If there’s a lesson to take from the Toronto Raptors’ 97-93 win over the Milwaukee Bucks, other than that Giannis Antetokounmpo remains petrified of Scotiabank Arena, it is that Fred VanVleet may one day claim the throne of GROAT if he keeps playing like this (for six, seven more seasons straight). The man dueled champions Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday in the fourth quarter, coming up with the win on his own. He scored 26 points in the second half. But we’ve known that Fred VanVleet is a boss. Just as significant for Toronto’s long-term viability as a winning NBA program is a relatively new lesson: making long-term judgments without a whole lot of information can make you look foolish. As in, the idea that Pascal Siakam and Scottie Barnes aren’t complementary players: made to look foolish. Both the critics and the Bucks, for one night at least.
Theoretically, two players who can hit catch-and-shoot jumpers, drive, post up, pass, and play scrambling defense ought to work wonders together. And yet coming into the game against the Bucks, the Raptors boasted a net rating of -3.4 with Siakam and Barnes sharing the court, worse even than their teamwide mark of -1.1 on the year.
“It’s December 2nd,” said VanVleet, preemptively explaining why they’re only now starting to thrive together. “It takes time, man. I know it’s hard sometimes when we’re so used to winning, and we’re so spoiled, won a championship not that long ago. But these things take time. This group hasn’t played together much at all.”
Still, they’ve been improving together for several games now, they really made it work against Milwaukee, winning their minutes together. It helps, of course, when the two combine to shoot four of 10 from deep. Both hunted shots, as Barnes hit great possession-finishing triples after great team ball movement, and Siakam hit a faceup from the corner. But it wasn’t just shooting. They are starting to organically improve one another’s advantages both before and after the catch. Because of their abilities to get where they want to go and force rotations, more of their shots come against already compromised defenses; Barnes and Siakam are one and two on the team in the differential of two-pointers that are assisted when they’re playing versus on the bench.
“I thought Pascal, especially, I thought he made some good passes out of the paint, and then he made some good early ones, he got off it early when he started to drive and saw the help coming and he just got off it earlier,” said Nick Nurse. “I don’t know how many assists Pascal had but if guys would have made some shots he probably would have had… how many does [the box score] say he had? Four. He probably would have had at least double that, right?”
On one play, Barnes handled the ball on the wing with Siakam on the other side of the lane. VanVleet jetted over to set a brush screen for Barnes, and meanwhile back at the farm, Siakam switched to posting up on the strong side. With the defense distracted by VanVleet jetting away from the screen — VanVleet shot five of 10 on his own from deep on the night, constantly a menace without the ball in his hands — Barnes threw a picturesque floating entry pass over the fronting defender to Siakam for the layup.
Or Siakam was in the post, making quick decisions, drawing multiple defenders. Barnes, ostensibly the player off of whom Siakam’s helper should arrive, was left open and promptly hit the triple. Simple basketball, but an effective leverage of their strengths. Or Barnes, tipping away the ball from Jrue Holiday, and throwing a jumping touch pass to Siakam in transition for the layup. Or the first basket of the game, with Barnes and VanVleet playing the two-man game, hitting the paint, and Siakam catching the pass in the corner, attacking himself, and then swinging behind him to Svi Mykhailiuk for the open triple. Like iron, the shared abilities to catch, attack, and create sharpen one another.
Of course, it’s worth mentioning that the Bucks were without Antetokounmpo or Brook Lopez, meaning their back line of defense was far smaller than the Raptors are accustomed to seeing. And with Barnes a rookie and Siakam still working his way back from major surgery in the offseason, there will continue to be rough nights together. They won’t always hit their triples. But the outline of shared success is there.
It also helps that VanVleet went berserk in the fourth quarter against the Bucks. After getting blitzed for much of the game and having to give the ball up (and still creating an advantage by doing so!) VanVleet said yabba dabba fuck the Bucks in the fourth. After entering the game with nine minutes remaining, he hit a catch-and-shoot triple, back cut his defender for an inside-hand layup, stole the ball and no-look dimed Siakam for a layup (timeout called), and then drove for a layup of his own. Later he made a scoop layup, forcing yet another Bucks’ timeout, and circled to the middle of the court, raising his arms Gladiator style, willing the crowd to yell. It fucking yelled. After a ref-led run for the Bucks later in the fourth, VanVleet closed the game out with free throws. Frankly, this game turned into significantly more of a VanVleet story than a Siakam-and-Barnes one, but VanVleet has been an All-NBA caliber player for most of the season now. His success is old news. Siakam and Barnes working so well together is relatively new. Importantly, there’s still a whole lot of room for growth.
“I think one thing that will help both of those guys is getting Precious in the right spots,” said VanVleet after the game of Barnes and Siakam’s comfort with one another. “I know we’re sliding him in to play the five, and naturally it’s not really the way he plays. He’s one of those forward that kind of slashes, and you know, he can shoot it a little bit. I think if we get his spacing right, and get him down there where the five goes, in the dunker space, on the baseline, I think that will open the floor up for both Pascal and Scottie.”
And it’s not like Siakam and Barnes played so well because of VanVleet’s brilliance, though having successful guards is part of what allows similar forwards to share the court together. In fact, it’s another worthwhile lesson that if Siakam and Barnes are going to play well together going forward, they probably need to be alongside elite guard play. Well VanVleet gave them that and then some.
VanVleet was correct, as he usually is, when he said that these things take time. For all Siakam and Barnes’ theoretical ability to help one another, there are also theoretical drawbacks. They both like to handle the ball inside the arc. Neither is an elite shooter. (Unless Barnes, just, is already.) But they’re both brilliant offensive minds, and that most of all will mean it will work. What we saw against Milwaukee was just a glimpse, a beautiful snowflake buried by the avalanche of VanVleet’s dominance. Sometimes VanVleet won’t be able to do it all with such vicious effectiveness. On those nights, increasingly, the Raptors can trust that Siakam and Barnes can dominate. Together.