5 things: Pascal Siakam snaps funk in Raptors’ satisfying win over Thunder

Here are five takeaways from the Toronto Raptors‘ 128-111 win over the Oklahoma City Thunder on Thursday.

1. Toronto used a balanced effort by the starting unit — each scoring at least 16 points — to coast to a comfortable and satisfying win against Oklahoma City. But the leader of the charge was their leader all season in Pascal Siakam, who broke his recent slump with 25 points, 14 rebounds and eight assists.

Siakam had been playing well below his standards in the last two weeks, where he averaged 15 points and five assists while finishing with two or fewer foul attempts in five of those games. While the rest of the starters were strong during that time, the Raptors still felt hollow without the impact of their lone All-Star.

Siakam showed renewed vigour from the start, getting himself to the foul line six times in the first six minutes. Although he missed four tries (Siakam sarcastically joked that it felt foreign to be at the line so much, as a nod to the lack of calls recently), it was a sign of his intention. Siakam was sharp in his defensive rotations, diligent on the glass, including a team-high five offensive rebounds, danced through defenders using his signature spin move and two tidy euro-step finishes in traffic, and had the legs to launch his jumper with confidence for three triples.

With Siakam off to a strong start, the Thunder often resorted to showing hard double teams or zone coverages to slow him down, but Siakam countered smartly by kicking out to open shooters for eight assists without a turnover, and his play creation eased the burden for the second unit to not have to create as much of their own offence.

2. Precious Achiuwa received a DNP-CD for the first time in two seasons with the Raptors in response to his truly dreadful play of late. Head coach Nick Nurse had hinted at playing rookie Christian Koloko at backup centre after being recalled from his recent G-League spell, but the assumption was Koloko would share the court with Achiuwa rather than take his spot.

Koloko wasn’t spectacular and finished scoreless before leaving after eating an elbow to the face, but he did his job and was solid. Immediately upon subbing in at the start of the second quarter, Koloko recovered for a block at the rim, contested the next shot at the basket to force a miss, won two tap-outs in the middle of the lane, which led to five points for Siakam. Koloko also nailed the finer details, such as setting proper screens to get his teammates free and making the right reads defensively to not give up fouls. These were all details that Achiuwa was missing, in addition to his tunnel vision on offence, which compounded the general issue of poor offence for the second unit.

Nurse was noncommittal to the move, suggesting Achiuwa would still have chances as the backup power forward, but he seemed confident in the notion of playing a full 48 minutes at centre with Jakob Poeltl and Koloko providing rim protection. Although Koloko is inexperienced and has battled foul trouble, the Raptors have allowed just 1.06 points per possession when he is on the floor this season, which is even better than Poeltl’s mark of 1.08 and would already rank among the best marks in the league.

3. In an effort to disrupt Toronto’s rhythm in the fourth quarter, OKC coach Mark Daigneault went to a “Hack-a-Jak” strategy. The situation was that the Thunder were already down 12 with seven minutes to go and had committed four fouls, so they grabbed Poeltl on three straight trips on three plays where he was screening. Poeltl calmly sank five straight, before missing his sixth attempt, which just so happened to be scooped up by Scottie Barnes making an extra effort, and the second chance resulted in Poeltl feeding Barnes down low for a two-handed flush.

Poeltl is only a career 53 per cent foul shooter, so it is a viable defensive strategy in certain moments, but Poeltl does too many things well to actually take him out of the games in the fourth quarter. If anything, stopping the ball and allowing Toronto to set its defence is a win unto itself as the Raptors have struggled guarding in transition of late.

Poeltl on the whole was excellent once again, hitting eight of 10 foul shots, snagging 12 rebounds, and completing the best dunk of the night by finishing through contact after a slick no-look feed from Barnes.

4. Gary Trent Jr. also snapped his recent dry spell with 23 points off the bench, but the second unit as a whole can still sharpen up. Trent Jr. got more chances to catch-and-shoot through passes from Siakam and Fred VanVleet, but he also got some of his own offence through driving to get to the foul line, and three plays in transition that he turned into a layup, two foul shots and an assist to O.G. Anunoby cutting for a dunk.

Will Barton was more aggressive than usual but the attempts were all in rhythm, despite the paltry 1-for-6 showing in his box score. Chris Boucher‘s hustle is never in question, but he fell into an old habit of leaving his feet on defence, including on a bad stretch to close the third where he lost Isaiah Joe for three and committed two fouls under the basket against a smaller player.

There is a noticeable drop-off when the second unit comes in, which is to be expected, but they can achieve a higher level by limiting their mistakes and maintaining better focus.

5. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander was still able to get free even though the Raptors focused most of their game plan on stopping him. VanVleet got the first crack at guarding Gilgeous-Alexander. Although VanVleet was able to pick Gilgeous-Alexander three times for his only three turnovers of the game, VanVleet simply wasn’t tall enough to affect Gilgeous-Alexander’s shot on drives to the rim.

Toronto sharpened up in the third quarter by sending help quicker and collapsing at the rim, forcing Gilgeous-Alexander to find kick-out passes, which weren’t nearly as threatening as his slithering drives to the basket in the first half. In the fourth quarter, Nurse showed a different look entirely by using his best defensive player in Anunoby, who promptly picked up two quick fouls in the matchup.

Gilgeous-Alexander finished with 29 points on 12-for-19 shooting, and it’s very clear why he has been one of the best guards in the league this season. He combines an elite first step with the ability to pivot into either a shot fake or an attempt at any time, which really throws defenders for a loop. The only strategy that had any success was when the Raptors showed him extra defenders early on his drives, and even then he had a finish where he hit the gap through four Raptors for the layup.


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