Pascal Siakam looked every bit the NBA all-star as he put on a spectacle Friday night, leading his Toronto Raptors to a win in their first game back from the break.
The Cameroonian, fresh off his first all-star appearance, scored 37 points and added 12 rebounds as the Raptors beat the Phoenix Suns 118-101.
Siakam lead seven different Raptors who scored in double digits: Serge Ibaka (16),Fred Van Vleet (14), Terence Davis (14), OG Anunoby (12), Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, and a 13-point, 10 assist performance from Kyle Lowry.
The Raps kicked off the unofficial second half of the season with the first of a four-game homestand.
No Phoenix player could contain Siakam in the first quarter. The All-Star erupted for 17 fast points while shooting hot from beyond the arc, forcing his way to the rim and earning trips to the free throw line.
Had it not been for six sloppy Raptors first-quarter turnovers, Toronto’s 31-23 lead going into the second would have been larger.
The Raps were missing Norman Powell, whose left hand is still healing; and Patrick McCaw, who has the flu.
Toronto was also without its defensive anchor – seven-footer Marc Gasol – and he may be out a while. The Spanish centre sat out the eight games leading into the all-star break after he reaggravated the same hamstring that cost him 12 games in late December and early January. Gasol was initially expected back right after the break, but now the Raps say he will take more time.
That left 6-foot-10 Ibaka to handle 6-foot-11 Suns big man Deandre Ayton, with help from Hollis-Jefferson too. Chris Boucher manned Dario Saric – both 6-foot-10, but Saric outweighed the young Montrealer by 25 pounds.
“Rondae does a great job of being physical and putting his body on people and using his quickness and we space them out on offense and play with more pace,” said Lowry. “We have a good team and we have guys down we kind of figure it out how to play and put it together and scrap together and junk it up together and figure it out.”
Drake was in his courtside seat at Scotiabank Arena for the first time in a long while, as the team sported its OVO-inspired black and gold city edition jerseys and played on its rarely used Welcome Toronto hardwood floor. The Toronto rapper looked right at home – sharing an in-game hug with coach Nick Nurse, and doing his customary shimmying and taunting. Drake was handed a headset in his seat, and joined the Canadian TV broadcast for nearly all of the second quarter, glancing backwards over his shoulder at broadcasters Matt Devlin and Jack Armstrong as the three hammed it up.
The game wasn’t worth following bucket-by-bucket at that point anyway. All-star Devin Booker had a 10-point quarter, but that was a rare positive for the Suns in that frame as they only scored 20. Raps rookie Davis got hot, and the home team bulldozed to a 67-43 lead by half time.
Inside the third, Ibaka picked up his fifth foul and headed to the bench. Nurse and Lowry both picked up technical fouls. The plucky Suns chiseled away at that big deficit – a team sitting 13th in the Western Conference standings but not ruled out of playoff contention. They got the lead down to 13.
Inside the fourth quarter, Phoenix surged to within nine as Ayton punished them with his scoring. A monster block by Chris Boucher on a three-point attempt by Dario Saric woke up the crowd, but the Suns kept coming, pulling to within six.
The reigning NBA champs held tight and Hollis-Jefferson did a commendable job tangling with Ayton. Ibaka finally re-entered the game for Hollis-Jefferson with 5:13 left to play. In his first minute he coughed up a bad turnover, but responded with a big rebound and then hit a 27-foot three-pointer – like he had been sitting on the bench itching to play.
“I was leaning on [subbing Ibaka back in] earlier than I did, but then Rondae had kind of a nice stretch going there that enabled us to grab a few more minutes,” said Nurse. “You just gotta get your best guys out there and as well as Rondae played, Serge was a little bit bigger presence on the shot blocking and rebounding and spacing on the perimeter.”
The Raptors’ flair for sharing the ball, adjusting and finding the right matchups and spacing saved the day as the Raps regained control and started to score again. Siakam went off for 12 fourth-quarter points, a dizzying potpourri of dunks and finger rolls, with some added hollering for the Toronto faithful as they serenaded him with chants of MVP.
“Yeah, I had a good time just hanging out with family, and then after the all-star game getting away and just kind of clearing my mind and getting ready for the second part of the season,” said Siakam. “I just felt energized.”
His coach loved Siakam’s performance, and remarked on how un-guardable he is when he’s scoring from deep and at the rim. But Nurse admitted that game wasn’t exactly fun.
“I didn’t have much fun out there tonight coaching. It wasn’t very enjoyable,” said Nurse. “But as I sit here now and look back on it, I don’t mind that it got a little tough and tight and we had to bounce back and respond and guard and execute great down the stretch. It’s a nice learning moment I guess, a confidence-booster actually.”
Booker was the Suns leading scorer with 21, while Ayton had 17 and Ricky Rubio 13.
“They’re all on the same same play, they play on a string on both ends of the ball, there’s no confusion,” said Booker of the Raptors. “Their timing is hitting on all cylinders. That’s what happens when you play deep in the playoffs with teams and you fight together. That’s a high-caliber team.”
The Raptors (41-15) will be back on the court Sunday night, when they play host to the Indiana Pacers.