Pascal Siakam is on the stage.
Toronto Raptors and All-Star coach Nick Nurse was in Las Vegas last summer when he got the news that Kawhi Leonard was leaving the defending champions after just one season to join the Los Angeles Clippers.
Soon after, Nurse headed down to the hotel lobby and ran into two of his players, Pascal Siakam and Fred Van Vleet.
“I thought the guys might need some cheering up, so I said, ‘Hey, look at it this way: Kawhi leaving means we just freed up something like 20 shots per game,” Nurse said.
It was 18.8 per game to be precise, but who’s counting? Well, plenty of Leonard’s former teammates, apparently.
“Siakam immediately starts doing this,” Nurse laughed, swinging his right arm in widening circles, like a baseball pitcher loosening up before entering a game. “And Van Vleet just breaks into a crazy grin.”
Small wonder. Those two became the biggest beneficiaries of Leonard’s departure. Siakam is averaging 7.3 more shots and 6.6 more points per game at the break; Van Vleet, 5.3 and 7, respectively. The remainder of Leonard’s shots were scooped up by Kyle Lowry and OG Anunoby.
From his media day podium Saturday morning, Kyle Lowry looked to his right and tried to get the attention of his Raptors teammate.
“P? P? Pascal?” Lowry yelled at Pascal Siakam, who was seated one podium over and doing his own session at the same time. “You’re supposed to win the skills challenge … I just bet a lot of money on you.”
Lowry was joking, of course, and it’s a good thing after Siakam failed to get out of the second round of the skills event on Saturday night.
“Oh my god, I have to find a way to pay him back,” Siakam joked after the competition that involves dribbling, passing and making a layup and a three-point shot. “I gotta pay him back now.”
Siakam beat Patrick Beverley of the Clippers in the first round, but lost to eventually winner Bam Adebayo of the Heat in the semifinals.
“I had a good chance out there. Maybe a better strategy next time, but I liked it. It was fun,” he said.
Siakam was most proud of his passing acumen. He hit every target with his first attempt in both rounds.
“I think I’m a good passer,” Siakam said. “Talk to Marc (Gasol) a little bit, Fred (VanVleet). They always tell me I don’t pass the ball. You guys can show them that footage and see the perfect passing I did.”
It was a lighthearted event, more fun than intense, just the way the start of the all-star Saturday festivities should be.
“I read a tweet that I was last (choice) to win in Vegas,” Adebayo said. “So whoever bet, I hope you got your money and I hope you go buy yourself (dinner) at Ruth’s Chris, Cheesecake Factory, something in the fashion.”
TWO DECADES SINCE LIFTOFF
Somehow it’s been 20 years since Vince Carter captured the attention of the sporting world with a remarkable performance at the dunk contest in Oakland, putting the Raptors on the map.
Former Raptor Jerome Williams had a great view of that event two decades ago and will never forget it.
“You know I was there courtside on the court, and the energy I felt from not only him, but (fellow ex-Raptor) Tracy McGrady and Steve Francis, it was one of the best dunk contests,” Williams told the Toronto Sun on Friday. “One of the best (fields in contest history) and it’s always something something special when a guy like that can rise to another level. And that’s what it means to have had one of the best ever performances.”
The Junkyard Dog said Carter’s dunk contest is up there with Jordan versus Wilkins here in Chicago in 1988 and Zach LaVine versus Aaron Gordon in Toronto in 2016.
“But if he wasn’t going against Tracy McGrady his cousin, or Francis, who was a showstopper, I don’t know if we would have seen some of those (Carter dunks).”
“Have they beat the Miami Heat?” Butler asked. “Aight then.”
The Raptors have been one of the best stories in the league this season.
Despite losing superstar Kawhi Leonard in free agency last summer and dealing with numerous injuries this year, they are currently the third best team in the NBA this season.
Yet, Butler and the Heat are 2-0 against the Raptors this season. Both teams will play each other for their next and final matchup of the regular season in April.
Butler, 30, is having one of the best campaigns of his career with the Heat. He is averaging 20.6 points, 6.8 rebounds and 6.1 assists per game this season.
The Marquette University product has led the Heat to great success in his first year with them. He has provided phenomenal play, veteran leadership and a contagious hard-work ethic.
The journeyman will make his fifth appearance in the All-Star Game on Sunday night.
A few hundred members of the global basketball press — some of the more enthusiastic ones wearing replica jerseys of the players they are anxious to “interview” — gather for a couple of hours of media free-for-all where questions range from the serious to the ridiculous.
Some players have been asked about Valentine’s Day memories or plans. Some get “grilled” on which teammates are their best friends. Sometimes there is the odd legitimate query on the state of the game.
It is not exactly the kind of silliness that anyone would think Kawhi Leonard would enjoy, and as he sat there for half an hour or so on Saturday morning that fact came through. Leonard really isn’t all that into public chit-chat on matters outside basketball, and you could sense how taken aback he was after this exchange.
Questioner: “Kawhi, what’d you have for dinner last night?”
Leonard: “That’s not of concern, man.”
He sat there, though, and did what he had to in his usual stoic manner — not cross, not angry, just not 100 per cent engaged.
He did do a cool little dance when he took the court for an afternoon practice, accompanied by a young escort as all players were. He also sat with an NBA TV crew for a seven- or eight-minute interview that was cordial and fine, but when it was done it was done, and he joked that it wasn’t something he’d want to do every day.
On the next steps in his career
“I think there’s always a next thing. For me, obviously, winning is the most important thing for me. So winning a championship or how many championships I can win, that’s always my goal. And then continue to get better. Get an MVP or whatever. There are a lot of things on the table that I can accomplish. There are no limits.”
On the Raptors’ start to the season and what makes this group special
“There’s no surprise. I think for us, we try to stay healthy – that’s one of the things that’s kind of hard for us but there’s no surprise. I feel like we all really felt good coming into this season and obviously there’s a lot of room for improvement and we’re gonna get better for sure.
“I think, for us – there’s a lot of talks and obviously there’s a lot of movement in the league but having that continuity and having that same group makes us really special and the core guys that were there for the championship run. It’s been a fun season, it’s amazing being around those guys and it’s so much fun playing basketball and hanging out.”
On the Raptors’ goals for the second half of the season
“Continue to get better. We’re gonna want to get everyone healthy, I think that’s a great goal for us – having everyone healthy.”
On being coached by the Raptors staff in the All-Star Game
“I think it’s gonna be great, it’s gonna be fun having our own coaching staff in there with us. Seeing familiar faces is always good and I just like what we’re doing as a team and also just making the most of the opportunity and trying to be the best I can be.”
On Marc Gasol as a teammate
“Marc is great. I think since we’ve gotten him, he’s always been like a big brother to me that talks to me and just always keeps me on my toes and makes sure that I’m not complacent and I’m always looking to get better and work out so he’s definitely been a great teammate.”
On Kobe Bryant
“I didn’t really know Kobe personally. But I think he did a “Detail” on me during the playoffs, and it was something that I really watched. All the little pointers that he gave me about my game is something I’m going to take.
“It’s definitely going to stay with me for the rest of my life. Just his impact and everything that he’s done for the game of basketball is incredible. He’s a legend. We continue to keep our thoughts and prayers with the families involved. We can just continue to honour him on the court.
Steph Curry couldn’t be muffled. He drilled 30-footers, slinked through the defense, dropped pretty floaters, and almost single-handedly powered the Warriors to a victory in Game 2 of the 2019 NBA Finals. He whipped perfect, quick passes out of traps that played into the Warriors’ hands. They looked like the vintage Dubs. When Curry is on, modern defenses have the resistance of cardboard against a tidal wave.
Trailing by 11 with the game dwindling down, Toronto Raptors head coach Nick Nurse was desperate. The youngest of nine siblings, an unknown interloper who played at the University of Northern Iowa, bouncing around the British Basketball League and the then-D-League before landing in Toronto as an assistant, Nurse was never supposed to be here: under the bright lights of the NBA Finals as a rookie coach, on the precipice of losing one of the biggest games of his career.
He certainly coached like he was playing with house money, whipping out a whiteboard and drawing up a scheme most playbooks abandon after junior varsity: the box-and-one, where one defender — Fred VanVleet, in this instance — hounds the scorer, while the other four defenders form a box around the paint that gravitates toward the threat. The Raptors’ mercurial leader and resident smartypants, Kyle Lowry, immediately co-signed, and they were off to the races.
Despite the fact that the Raptors lost the game, the ploy worked. They almost erased the deficit, and they bumped into a strategy that paid dividends throughout the rest of the series.
Eight months later, the box-and-one has become a weapon for coaches across the NBA looking for ways to slow down ball-handling scorers like James Harden and Trae Young. For the Raptors, whose spate of injuries has put them face-to-face with desperation routinely this season, the box-and-one became a stepping stone to more schemes rarely employed in the NBA: the triangle-and-two and two-three zones morphing into three-two zones. Down 30 points against the Mavericks in December, they came back behind a diamond full-court press. Despite their top six rotation players missing over 10 games this season, the Raptors are 40-15 and the East’s No. 2 seed, with a better record than they had at this time last year, when Kawhi Leonard was still on the team.