Pascal Siakam’s Game 5 renaissance pivotal in Raptors win

Kawhi Leonard put up a double-double and Pascal Siakam led all scorers with 25 points to get the Raptors a 125-89 win over the 76ers to take a 3-2 series lead.

TORONTO — Running in transition off a Philadelphia 76ers miss, Pascal Siakam drifted toward the left corner. Kawhi Leonard had the ball and was driving the lane, drawing the kind of heavy coverage he can expect for the rest of this series, the rest of these playoffs, and probably the rest of his career.

Siakam? He was left alone. And as Leonard gathered, stumbled through the traffic, and pushed the ball out to his Toronto Raptors teammate, Siakam was already setting his feet to shoot right in front of the Sixers bench. Bombs away.

Oh, what a sight. It was only two nights prior that Siakam missed three identical shots in the first quarter alone on his way to a miserable 2-of-10, minus-5 performance in Toronto’s Game 4 victory. Of course, no Raptor outside Leonard had a game they could be particularly pleased with in that one, as Toronto shooters missed look after look after look. And we’ll get to that in a moment. But how about the way Siakam played in Game 5?

He was plus-35 — thirty-five! — with a game-high 25 points on 7-of-19 shooting, as the Raptors waxed the Sixers, 125-89, to take a 3-2 lead in this Eastern Conference semifinal. Siakam pulled down eight rebounds, hit 9 of his 10 free throws, and posted his best net rating — 48.6 — of the playoffs. It’s the first time since the opening game of the series he’s finished with a positive in that catch-all category.

And the Raptors just kept feeding him. Siakam posted his highest usage rate — 30.9 per cent — of these playoffs Tuesday. That says something. Not just because Siakam’s usage is second only to Leonard on the Raptors since the beginning of the postseason. But also because he’s playing hurt.

“I just understand that I have to be aggressive. I can’t be passive. What makes me dangerous is the fact that I’m aggressive and I play fast. So, I’ve got to keep that,” Siakam said. “Sometimes, when you have an injury, you tend to think a lot and want to choose your spots. And it takes away from your aggressiveness. I think for me tonight, I was just going out there and being who I am and not thinking about being injured or anything like that.”

It was fewer than two hours prior to tip-off that Raptors head coach Nick Nurse was still managing expectations for his oft-rampaging forward, who bruised his right calf during Game 3 — an injury that begot a sore right hamstring as Siakam compensated for the original ailment. He’s feeling about the same as he was the other day, Nurse said. He’ll be limited for sure. You’re not going to see him play big minutes.

Gamesmanship? Perhaps. Tough to trust everything that’s said at this time of year. But you can trust what you’ve seen, and Siakam was clearly not himself in Game 4 only 48 hours prior, lacking much of the confidence, athleticism, and sheer springiness he rode to NBA’s breakout season. How much difference could just one recovery day make?

Apparently quite a bit, as Tuesday saw Siakam looking every bit himself. There he was sprinting out in transition like it was November, receiving a fly route pass in full stride for a dunk at the other end. There he was spinning left and right in the paint, finishing one of those little five-footers he lived on in January. There he was drilling a pick-and-pop three from above the break like he did back in, never?

That was a new one. Siakam’s never shot well on three-pointers from anywhere but the corners, and yet he was feeling himself so much in the early going that he decided to let one fly from the left elbow. Although it rattled around the rim before it dropped, that thing looks the same as any other on the box score.

As do all the open three-pointers the Raptors hit, which was an even more meaningful difference between Games 4 and 5 of this series than Siakam’s play. After shooting 31.6 per cent from three (12-of-38) in Game 4 — including 7-of-20 classified as wide open by NBA.com — the Raptors drilled 40 per cent (16-of-40) in Game 5. That’s the second-best rate they’re posted in these playoffs, and by far their best rate of the second round, a series that was seeing the Raptors shoot only 29.5 per cent from distance over four games.

Danny Green was 5-of-7. Marc Gasol was 3-of-5. Kyle Lowry and Siakam had two apiece. Even Jeremy Lin and Jodie Meeks each hit one in garbage time, as the Raptors took their victory from thorough to overkill.

“The three-point shot,” Sixers head coach Brett Brown said, “was punishing tonight.”

Gasol’s willingness to shoot was particularly encouraging, as the sometimes maddeningly unselfish centre shot five times from range. That gave him 12 attempts over the last two games, one shy of the baker’s dozen he totalled over his six games prior. Gasol’s obviously a more-than capable three-point shooter, and he gives the Raptors offence much-needed space when he forces Philadelphia’s ultra-long bigs to stretch out to the three-point line to guard him.

And he gives his team a much-needed layer, in general, when he’s shooting and hitting those shots. He’s a safety valve for players like Leonard, Lowry, and Siakam, who can find him from the paint when under duress from double-teams. That’s what happened in the third quarter, when Fred VanVleet was met at the rim by Joel Embiid, before kicking it out to Gasol for a wide open look.

Or sometimes he can just flat shoot it. Like early in the fourth, when Gasol stared down Embiid — who looked at times to be unaware he was competing in a professional men’s basketball game — while calling for a Serge Ibaka post-up, before simply taking what was directly in front of him and drilling the three.

Gasol looked so joyless as he hit that, didn’t he? You know he’d have much rather thrown a deft pass to a cutting teammate, or set a play in motion that generated a higher-percentage look for someone else in the corner. But for the Raptors to be successful, they’re going to need Gasol to not pass up those looks from the elbows. He’s going to have to suffer the burden of shooting and scoring.

“We made some shots tonight — I think that really fuels you,” Nurse said. “It really gives you energy and a momentum boost. It’s hard to continue to play really tough defence all the time when you’re getting discouraged because you’re shot’s not going in. A few of them went in tonight and I thought the defensive level of intensity went upward. That’s good. That’s playing both ends pretty well tonight.”

And it started with Siakam. He was so important to the Raptors throughout the first round, and during his team’s rollicking Game 1 win over the Sixers, as well, when he and Leonard were a two-man wrecking crew. Then, he couldn’t get going in Game 2, as Philadelphia adjusted its defensive coverages. And he wasn’t much better in Game 3, injuring himself in the process. During Game 4, he looked lost, ineffective — like it was all coming apart.

But Game 5 was a renaissance. Despite the calf, despite the hamstring, despite the lack of time to properly address either issue, Siakam found a way to perform — to play like himself again. Like in the fourth quarter, when he blocked a James Ennis III attempt off the backboard, ran the length of the court, and was a shooter’s roll away from finishing an acrobatic and-one at the opposite end.

After watching the ball rim out from the baseline, Siakam sat on the court for a moment, head down, arms on his knees, frustrated with his poor luck. Lowry jogged right over, pulling his teammate out of his sulk and up to his feet. Siakam took a deep breath, releasing the negative energy of a tough shot, a tough few games, a tough series. Then he stepped to the line and hit both his free throws.

“The staff is doing a great job to make sure that I get treatment, keep icing, and keep taking care of it. It’s going to need some rest, but we don’t have time. So, I just have to do my best to make sure when game time comes, I’m ready,” Siakam said. “At the end of the day, we have to keep playing.”

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