Behind a rejuvenated performance from Pascal Siakam, the Toronto Raptors came away with a 128-111 win over the Oklahoma City Thunder on Thursday night.
Along with 14 rebounds — five of those on the offensive glass — the two-time All-Star put up 25 points, marking the first time he’s eclipsed the 25-point mark since eight games ago on Feb. 26. Siakam was aggressive from start to finish, showing off a full arsenal in going 3-of-5 from distance, and getting to the free-throw line eight times — more than he's had in the past four games combined.
"I wanted to be aggressive. Obviously, I got to shoot free throws because I don't think I've been there for so long. It felt so foreign being at the free-throw line," said Siakam post-game.
"I just wanted to be aggressive and just be decisive and have a little bit more energy ... that's kind of my mindset."
Siakam’s performance led the way as all five starters scored at least 17 points. Sixth-man Gary Trent Jr. also chipped in with 23 points off the bench, to go along with scrappy defensive plays that led to a pair of steals converted into transition opportunities for himself and O.G. Anunoby.
"I thought everybody had their moments tonight, you know, all the way through. And those six guys really, you know, all produced shots," said Raptors head coach Nick Nurse. "And I really liked our transition offence. I thought when we got stops, we were down in the paint."
It was enough to weather the storm that Hamilton, Ont., native Shai Gilgeous-Alexander brought for the Thunder, after he finished with 29 points, adding to the best season of his career.
While the All-Star guard did slice up the Raptors, notably in the first half, Jakob Poeltl also made sure to welcome him back home with a highlight on the other end:
— Toronto Raptors (@Raptors) March 17, 2023
Toronto held a lead since the latter stages of the second quarter, and started to push it to double-digits for the first time in the third, before creating a comfortable advantage by the fourth.
"Honestly, I didn’t think we deserved to win tonight," said Gilgeous-Alexander, who credits the Raptors' aggressive style of play.
The biggest difference in the second half was Toronto’s ability to contain Gilgeous-Alexander, who opened the first half with 19 points on 9-of-10 shooting. Nurse credits his team’s ability to get the ball out of his hands earlier in possessions by throwing a "two-man wall" at him. It made SGA more of a distributor and ultimately kept him to 3-of-9 shooting in the second half.
Despite those efforts, OKC wouldn’t budge just yet, especially as Josh Giddey found his groove in the third quarter, scoring seven of his 13 points in the frame — to go along with a contender for assist-of-the-year.
By the fourth quarter, Toronto was able to balloon its lead to at least 20 points, as they outscored OKC 35-24.
Their balanced attack on Thursday was primarily led by Siakam and Fred VanVleet — marking what seems like one of the rare times all season they’ve had solid nights in unison.
On 8-of-16 shooting, VanVleet chipped in with 19 points, which is on par with his season average. It’s just the 17th time this season in 51 contests that both Siakam and VanVleet each eclipsed 19 points in the same game, with the former averaging 24 points per contest in the 2022-23 campaign.
"Helps when your two best players play good at the same time," said VanVleet jokingly. "Can’t really do nothing about the games that's behind us. You got to focus on going forward and we've been playing pretty good basketball, so we’ve got to be able to keep it going."
VanVleet was instrumental in keeping the Raptors’ pace, while he was also tasked as the primary defender on Gilgeous-Alexander. Along the way, he created some highlights of his own, following up Tuesday’s masterclass vs. the Nuggets. This time, it was in front of referee Ben Taylor, who VanVleet was recently fined for criticizing.
It marks the second win in a row for the Raptors, propelling the team to a 34-36 record, as they continue to look to make a late season push toward a better playoff seeding. They currently sit in 9th place in the Eastern Conference, good enough for a play-in spot.
The goal, one can assume, is to be among the top six teams in the East. That way, they won’t be subject to a do-or-die play-in game — the result of landing between the seventh to 10th seeds in a respective conference. Instead, by landing among the top six, they’ll be able to further their 2022-23 campaign with a seven-game series.
To get there, they’ll need to close the gap between them and the sixth seed, which the Raptors sit 6.5 games out of as they look up to the Brooklyn Nets, Miami Heat and Atlanta Hawks. With only 12 games remaining, it seems like a monumental task.
Looking forward, they’ll have their eyes set on Anthony Edwards and the Minnesota Timberwolves on Saturday, with five of their next six games at Scotiabank Arena.