Resurgent Siakam a key brick in Raptors’ potential path past Bucks

Eric Smith caught up with Raptors forward Pascal Siakam ahead of Eastern Conference Finals Game 1 vs. the Milwaukee Bucks.

MILWAUKEE — Standing amid the pandemonium after Kawhi Leonard hit that shot, Philadelphia 76ers centre Joel Embiid slumped his shoulders and hung his head in defeat. As the Toronto Raptors celebrated, Embiid wept, eventually burying his head in Marc Gasol’s chest as the Spanish centre consoled his Cameroonian counterpart. Embiid continued crying all the way off the court, and into the locker room, where cameras broadcast a private moment with his girlfriend, model Anne de Paula, onto televisions, computers, and phones across the world.

It’s so rare that we get to see that side of the professional athletes who entertain us. So seldom do they let themselves go like that in an arena, and a world, where emotion is often perceived as weakness.

“The guy cares,” Pascal Siakam said Wednesday morning, before his Raptors held a shootaround at Fiserv Forum ahead of that night’s opening game of the Eastern Conference Final. “If it looks like we don’t care, people complain, like, ‘Oh, he acts like he doesn’t care.’ But when someone shows that they’re all in, it’s still a problem. I don’t know, man. At the end of the day, he reacted how he reacted. And that’s that. You can’t judge the man for it. It shows that he cares.”

It’s the constant catch-22 of being a professional athlete. Say little in interviews and you’re standoffish; speak your mind and you’re a distraction. If you play stoically, you’re uninvested, disinterested; if you show emotion, you’re immature, out of control. There’s no winning.

It’s part of the reason why, as the emotional footage quickly spread across social media in the hours following Game 7, Siakam halted an interview to offer some unprompted words of encouragement to his countryman.

“I know that was tough on him. But I just want to tell him that, man, he’s been great,” Siakam said in the Raptors dressing room. “He’s definitely an example for guys like me. Coming from Cameroon, and Africa in general. He gave us an opportunity to dream more. Because, usually, it’s like we’re all role players. He gave us an opportunity to go out there and dream and think that we can be more than that. And I just commend him for that.”

Siakam is extremely reverent to the African players who blazed NBA trails for him, like Luc Mbah a Moute, who gave a 15-year-old Siakam his start in the game at a basketball camp in Doula, Cameroon. That’s why it meant so much for Siakam to share the floor with Embiid on such a grand stage over the last two weeks.

“I just want to show him respect. I mean, at the end of the day, we’re the pride and joy of our country,” Siakam said. “It just feels so great to be in this position.”

The two have exchanged text messages since the end of the series (“He was telling me, ‘Okay, now that I don’t guard you any more, you can play good now,” Siakam said) and will surely continue to do so as Siakam shifts his on-court focus to another dominant international big man — Greek phenom Giannis Antetokounmpo. For all the challenges Embiid and Philadelphia’s length posed Siakam and the Raptors in the second round, it’s not about to get any easier with the Bucks.

“We’ve had to, over both series, play against a lot of size. And they have that size, too. And obviously they attack the rim. they want lay-ups and threes. And they have shooters. Definitely won’t be a lot of post-ups like we had with Embiid. So, it’s a lot of different things you’ve got to worry about,” Siakam said. “And Giannis is Giannis. I don’t think there’s anybody like him.”

There is no true defensive answer for Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee’s rampaging destroyer of worlds — his singular combination of size, speed, and athleticism makes him a nightmarish assignment for any player in the league. But the Raptors will ask Siakam to do his best to provide one, as part of a collective effort to contain the man who will likely win the NBA’s MVP award next month.

Siakam spent significantly more time on Antetokounmpo than any other Raptor during the regular season, something you can expect to continue for Game 1 at least. According to NBA.com’s matchup data — which isn’t perfect but is the best we have — Siakam did a fine enough job. At least as fine as one can against such a dominant force (PTS DIFF refers to how much better or worse Antetokounmpo’s points per 100 possessions were in that matchup compared to his season average):

Giannis Antetokounmpo vs. Raptors defenders in 2018-19

Defender Possessions FGM FGA FG% TOV PTS PTS DIFF
Pascal Siakam 93 15 27 55.6 5 41 5
Kawhi Leonard 31 2 3 66.7 0 4 -26.2
Serge Ibaka 26 6 9 66.7 2 14 14.8
OG Anunoby 24 4 5 80 1 13 15.1

What Siakam can do better than most is pick Antetokounmpo up in transition, ideally slowing him down a step or two while the rest of the Raptors hustle back to the defensive end. Milwaukee loves to run the floor, and have played at a pace of 103.3 possessions per 48 minutes in the playoffs, the highest of the four team remaining, and considerably quicker than Toronto’s 95.6 through the first two rounds.

Of course, the Raptors like to get out in transition themselves, and that low pace number is no doubt influenced by Toronto’s opponents, the Orlando Magic and 76ers, two teams that liked to slow things down and run their offence in the half-court. The Bucks couldn’t be more different. And Toronto’s goal in the series defensively will likely be to force more of those half-court looks by throwing big, athletic bodies like Siakam’s in front of Antetokounmpo when he gets rolling, mucking up Milwaukee’s fluidity.

“Obviously, we know he’s great in transition and at the rim. So, that’s something that you try to take away as much as you can,” Siakam said. “But the guy’s talented and he does it with ease most of the time. So, definitely trying to just contain him. It’s going to be a battle.”

And when he’s not endeavouring to solve the NBA’s most challenging problem, Siakam will have to carve out some time to get his own offensive game going, as well. After dominating the Magic in the first round, and putting on a 29-point display in the first game of the second, Siakam hit an unexpected and unusual rut, riding out the Sixers series on the wrong side of plus/minus in four of the final five games.

It was a challenging series for Siakam all around. After he torched Philadelphia in Game 1, the Sixers adjusted the way they were defending him, assigning Embiid to the matchup and asking the big centre to sag off of Siakam and into the paint, daring the Raptors forward to try to score over one of NBA’s biggest players and best rim protectors.

Siakam’s demonstrated a good ability to hit shots from the corners, but has struggled above the break. That, combined with Embiid’s presence in the paint, left Siakam somewhat offensively neutered over the back-half of the series.

“I think it affected his rhythm a little bit,” said Raptors head coach Nick Nurse. “But he chipped in enough to score. And I thought he felt his way through it pretty good.”

If anything, Siakam’s been a victim of his own success. His breakout regular season and stellar play through the first six games of the playoffs raised the standard by which he’s measured. He still averaged 25.5 points per 100 possessions on 38.5 per cent shooting over the final six games of the Sixers series, which really isn’t bad, particularly considering he was playing a primary role on a playoff team for the first time in his career. It just felt like a step back in the context of how high Siakam had elevated his game.

His health was also a factor, as Siakam played the final four games of the series with nagging left calf and hamstring injuries he suffered during Game 3 of the series, and which nearly held him out of Game 4. Siakam clearly didn’t have his same speed and springiness initially, but appeared to get better as the series wore on.

“I think there’s a lot of things. I don’t make excuses,” Siakam said. “I’m always the type to go out there and play. For me, it’s like, man, if I’m on the floor, I’m 100 per cent. That’s how I feel.”

In the end, Siakam knows he’ll have to re-elevate his level of play starting Wednesday if the Raptors are going to overcome Milwaukee. Toronto’s reliance on Leonard as the team’s sole offensive source is unsustainable, particularly if the Raptors defence isn’t able to contain Antetokounmpo and the Bucks as well as it did Embiid and the Sixers in Game 7.

Still only 25 and navigating his first post-season as a go-to weapon for his team, Siakam’s hoping a new series and a new opponent will give him the opportunity to get back to where he was — where he knows he can be.

“There are definitely things that I can get better at. I think I was solid. But I could definitely have been better and did things differently,” he said “At the end of the day, it’s my first time being in that moment. And playing that many minutes. So, I’m learning, too. I’m continuously learning and I’m getting better.”

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