DALLAS — This is Pascal Siakam’s eighth year in the NBA. By now, he knows the rhythms of a season. He knows when to start worrying about his or the Toronto Raptors’ performance, and when to exercise perspective and patience.
Simultaneously, when you’re used to filling the stat sheet, a two-week slump can seem like something more.
“It does feel like a while, but it’s game seven,” Siakam said the morning of his team’s eighth game, in Dallas against the Mavericks on Wednesday. “It feels like a lot.”
Game eight brought a breakthrough. Siakam tore up the Dallas Mavericks in a 127-116 win. He dominated through three quarters, playing more of a supporting role down the stretch, finishing with 31 points, 12 rebounds and five assists. In a way, it was encouraging to see him not force things in the fourth quarter, a sign of a player who is figuring out how to operate within the offence and knowing there will be more opportunities for big nights.
SIAKAM PUTTING IN THAT WORK 😤
31 PTS, 5 AST, 12 RBD pic.twitter.com/vMeEACfVQu
— Toronto Raptors (@Raptors) November 9, 2023
“I think everything is new,” Siakam said after the game. “Like I’ve been saying, I’m just trying to figure it out, understand everyone’s tendencies, the coaching staff — some of the things that we want to do as a team. And (for) me, it’s just playing the right way. At the same time, I know who I am as a player. I know the things I do well, and I always say, I just have to go out there to play my game and be me. And I think for other teams, games like this, it’s gonna be a problem.”
Siakam came into the game with the lowest true shooting percentage of his career, and a usage percentage just a tick over league average. He has averaged at least 21.4 points per game in each of the last four seasons, but only topped that number once in the first seven games.
Darko Rajaković kept Siakam in the game for all but the final minute of the first quarter, perhaps sensing that the two-time All-NBA member was gaining a much-needed flow.
“He is really trying to do the right thing,” Rajaković said before the game. “He’s trying to move the ball. He’s trying to find his teammates and that kind of took away a little bit from his aggressiveness. The last two days I’ve talked to him, like, ‘You better be aggressive first.’ Aggressive to score, aggressive to attack the rim, to shoot the ball and if they put two (defenders) on you, … then it’s common sense to find your teammate. But he is just testing the waters.”
Siakam found his way to his comfort zone a lot more early in the game. He pulled off spin moves in the post three times, punishing players both smaller and bigger than he is. He was active, making his own luck on the offensive glass.
Eventually, that translated to other areas, including an acrobatic lefty finish despite a foul from Richaun Holmes.
“I think there are little things, like finishing through contact,” Siakam said, assessing what he could do differently. “Sometimes I feel I’m quicker than everyone. But again, you’re not getting those calls. (I’m) trying to be more balanced, little things like that that I feel like I have to switch up a little bit.”
In the meantime, he started to work more within the confines of the offence, scoring off a cut and in transition, both off passes from Scottie Barnes, who has been the most prolific Raptor to start the year The two worked together well as the half progressed, taking turns picking on Kyrie Irving on one possession. Finally, he started to do some business in the midrange, where he operated from so often last year. Notably, he seemed to take the shots without allowing the defence to get set around him.
“There is nothing wrong with the midrange shot if the shot comes in rhythm, if the shot comes in quick decisions, it’s not over-dribbling,” Rajaković said. “It’s not stepbacks when everybody else is watching. And I think he’s really making huge strides there. Nobody wants to take away his midrange game. He has a good midrange game. It’s just recognizing when and how to take those shots. And that’s an educational piece that goes not (just) for him, for our whole team.”
For certain, it applies the most for Siakam. He is adapting, as he tends to do.
• The Raptors have been unable to find useful hybrid starter-bench units, but Rajaković said before the game he was happy with some individual play off the bench. Against Dallas, it all came together, with Gary Trent Jr., Chris Boucher and Malachi Flynn combining for 34 points, including seven 3-pointers.
“I loved every single shot that he took,” Rajaković said of Trent, who scored 16 points on 6-for-11 shooting.
“I’m not going to lie to you: I’m still frustrated when I don’t play at all,” said Boucher, who didn’t play Sunday against the San Antonio Spurs. “But I also know there’s something I can learn from it.”
• I did not think Trent deserved a technical for flopping late in the third quarter, but Ben Taylor, friend of Raptors current and past, disagreed. This was a messily officiated game. Officially, 50 personal fouls were called. It only felt like 100.
• Rajaković has been bemoaning the lack of cutting from the Raptors early in the season. In the starting lineup, OG Anunoby is by far the likeliest candidate to get points that way, as he is often off the ball but has the 3-point shooting to keep his defender close to him. It wasn’t a classic straight cut, but Anunoby worked really well around Jakob Poeltl to get a dunk.
• Anunoby had a few dunks in traffic, and somehow this layup was more violent than all of them.
— Toronto Raptors (@Raptors) November 9, 2023
• Rajaković went away from Poeltl early in the second half, bringing in Otto Porter Jr. He clearly wanted his team to be able to switch on pick-and-rolls, and the move helped spur a Raptors run. Poeltl did not play in the fourth quarter.
• Rajaković also recorded the first 2-0 night on challenges in Raptors history. (Coaches have only been given a second challenge if getting the first one correct as of this season.)
“We have a chain that we give to the champion of the day,” Rajaković said. “We were so close to giving it to our assistant coach, Vinny Bhavnani, who challenged those tonight for us and really made timely decisions for us.”
The chain went to Anunoby, who had 26 points and helped hold Luka Dončić to 11-for-26 shooting.
• How mad do you think Porter, who has dealt with myriad lower-body injuries over the course of his career, was when Barnes threw him an alley-oop pass in transition? Maybe mad is not the right word, but he must have been unpleasantly surprised. (A social media spy told me Barnes was caught on camera apologizing to Porter, saying he thought he was Boucher.)
• Precious Achiuwa missed his fifth consecutive game with a groin strain. Rajaković made it sound like the forward could have played — he was listed as questionable heading into the game after being doubtful for the previous four — but the Raptors wanted to give him a few more days to improve his conditioning. Expect him to be available Saturday in Boston.
• This was the first game I’ve ever seen in Dallas. There are a few courtside seats for lucky media members, which is increasingly rare across the league. It really allows you to appreciate how quickly the players move, and how quickly they have to make decisions. Also, it allowed me to see Dennis Schröder say, “That’s a flop,” after he hit a jumper following Grant Williams hitting the deck on an inbound pass.
Only Oklahoma City and Memphis left for me to complete the circuit.
(Photo: Richard Rodriguez / Getty Images)