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Disappointing road trip took its toll on Siakam, Raptors

Toronto Raptors Pascal Siakam - The Canadian Press
TORONTO – It’s been a long and emotionally draining season for the underachieving Toronto Raptors, and their best player, Pascal Siakam, is starting to feel the brunt of it.
The all-star forward is having an excellent campaign. With other players in and out of the lineup or simply underperforming, he’s carried a struggling team through rough patches that could have and probably should’ve been far worse, while leading the league in minutes for the second straight year.
Still, Siakam’s most admirable accomplishment during a season in which very little has gone according to plan is his ability to stay positive and maintain a high level of play, often in spite of whatever’s going on around him. Even in the club’s darkest moments, he’s usually the guy that’s able to see a light at the end of the tunnel, and the one doing what he can to lead them through it.
“We’re chipping away, playing better and better, but we’ve gotta translate it to winning and I’m optimistic that we will,” Siakam said after a January loss to Boston, a game in which he played 43 minutes and recorded 29 points, nine rebounds and 10 assists.
Recently, though, Siakam has seemed off by his very high standards, and it’s shown itself on the court. On the team’s recent five-game road trip, the seven-year vet averaged 15.8 points, 5.8 rebounds and 5.0 assists on 42 per cent shooting (down from a career-best 24.4 points, 7.6 rebounds, 5.9 assists and 47 per cent shooting on the season). After scoring 20 or more points in all but 11 of his first 53 contests, he’s been held under that mark in four of the past five.
He also hasn’t been his typically aggressive self. Siakam failed to get to the line in two of the five games and attempted a total of nine free throws in the other three. For context, he was averaging 7.4 free throw attempts per game going into the trip – 13th-most in the NBA.
So, how do you explain the sudden drop off? Speaking to the media following Monday morning’s practice – the Raptors’ first since returning home from a disappointing 1-4 road swing – Siakam offered up a couple of theories.
“I think I’ve just gotta figure out the flow of the offence, how we play and things like that,” Siakam said. “Some things are different but I’ve just gotta continue to find my spots, continue to find a way into the offence and find my spots without doing too much or overplaying.”
“But I think the main thing is just having fun with the game,” he continued. “I love the process of getting better and the process of struggling and finding a way out of it. All those things are what make me who I am and what gives me the most joy. And I just have to make sure I keep that no matter what, finding a way to have that peace no matter what and have that joy no matter what. And it’s challenging. I think that’s my biggest challenge is just understanding that this is my place, this is where I feel the most at peace and happy, and I have to keep that. Sometimes that can fade a little bit, which is normal, natural; we’re humans, but I’ve got to be able to make sure nobody takes that away from me.”
What can make that fade?
“I don’t know. I think a lot of things can do that, a lot of things from energy around [the team] or a lot of things from losing. There are a lot of things that can make it fade away a little bit.”
He’s not alone in that regard. Losing affects the energy or mood around the club, as you would imagine, and five months of it has taken a toll on everybody in the organization, even the team’s most optimistic player. If you think they should be desensitized to it by now, that’s not how it works, at least not for the 28-year-old forward.
Like the rest of his team, Siakam thought they were on the verge of turning a corner. Thanks in large part to the acquisition of Jakob Poeltl, who addressed a long-standing need at the centre position, and a soft stretch of the schedule, they had won eight of 10 games. The hope was that they could go on a late-season run, climb the standings and maybe even avoid the play-in tournament by securing a guaranteed playoff spot in the wide-open Eastern Conference.
Then they hit the road with the intention of stealing at least three of the five games, and they were humbled once again. They gave up double-figure leads in three of their four losses, bickered with the officials, and came home with a familiar feeling of disappointment and dread.
Good teams find a way to win games, and here they are, still finding creative ways to lose. In Denver, they thoroughly outplayed the West’s best team, leading the first-place Nuggets for more than 42 minutes. Against the Clippers, they attempted 25 more shots than the opposition and outscored them 39-18 from three-point range. Against the Lakers, they got 63 combined points from Scottie Barnes and O.G. Anunoby, while holding the red-hot Anthony Davis to eight points. They managed to squander all three contests.
For Siakam and his teammates, much of the frustration comes from the belief that they could and should be better than this, even with the schedule getting more difficult following their post-trade deadline surge.
With Poeltl on the court over his 12 games as a Raptor, they’re holding opponents to 106.3 points per 100 possessions – 3.3 points better than the league’s best defensive teams (Cleveland and Milwaukee). In their six games together, the starting lineup of Poeltl, Siakam, Anunoby, Barnes and Fred VanVleet is outscoring teams by an impressive 12.2 points per 100 possessions.
Strangely, through, it hasn’t resulted in the team-wide improvement you would expect. The Raptors were four games under .500 and in 10th place on the day of the deadline. They’re four games under .500 and have a slim half-game lead on Chicago for ninth place more than a month later. They still struggle to score in the half court. They still can’t stop anybody on the perimeter and have trouble defending the rim. And, despite the additions of Poeltl and buyout market signee Will Barton, as well as having a fully healthy roster, they still can’t rely on their bench.
On Friday, the starters played 27 minutes together and were a plus-17 in a game the team went on to lose by 10 points, which isn’t easy to do. Whether Nick Nurse had a bench-heavy unit on the floor or ran the starters out there with just one or two reserves at a time, there was a noticeable drop off. Gary Trent Jr., who was held scoreless in 21 minutes against the Lakers, has struggled in his new role off the bench. The same could be said for Precious Achiuwa, who didn’t even see the floor in the second half.
So, it’s back to the drawing board. Rookie Christian Koloko may soon fill the backup centre gig after spending most of the past month in the G League, with Achiuwa sliding over to the wing, where Nurse feels he’s better suited defensively. Could Dalano Banton, who was also recently recalled from the 905, factor in down the stretch of the season?
“I think anything’s in play right now,” Nurse conceded.
That they find themselves having to tinker and tweak with who or how they play this late in the season is not ideal. It may also be contributing to Siakam’s mini slump, as he alluded to in that first part of his explanation.
On the season, Siakam’s 27.8 per cent usage rate leads the team by a comfortable margin – VanVleet ranks second among the regulars at 22.4. Since the trade deadline, his usage is down slightly (25.4) but still leads the team. With VanVleet and Poeltl running more pick and rolls and Barnes taking on a bigger role as an offensive creator, especially late in games, Siakam’s usage rate has fallen to 21.7 per cent over the past five games, trailing Barnes (23.2). In the fourth quarter of those five games, it drops to 16.8, behind Barnes (28.0), Trent (23.2), Anunoby (21.6), Chris Boucher (19.0) and VanVleet (18.9).
In 46 fourth-quarter minutes on the road trip (second only to Barnes’ 51), Siakam scored six points, tied with Achiuwa for sixth-most on the team. He made three of his 14 shots – two fewer than Trent took, despite playing 13 more minutes – and didn’t attempt a single free throw. He had a team-high four turnovers and just three assists – half as many as Barnes and a quarter as many as VanVleet. The Raptors were outscored by 31 points in those quarters.
Whether it’s all of the losing, the bad vibes, or a slight role change that has Siakam searching for his love of the game, he’s too good not to find it again. As bleak as this season has felt at times, it would be a whole lot darker without him.
“I wanna continue to get better and I wanna continue to learn,” Siakam said. “I know it’s not gonna be easy, I know there’s gonna be times where it’s tough, but I’ve just gotta be able to get over that. Other than that, it’s great. I’m blessed. I’m doing what I love and finding a way to keep that joy and enjoyment, which, for me, is the most important thing.”