TORONTO — Last Thursday, the Toronto Raptors went to Atlanta and put an 18-point beating on the Hawks. Kawhi Leonard sat out, as he sometimes does, and Pascal Siakam took advantage of his opportunity, as he always does.
Playing a team-high 40 minutes, the 24-year-old went off for 33 points, topping his career-high point total for the sixth time this season. Jeremy Lin — who signed with the Raptors Wednesday after being waived by the Hawks — played 17 minutes off the bench for Atlanta that night.
“We all knew he was having a great year — and then he drops 30-plus on us. I was like, ‘dude, this guy is killing it right now,’” Lin remembers. “And then tonight I witness 44. It’s just crazy.”
Siakam, who went 15-of-25 from the field in scoring those 44 against the Washington Wizards Wednesday, is stretching the parameters of what a breakout season can be. He’d broken out when he scored north of 20 in three consecutive games early in the year; when he had double-doubles in six of 10 games through the season’s middle; when he set a career high in points again and again and again, doing it a seventh time Wednesday.
“That’s why you put the work in every day,” Siakam said. “Just being in this environment with my teammates, fans — it just feels great. It feels natural, amazing. This is the beginning for me and I’m going to continue to work hard and do what I do every day.”
It was his finest night yet in many ways. With Leonard watching from the bench, the Raptors ran the majority of their offence through Siakam, resulting in a massive 40 per cent usage night, the highest of his career by a mile. His 124.7 offensive rating was first on the team; his 95.1 defensive rating was second. He scored double-digit points in three of the four quarters, never slowing down after he literally started his night with a bang, doing this for the game’s first points:
He was everywhere. He scored a career-best 22 in the paint; he set career marks in free-throw makes (10) and attempts (12); he shot 4-of-5 from distance, which, as you may have guessed, was a career-high. He grabbed double-digit rebounds for the 13th time this season. He blocked three shots. He left Bradley Beal, the Wizards star who spent much of his night trying to check Siakam, searching for answers when asked what went wrong.
“I don’t know — he pretty much got whatever he wanted,” Beal said after the game. “He was making threes early on — he got to the basket a lot, got to the free-throw line. He was just really aggressive. He made a lot of shots.”
For his part, Lin had seen it before — not only when Siakam went off on the Hawks last week, but on film when Atlanta’s coaching staff was preparing its players for that game. Toronto’s defence was a primary topic in that session — the way the Raptors attack teams that don’t take care of the ball, carrying momentum forward on offence from a strong defensive stand. And then they’d get into particular players, examining the primary weapons the Raptors have, and how one of them can sneak up on you.
“We’d talk a lot about Kawhi and Kyle [Lowry] and what they like to do — some of the iso stuff,” Lin remembers. “And then with Pascal, it was like, ‘Dude, don’t sleep on this guy. You need to match his energy. You need to make sure you take away as many of his easy buckets as you can. You have to respect everything he does. Shooting, driving, pick, pop, roll, transition, bringing it up himself. Everything.’
“What’s amazing is he’s doing all of that on a great team. It’s not like he’s just jacking it up every time up the floor. He’s doing it within the flow on a very talented team. I really can’t say enough about the guy.”
Lin says the Hawks players were acutely aware of the season Siakam’s having — that it’s a topic of conversation across the league. The Eastern Conference all-star team is stacked, and the Raptors are already sending two representatives in Leonard and Lowry. But even Wizards head coach Scott Brooks hinted at Siakam being a snub after watching what the third-year point-forward did to his team.
“He’s really developed. Give him a lot of credit, give the staff a lot of credit — he’s come back better every year. He’s right there. If he keeps playing like this, he’s a 2020 all-star,” Brooks said. “We tried a few different things [to limit Siakam.] But his ability to create in the open floor and his ability to spin off of players and finish around the basket is pretty good.”
It’s fascinating, really, to watch Siakam endeavour to go from picking up basketball at the age of 16 to being capable of playing and defending every position on the court at the highest level nine years later. It’s getting harder and harder to identify flaws in his game.
He’s creating from the post, he’s hitting from beyond the arc, he’s getting to the rim, he’s drawing fouls, he’s carrying the ball up off defensive rebounds without anyone thinking twice. You don’t see too many six-foot-nine dudes running the floor, but Siakam isn’t like too many six-foot-nine dudes. He already has eight games of five assists or more this season. And if you don’t double-team him, he’s liable to do something like this:
— NBA UK (@NBAUK) January 18, 2019
Wednesday, he didn’t have the chance to create an indelible, late-game moment like that because he’d played such a complete, relentless game. Washington had no answer. The Scotiabank Arena crowd chanted “MVP, MVP” as he shot free-throws in the final minute, and gave Siakam a standing ovation when he checked out with seconds remaining. Siakam just shook his head and smiled.
“It was amazing, man. It’s just a different feeling. You can feel it with the type of fans we have. They get loud, the MVP chants — you hear that. It’s pretty cool,” Siakam said. “It’s just a good feeling. For me especially with everything that I’ve been through and my journey. Just being in this type of position, it makes you value everything you’ve been through even more.
“It was cool. It was just a cool moment. Seeing people chanting your name, those are things that you don’t get every day. Those moments are amazing.”