TORONTO - Pascal Siakam said his legs felt heavy. He joked that he ran out of breath about three minutes in.
But after his off-season shoulder surgery that “felt like the end of the world,” and playing his first game at Scotiabank Arena since COVID-19 shuttered the NBA in March of 2020, Siakam was just happy to be back.
The one thing missing was a win.
Kevin Durant had 13 of his 31 points in a decisive third quarter and the Brooklyn Nets spoiled Siakam's return with a 116-103 victory on Sunday.
“Obviously I'm super happy and super excited to be back in Toronto,” Siakam said. “It's been so long, playing in this arena, and just playing with my teammates and seeing the fans. It was a great moment and obviously wanted to get a win. But it is what it is.”
Fred VanVleet scored 21 points to top Toronto (6-5) while OG Anunoby added 16 points and eight rebounds.
Siakam finished with 15 points on 5-for-12 shooting, in his first game in six months. VanVleet wrapped Siakam in a huge hug before they ran onto the floor for warmup. Siakam received a warm ovation during the introduction of starters.
“Felt good, first time in a long time,” Siakam said. “I remember Alex (McKechnie, Raptors VP of player health and performance) was telling me 'Oh you have to get a surgery,' and it was my first surgery, obviously super scared, I remember crying, I don't think I've cried like that since my dad passed away.”
VanVleet said Siakam's game Sunday after a long layoff was “a reminder for the idiots on Twitter (who've criticized the Raptors forward). You see him out there and you say, 'Well damn,' it's a reminder . . . He's a special talent. Obviously, once we knock those minutes restrictions out and get our rhythm and get our feel as a group with him out there, I think that we're gonna be a really good basketball team.”
The Raptors looked headed for a potential win through the first half. They led by seven points at the break, but the Nets gathered momentum in the third, outscoring their hosts 35-17 in the period to take an 88-77 lead into the fourth in front of a capacity crowd of 19,800.
VanVleet hit a three-pointer with 4:52 to play to slice the difference to seven points, but James Harden replied with back-to-back three-pointers for a 15-point lead.
Scottie Barnes stole the ball off Brooklyn on consecutive plays, his second leading to an Anunoby dunk that cut the lead to 111-103.
“How old is he? 19? 20? Sheesh,” Durant said of Barnes.
But that was as close as Toronto would come.
Durant added seven assists and seven rebounds in his first appearance at Scotiabank Arena since rupturing his Achilles tendon in Game 5 of the 2019 NBA Finals. Harden added 28 points for Brooklyn (7-4).
Durant praised the Raptors in his post-game interviews, saying Toronto is a championship organization, and preparing for coach Nick Nurse's defensive schemes keep opposing players up at night.
“They have a lot of young guys that will run through a wall for Nick Nurse,” Durant said.
The Nets were the consensus pre-season favourite to win the league this year, but have had their share of speed bumps. They're missing star guard Kyrie Irving, who has refused to get the COVID-19 vaccine. The Nets have said he won't play or practise with the team until he does.
Asked if the Nets were an early-season measuring stick for his team, Nurse said “Obviously they've had a little bit of changes, as they work through it, murky waters, we all go through it, they're missing one of their key guys. It's not unlike us, we're getting back our guy (Siakam) today, so, is it a measuring stick?
“You know what? I'm in the mode of it doesn't really matter who we're playing right now. I really think that we're one of those teams, we're gonna go out and we gotta play our brand of really hard basketball.”
Hard basketball wasn't quite enough against the star-studded Nets.
“Really good first half. Not very good second,” Nurse said.
Durant led the way with 12 points in the first quarter, and his pullup shot late in the frame put the Nets up 29-26 heading into the second.
The highlights of the first half came in the final minute. Barnes stripped Durant of the ball twice. On the first he finished with a reverse dunk while glancing back at Durant. The second ended with a running dunk from Chris Boucher. Then VanVleet squeezed through Patty Mills and Durant to score on a reverse layup with 3.2 seconds left and the Raptors led 60-53 at the break.
The game marked Hall of Famer Steve Nash's first trip home to Canada as Brooklyn head coach.
“That (win) means a lot,” Nash said. “This is a very special place for me. Not only Canada, but Toronto. I've spent so much of my time here, I have so many close friends, relationships, and memories in this city. For me, this is definitely a sweet win.”
Nurse first met Nash back in the late '90s when Nash - in England to visit his brother Martin, who was playing soccer there - asked if he could participate in the Manchester Giants camp, where Nurse was coaching.
“He's obviously a great player, a great person, a really interesting basketball mind and, just in general, a leadership mind, too,” Nurse said.
The Raptors put their perfect 4-0 road record on the line when they play at Boston on Wednesday and Philadelphia on Thursday. They return home to host Detroit on Saturday.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 7, 2021.