Despite roster losses coming into the season, Toronto still has a mind-bending superstar. This time, his name is Pascal Siakam.
Behind 30 points in three quarters from Siakam, the Raptors easily dispatched the Detroit Pistons, 125-113. It didn’t initially look like the game would revolve around Siakam. If Detroit was going to have a chance coming into this game, it would have been by exploiting Toronto’s biggest weakness; one would be forgiven for thinking that this game might be about rebounding. The Detroit Pistons, even this shorthanded version, is the team most perfectly equipped to test the Raptors on the glass. That’s entirely because the Pistons employ Andre Drummond.
Drummond is a unique NBA player. He is, without hyperbole, one of the best rebounders of all time. Last year, Drummond averaged 15.6 rebounds per game, including 5.4 on the offensive glass. Only four players have ever averaged at least 10 on the defensive glass and 5 on the other end, and Drummond has done it both years leading into this one; he’s the most recent player to have done it since Dennis Rodman in 1996-97. He had already corralled 64 rebounds in 2019-20 before the contest against the Raptors even began. Even after this win, Toronto’s leader, Pascal Siakam, has 46.
“He makes it hard to help off of [him], right?” said Nick Nurse of Drummond before the game. “Because if you don’t keep a bigger body near him he’s going to carve out all that space and he’s going to get bunch of them. There’s some schemes that you maybe would normally do where you’re sending your big to help rotate things that maybe that you don’t do as much. You almost gotta keep one of your big guys on him. Especially us because we can get pretty small on the weak side sometimes. And it probably takes more than one, probably takes three guys to try to block him out. It’s a club sandwich. We say it’s a sandwich, we’ve got three guys in there so it’s a club sandwich block out.”
Early on, the Pistons turned to Drummond quite a bit. He was the initial story. He dished assists, made a floater, inhaled defensive rebounds, and even tallied a gorgeous layup on a euro-step while driving from the top of the key. The Pistons even scored four points on two possessions he stole early on the offensive glass. If anyone could drag a short-handed, under-talented Pistons roster across the finish line against Toronto, it would be Drummond. Yet he finished with 22 rebounds — eight of which were offensive — and it didn’t matter in the slightest.
The game moved quickly beyond Drummond’s grasp. Marc Gasol — and as Gasol was in foul trouble throughout the first half, Serge Ibaka — was excellent at finding Drummond early on Detroit shot attempts and keeping him out of the paint. Offensive rebounds were not the biggest key to the game, and that was entirely because of excellent play from Toronto. The Raps decidedly did not want offensive rebounding to be the story of yet another game.
On the offensive end, Toronto turned early to its traditional source of strength. The team ran in transition at every opportunity. That may seem paradoxical with them also sending three bodies at Drummond under the rim, but Gasol and Ibaka did excellent jobs in isolation against him. Toronto finished with 23 fast-break points in the game despite having to contend with Drummond. Norm Powell hit some transition 3s, and incidentally he had his best game of the young season, scoring 19. OG Anunoby was particularly devastating in transition, whether running and receiving dimes from Siakam, or just stealing the ball himself and taking it the other way for an uncontested dunk. That the Raptors had 12 steals in the game certainly helped them get into transition.
If the rest of the team thrived on the run, Siakam especially was brilliant in the half-court. Detroit opted to guard him with Christian Wood to end the first quarter, and Siakam exploded for seven straight. He hit two post-up hooks, one with a foul, followed by a step-back midrange jumper to end the quarter. Even this early in the season, it’s clear that in single coverage, Siakam is unguardable.
Unfortunately, Toronto’s defense was painfully lax in other regards. Yes, they did a great job limiting Drummond on the offensive glass, or at least limiting its importance. But Tony Snell hit open corner triples, Derrick Rose drove and finished with ease in the midrange, and Markieff Morris did a little bit of both.
In the second half, when Toronto put in slightly more effort defensively, Detroit started missing shots, and the Raps pulled away. It happened in a blur. A few stops, some Siakam triples, a few VanVleet layups, and — boom! — the Raptors were winning by 20. A lackadaisical, unhurried game quickly turned into a Toronto blowout in the span of a few minutes in the third quarter. It was to be expected with Detroit shorthanded, but it was still indicative of the elite talent level on Toronto.
Siakam continued the onslaught towards the end of the third quarter. He scored in every conceivable way. He hit pull-up triples from above the arc. He drove and hit twisting layups. He posted up and hit hook shots. He even drove and hit mid-range jumpers, one especially smooth dagger coming to end the third quarter. When the white flag of the buzzer sounded, Siakam was up to 19 in the quarter. His evolution continues before our eyes.
The most extraordinary part is that this game is almost ordinary: “Didn’t he just have one the other night where he banged in about five straight 3s to start the game or something?” responded Nurse after the game when asked if he’d ever seen such an outburst from Siakam before.
No amount of scoring from Siakam, at this point, should be surprising.
At this rate, another Most Improved Player award would not be as far-fetched as it might seem. No player has ever won back-to-back Most Improved Player awards, or, for that matter, two total. Siakam would be the first. But with him creating new ways to dominate in each game, improving at an unheard-of rate, and turning his only weaknesses into unfathomable strengths, can you doubt him?