Siakam and Barnes make an impact, but Anunoby’s absence felt as playoffs loom

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Is it really the final week of the NBA season? Are the playoffs around the corner?

Man. Life comes at you fast. It seems just like yesterday the biggest question coming out of the pre-season was how big a breakout year OG Anunoby was going to have and if Pascal Siakam was going to have any kind of year at all. 

And how about that kid Scottie Barnes: Would he be able to contribute offensively? 

And the big one: Could this motley crew make the rebound from the draft lottery to the post-season?

The answers as the Raptors hosted the Atlanta Hawks for game 78 of the regular season Tuesday were: not very; and wow, has he ever and absolutely, Barnes is a keeper.

And yeah, the Raptors are a playoff team again thanks to their 118-108 win that was a microcosm of a season that couldn’t have been safely predicted by anyone other than perhaps those whose job is to make it happen.

“It means a lot,” said Raptors guard Fred VanVleet, who shook off a 1-of-11 start from three to rattle home a key triple 64 seconds left to break a horrific fourth-quarter scoring drought for the Raptors and trigger the win. “It’s one of those things we gotta just appreciate the journey.”

With it, the Raptors returned to the post-season for the seventh time in eight years but this time with a renewed appreciation for the feat.

“I think when you are building something that I have been a part of for six years here – the first four or five you kind of get a little jaded, a little spoiled, with just expecting the win and excellence it takes to be good every night in this league,” VanVleet said.

“That was taken away from us last year, so sitting at home in April and watching the first round of the playoffs or even the play-in when we all felt like we were capable enough to be there, stung a little bit and I know that is something that we spoke about.

“Fast forward to having a group that nobody thought was going to be any good, being here in this position is good. We did what we set out to do … get us a spot where we feel like we belong, and now it’s time to go see what we can do.”

There’s reason for optimism. With the win, the Raptors improved to 46-33 with three games to play. They are in fifth place, a game up on Chicago and more importantly — as the season has unfolded — some big questions have been answered.

Siakam in particular has proven whatever the issues were that interrupted his career progress once the pandemic began have been put to rest. He’s the Raptors’ most valuable player, worthy of his contract and an All-NBA spot and there’s still seems to be some upside as he becomes increasingly expert at toggling between go-to scorer and oversized point guard as the situation requires.

It was all on display against Atlanta.

Siakam finished with 31 points, 13 rebounds, six assists and no turnovers to lead the Raptors, but his best plays might have been on defence as he went chest-to-chest to deny the Hawks’ De’Andre Hunter at the rim and then scrambled to the corner to contest an otherwise wide-open Bogdan Bogdanovic triple prior.

Those plays set the stage for VanVleet’s big shot, which Siakam assisted.

And Barnes? The 20-year-old has been a revelation. Far more polished than anyone could have expected when the Raptors drafted him fourth overall out of Florida State, he will be getting my vote for rookie-of-the-year and could win the award in what promises to be a very tight race. 

He proved why again against Atlanta as he finished with 19 points and 14 rebounds, including six points in the final two minutes to seal the win.

Fred VanVleet Pascal Siakam Raptors

There are concerns. The Raptors somehow squeezed out the win despite shooting just 9-of-35 from deep. Shooting has been an issue all season — their 54.3 True Shooting percentage is 27th in the NBA; the next worse playoff-bound team is the Dallas Mavericks, ranked 16th.

And regardless of the outcome, it was a miserable offensive night for VanVleet who seemed to be rounding into form after struggling with a knee problem since the all-star break. As the game teetered the Raptors missed 11 straight shots during one critical stretch in the fourth quarter. VanVleet missed five good looks, four of them from three.

But VanVleet’s biggest strength is his refusal to allow his self-belief waver, even on a night when he shot just 4-of-21 from the floor and 2-of-12 from deep.

When he got another chance to take a key shot, he stepped in and made it.

After the game, Raptors head coach Nick Nurse acknowledged VanVleet’s knee issue is not yet behind him, and with a playoff spot secured his point guard will be getting some rest between now and the opening of the playoff on the weekend of April 16.

“He’s not 100 per cent out there,” Nurse said. “He’s lacing them up and giving everything he’s got and he just doesn’t feel great. … I give him a lot of credit, man. He’s obviously banged up and he used a lot of energy in the Miami game [Sunday] as well, I think, he was moving good [but] used a lot of juice in that game so we’ll definitely get him off his feet for a couple of days.”

Perhaps the biggest remaining question is the health of Anunoby, and if he’ll be able to turn around another injury-plagued year — he’s missed 33 games this season and 97 over his five-year career — with a big showing in the playoffs.

The key will be showing up. The Raptors say his thigh — bruised Friday night against Orlando — is better, and the ability to rest should do him well. But the Raptors’ ambitions require him healthy, as his combination of shooting, scoring and defence is vital to a team that is pretty thin at the top end of their lineup.

He’s that important. Toronto is 15-18 this season in the games he’s missed after going 9-20 last season in Tampa.

“He is an important part of the future when you think about the Toronto Raptors,” said VanVleet, who added: “You can see when we plug him in there we look like a completely different team. We miss him when he’s not out there.”

The hope is he will be there at some point over the next three games or certainly when the playoffs start. The Raptors’ season has been full of mostly pleasant surprises so far this year, the question of how far they can go can only be properly answered if Anunoby is healthy and ready to go.

If that comes to pass the Raptors’ feel-good story could have a feel-great final chapter.



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