Raptors’ strong transition play opening up Siakam’s three-point shooting

Sportsnet’s Eric Smith and Michael Grange spoke after the Toronto Raptors beat the New York Knicks.

TORONTO — You know, it wasn’t so long ago that a primary facet of Pascal Siakam’s offensive game was beating the opposition on a fly route up the floor, catching a 60-foot bomb pass from Kyle Lowry, and finishing at the rim before most defenders even knew he was there.

That was, like, two years ago, in his sophomore campaign, when nearly a quarter of the points Siakam scored came on fast breaks. Last season — his other breakout season — that number declined slightly to 22.3 per cent, but was still among the top-30 NBAers to play at least 15 games.

We don’t see those transition sprints much anymore. Do we even see them at all? Siakam seems to have outgrown it. That’s rudimentary stuff. Now he’s bringing the ball up the floor himself. Now he’s breaking down defenders off the dribble. Now he’s hitting pull-up three’s from all over the place. It’s not really a Raptors game these days until Siakam vaults up above the break on a first-quarter possession just to let the defence know that he can.

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“He’s really grown, obviously,” said New York Knicks head coach David Fizdale, whose first year as an NBA bench boss in Memphis coincided with Siakam’s first year in the league. “His shooting’s improved. He’s doing different things to make other people better now. He’s more than just a runner and an attacker.”

That’s what Fizdale said before Monday’s 126-98 Toronto Raptors victory over the deeply troubled Knicks, in which Siakam scored 31 points on 25 used possessions, was two rebounds shy of a double-double only because he sat for the game’s final 14 minutes, tied a career high with five three-pointers, and, generally speaking, played with his food throughout a meandering first quarter before field dressing, skinning, and butchering New York’s defence over the next two.

Siakam attempted one of those statement three’s less than a minute into the night, and hit one a couple possessions later, pulling up from the elbow when his defender sagged off of him expecting a drive. Later, he picked apart Mitchell Robinson on a left-handed dribble drive, spinning the seven-footer in circles as he weaved his way to the rim. He closed a 15-point second quarter with a turnaround hook shot over both Robinson and Dennis Smith Jr. By the end of the third, he had 30 for the seventh time this season and was getting MVP chants at the free-throw line.

“That’s something I’m learning to do — not forcing it and taking whatever the defence gives me,” Siakam said afterwards of his varied offensive weapons. “That’s the next part of my game. Sometimes they’re going to fall and sometimes they’re not. But I think the most important thing is understanding that you’ve got to make them respect you. Whatever they give you, that’s what you’re taking and you live with the result.”

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So, if you can do all that, there really isn’t much need to sprint out ahead of the play in transition anymore. Siakam has other jobs now. But what’s interesting is the Raptors are scoring more in transition than ever. While Siakam’s running-and-gunning has slightly subsided, his teammates around him are picking up the slack and then some.

Through 17 games, no team has scored a greater share of its points via a fast break than Toronto, which sits nearly two full percentage points ahead of the second-place team — the Milwaukee Bucks — at 17.2 per cent. The Raptors are merely middle of the pack in terms of the pace with which they play, averaging 101.4 possessions per 48 minutes. But off turnovers, rebounds, and denials, Toronto shifts into a higher gear.

“This team doesn’t give you a break. They push the ball at you. They move the ball extremely well. They attack,” Fizdale added after pumping Siakam’s tires. “In transition, you don’t have a man. … It can be anybody that you’re picking up. You’ve got to have a willingness to, if you’re a big man, pick up a guard. And if you’re a small, you might have to pick up a big.”

Those are the kinds of mismatches Toronto’s blitzkrieging offence can create when it’s really humming, but it seldom even gets to that. The Raptors mostly score early in shot clocks in these situations, like during Monday’s first quarter, when Fred VanVleet twice went straight through the heart of a discombobulated Knicks defence to finish at the rim with north of 18 seconds still left on the shot clock. Or later, when VanVleet dropped perfect passes out of similar drives to Siakam, who took care of the rest.

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“Rebounds, transition, 21 three’s,” Knicks forward Julius Randle said when asked how the Raptors turned an 11-point deficit into a 12-point lead in the span of the second quarter. “They play really good basketball. They move the ball, they play fast, they share the game.”

It starts with roster construction. There isn’t anyone playing meaningful minutes for Toronto who isn’t trusted to bring the ball up the floor if it ends up in their hands at the end of a defensive stop. The guards can obviously do it. The team’s many wings can, too.

Even Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, playing his first season with the Raptors, took a couple turns running the offence in Monday’s game against the Philadelphia 76ers, in which Toronto had to field some ultra-big lineups in order to match Philadelphia’s size. Reserve big Chris Boucher did it some during his G League MVP season. And Marc Gasol, Toronto’s starting centre and slowest player, might be the best playmaker on the team.

With that personnel in place, you can enact strategy. Toronto’s scrambling, double-teaming, frantically-closing-out-to-unguarded-shooters-by-design defence may not be devised to vacuum up rebounds, as evidenced by the Raptors’ bottom-five defensive rebounding rate, but it does create momentum towards the offensive end. A handful of Toronto defenders finish possessions moving away from their own rim, which gets them started in the opposite direction a step earlier than their opponents.

It happens off made baskets as well. Next time you watch the Raptors, notice how quickly they inbound the ball and ship it to the offensive end, looking to catch an unprepared defence before it’s set. Kyle Lowry’s the best at it, often clapping his hands at officials, urging them to recycle the ball quicker after a bucket. And even in his absence over the last few weeks, his teammates have taken up the mantle.

All that transition and fast break play may no longer be leading to trademark Siakam outlet dunks — but it doesn’t have to. That was the play of Siakam 2.0. This is the new, updated model — one who’s shooting 39.5 per cent (30-of-76) on above-the-break three’s after hitting only 27 per cent (17-of-63) last season. One who’s dropping 38.9 per cent (14-of-36) of his pull-up three’s after attempting only eight — he made just one — all of last season.

It’s not supposed to happen overnight like that. But nothing about Siakam’s basketball-playing life, which began a decade ago on a whim at a Cameroonian basketball camp, was supposed to happen. He made it happen.

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When Siakam was first working on developing his shooting, the Raptors tasked him with taking 450 repetitions a day — 150 form shots, 100 free throws, and 200 corner three’s. It took him about an hour to complete a session. Three days into the routine, Siakam told his coaches that wasn’t enough. So, he upped the daily repetitions to 900, completing the 450-shot routine twice a day.

“That’s always something I’ve been able to do — continue to make sure that I work on my craft,” Siakam said. “I’m always late. That’s my mindset. I have to find a way to catch up with all the people that started playing when they were like five-years-old, three-years-old. I have a long way to go. And every single day I know that. So, I’ve got to work double.”

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