For all the highs of his first season as a No. 1 option in the NBA – his first all-star recognition, some massive games against elite teams, a primary role in helping the Raptors maintain their status among the league’s elite even after losing Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green in free agency – there have been some lows, too.
It’s to be expected. Being the top-line item on every scouting report where advanced scouts and video coordinators feed all your strengths and weaknesses into a frame-by-frame dissection that opposing teams build game plans around is an experience only a handful of players ever get to go through.
Just two years removed from being a Raptors super-sub, Siakam is learning on the job and he knows it, but he’s not one to grasp for excuses. His five-year max extension doesn’t kick in until next season, but Siakam’s sense of responsibility already has.
“As (a) leader of the team, you gotta play better,” he said as the Raptors were digesting their thumping loss Sunday night to the Denver Nuggets in which Siakam turned in one of his weakest performances of the season. “You can’t have games like that and I feel like it’s been too many of those.”
The numbers do tell a story. Siakam was 6-of-21 from the floor, 1-of-7 from three and turned the ball over four times in nearly 40 minutes of play. He was 1-of-7 in the first quarter alone as the Nuggets came very close to blowing the Raptors out before the game was 12 minutes old. According to Basketball-Reference, it was Siakam’s fifth-worst game of the year by GameScore at 6.0 and his minus-13 was his fourth worst.
Yet even in his fourth season, Siakam understands that bad games happen to good players. But his comments hint at a broader trend that is concerning.
Even though he’s posting career-highs in points (23.5) rebounds (7.5) assists (3.5) and made threes, Siakam has struggled against some of the NBA’s best teams.
It’s a small sample size – Toronto has only played the other nine teams in the NBA’s top-10 just 11 times this season so far – but Siakam’s numbers take a hit when they do.
He’s averaging just 18.8 points a game in those contests on 43.4 per cent shooting – down from 46.8 overall this year — and his turnovers are up too.
Digging a little deeper, it’s been a while since Siakam has been able to turn it up against a high-end opponent. Two of his best games in the sample – a 33-point outing against the Celtics in the second game of the season and a 35-point burst against Utah on Dec. 1 – feel like a lifetime ago.
In between, there have been some clunkers – games against Denver, Milwaukee, Philadelphia and Miami – where Siakam has struggled mightily.
Some of it comes with the territory – good teams typically have the talent and discipline to defend well and even the best players can be stymied by a well-executed game plan. Look no further that some of the outings the league’s elite players have had against the Raptors when their defence gets turned up a couple of notches. LeBron James scored just 13 points against the Raptors, tying a season low. Kawhi Leonard could manage just two field goals against Toronto, his season low. James Harden, Joel Embiid and Damian Lillard have had poor games against Toronto.
But that’s not Siakam’s problem. It’s his job to overcome other team’s efforts to derail him and lately he’s struggled. The Nuggets play a formula that seems almost perfectly designed to thwart the Raptors’gam leading scorer, with equally quick and long-limbed Jerami Grant meeting him on the perimeter and the length and size of Nikola Jokic camped by the rim. It’s not too much different than what Bucks can do with Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Lopez brothers, or the Sixers with Ben Simmons and Embiid.
The details vary, but the results remain below par. In games where his three-point shot is dropping, Siakam can still be effective – he was 5-of-9 from deep against the Bucks, which masked that he was 1-of-5 from anywhere else — but if they aren’t falling and teams crowd him at the rim with length and size, the going gets tough. Leonard was faced with similar challenges in the playoffs, which was where his mid-range game was so effective as a way to grind out offence when the preferred options were taken away.
Siakam’s working his way through those kinds of problems.
“He looked a little out of rhythm,” said Nurse about Siakam’s play against Denver. “It looked like he was on his way to driving and he’d pull up mid-way and not get a very good look up or whatever. Just didn’t quite get (there).
“His three-balls were pretty clean looks, most of those, and those weren’t really falling and most of his drives just were not quite the rhythm of getting by or getting to a spot and getting on balance and things like that.
“He had a tough night there.”
There are some things that might help, organically. Siakam’s best moments against the Nuggets came in the second half when he got out in transition, one of his strengths since he stepped into the NBA, but something he gets away from at times when he has so many other responsibilities on his plate.
“If he can out and run a little bit, he can get six or seven cheap ones,” said Raptors guard Kyle Lowry, who has loved to push the ball ahead to Siakam. “If he can get out and get a layup or get some early steals like he used to do, it will help open it up a little bit more.”
Lowry also suggested the Raptors try to get the ball to Siakam at different spots than the wings or on post-ups.
“They’re sending a lot more coverages at him, longer defenders,” says Lowry. “I think we have to give him the ball more in the middle of the floor and not as much on the sides. I think that’s one thing that will help us, it will give us the space he can see the floor more from the middle, but other than that’s he’s fine, he’s fine.”
Siakam will be fine. He’s made a specialty of breaking through obstacles since he came into the league. But that doesn’t mean he’s going to be patient and not figure out a way to push through this latest challenge. That’s what got him this far in the first place.
His load will get lighter, too, when the Raptors return to full strength. Without Serge Ibaka, Fred VanVleet and Marc Gasol to worry about, defences can zone in on Siakam even more.
“I think (when) Fred, Serge and Marc are out there, they command their own attention, right,” says Nurse. “The eyeballs are on Kyle and Pascal (right now) and that’s tough when 10 eyeballs are on you all the time and they’re taking chances and sending lots of bodies and plugging gaps and switching on you and double-teaming you and all the stuff you can do with that stuff.”
Siakam’s aware of the issues, but he’s not leaning on them when things aren’t quite going his way. Typical. He doesn’t shy from his challenges. He sprints towards them.
“I mean, it is frustrating, but at the same time, you trust your work,” he said. “… I’m going to continue to do me, I’m going to continue to play hard … It’s gotta be on me … nobody else is gonna help me. And nothing’s gonna (change) if I don’t change it; if I don’t make it happen.”