If Nikola Jokic stole the show when the Nuggets travelled to Toronto in February, Pascal Siakam returned the favour in Denver on Saturday night.
A night after topping the Phoenix Suns on the road, Toronto picked up a 127-115 victory against the Nuggets, by the way of Siakam’s team-leading 33 points, going along with seven assists and five rebounds.
The win pushed Toronto within a game of Cleveland for the vaunted sixth seed in the Eastern Conference that would allow them to bypass the NBA’s play-in round. But Jokic was no slouch either, dropping 26 points, 10 rebounds, and seven assists.
For Toronto, it’s felt very much like a game of inches all season. Exactly a month prior to their matchup last night, the reigning NBA MVP Jokic clinched a 110-109 win with a highlight reel last-second block at Scotiabank Arena.
One HELL of a game-clinching block from Jokic. pic.twitter.com/k5DjVamEqz
— Adam Laskaris (@adam_la2karis) February 13, 2022
Toronto is 4-6 in games decided by one basket or less. Any one of those games — like last month’s loss against Denver — swinging another way, and they’re feeling a little bit comfier when looking at the Eastern Conference standings. For now, they’re still clawing their way back up, doing so without starters Fred VanVleet and OG Anunoby.
Like the Raptors, there’s little room for error for Jokic. Toronto entered the fourth quarter down by six on Saturday, but with Jokic on the sidelines, were able to take a two-point lead by the time he re-entered the game.
“He’s a tough cover for sure,” Siakam said of playing against Jokic postgame in a massive understatement.
Jokic has averaged 26.1 points, 13.8 rebounds and 8.1 assists in 61 games this season, and leads the NBA in just about every catch-all advanced metric possible.
“His touch is incredible around the rim,” Siakam added. “He can make plays, he’s kind of like the whole package. It’s tough for us just not having like a real centre. We have a bunch of guys that have the same size and we’ve got to try to kind of keep him in check.”
Raptors head coach Nick Nurse was also strong in his praise for Jokic. When tasked with finding a comparable player throughout NBA history pregame, Nurse was left without an answer.
“I don’t think I have a comparison, to be honest,” Nurse said. “He’s super, super, unique.”
But Jokic has had the same level of respect for his fellow forward. Perhaps it’s the similarity in being overlooked by most NBA teams in the draft— Siakam was taken 27th in the NBA draft in 2016, while Jokic was taken 41st in 2014 — or perhaps it’s just the strong season he’s having.
After missing his first ten games of the year with a shoulder injury, Siakam has averaged 21.8 points, 8.3 rebounds and 5.1 assists.
Just four other players have hit 21-8-5 this year: Jokic, four-time MVP LeBron James, two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo, and two-time All-NBA talent Luka Doncic. Safe to say, the numbers don’t lie when backing up the sort of strong season Siakam has had.
“He’s a great player, of course,” Jokic said of Siakam following Denver’s win last month. “He was attacking the paint, attacking the rim. He played really well.”
On that night, Jokic went 28-15-6, while Siakam went 35-10-7.
“When he gets hot like that, we need to make someone else beat us — we need to make someone else pass the ball,” Jokic said.
On Saturday, it was Siakam who did much of the work, but it was that someone else that pushed Toronto across the finish line.
Siakam didn’t touch the court for the first eight minutes and 19 seconds in the fourth quarter.
It didn’t appear to be injury-related, but rather that Toronto’s mix of Thaddeus Young, Scottie Barnes, Dalano Banton, Chris Boucher, and Khem Birch had pulled Toronto into what would end up as a 34-16 fourth quarter.
By the time he’d re-entered the game, the unconventional lineup had given Toronto a seven-point lead. In total, Siakam played just 2:39 in the fourth quarter while his teammates got the job done.
“It just shows our fight,” Siakam said on his overall assessment of the game. “We were relentless, and we just want to continue to compete and get better as a team.”
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