You can be too clever when you hustle pool. The basic trick follows these steps: lose games, make your opponent overconfident, raise the bet, and then start winning. But if you win too obviously in that final step, you may only get one game’s worth of profit, which could pale in comparison to the losses from the setup. So you have to win seemingly on accident to convince your mark to play again and again, convinced that you’re only getting lucky, that they’ll start winning again. Some hustlers achieve that by making unlikely combinations and bank shots, making each win seem like luck. But that can be too clever; you don’t always make the hard shot, especially with money on the line. No matter how good you are.
That’s been Pascal Siakam’s problem so far this season: the too-clever-by-half shots.
“It’s the twisting, turning fall-away jumpers sometimes you’re thinking that’s a tough shot, and a lot of those don’t go in,” said Nick Nurse after Toronto’s wire-to-wire 115-102 win over the Orlando Magic.
And — the Magic game excepted — Siakam has by and large chosen to make things more difficult than necessary this season.
He’s dribbled 10 times when one hard dribble would do. He’s chosen the impossible looks — fadeaways, one-leggers — when the simple ones were available. He’s contorted his body rather than absorbing contact. Often this season, he’s tried to kick the nine cross side when there’s a simple cut into the corner available.
At some point in the night, the hustler decides it’s game over. Sometimes you leave without ever unleashing your real ability, especially if you think your opponent might break your thumbs if you show how good you really are. Those are the times you leave the Porsche in the garage — to stack my metaphors one on top of the other like Siakam stacks dribbling moves — and win the race the hard way. Sometimes you lose those races, too. Other nights you run the table, take the money off the lights, and leave before your opponents’ eyes even look up from the table.
Too often this season Siakam has chosen the difficult route. He’s left the layup package at home, so to speak. Against the Magic, Siakam chose to finally let ‘er rip. Gone were the step-backs and extended dribbling moves. Siakam replaced them with militaristic efficiency: single-dribble moves to the rim, simple and stable body movements, and power combined with grace when faced with contests.
That simplicity was an intentional choice on Toronto’s part: “It’s a conscious effort on his part, our part, to get him going to the basket and get him a little bit more composed at the basket, too,” said Nurse after the game. “I think you can see him, the times that he gets in there, takes his time, gets to two feet, gets to that right-hand jump hook or something, those are going in.”
Siakam toggled between creating from the post and in isolation, cutting from the dunker spot, attacking rotations, setting screens, and using screens to create for himself. Because he can thrive in so many scenarios, sometimes he doesn’t get enough usage in any of them. His variability often means he can blend in rather than standing out on the offensive end, fading to the background and letting the star guards create. But against Orlando his diversity was the source of his strength.
Nurse has always said that Toronto’s offense isn’t meant for individual players to be more involved as finishers than others; the ball finds those who will do the best things with it. For a stretch this season, that meant Siakam had fewer touches than he probably should have. He has a tendency to do too little with the ball, giving it up before creating an advantage for his teammates. But against the Magic, the egalitarian nature of Toronto’s offense meant that Siakam ate as many different dishes at the buffet as his stomach could handle.
Early in the second half, Siakam missed an uncontested layup. It was his second easy miss of the night. Just over a minute later, Siakam took out his frustrations on Aaron Gordon. He cut backdoor, received a pass from Kyle Lowry, and jumped high over the former would-be dunk champ for the one-handed slam. The resulting scream from Siakam was thick with emotion.
It was a night of catharsis for Siakam. He followed a 32-point outing against the Sacramento Kings with a 30-point, 10-rebound humbling of the Magic. Every one of those 62 points came from inside the paint or at the free throw line. For Toronto, Siakam’s success in the driving lanes has correlated strongly with winning or losing. The Magic game, in that sense, was one more speck of increasingly ironclad data. But what a speck of data it was.
Siakam showed that at his best, he is inevitable. Of his 12 field goals, seven came via the drive. That’s a superstar level of attack. It means he creates efficient shots, receives more free throws, and offers Toronto rim pressure that is sorely lacking across the rest of the roster. Yes, Orlando lacked any defender who could capably cover Siakam, especially after Gordon left the game with injury. Yes, Orlando lacked any rim protector who could deter Siakam as the second line of defense. So, caveats. But for one night at least, Siakam unleashed his ultimate potential.
It feels good to let loose at the end of a hustle. To finally prove that even your early losing was skillful, to show what you can really do. To break the rack so hard it sounds like a bomb goes off, pocketing two or three balls. To show your control over the cue ball, drawing it all over the table so that each shot is straight in. To win the way you know how, to leave your opponent speechless and hopeless.
That must have been how Siakam felt against the Magic. That was contained in his primal scream after dunking on Gordon. The only thing missing was Siakam taking the money off the lights before he walked out of the building.