10 things: Pascal Siakam breaks out, but the Suns were simply too much

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·NBA reporter
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Here are 10 takeaways from the Toronto Raptors’ 123-115 loss to the Phoenix Suns.

One — Encouraging: That’s a glass-half-full type of loss for the Raptors, who dropped to 1-6 on the year. It’s a dire situation and the group is growing desperate, but this is something to build on. The Suns were shooting the lights out, hitting 11-of-14 from deep over an absurd stretch in the second half, but the Raptors battled back to trim a 15-point lead down to six points, and just generally played a strong game offensively that should easily qualify as their best outing of the year. Again, it’s frustrating to lose, but this was their best effort of the year and it would have been enough to flip most of their losses.

Two — Finally: This is the game that everyone was waiting for from Pascal Siakam. He was in All-Star form, doing all the things that made him a breakout star over the last couple of seasons. Siakam got to the rim at will, torching defenders in the post, slashing to the basket, drawing contact, and consistently beating whatever the Suns threw at him defensively. Even his defense was better, as Siakam ran suicides across the floor to chase shooters off the line, while also collecting an impressive swat against a tricky opponent in Chris Paul. Siakam’s energy and motor was off the charts, and while this is the aberration for this season, it also was the norm for Siakam in the past.

Three — Patient: The process of how Siakam got his points is crucial in that he made it a point to attack the basket, but was also smart and patient with how he went about it. Siakam was quick and direct when he had the advantage, and was steady and thoughtful when the Suns tried to swarm him. That comes down to his ability to read the defense. The Suns were generally slow to provide help in the paint, which is a sharp contrast to how other teams have played Siakam this year, so Siakam knew he could get where he wanted. But he was also skilled in how he beat defenders, whether it was through his patented spin move, using an Eurostep, or by shifting bigger defenders out of place with his handle to create the space to attack. Siakam was much more under control than he had been all year, and he didn’t inflate his scoring just by jacking up and making jumpers. He beat the defense time after time.

Four — Balance: It’s no coincidence that the Raptors attempted the fewest threes of the season in a game where Siakam was so successful at the basket. There was a healthier balance tonight between attacking the paint and shooting the outside shot, and that also allowed the Raptors to hit 40 percent from deep for the first time because they were taking better shots within the flow of the offense. Siakam only had three assists, but his penetration and ability to draw a crowd opened space for others on the perimeter, and his screening and movement also created chances for his teammates. Siakam needs to play at a high level in the paint in order for the Raptors to have a healthy shot spectrum

Five — Together: This was also the first time this season in which all five of the Raptors’ core returning players played well at the same time. Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet have been steady all year, while Siakam and OG Anunoby have been up and down. Norman Powell started slow and took some bad shots, but finished strong and was active in transition where he is most effective. It’s no surprise that Nick Nurse closed the game with all five players at once in a small-ball lineup, and that they were able to look cohesive and click as a unit to eat into the Suns’ sizeable lead. Those five players helped each other out, were able to aggressively double, switched seamlessly, forced turnovers with intense ball pressure, and scored in bunches on the fast break. In a wayward start to the year, it’s good to know the Raptors’ identity from the previous two seasons is still somewhere within them.

Six — Active: Anunoby doesn’t always play at this level, scoring 20 points on 8-of-10 shooting, but he raises the team as a whole when he does. Nurse mentioned after the game that the Raptors are making a concerted effort to get Anunoby out of the corner and to be more involved in the offense. It’s a bit of an unfamiliar position for Anunoby, but he has good hands and is a strong finisher with above-average passing instincts which puts him above most of Toronto’s centers at the moment. In any case, it’s a good way to keep Anunoby involved in the offense, because there is a tendency for him to stick in the corners and to get lost in the shuffle. By using Anunoby as the screener in pick-and-rolls, or by finding him flashing to the basket off a cut or as the trailer, ensures that Anunoby is engaged even if he doesn’t always finish the play.

Seven — Empty: The main issue for the Raptors continues to be the complete lack of production from their centers. Aron Baynes went scoreless for a second-straight game after being benched against the Celtics in the second half, and was generally useless on both ends. Alex Len saw an extended run, and while he’s a bigger presence at the basket, Len also provides very little offensively. It’s effectively a 4-on-5 game with either player on the floor at the moment. Chris Boucher is by far the most capable scorer, in that he’s actually capable of scoring, but he wasn’t focused enough defensively and his activity wasn’t as high as it usually is. Baynes might play better with some more time with the group, but realistically the Raptors are just running into a talent issue. They badly need a starting caliber center after losing two this summer.

Eight — Frantic: Yuta Watanabe got an extended run, logging 10 minutes straight in the first half. The 6-foot-9 forward was hyperactive on defense, never quite standing still to the point of exhausting himself in service of the team. He essentially got Stanley Johnson’s minutes as the go-to defender off the bench, and while Watanabe didn’t land the job with this showing, it does give Nurse some options. Johnson can’t score at all and is turnover prone for a role player, but he’s better at on-ball defense against opposing stars. Watanabe is a capable shooter — although he gets so few looks it hardly matters — but is more of a team defender than a stopper in his assignment. Nurse should mix and match according to the opponent.

Nine — Nerves: It’s been a couple of rough nights for Raptors rookie Malachi Flynn. The main issue isn’t that he’s scoreless in two games, but that he is unsure and nervous when he checks in. Flynn’s game is creating out of the pick-and-roll, and right now he’s mostly being asked to play off the ball. A few times that he’s gotten a look, Flynn has rushed his shots which speaks more to the adjustment in speed between the collegiate and professional levels. He will eventually calm down and ease into games more than he has. Nurse might skip his turn in the rotation for someone else on his struggling bench, but Flynn will have another turn and he needs to be ready.

Ten — Insane: The events in D.C. cast a shadow over everything in the world of sports. It takes a bit of mental gymnastics to compartmentalize the ability to still care very much over a basketball game, while also processing the fact that a democratic process in the United States was just forcibly disrupted. Lowry cared little about the loss, even though he played the game at 100 percent as he usually does. He just said the obvious: Donald Trump is a criminal, and he should be arrested for his part in what took place on Wednesday.

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