TORONTO — The margin is only four points. And you can find them in so many places. Two of the several wide open three-pointers Kyle Lowry missed would do it. Or take Marc Gasol’s in-and-out three in the dying seconds and tack on the one free throw he missed. Or take away the absurd, final-millisecond-of-the-shot-clock, hand-in-his-face, fading-away three D.J. Augustin hit late in the first quarter, and put his foot on the line for another.
That’s all it would take to completely alter the nature, tone, and very subjects of the discourse surrounding the Toronto Raptors after Game 1 of their first-round series with the Orlando Magic. Of course, Toronto lost which means, of course, that Lowry’s poor shooting night, the team’s struggles to contain Augustin, and Gasol’s miscommunication with Kawhi Leonard on the final play of the game are the primary talking points. Of course.
It’s always important to remember how thin the margins are. Saturday’s game was extremely competitive. Early on, it appeared the Raptors were positioned to roll to a comfortable victory over an inferior opponent. In the middle, the Magic went on a 30-7 run and looked like they were pulling off an overwhelming upset. And in the end, Gasol’s three-pointer didn’t fall, while Augustin’s did. An ocean of little things in between could have tipped the result the other way, and provoked an entirely different dialogue in the unusually-long, 72-hour period between play.
Part of that dialogue would undoubtedly have been the play of Pascal Siakam, who, in putting up 24 points, nine rebounds, four assists, and two blocked shots over 42 at-times sensational minutes, erased any doubt as to whether he could carry over his remarkable regular season performance into the playoffs.
“He could have had 40 if he makes some of his threes, to be honest,” Lowry said. “He played well, he adjusted well. It’s the playoffs — and he got a little bit more physical, you know? I think him knowing what they were going to do with [Jonathan] Isaac, and being the kind of guy that’s lengthy and long and can contest your shots. So, he got a little bit more into his body and was a little bit more physical”
Two things about that. One, Siakam’s lack of success from beyond the arc was perhaps the only glaring weakness in his game Saturday, as he mirrored Lowry’s struggles with an 0-for-4 of his own. Part of that appeared to be due to a slight hesitance on Siakam’s part to shoot, something he worked out of his game throughout the regular season, but that crept back in Saturday, no doubt due to the importance each possession, each decision, carries in the playoffs. That’s an easy fix going forward.
Second, Siakam absolutely got the better of his matchup with Isaac, no small feat considering the Orlando forward won the majority of their battles during the regular season. Two of Siakam’s worst games of the season came against Orlando (late December’s epic blowout, and a 2-for-9 night in a Raptors win two weeks ago) as the taller and comparatively-athletic Isaac did what so many NBAers could not and bottled the dynamic Raptors forward up.
But Siakam looked every bit himself against Isaac Saturday, and not only on offence. With Siakam as his primary defender, Isaac finished the game minus-10, the lowest on his team by a mile. If Siakam can continue to win the battle at both ends of the floor, Toronto gains a massive edge in this series.
So, what was the difference between Saturday and the times Siakam struggled against Orlando during the regular season?
“I think, for me, it’s just trying to be more aggressive and kind of patient. I think I rushed a little bit every time we played them,” Siakam said. “It’s playoffs. You kind of look at every single detail and try to use whatever you see in your advantage. I think I’m just trying to learn and see different things. I don’t think I did a great job. There’s still things I feel like I can attack better. And just be more patient and understanding of what they’re doing.”
One thing the Magic definitely took away from Siakam were the long outlet passes he’d corral while sprinting in transition — with one notable exception we’ll highlight shortly — as Orlando did the obvious and tried to slow the Raptors down. Siakam was also at-times challenged by Orlando’s length in the paint — as all the Raptors were — which is part of the reason why his 12-for-24 night wasn’t more efficient.
But aside from the bizarrely underused Leonard, Siakam was Toronto’s best player on the floor for long stretches of the game. And any slight deficiencies you can find in his night are far outweighed by aggressive, opportunistic attacks like this:
Absurd, long-range assists like this:
Momentum-turning, defence-to-offence sequences like this:
PUT SOME SPICE ON IT pic.twitter.com/1G75IOnbCm
— Toronto Raptors (@Raptors) April 13, 2019
And timely, major-league defence like this:
“He obviously had a good game — and he hadn’t really gotten much going against them the last time,” said Raptors head coach Nick Nurse. “He played it pretty well. And he didn’t even really make any perimeter shots — I think he made one 17-footer. He had some wide-open looks — it would’ve been a really good game, probably. But he did a nice job of getting it where he wanted to go with some physicality, moving it around their length, and finishing.”
A really good game, indeed, if Siakam had drained one of his four three-pointers, three of them from the corners (shot chart below) where he averaged over 40 per cent this season. If he’d hit two, the narrative around this team, this series, would be completely different today. He didn’t, and it’s not, which is why the Raptors need to play better Tuesday and demonstrate why they’ve been the superior team since October.
Monday, Siakam said the key to that would be getting off to a better start — being prepared for the Magic to come out hot and knowing how to respond on the defensive end. Offence comes and goes, shooting can be erratic. Defensive energy is entirely within your own control.
“I know we’ll be better next game. We’ve just got to figure that out and bring that energy from the jump and impose our will a little bit at the beginning,” Siakam said. “We’ve got to bounce back. Simple as that. We’ve got to bounce back.”