It's been a month of anticipation for Pascal Siakam, sitting and watching on the sideline for the Toronto Raptors, waiting for the all-clear signal from his doctors down in Los Angeles. He'd become a bit of an assistant coach on the bench, or maybe a cheerleader with his wild cheering, enthusiastic gestures, and, sometimes, frustration with the referees.
"It definitely sucked," Siakam said earlier in the week. "I wanted to be out there throughout the whole process but I'm excited to be back out there."
The whole process was a learning experience for Siakam who endured his first surgery back in June.
"I've been through a lot. I remember, I was talking to Alex McKechnie (Raptors Vice President, Player Health and Performance) and he was telling me of you have to get a surgery and it was my first surgery, obviously, and I was super scared," Siakam said. "I just remember really crying. I don't think I've cried like that since my dad passed away. ... It was just really a tough moment for me and I remember thinking like it's the end of the world for me."
It taught him to show even more strength, something the 27-year-old Cameroonian already has in spades. It helped him find his voice and become more of a leader within the organization.
Finally, on Sunday the long wait for Siakam was over. A smile swept across his face as he took the court for the first time this season to the loudest applause of any Raptors starter.
The former All-Star worked his way into things early, letting Fred VanVleet and OG Anunoby take care of the work offensively while he found his groove. Then, bang. His first bucket of the season, an above-the-break three-pointer, the kind he'd struggled with so mightily last year.
The return, however, was spoiled, at least on the scoreboard, by a 116-103 loss to the Brooklyn Nets. Toronto kept it close in the first half, but a rough start to the second quarter let Kevin Durant and eventually James Harden take over. The Raptors were outscored 35-17 in the third, including 13 points from Durant and a lights-out fourth from Harden left Toronto helpless.
Siakam's leash was pretty short for much of the afternoon. Toronto subbed him out every five minutes until the fourth quarter, but it was clear his presence allowed the Raptors to do some different things defensively.
"It’s given us another athletic, skillful player out there," Nurse said. "I think the second quarter was, that’s how you’d draw up what it had to look like. We were everywhere. Every time somebody turned, somebody else was there and then we were out and running."
Toronto got to flex their zone defenses and switching-everything schemes Raptors coach Nick Nurse talked about in the preseason. Sure, Durant got his buckets, scoring 31 in the game, but nobody else has really found a way to stop him this season. Instead, the Raptors forced the Nets into 17 turnovers leading to 23 points.
"We’d like to get it to where there isn’t a mathcup they can go at," Nurse said. "That we can just switch, it’s switching to Scottie or OG, Pascal, or Khem or Precious or Chris. We should have some size out there to play against.
"Ideally to get to a one-through-five switching situation, hopefully it will enable us to keep the ball in front and not have to pay, to rotate as much, that’s kind of the idea."
When the fourth quarter rolled around, Nurse couldn't help himself. He rode Siakam as the Raptors tried — unsuccessfully — to fight back. But Harden suddenly turned it on. By the time Siakam did come out, with 3:33 to go in the fourth quarter, Toronto was down 12 points and there wasn't much the Raptors could do.
Siakam forward finished the night with 15 points on 5-for-12 shooting with four rebounds and an assist.
"Thought he looked pretty good," Nurse said. "It's been a long time, I thought he looked pretty comfortable out there. Thought he had a couple of good drives, good move out there, a couple of tough roles there at the end that rolled off on him but not too bad."
Was this a measuring stick game for Toronto? Well, not quite, at least not according to Nurse. The Raptors have already shown who they are this season and Sunday's loss doesn't change that.
"I really think that we’re kinda one of those teams, we’re gonna go out and we gotta play our brand of really hard basketball," Nurse said pre-game.
With Siakam healthy, the Raptors should be right in the mix in the Eastern Conference. They won't be title contenders or anything, but they're building, and even at 6-5, there is a lot to be excited about.
Precious Moves to the Bench
Nurse opted to go with his best five to start the game, moving Precious Achiuwa to the bench in place of the returning Siakam. It allowed Toronto to stay hyper-versatile, switching nearly all screens or just sitting in zone for extended stretches.
"I think it kind of suited the rotations that they have as well you know bringing Aldridge off the bench. We kind of needed a big to play him," Nurse said. "I thought he played good. He was lively, made a couple cuts and catches, just dunk here or there and there were certainly opportunities for him out there tonight."
The lineup worked well with Khem Birch out for the game, sidelined with a knee bruise, but bringing Birch and Achiuwa both off the bench might cause some floor spacing issues in the second unit when they're both healthy together.
Highlight of the Night
Scottie Barnes continues to rack up highlight-reel plays. On Sunday, he ripped the ball away from Durant and sped end to end for a reverse jam.
"I’m more disappointed he wasn’t more aggressive offensively tonight," Nurse said of Barnes. "I thought he was doing a lot of east-west driving when he should have to by him, put his shoulders by him and went downhill and used his size."
Nash Makes Coaching Debut in Canada
Lost in the hoopla of Siakam's return was the Canadian homecoming for Nets head coach Steve Nash who made his coaching debut in Canada on Sunday.
"It's a great day for me to be able to come back home, to be on the sidelines in this building against this franchise, with all the friends and family and people throughout the country watching," Nash said pre-game. "That's something that I watched from afar since I retired and I'm really excited by the steps the Raptors have taken obviously culminating in the championship and so to come back up here is something I missed."
Up Next: Boston Celtics
The Raptors will head out for a two-game road trip starting against the Boston Celtics on Wednesday at 7:30 p.m. ET