TORONTO – With 3:34 left in what was a laugher of a 122-95 victory on Nov. 28, 2016 over a Philadelphia 76ers team still very much going through "the Process,” a rookie Fred VanVleet checked into the game, sharing the floor with fellow rookie Pascal Siakam for the very first time in the NBA.
Not a lot happened, especially between the two players, as Siakam converted on an alley-oop pass from Norman Powell and VanVleet missed a short runner. However, though no one possibly could’ve known at the time, these three minutes and 34 seconds of Siakam and VanVleet playing together was the beginning of one of the NBA’s most prolific duos.
In total, Siakam and VanVleet have shared an NBA floor for 5,723 minutes and combined for 13,392 points.
Just this season alone, despite Siakam's early-season absence and Covid protocols keeping both players out for a time, the duo has already played 663 minutes together and scored 1,551 points — making up 11.6 per cent of their minutes and point totals when the two share the floor.
Put in a simpler way: Siakam and VanVleet have both been phenomenal this season and their individual statistics can tell this story very effectively with Siakam averaging 20.6 points, 8.4 rebounds and 4.5 assists while shooting 47.7 per cent from the field, and VanVleet putting up 22 points, five rebounds, 6.7 assists while shooting 40.9 per cent from three-point range on 9.4 three-point attempts per game.
However, had it not been for the synergy and connection that Siakam and VanVleet have forged with each other on and off the floor over the last five and a half seasons, these gaudy individual numbers probably wouldn’t be possible.
“I think just the dynamic of how it has been going really like, I just think about the Milwaukee game where they were kind of just guarding me in the backcourt, you know, I could just throw it ahead to Pascal let them play four-on-four,” said VanVleet after Raptors practice on Monday. “So just trying to give Pascal more spacing and more opportunity. He's really tough to guard one-on-one. …
“So, for me, with the way that I've been shooting the ball and scoring, I think we're helping each other and him being a playmaker and handling the basketball, I think it's helping my offence. So, just trying to play off each other, trying to set the tone. I think this is kind of the way that we envisioned that things would go. And it's gonna be a back and forth, it’s gonna be different guys every night, but obviously me and [Siakam] have been locked in together over the last couple of games. So, it's big. It's big for our team. We’ve got to do it. As the leaders of this team, we’ve got to go out there and perform and I think we have a good chance when we do.”
To VanVleet’s point, as part of the six-game winning streak the Raptors have enjoyed, the Raptors are averaging 74.5 points, 30 rebounds and 15.7 assists per games on 46.4 per cent from the field and 40 per cent from three-point range while the duo are on the floor together.
A stretch of games that perfectly encapsulates the way the two have managed to play off each other, with what appears to be times in games where the two take turns dominating.
“It’s fun,” Siakam told reporters of playing off VanVleet after he helped the Raptors to their sixth straight victory Sunday. “It definitely reminds of us of old times, just being on the floor together and the bench mob and, obviously, winning the championship. It feels good, and I think when we’re all rolling and playing well. It’s fun.”
Even more fun, there doesn’t appear to be any ego between VanVleet and Siakam over who’s getting more touches and shots up. As their coach tells it, the fact that VanVleet has been putting up more shots of late has more to do with matchup than anything else.
“A lot of the volume of shots is dependent on what we’re seeing defensively,” said Nick Nurse. “We’ve had a couple games in a row where we’ve played against two bigs and it’s a dribble-handoff game or a ball-screen game a little more than whatever.”
Regardless of who ends up taking the shot or how many shots they take, an awful lot of those shots are finding the bottom of the hole for both of them and that’s what matters most for the Raptors. With Siakam and VanVleet playing the way they are, and doing it in tandem at that, it makes Toronto a very difficult basketball team to beat.
“I think they’re in a good connection level right now. I think it’s kind of come back. They’re both in rhythm individually, and now they’re in sync together,” said Nurse. “There are a lot of combinations of things they can do together. They’ve kind of always had it. Now it’s at such a different volume because of their status as a team on our roster. We used to kind of use them as unexpected guys to work together when you had a bunch of guys there. Now they’re the main guys, and that’s why the volume has gone up so much.”
Added VanVleet: “Like, 99 per cent of the time I know what he's gonna do and I'm pretty sure he feels the same about me. So, it's like we kind of know each other pretty well by now.”
• VanVleet was named the Eastern Conference player of the week for averages of 30.3 points, 6.5 assists and 4.8 rebounds per game helping the Raptors to a perfect 4-0 record last week.
• With his recent run of success, VanVleet has seen far more attention from opposing defences, including something that’s very funnily familiar to him.
“I’ve been getting a lot of attention, face guarding, we’ve seen a Box-and-One at least a couple times,” said VanVleet. “It’s ironic, for sure, to say the least, but it’s been fun, it’s been a challenge to learn and to adapt and have to stay locked in.”
• As part of Toronto’s six-game winning streak, Siakam has been seen more often playing backup point guard minutes and has seen his playmaking ability grow, averaging 6.4 assists per game during the streak.
Given the versatile nature of his game, this shouldn’t be all that surprising, but seeing how comfortable he is running and initiating the offence is still a little jarring at times. However, according to VanVleet, this has been a long time coming for Siakam.
“I don’t remember there being a moment but by our second year, it was pretty clear on how it was gonna go,” said VanVleet. “Whether there was the summer workouts or just having him bring the ball up the court and seeing him play in open space with the ball, you could see it pretty early.
“I always knew him as a back-to-the-basket guy just because I’ve played against him at New Mexico State and he was a really, really, really good post player on the block, so once he started pushing the break and getting out in transition and stretching to the rim you could see the vision of where it was going and he was obviously a huge part of our Bench Mob success, having him be out there making plays and he’s just continued to grow every year and he’s continuing to get better and I think the sky’s the limit for him in terms of him being that point forward, a guy out on the break making plays and, offensively, getting us organized.”