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Post-Game

Siakam Returns to the Post as Raptors Pace the Trailblazers

This was a game of polar-opposites. The Raptors concocted a wonderful defensive gameplan for the immensely talented Damian Lillard, and mitigated so much of what he’s successful at. The Blazers, for their part, allowed Pascal Siakam to return to the very thing he built his MIP campaign on, his launching point.

Even though the Raptors game against the Lakers was an incredibly memorable victory, it was somewhat exhausting to watch Pascal Siakam have to work against Anthony Davis in isolation. There’s a reason Siakam went into a feeding frenzy with Kyle Kuzma on the floor (7-7, 18 points) and it’s because he knew it was a release from the excellent defense of Davis. And even when teams haven’t had All-NBA defenders to throw at Siakam, they would double hard and often, so passing was the big takeaway, not his incredible finesse in the post. Luckily for us, the Blazers decided to let him show it off.

The game opened with a little bit of malaise, as the Blazers built a lead on the strength of Hassan Whiteside mid-range shots, and an active Rodney Hood. Soon after though, the Blazers started feeling the Raptors elite defense closing in on them. Not wanting to live from mid-range – certainly not with Whiteside as the focal point – the Blazers asked Lillard to create in the pick n’ roll. Makes sense, he’s been the best pick n’ roll ball handler in the league (during the regular season) for three years now. However, the Raptors had something to say about that.

Going all the way back to the Eastern Conference Finals, the Raptors have been the best team in the league at identifying the opposing teams best player, and taking away his favourite actions. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Steph Curry; as recently as this week, LeBron James, Anthony Davis, and Kawhi Leonard. And last night, Lillard was the victim of a terrific defensive gameplan.

Every time Lillard turned the corner, he was met with a secondary body. And when the Raptors had time to set up their defense and could see a pick n’ roll possession coming, they would zone against his drives. Squeezing him into the mid-range, and using their length as a canopy once he was in there, the Raptors all but guaranteed a terrible night for the Blazers star. He had 27-points on 10 shots the night before, but up against the Raptors, his 230-game double-figure scoring streak ends. It’s incredible stuff from the players to perform the scheme, and equally impressive from Nick Nurse & Co. to draw it up.

So while his counterpart was getting locked up, Fred VanVleet pushed every chance he could. With Siakam’s turbulent changing of roles this year – and Kyle Lowry’s injury – VanVleet has taken it upon himself to be the conductor of the Raptors transition train. His activity and drive to get the ball up the floor for the Raptors is paramount to a big part of their offense, and it shouldn’t be overlooked. And the initial defense on Lillard was huge, he was a pest above-the-break, raking in 6 deflections and operating as a great point of attack for the defense.

Having watched the Blazers stream, and hearing them speak about Nassir Little the way we do about OG Anunoby, I understand why they initially tried to let him guard Siakam one-on-one. But, there’s no excuse for letting Mario Hezonja D-up Siakam for extended stretches of time, that’s inexcusable. Where the Raptors lean on their defensive synergy, the Blazers leaned on nothing, Siakam nearly scored as many points in the paint as the entire Blazers team.

Siakam swivels on his pivot foot as if it were anchored in cement. It’s no wonder his moves are so devastating, but even when they don’t work out at first, his counters are even deadlier. Most teams are wary of Siakam’s vaunted spin move, and for good reason, but he’s just as strong going up on the strong side. When players sit on his spin move, Siakam feigns a drop-step over his right shoulder before turning out of it lighting quick and finishing on the other side of the rim. The next time down the floor he’ll show the counter to his counter, waiting for the help from the perimeter to reach in, then spinning away, wrapping his elbow around his primary defender for extra separation before exploding to the rim.

In the midst of Siakam and VanVleet’s excellence – Terence Davis II, Marc Gasol, and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson all played big roles for the Raptors.

Even though Malcolm Miller started, he only played 7 minutes in this one. I love his game and want to see more, so that part of me is sad, but having Hollis-Jefferson start in his place in the second half was a great decision from Nurse. Not only was Hollis-Jefferson slated to take on his third premier defensive matchup in as many games (James, Leonard, Lillard) but his particular brand of ‘tweener’ offense was fantastic against the Blazers. Whiteside & Co. lack a lot of defensive tenacity, and Hollis-Jefferson’s willingness to grind away in the paint paid huge dividends. He was particularly effective in the dunker spot all night, and was able to finish well around the rim without too much length to bother him.

Gasol played one of the heaviest minute games of his year so far, and did a terrific job keeping the large and occasionally disruptive Whiteside off the glass and far away from the paint. His discipline maintaining the defensive zone when Lillard was headed downhill was superb, and he contested a heap of shots in this one. And with the extra plays that were run through the elbow and the low post with him in mind, he had one of his best offensive performances of the young season.

Terence Davis was just a pleasure to watch. The ball didn’t stick in his hands at all when he was asked to create, and of course it isn’t at the level of Lowry or VanVleet, but he did well working through the Raptors options and finding the advantages. He remains a terror on defense and the glass, his big body and surprising control of it allows him to vex players far his senior. One last thing, he has a terrific knack for finding the open spot on the three point line. Whether it’s after an offensive rebound, running to the corner on the break, or providing release valves for congested paint actions, he’s figuring it out fast.

All in all, the Raptors handled the Blazers pretty easily, and have guaranteed themselves a winning record on this west coast swing. Considering all the injuries, that’s beyond impressive. What a joy to watch these Raptors.

Mavericks are up next, and OG Anunoby is supposed to be back for that game – perhaps with goggles. Ogogglegugua Anunoby.

Have a blessed day.

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