TORONTO – It’s funny how hats can change in the NBA — and reputations along with it.
Pascal Siakam broke into the NBA as an energy player who was going to make his mark defensively, but in his fourth season is poised to be an all-star and possibly all-NBA player for his ability to score in bunches — which he’s been showing as a matter of routine through the first five games of the season.
Similarly, the easy story when Raptors head coach Nick Nurse was Dwane Casey’s assistant coach in Toronto for five seasons is that his thing was offence.
That’s changed, too.
To the extent there was tension between Casey and Nurse, it simmered in part because when the Raptors over-hauled their offensive approach in the 2017-18 season, it was Nurse who was perceived to be the architect of the makeover. The Raptors’ three-point frequency had jumped from 30 per cent of their field goal attempts (21st in the NBA) the previous season to a more modern 39 per cent (fourth) in Casey’s last year in Toronto, among other developments.
Casey was the defensive guy, was the standard explanation and Nurse was the offence whisperer. There’s a little bit of truth in everything, but what is evident is that when Nurse was hired by Casey out of the (then) D-League to help spruce up the Raptors iso-heavy offence, he had more to give than helping implement an analytically-pleasing shot spectrum (more threes; more shots at the rim; fewer contested long twos).
Accordingly, the Raptors championship run was forged in part by Nurse’s leadership and his team embracing a defence-first identity. And in the early going of their title defence, it’s Toronto’s defence that is closest to Nurse’s coaching heart.
“I’m pretty happy with how we’re playing defence and how we’re competing,” he said before his Raptors took on Casey’s Pistons for the fourth time since Casey was fired in the summer of 2018.
“I think we’re a ways away yet rhythmically on offence to get to where I’d like to get to, but I think our defence is really good.”
It certainly was during the critical junctures of the Raptors’ 125-113 win over the visiting Detroit Pistons – Nurse’s first win over his former boss.
The overall numbers aren’t as flattering as Nurse would like – the Pistons shot 46.6 from the field and 14-of-30 from deep – but the Raptors were able to defend when they needed to. And the Raptors were able to score almost at will, as they shot 59.3 per cent from the floor and 13-of-27 from beyond the arc.
Leading the way, of course, was Siakam, who exploded for 19 of his game-high 30 points in the decisive third quarter – the third time in five games he’s scored 30 or more as he takes over for the departed Kawhi Leonard as the Raptors’ primary offensive weapon. Siakam had five 30-point games all of last season. This year, he’s had more 30-point games than anyone in the NBA.
Defensively, the Raptors weren’t quite as stingy as they’ve been so far, but they played well enough for enough stretches to cruise home.
“It was okay, there was some things we were trying to do to certain guys,” Nurse said. “We were trying to go at (Luke) Kennard and we did a really good job in him. There were a few breakdowns, there were some things we were trying to do with (Derrick) Rose that we weren’t getting done very good. (But) I thought we did a decent job the rest of the way around.”
For better or worse, the Raptors seem to have the ability to turn up their intensity when they need it.
Midway through the first quarter, a pair of steals by Norm Powell and OG Anunoby helped the Raptors on their way to an early nine-point lead. They let things slide in the second but still led 64-58 at half. But in the third they held the Pistons to four points in the first six minutes while forcing four turnovers. By the time the Pistons settled into a rhythm, the Raptors were up 20 and didn’t looking back. Siakam, in particular, was rolling.
“At halftime, we were like, ‘Listen, offence seems to be okay and we just have to give a bit more defensively’. I thought we came out of the half and did that,” said Nurse. “They kind of threw it in gear, they weren’t dominating by any stretch defensively but a pretty solid second half.”
The Raptors’ emerging defensive identity appears consistent with the rise of Siakam as a potent first-option scorer. His ability to guard multiple positions was supposedly going to be his ticket to regular NBA work, but he’s far surpassed that narrow job description while maintaining his core defensive abilities.
His challenge will be making sure his defensive effort doesn’t wane as his offensive responsibilities ramp up.
“I think it’s something in my mind, I have to find a way to be engaged and not just stand,” Siakam said. “Obviously having the ball more is more demanding but I think I have the ability to do that so I just have to make sure I keep that focus mentally and go out there and do it. Kawhi used to pick his spots and it was interesting to see. Maybe we’ll find a way to do that – maybe I won’t start on the best player at the beginning and at the end pick him up. We’ll figure that out and find ways to add to that.”
The reality is there may be no limit to what Siakam can do. Coming into the game, he was shooting 42.9 per cent from three on 5.3 attempts per game – unheard-of numbers when he broke into the league under Casey. He hit another three triples on six attempts in front of his old coach Wednesday night.
“When he started for 38 games or something like that (as a rookie in 2015-16), he did a great job of learning, picking up; the last thing I said was gonna come was shooting,” Casey said before the game. “And it came because the young man worked. If any young men out there looking to use an example of making yourself a player, you’ve got him as an example. Because he worked on his shooting, worked on his shooting, now he’s one of the top three-point shooting power forwards — or whatever position you want to call it — in the league.”
But Siakam can guard, too, and his example of being able to use his defence and energy as a way to earn his way into the lineup seems to be rubbing off on the likes of OG Anunoby, who was a terror defensively again – contributing two steals and countless other pressures while chipping in 13 points on 10 shots.
Certainly the Pistons were hampered offensively in that there were missing Blake Griffin (hamstring), the gifted power forward who makes everything go for them, and Reggie Jackson, their starting point guard. In theory, those absences should have allowed the Raptors to assert themselves defensively even more thoroughly.
But their lapses against the Pistons were largely uncharacteristic for Nurse’s Raptors, who came into the game ranked third in defensive efficiency, allowing just 96.7 points per 100 possessions — impressive considering they allowed 106.8 points/100 last season and 104.2 during the playoffs.
“That’s going to travel,” Nurse said. “And that’s going to keep you in a lot of games.”
It’s a formula that could take them a long way – Siakam running the offense and everyone else defending like hell. It might not have been what anyone was predicting for Siakam or for a Nurse-coached team not that long ago, but the NBA is full of surprises.