With under a second remaining against the Philadelphia 76ers, Pascal Siakam dunked the ball and posed, Gladiator-style, for the crowd. He basked in the win. Jogging off the court with a broad smile plastered to his face, he received love from Drake and Masai Ujiri both on the way to the locker room. He was on top of the world. It was, of course, because he is on top of the NBA.
The defending champion has the numbers for an MVP case. His team is 12-4; good, smart people predicted a drop off from last year, but greatly because of Siakam, there is no drop off. His per-game averages of 25.7 points, 8.4 rebounds, 4.0 assists, 0.8 steals, and 0.8 blocks have been accomplished over a full season by 15 players in NBA history. The list is a who’s who of Hall of Famers. Add in Siakam’s 2.3 made 3s per game and his efficiency lines of 47.4/37.4/82.9, and you’re left with Siakam alone. Seriously. No one has ever hit his thresholds in all those categories over a full season.
That’s kind of cheating, as no one has also ever hit Karl-Anthony Town’s numbers this year, or Luka Doncic’s, or James Harden’s. It’s difficult to equal or surpass a player in every statistical category, especially in this modern NBA carnival of high usage rates, higher possession counts, and wackadoo numbers all around. So Siakam has been unique, but he’s not the only gifted kid on the block these days. Siakam has also turned down the volume on his defense from last year. He’s usually in fourth or even third gear, as opposed to his constant nitro boosted performances from last year. He misses block outs. Siakam hasn’t been perfect.
Until Toronto’s win over the Philadelphia 76ers.
Elite level defense, for players in their athletic prime, is kind of like putting together Ikea furniture. If you’ve shown you can do it once, you can pretty well do it whenever you want. Sometimes it’s hard to want. On the road, on a back-to-back, as a defending champion, it’s easy to fall for a pump-fake and shrug your shoulders: well, I’m not gonna fight my way back into this one. And Siakam has shown some of that malaise. He’s earned that. What’s important is that when it matters, he can get back to switching everything, dashing around the court, interrupting multiple options at once, and then taking off towards the other end at a speed maybe three players in the league can reach.
And Siakam did all of those things against the Sixers. It was no surprise that Philadelphia’s first visit to Toronto since Kawhi Leonard’s Shot was also Toronto’s first home game of the regular season with an atmosphere approaching playoff intensity. The game meant more than, say, a Wednesday evening affair against the woeful New York Knicks. And Siakam’s performance mimicked that. Siakam led the team in contested shots on the defensive end as well as deflections. He was third in box-outs. He did the little things and the things that no one else can do.
He was able to mimic Draymond Green’s defensive genius of being in two places at once, forcing a travel by taking away all options.
He was able to mimic LeBron James’s ability to cheat away from the corner and close space in a flash, meeting an opponent over top of the rim.
On top of it all, he was always in the correct place, even after being run through a variety of tricky sets. He was able to mimic Marc Gasol’s ability to always tell what’s real and what’s fluff in offensive sets, never falling for the fake actions.
And potentially even more important, Siakam’s offense was the best it has ever been. Yes, Siakam has had some brilliant games this year. He’s had higher scoring games. But he’s never had as complete a performance as was his dominance against the Sixers.
As he has in almost every game this year, he established himself as a brilliant scorer in isolation. That was a question coming into the game, as the Sixers frustrated Siakam in their playoff series by putting Joel Embiid and his bulk in front of Siakam whenever he drove. But with Siakam improving his jumper since then, Embiid was not an option. Even with the quicker Ben Simmons on him, Siakam still walked into pull-up triples.
(I have much, much more to say about Siakam’s shooting, and I’ll have a dedicated piece dropping in the coming days. For now, suffice it to say that the Sixers had Siakam’s shooting as a strength on the game-plan rather than a weakness.)
Another weakness of Siakam’s game in the playoffs was attacking from stasis. He needs dynamism to create advantages, and his spin moves and herky-jerky drives are all ways to manufacture movement, in which Siakam’s release points, length, and touch can thrive. Siakam did a much better job against the Sixers of creating dynamic isolation scoring opportunities.
Even more impressive was his passing. Great passing from isolation scorers doesn’t always show up in the box score. Players can miss open shots, or the actual basket can come a few passes later. But Siakam did the best job of his entire career of creating advantages and throwing passes at the perfect time to capitalize on them. He was brilliant baiting defenders, drawing doubles, waiting for openings, or even creating them early. His passing — which I mentioned could be improved in this week’s Black Box Report — fixed the exact issues mentioned there: “But Siakam often hits his release passes too late, and that can result in higher turnover rates, and it also can result in the advantage being lost. Defenses have enough time to recover if Siakam throws the pass once their forward momentum, coming towards him, slows.”
The timing of Siakam’s passing was nothing less than exquisite. He drew doubles, took them away from the play, and then dished to open hands.
He established his drive, saw help defenders shifting their weight in the wrong direction, and fired passes to the open shooters.
He had, by my count, one missed opportunity in the entire game, and even then it was really more an example of a fantastic job creating an advantage, despite the poor pass delivered to the corner.
It wasn’t just passing. Siakam set Gasol-style ball screens that freed his teammates. He slipped screens and cut backdoor for no-look layups. He was fantastic in transition, whether drawing opponents and dishing to teammates, or just plain outrunning everyone. People talk about empty calorie scoring, and in that frame of reference, Siakam’s performance against the Sixers was the definition of a rich Nutella spread. He could not have been more fattening for the Raptors’ offense.
He was brilliant on both sides of the ball, and his team beat a much more popular pick to win the East, let alone the championship. Oh, and Toronto is still down Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka. Siakam’s contribution to winning goes beyond the numbers. Or, it goes beyond some numbers. One good context within which to place his dominance is his plus-minus, a record of how much Toronto outscores opponents when Siakam is in the game. Siakam has the third-highest plus-minus in the league, at plus-155. When he’s on the floor, the Raptors win. That’s been true all season, but that was most true against Philadelphia.
Siakam was back to playing All-NBA level defense. His offensive output went beyond the numbers, and he created countless advantages for his teammates with his cutting, passing, screening, and every movement. It was, and this is certainly recency bias talking, but also may be true, the best game of his career. Siakam was the focal point of the offense, and he still created high-efficiency offense against one of the league’s best defenses. Enter the Philadelphia game as Exhibit A that Siakam belongs in the MVP conversation. He had the game-winning basket and the game-saving steal. Kawhi Leonard may be gone, but the Raptors still tormented Philadelphia to close out the game. It’s no wonder that Siakam is on top of the world.