries plagued the last 10 games.] We were building some rhythm and momentum and confidence.”
On Monday, that rhythm came back. With Pascal Siakam and Scottie Barnes finally healthy, the Raptors looked like the team they appeared to be before injuries derailed the past three weeks, knocking off the Cleveland Cavaliers 100-88 to reach the 20-game mark at 11-9.
“I feel like we’re way better than 11-9 shows,” said Barnes.
“It’s hard to sum up anything,” Fred VanVleet added. “We’ve got a lot of stuff. We’ve got a… little bit of everything. Which is good. We’ve got to figure out how we’re going to put that together to be the best version of what we are, whatever that is.”
As far as Siakam’s return, the 28-year-old didn’t miss a beat in his first game back since suffering a right adductor strain on Nov. 4. There was no easing him back as he shook the rust off. Instead, the 28-year-old recertified himself as one of the league’s best. He took on Cleveland’s best perimeter defender Isaac Okoro right away, using his trademarked spin move to score Toronto’s opening bucket. Moments later he pulled up deep in the paint against Evan Mobley, lofting a floater over the Cavaliers’ prized defensive star.
“I feel like I can do anytime really and it wasn’t nothing that felt like super hard or difficult or like things I had to force or anything, it just felt like the game and I think that went up play like that, it’s just how it is,” Siakam said.
For as much talk as there’s been about Gary Trent Jr. and Scottie Barnes taking ill-advised mid-range jumpers this season, Siakam remains one of the few Raptors players that can really make opponents pay on those tough shots. He’s got some DeMar DeRozan in his game, if you will, repeatedly pulling up and making those jumpers when defenses don’t send help his way.
“Watching Pascal play is like ‘wow, damn.’ Every move he makes, the step backs, the spin moves, double spin moves, you know it’s coming but still, ‘bang.’ It’s great to have him back out there on the floor,” Barnes said of Siakam who tallied 18 points and 11 rebounds in 30 minutes. “[It’s] amazing to see him out there on the floor the way he scores the ball. Stepbacks, spin moves, be able to reject, all these different things. It’s just like, wow. The way he scores is amazing to watch.”
When Siakam is at his best, though, he’s creating for others and using the attention opposing teams pay to find his teammates, often for open three-point looks or easy buckets at the rim. Consider this: In the last 10 games without Siakam, Toronto had shot 28.2% from behind the arc, the second-worst mark in the league over that stretch. In the games with Siakam, the Raptors were shooting 37.9% coming into Monday. While that’s not all because of Siakam, the All-NBA forward certainly makes a massive difference.
“He just looked sharp,” VanVleet said of Siakam. “He’s been in the lab working on his game the last couple days, probably the last week or so. … He really gave us a big boost and carried us, especially early in the first quarter and first half.”
O.G. Anunoby Continues to Flourish Even in Smaller Role
With Siakam back, O.G. Anunoby slid back into a secondary role for the Raptors Monday night. He wasn’t attacking off the dribble as much as he had over the past 10 games, opting instead to make the most of his floor spacing skills, nailing four three-pointers, usually off catch-and-shoot looks.
Even in a slightly smaller role, Anunoby remained aggressive. He was still attacking mismatches, nailing a pair of step-back mid-range jumpers including one over Caris LeVert in the fourth quarter. His playmaking skills looked improved too, as he finished the game with a team-high 20 points and two assists, finding Thad Young and Chris Boucher for buckets off dump-off passes deep in the paint. He would have had one more too had Barnes converted after a stellar find under the basket.
On the other end, Anunoby remains as important as ever. He was the first line of defense against Donovan Mitchell, holding the All-Star scorer to just eight points on 3-for-11 shooting.
Scottie Barnes & Gary Trent Jr. Start on Bench
Raptors coach Nick Nurse decided to shake things up Monday night, opting to bring Barnes and Trent Jr. off the bench to open the game. It was just the third time Trent had come off the bench in his Raptors career and the first of this season. Barnes, meanwhile, had never come off the bench in a regular season game.
“I think that it was more of a case of not throwing a whole bunch of guys out there at the same time that are out of rhythm,” Nurse said. “I think we got caught on that one time a year ago or maybe two where we had a whole bunch of guys kinda coming back at once and we threw them all out there and we just got smacked so we just tried to learn from that a little bit.”
Trent checked in midway through the first quarter and responded on his first shot attempt of the game, nailing a catch-and-shoot three from Fred VanVleet, the kind Toronto has been asking Trent to take more of since he first arrived with the organization.
Considering the funk Trent’s been in lately, Monday was a step in the right direction. He finished the night 4-for-8 from the field with 14 points and seven rebounds, and certainly impressed Nurse in the third quarter, breaking up a pass to Cedi Osman before throwing an alley-oop to Barnes in transition.
“I thought he had a really good game tonight,” Nurse said of Trent. “[Coming off the bench] didn’t seem to bother him one bit and when he came in he was ready to play.”
Barnes, meanwhile, took a pair of those tough mid-range shots the Raptors have been trying to get him to cut out. Otherwise, it was a solid performance from the sophomore forward who seemed less enthused to be coming off the bench.
“It was a little different. For sure,” said Barnes who finished the night with 12 points, five assists, and four rebound. “I don’t know. I’m used to being out there to start the game. I guess it was a little bit of an adjustment, I guess.”
The extra firepower off the bench would bring an intriguing dynamic to the Raptors moving forward, but don’t expect Toronto to stick with it long-term. Barnes will likely slide back into the starting lineup Wednesday, though Trent may get a longer look in the sixth-man spot.
“It makes us dangerous when you got that type of talent coming off the bench,” said VanVleet. “Again you still got to mix and match with the rotation, I think coach was trying some stuff there for different reasons, but when you got that type of talent and those type of players, it’ll even out the team and balance the team out.”
Up Next: New Orleans Pelicans
The Raptors will hit the road Wednesday for a tilt with Zion Williamson and the New Orleans Pelicans at 8 p.m. ET.