We are predisposed to desire a saviour. Or more accurately, to have an option where we could be saved if circumstances requiring saving came up. It is why some of us align with religion. It promises security in the face of the unknown while also having a nice side effect of cleaning out your life’s chequing account if it’s running high on the wrong stuff, in the event the accountant upstairs fancies an audit. We certainly hope not for this observer would not fare well.
We can safely extend the idea of a benevolent protector beyond the realm of mythology and onto the basketball court, bringing us straight to Pascal Siakam. There is no clear covenant specifying who this team is built around. Last year Kawhi Leonard was the central cog and so we all toed the line and entered tense fourth quarters knowing that supplemental to having a good team we also had a saviour, just in case. It was a comforting feeling.
The Raptors are a socialist contender. There is no clear-cut advertised superstar but our natural and biological inclinations to having an overlord make us impartial towards Siakam and so we expect superstar things from him. He gets scrutinized because any crack in his game is seen as a ceiling to our repeat hopes. We imagine a scenario in a tense series where a score is needed on a broken possession and the ball ends up in Siakam’s hands. We need to feel that he’s got the confidence to deliver. When we sometimes don’t see that confidence we naturally worry because subconsciously we’ve already anointed him as our guy. A flaw in Siakam’s game becomes a flaw in our belief that the Raptors can repeat. And when a flaw in a fundamental element of a construct is uncovered the entire construct is brought into question. It is not rational by any means and can be argued to be downright foolish, but it is understandable why we overanalyze Siakam.
Past results tend to set expectations of future performance and in Siakam’s case that is both unfair and unavoidable. His meteoric rise has set expectations so high that it’s not good enough to have the market capitalization of Amazon, you also need the growth of Tesla. This is his first postseason where he’s a focal part of the opposition’s concern and it would be against all probabilities to expect him to seamlessly transition into a proverbial number one. He’s seeing doubles more frequently, help is coming from new places, teams are catching onto some tricks – there’s more data incoming for him to parse and analyze. He’s analyzing it at the same rate as before, it’s just that there’s a lot more data.
Perhaps where the Raptors true strength lies is getting teams to think that they need to prepare for individuals. Leaving aside the level of competition for a moment, the production from Norman Powell, Serge Ibaka and Fred VanVleet without going outside the team framework is phenomenal. The Raptors have been able to generate consistent offense in half-court and transition without their two best players scoring at peak ability. The amount of direct and indirect pressure that Siakam imposes is difficult to classify, but simply being a player who the defense has planned to send help to is in itself enough for a well-coached team like the Raptors to weaponize. It is understandable why Nick Nurse reacted the way he did when quizzed about Siakam’s play – in his mind it’s all going to plan.
There have been instances where gimmes have been missed but those hiccups haven’t been because his shot is significantly more contested than it was a few months ago. There has definitely been an uptick in defender’s anticipating what he’s about to do, especially when he puts it on the floor, but he’s still able to get what by his standards is a look he’ll take. I think the simplest explanation for his subpar shooting is probably the correct one: he just had more time away from a basketball during the lockdown than others. That’s it. Maybe he’s just catching up to his rhythm and there’s nothing more to be said than that. But that doesn’t make for a great newspaper story.
Continuing on the theme from a couple days ago, I was happy to see Game 2 be a tighter affair where the Raptors sensed danger and had to gather themselves. Playing tight games instead of blowouts against weaker opposition before heading into bigger matchups always seemed preferable. The counterpoint of getting a rest in after a cakewalk never seemed right because rhythm and confidence are everything, and maintaining continuity in both trumps everything.
It also gives the team a chance to fix sore points. For example, dealing with Caris LeVert after his Game 1 by putting a bigger body on him. Or the bigs coming out earlier to contend with the interior passing/lobs that killed the Raptors, which ended up culminating in this piece of Siakam excellence:
Big defensive play by Siakam. pic.twitter.com/KQlmgyH1R0
— Raptors Republic (@raptorsrepublic) August 19, 2020
The Raptors also saw the Nets put smaller guys on Gasol which neutralized him fairly easily. He doesn’t have a smooth enough offensive game to punish that behaviour and it’s better we saw that strategy now than in the next round. On the other hand, the same strategy against Ibaka didn’t work because of his more refined post game. These little curveballs are invaluable in the grand scheme of things because maximizing learning early pays off late. The Nets are a feisty bunch that don’t take any options off the table, and play with a sense of desperation reserved for teams that have superior expectations. They’re a decent undercard and I thank them for it.
The Last Dance highlighted the Bulls’ series against the New Jersey Nets as a hard early test even though it was a sweep. The same was true the year before when they faced the Washington Bullets and the formidable duo of Juwan Howard and Chris Webber. Another sweep. The year before it was perhaps the toughest first round test against Pat Riley’s Heat who boasted Alonzo Mourning and Tim Hardaway. Yup, another sweep, but all three were tests. Why am I bringing that up and how is it relevant to the Raptors? It’s probably not, but history has shown that turbulent first rounds make for stronger returns.