Pascal Siakam’s game-winner an early career-defining moment

Pascal Siakam scored 10 points and grabbed 12 rebounds in leading the Toronto Raptors to the victory over the Phoenix Suns.

TORONTO — Pascal Siakam had no idea what he was going to do. The Toronto Raptors point-forward was walking out of his team’s huddle with 13 seconds remaining in a tie game. His coach, Nick Nurse, had just drawn up an isolation play with Siakam’s name on it, calling for the 24-year-old playing his third year in the league to take a final shot that could send everyone home. It was the latter half of a back-to-back — no one wanted overtime. It was up to Siakam to end things right there.

What a spot to be in. It was his first shot in the final minute of a close game this season. The first time in his career he’d taken an attempt in the final minute of game that could tie it or put his team ahead. The first time an NBA coach had looked at a clutch situation and chosen a play that ended with the ball in his hands.

And yet, this had been in the works for a while. The Raptors had run the situation a few times on the practice court, urging Siakam to burn as much clock as possible before trying to get something off. More than anything, that was the key to the play. Don’t go too early; don’t get pressured into doing anything; don’t leave seconds remaining for a defensive rebound and a timeout. Make sure your shot’s the last one.

So, that’s what ran through Siakam’s mind as the action began and he mocked setting a screen before backing away and taking a hand-off from his point guard, Kyle Lowry. It’s what ran through his mind as he stood only steps from half court, dribbling the ball with Phoenix Suns forward Mikal Bridges between him and the basket, the racing yellow clock overhead. And it’s what went through his mind when he took off.

Two steps and he was by Bridges. Two steps, that was it. Dribbling to his left, his unnatural hand, Siakam entered the paint and the help came. It was Suns centre Deandre Ayton, last year’s No. 1 overall pick, an exceptional athlete with four inches on Siakam. It didn’t matter. Up he went, over Ayton, over them all, contorting himself away from the basket while sending the ball up high off the backboard with that left hand, and letting it fall perfectly in the hole.

Phoenix never saw it coming. No one saw it coming. But the Suns in particular figured the final play had to go through Lowry. How could it not?

“I’d say we were surprised,” said Suns head coach Igor Kokoskov. “Hell of a shot.”

“I was honestly just waiting for someone to set a screen, or him to pass the ball,” Phoenix forward Josh Jackson said. “And he went to the basket and made a really tough shot.”

What a difference 24 hours can make. Wednesday in Boston, the Raptors were completely ineffective during crunch time, scoring only four points in the game’s final four minutes and over-relying on Kawhi Leonard, who wasn’t able to create for himself.

The next night in Toronto, against a much weaker team but in a similarly tight situation, Nurse opted to try something he never had before. Something he should probably try again.

“I just thought he could beat somebody off the dribble,” Nurse said. “Ended up the right decision. … I thought we’d just give him some space and let him go off the bounce and see what he could manufacture.”

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It has to be the defining shot of Siakam’s career to this point — one that’s only just begun, and one that’s only just beginning to show its potential. It can’t be said enough that Siakam’s been playing competitive basketball for less than a decade. Two years ago, he was a surprise, late first-round pick. Last season, he was a crucial contributor to the Eastern Conference’s best team. Now he’s the NBA’s most improved player, a borderline all-star.

“Man, nothing surprises me with Pascal,” said Lowry. “His talent is unbelievable.”

And even if that dizzying final shot never happened, Siakam still would’ve been Toronto’s best player Thursday night. He did a little bit of everything. The double-double — 10 points, 12 rebounds — is nice, as are the five assists he dished out, the two shots he blocked, and the steal he mustered. But it’s really about the little things that don’t end up in his box score.

He made intelligent decisions every time he touched the ball, which is saying something as he touched the ball an awful lot. He made controlled, accurate reads when running the ball in transition. He put the ball on the floor when he had a mismatch. He found shooters on the perimeter when he drew double teams in the paint.

And defensively, he was exactly where he needed to be, switching at will and providing a much-needed boost of energy to match Phoenix’s rested, youthful play. He got out to contest four three-pointers, the second-most on the team, and a significant number considering how much time he spends in the paint battling with big men. He was just everywhere.

“I think, first and foremost, that’s what he is. He’s an energy guy who should make lots of plays,” Nurse said. “He should block a shot, he should grab a loose ball, he should be out running. This scoring prowess that he’s developed this year has been a little bit unexpected. And I always remind him not to forget all those other things that he’s doing. We need his energy. We need his youthfulness. We need him to track down some loose balls, some long rebounds.”

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About that scoring prowess. Siakam’s more than doubled his points per game from last season, and has now scored double-figures in 39 of his 46 games. He’s scored 20 or more in a dozen of them. And he does it in so many different ways. He’ll score from the paint. He’ll earn trips to the free throw line. He’ll get out in transition and catch a bomb pass for a dunk. He just might drive to his left in the dying seconds and win a game.

“I think that’s the next part of the evolution,” said C.J. Miles. “Trusting him in late-game situations. Putting the ball in his hands to kind of release the pressure with Kyle and Kawhi out there. It creates a whole other monster, because he’s going to have so much space with his guy guarding him. Usually it’s a power forward and they can’t guard him. I mean, even the smaller guys can’t. He’s got a lot of tricks in his bag.”

“Just a huge step in his career,” added Lowry. “You’d be surprised how much confidence a shot like that can give a third-year player.”

About 25 minutes after the biggest shot of his career, Siakam was still grinning. Sitting at his locker juggling a pair of phones, one black towel around his waist, another around his shoulder, ice bags over both knees, the man they call “spicy” received dap after dap from his teammates. Eventually, Siakam threw on a white t-shirt with a small, cartoon pepper surrounded by flames over its heart, and the words “hot stuff” beside it. Teammates chirped from all around as he met with assembled media. Siakam never stopped smiling.

“It means a lot. It just shows that they believe in what they see every day. They see me work every day. And it just feels good that they’re able to trust me with the last shot of the game,” he said. “It was, Pascal, get the ball and, you know, get some spice a little bit.”

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