Nick Nurse has always been uncommonly transparent with media. Like all coaches, he doesn’t like to discuss the intricacies of his playbook, but he doesn’t mind explaining his decisions large and small with both logic and data, which sets him above many of his peers. It was thus rare for an NBA coach but normal for Nurse when he said, after the All-Star break, that Pascal Siakam’s role was going to expand over the second half of the season.
The goal, as always for this forward-thinking Raptors franchise, is to better prepare Siakam and his teammates for the playoffs. Siakam is already ready for the playoffs. But there’s more that the team can do. He will have more isolated and static attempts in the playoffs. Those have long been his weakness, but Toronto is trying to overdose him with those looks for the remainder of the regular season in the hope that his rhythm and comfort will improve.
“You’ve probably seen all the stuff he can do,” said Nick Nurse before Toronto’s game against the Indiana Pacers. “He’s certainly our primary scorer. Here’s our late-game initiator, depending on how we get it to him. It’s just a matter of giving him more and more of those reps. He needs to make the right reads. I think the only thing that gets him better is the continuation of high-volume reps. I mentioned this last week, maybe at the expense of just playing, or making the general read, we may force it through him a little bit to ensure he gets those reps because we’re looking long term to get him better as a late-game playmaker. And he’s very good [already]. I just think he can never get enough of that stuff.”
The approach paid off in a big way against the Pacers. There were other factors at work, but the Raptors ended up setting a franchise record for the largest ever margin of victory with a 46-point, 127-81 win. Toronto never trailed and led by double figures from 13-1 onward. Much of the success had to do with Siakam’s role as the primary initiator.
Siakam had moments of brilliance against the Pacers. In the first quarter, while Toronto ran away with the game, Toronto’s most successful sets were initiated by Siakam in the post. He’s finished the 15th-most post-ups in the league with a shot, so it’s not like Siakam in the post is a rarity, but his success against Indiana was still spectacular. With his back to the basket, he twice drew multiple defenders and found a cutting Serge Ibaka for points. He also found Rondae Hollis-Jefferson with a similar pass, though it didn’t end up with a basket and thus wasn’t tallied as an assist. None of the passes were easy; Siakam had tight windows of time before the lanes closed. As has been a theme all season, his vision is improving.
“I thought tonight he really was ready for [defenders] to swarm him and come at him, and his timing was awesome, sometimes you get caught in between your move and you’re not quite to your move and then there’s too many bodies there, and he was just working to score and when the next person came, the timing of what he was doing was — well — pretty good, impeccable really,” said Nurse after the game.
It’s not just Siakam himself who has to time those plays to perfection. It’s on his teammates to read those plays, and developing that chemistry is another reason why Nurse is trying to give Siakam more touches.
“Well, that’s a huge part of it,” said Nurse. “The original spacing or finding the right spacing in general to give him enough room to go to work, and then reading where their help’s coming from, and making the right reaction to that and the timing of it, it’s tricky… That’s why we want to get more reps of it.”
“In the post, [double-teams are] going to happen a lot [to Pascal],” said Ibaka. “It’s on him to read that and to play [through it]. We also have to do a better job. Sometimes when they double, and he tries to find us, and we need to do a better job moving too, to make it easy for him. That’s what I did tonight.”
Siakam didn’t just do his damage with passing.
Later in the game-deciding first quarter Siakam used another post-up to jump into the lane, drawing three defenders, before spinning back towards the baseline for a layup. He ran in transition and found mismatches, burying smaller defenders and to create easy layups. He was even used as the roller after a ball screen, finishing around the helper with his left. When Indiana made a small run to start the second half, Siakam settled his side by getting the ball in the mid-range against the much larger Myles Turner, putting a few moves on to create space, and draining an open mid-range jumper.
Just as important was how Siakam helped the offense in ways that didn’t show up on the stat sheet.
“Just the number of times he has the ball,” explained Nurse when asked where the extra reps show up, if not in extra shots or assists. “And I think that, especially with the way he played tonight, he got off it early because [defenders] were coming early… It was outlet [passes], and Serge cutting for the next pass, or [an] outlet to Kyle and Kyle swinging for the next pass.”
“So it’s nothing but a job well done.”
In fact, the stat sheet showed a relatively quiet game for Siakam. He finished with a team-high 21 points on only 12 shots. He only accumulated three assists. Especially compared with the first game back from the break, in which Siakam attempted nine triples and scored 37 points, his raw numbers against the Pacers were muted. Still, the Raptors are going out of their way to feed Siakam. That doesn’t always necessarily result in 37-point explosions like against the Phoenix Suns, but it has certainly benefited the Raptors through two games. Both, incidentally, were wins. That benefit is a side-effect and not necessarily the main goal of the plan. Force-feeding Siakam may not always result in positives, at least not yet.
Just to reiterate, here’s what Nick Nurse said before the game about offering more reps to Siakam: maybe at the expense of just playing, or making the general read, we may force it through him. That’s both extreme and extremely forward-thinking. It’s not often you’ll hear a coach admit to playing sub-optimal basketball in the present in order to maximize the future. It happens all the time, even if it’s unspoken. Coaches force-feed valuable rookies minutes despite poor shooting or a high number of mistakes. It’s rare, though, that a coach subordinates the present to the future when the team is competing for a championship in the current season. That’s the luxury Toronto has earned this year this year with its high level of play no matter who’s in the lineup. Toronto doesn’t care about home-court advantage or regular season wins. They know they’ll make the playoffs, and they’re confident in themselves once they get there. The Raptors are willing to bet their present to help maximize that future.