Raptors’ Siakam continues to defy odds despite bright lights of Finals

Toronto-Raptors;-Pascal-Siakam;-NBA-Finals

Pascal Siakam goes up for two of his 32 points for the Toronto Raptors in a Game 1 win over the Golden State Warriors in the NBA Finals. (Vaughn Ridley/Getty)

TORONTO — You know you’re having a night when this one’s falling for you:

That’s Pascal Siakam, off the dribble, with five on the clock, driving to the paint and finishing a right-handed sky-hook behind his head and over two defenders, one of them the seven-foot high-rise DeMarcus Cousins, for his 29th and 30th points of the night.

Thirty as in three-zero. Tying the playoff career-high he set a month ago. In the first-ever game for both himself and the Toronto Raptors in an NBA Finals. In his third year in the league, his first year as an offensive focal point, and his ninth year playing competitive basketball, a well-known and borderline unimaginable fact that nonetheless can’t be cited enough. It was a scene.

“Man, you know, I knew he was good. But this good is like — he’s out of control, no?” said Serge Ibaka, shaking his head in the Raptors locker room after the game. “Like, tonight, man — that boy was on fire. First NBA Final game. And he scored 30-plus? That’s amazing man. That’s amazing.”

He just keeps reaching new heights. Siakam was having a break-out season half a year ago, when he went into Christmas averaging 15 points, six rebounds, and three assists while playing 30 minutes a night. And that was before he torched Atlanta for 33 in February. Before he hung 44 on Washington. Before 33 and 25 in a back-to-back against Oklahoma City. And before he announced his presence in these playoffs with 20-plus points in eight of his first 11 games.

That he’s done it against Joel Embiid in the second round and Giannis Anteteokounmpo in the third, two of the league’s best defenders, cannot be overlooked. They’re both taller than him, thicker than him, more experienced as primary players. And they clearly bothered Siakam, sagging off of him into the paint, making life difficult at the rim and daring him to shoot. That made for a few tough games, in the Philadelphia series especially when Embiid held him to 35.7 per cent shooting when serving as Siakam’s primary defender on a possession.

But that Siakam came sprinting out of that series, shot 44.8 per cent with Anteteokounmpo as his primary defender in the Conference Finals, and then had the night that he did Thursday — going against a former defensive player of the year in Draymond Green, mind you — says everything you need to know about his dedication to getting the most out of his ability.

“That’s hard work. Hard work and dedication and knowing the type of talent that he has,” said Kyle Lowry. “Never settling for anything but being the best basketball player he can be.”

To that end, Raptors head coach Nick Nurse likes to tell a story from a couple years ago. Toronto had just been swept from the playoffs in the second round by LeBron James’s Cleveland Cavaliers. Siakam, at the end of his rookie season, didn’t play in the series aside from some garbage time run at the end of a couple blowouts. The day after his team’s season ended, he turned up at the gym and spoke to Nurse, who was then an assistant on Dwane Casey’s staff.

“He was like, ‘Listen, I need to learn how to shoot. I see that in playoff basketball you better be able to shoot to be on the floor,’” Nurse remembered. “So, went to work that day on his shooting.”

The next season, Siakam suddenly shot threes. It wasn’t always easy. At one point he missed 25 in a row over a 14-game span. And come the playoffs, he still didn’t trust it enough to use it frequently. He attempted only four threes over Toronto’s entire 10-game postseason run last season. Thursday night against the Warriors, he hit 2-of-3, the 11th time in 19 games this postseason that he’s sunk at least two.

“He took it and just absolutely ran with it — two, three times a day, every day, just trying to get that part of his game better,” Nurse said. “And that just shows he was extremely hard-working. Just super, super committed to finding a place in this league and improving his game.”

The other thing Siakam did Thursday was score more points, 32, than he did in four games combined against Cleveland in last year’s semi-final sweep. He just refused to miss. He went 14-of-17 from the field and scored the most points in an NBA Finals debut since Kevin Durant went for 36 seven years ago.

He was also the first player to put up 30 points or more on at least 80 per cent shooting in a Finals game since Shaquille O’Neal did it in 2004. It was only the seventh time that’s happened in NBA Finals history. And the other guys to do it — O’Neal, James Worthy, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Adrian Dantley, Toni Kukoc, and some baseball player named Michael Jordan — are among the most prolific players in the history of the game.

“He got to his spots and got on balance and was patient. And when he needed to go quick and get around [Green,] he did as well,” Nurse said. “He had a couple of really tough ones go in for him as well.”

He sure did. Here he is rampaging right up the heart of Golden State’s defence on a fast break, somehow getting this ball through a flurry of arms and hands, up off the glass, and in:

Here he is side-stepping Green in transition and finishing a soft finger roll off the glass while his momentum carries him out of bounds:

And here he is going right at Green with no regard, fighting through a shoulder charge, getting to the rim, finishing off his left hand and getting the shooter’s roll of all shooter’s rolls:

“He does a great job of attacking those gaps, using his body, attacking the angles that the defense is giving you,” said Raptors centre Marc Gasol. “I just like when he plays that aggressive.”

Aggressive is a good word for it. Siakam spent his entire night in a sprint — beating Golden State’s defence up the floor on several occasions, storming the paint in transition, and making Green, one of the league’s best defenders, often look like he was playing on roller skates. Never mind the fact he finished with eight rebounds, five assists, and two blocked shots on top of it all.

Now, he has to do it again. Spotty consistency has been the biggest criticism you could direct towards the Raptors star in these playoffs, as both Philadelphia and Milwaukee found creative ways to change the way they defend him, forcing Siakam into uncomfortable territory.

But what’s made Siakam special to this point in what is still an incredibly young career, and incredibly young basketball life, is his ability to adapt. The way he responds when challenged. The work he puts in to keep reaching new heights.

“It’s something that’s so cliché most of the time, but that’s the story of my life — just going out there every single night, working hard to get to this level, and knowing that I have so much to learn and I have so much room to improve and grow,” he said. “I think that’s what makes it’s fun. And for me, just kind of falling in love with the game and wanting to get better and wanting to learn. Moments like this definitely show that I’m going to continue to be myself, continue to work hard, and have so much room to improve.”

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