ORLANDO – One of the most enjoyable things about the stage of his career Pascal Siakam is at is everything still seems fresh and new.
Stardom hits some players quickly, others in increments. Siakam’s has come bit by bit, but now it’s coming on in a wave. The Toronto Raptors are one of the best teams in the NBA and Siakam has clearly emerged as one of the primary reasons for their success. While Kawhi Leonard’s arrival signalled the Raptors’ aspirations, Siakam’s unfolding potential is lighting the path.
Here is how he has managed in his first three playoff games as one of the Raptors’ primary options in their series against the Orlando Magic: 24.3 points and 10 rebounds a game on 55 per cent shooting with three assists while averaging 40 minutes a game. On Friday night in Game 3 on the road Siakam went off for 30 points and 11 rebounds in 41:33 of work, his contributions coming when the Raptors seemed to need them most.
Pretty good production for a player whose career playoff highs previous to this season were 28 minutes and 11 points, and impressive still when compared to the 16.9 points and 6.9 rebounds he averaged during his breakout regular season that made him the leading candidate to win the NBA’s Most Improved Player Award.
Afterwards, Magic head coach Steve Clifford signalled his intentions for Game 4 which tips off Sunday night at Amway Arena with the Raptors leading 2-1.
"He was terrific," said Clifford. "But he’s gotta know that he’s not going to be allowed to dribble the ball five, six times, before we get to him."
It was a not-so-subtle indication of what Siakam will have waiting for him Sunday and likely for the rest of the playoffs if he keeps turning defences inside-out with his blend of face-up dribble attacks, reliable three-point shooting from the corners and his specialty: the ability – as Clifford was alluding – to back mis-matched defenders back into the lane and either jump-hook them to death or spin and unfurl his 6-foot-9 frame and lay it softly off the glass.
In other words, for Siakam, things are likely going to get harder from here as he’ll get the kind of attention teams reserve for star players such as Leonard – quick double teams designed to make him get rid of the ball as quickly as possible.
"Wow, Kawhi treatment. Oh man," said Siakam when it was suggested to him that he may soon be in for the kind of attention that Leonard has been battling through against the Magic and never more than in Game 3 when Orlando tilted the floor heavily at the Raptors’ primary offensive option and were rewarded when he made more turnovers – six – than his five field goals.
It was like him being the focal point of an opponent’s game plan had never occurred to Siakam. The idea that another team would look at his blossoming play and never-ending organic growth as a pestilence that needed eradication seemed to catch him by surprise.
But it’s been heading that way. Siakam admits he’s been able to sense it, even as the series heads into its fourth game.
"It’s been really interesting," he said Saturday as the Raptors were getting ready to watch film at the hotel outside of Orlando. "I think every game you learn something new and every game has different things that you take from the game. It’s definitely interesting … you’ve got to watch film and understand what people are doing, and you’ve got to try to take people out of what they’re doing, and at the same time, when people try to take you out of what you’re doing you’ve got to try to find different ways. So I think that part of it is really interesting."
Siakam and the Raptors got a first-hand look at what that can mean on Saturday as the Magic flip-flopped assignments and started rangy forward Jonathan Isaac on Leonard and backed him up with a second and sometimes third defender.
At times Leonard handled it reasonably well – he had three of his four assists in the first quarter – but at others he seemed too determined to gain an extra yard, like a running back trying to move the pack, and ended up in trouble.
"He didn’t have quite the same pop he had in Game 2," said Raptors head coach Nick Nurse, referencing both Leonard’s 37-point masterpiece at Scotiabank Arena and the flu-like symptoms he’s been struggling with prior to Game 3. "…. He was a little lacking in some energy last night.
"But I think it’s making the right play. Sometimes he’s gonna take it down there and he gets to two feet, and by the time he pump-fakes there are three guys around him. That means there are at least two guys open. He’s gonna have to fire some of those out. He made some great ones. He fired a couple out to Danny [Green] — one early, one late. I think we’ve just got to make sure he explores all of those opportunities, because again, make the right play. If you’re drawing multiple defenders, then find the open man."
Now there’s a good chance Siakam will need to navigate the next level of defensive attention – a proof more powerful than any box score numbers that he’s climbing up the NBA hierarchy.
"I’m not sure Pascal’s seen a lot of double-teaming this year and you’ve usually got to see that live to recognize it and how to play out of it," said Nurse. "You saw it with Kawhi early in the year, about fifth game of the year, everybody started doubling the heck out of Kawhi and it was, like, ‘whoa.’ It took him a couple games to get used to it. We’ll have to be ready, we don’t have a couple of games to get used to it."
But in the same way Leonard was dealing with a touch of the flu, Siakam will be under pressure and also be dealing with a relatively quick turnaround from Game 3 with just one day off. He’s led both teams in minutes through three games and he’s feeling it.
"Tired," he said when asked how he was feeling Saturday afternoon. His antidote?
He’s not a role player any more or a young kid trying to impress the organization with his off-day hustle so he can work his way up the ladder. He’s earned his rest.
"Last year a day like today I might have went to the gym and got some shots up," he said. "But now when you play that many minutes you understand that there are certain things you can’t do. I can go to the weight room and try to get some weights up a little bit, but rest, treatment, whatever I can do, but it’s getting a little smarter with how I want to work and not over-working."
Pascal Siakam is a star now. He’s got responsibilities, and off days are for recouping enough energy to be able to meet them.
It’s another new thing and something else he’s going to need to get used to.