Despite the loss, Pascal Siakam played like a star against the Pistons

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Credit: CP

Pascal Siakam didn’t have a bad year last year — if you were to just listen to the naysayers, you’d think he was a disaster. But no, he had the best passing season of his career, was more efficient inside the arc than in his Second Team All-NBA 2019-20, and had by far the best on/offs on the offense end on the team. In fact, he was an All-Star-level talent, even if he didn’t actually make the game. But for the Raptors to be at their best this year, he needs to adapt his approach to the offensive end.

For all his successes last year, Siakam was a ball stopper. He averaged 3.44 seconds per touch, which is extremely high for a non-guard, slower even than initiating scorers like Bradley Beal or Kevin Durant. He was 15th in the league in isolations per game and 27th in post ups, both static playtypes that require slow, patient decision making. Toronto needed that on the offensive end; it didn’t boast a whole lot of ways to score last year, and Siakam’s ball dominance was a strength, a requirement, not a weakness.

But this year, Toronto is offensively more diverse. OG Anunoby is a star in the making, and Fred VanVleet — absent against the Pistons — is burgeoning into one of the better offensive guards in the league. Scottie Barnes somehow came into the league as a ridiculous offensive positive, both as a scorer, creator, and advantage extender. To maximize the collective skills across the roster, Siakam has to play within the context of their strengths. That means quicker decisions with and without the ball, less initiating out of static sets, and perhaps fewer shots attempts.

As Siakam has worked his way back into shape after shoulder surgery, he has flashed those skills in brief spurts, sandwiched by stretches of fewer contributions. That’s extremely normal for players returning from serious injury. But against the Pistons, Siakam put it all together. And he didn’t return to his old self; he morphed into the new, flexible player that Toronto needs him to be.

Siakam played a lot of winning basketball (on the offensive end), and despite his 25 points, only a small percentage of his contributions was scoring. He set screens off the ball, made immediate swing passes, used the opposite side of the court, and crashed the offensive glass. He trusted Anunoby with the ball and whipped the ball to shooters immediately when they were open. Gone was his preference for static basketball; instead he made immediate decisions that allowed his teammates to thrive.

“I thought it was a good kind of rhythm to the way he was playing,” said Nick Nurse after the game. “I think they were sending a lot of bodies on him too and I thought he did a good job of reading some of those.”

Anunoby briefly turned into a star in the third quarter, hitting stepback jumpers out of isolation and while attacking rotations. Gary Trent jr. was on a heater all game, hitting every shot he flung up at the rim. Siakam left space for his teammates to shine; his own scoring may have been slightly less as a result (he could have reached 30 with ease), but he was instead a greenhouse, a prism, sharpening the impact of his teammates. It took a lot of trust for Siakam to wait this long after his return, the whole time playing within the structure, keeping from demanding the ball and slowing down the offense.

“I think it’s funny out there because it’s like, I haven’t played with these guys,” laughed Siakam when I asked him about that patience. “Maybe they don’t know who I am as a player, what I can do. I don’t know. Maybe that’s what it is…

“I’ve never been the type to come in and just take 30 shots and just, because I’m back, you know? I think that’s another part of it. I think the guys are going to get comfortable with me, and they’ll understand some of the things that I can do out there on the floor. And I just think that sometimes, they’ve just got to see you out there, it’s kind of different than seeing it on TV… I’ll just kind of like, not impose my will, but just try to be out there and be the leader.”

If he did need a game to prove himself to his new teammates, then 25 points and seven assists on only 14 shot attempts is surely going to do just that. That he stayed within the structure of the offense was to his benefit, but especially to the team’s.

And when Siakam needed to turn into his old self, he had no problem doing so. Early in the fourth quarter, after a small run from Detroit to tie the game, Siakam demanded the ball in the post. He drove, spun, and easily drew free throws on a nifty lefty push shot. He splashed a jab-step triple, and he tossed in a putback. He finished a floater plus the foul, fading away out of bounds. Siakam put on his superhero cape to will the Raptors back into the game, and he would have gotten away for it too if the Raptors had bothered playing defense in the first 46 minutes of the game. Siakam is still capable of shouldering the offense like Atlas. But now he just has to do so less often while still finding ways to contribute constantly.

His ability to do so points to the value of the new roster so far for Toronto. The team has enough skill that one player doesn’t have to carry the offense for entire games. They don’t need to run heliocentric basketball. Siakam’s ability to fit into the new system makes him a more valuable player (and he was already pretty valuable), but it also will be what allows the strange lineup of him, Anunoby, and Barnes to play together on the offensive end. All three are similarly sized, and only Anunoby is a plus shooter. They all like to initiate out of the post. But Anunoby is an elite shooter, and Barnes an elite cutter and passer. With Siakam adding his own unique ability to extend and create advantages, all three are beneficial together, whether on or off the ball. The three need to work together for Toronto to be at its best, and they were against Detroit (again, that is exclusively on the offensive end).

By the way, the Raptors lost to the Pistons, 127-121. That’s because their defense was as poor as it has been all year, crumbling under the weight of mistakes, poor closeouts, and costly fouls. It was truly heinous. But we know the Raptors can play solid defense; consider this one just a bunch of good teammates trying to make sure Fred VanVleet is All Defense this year. But far more important for the future is that Siakam can gel with his teammates. Not only can they work together, but Siakam showed that on at least one night, he can lift them to new heights. Oh, and now Dwane Casey gets to say he’s 7-3 against Toronto. Everybody wins.

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