The Raptors funky roster construction struck again. All-Star guard (hopefully), Fred VanVleet was out for this game and that left a hole on the roster that was tiny because of Fred, the smallest person on the roster playing what is usually the smallest position, but also massive because of his importance to winning games and the fact that he leads the NBA in minutes per game. Nurse & co. opted to embolden the larger players on the roster with those minutes, and ask that they emulate skills and responsibilities that are typically associated with guards. Who better, than Pascal Siakam to fill that role?
I think it’s definitely an opportunity. I’ve been getting better, like I said I’ve been preaching this – just trying to be an overall player. I feel like I can do that most nights, just being the best player out there and making my teammates better. And I think that’s the role that I’m trying to take on, and obviously with Fred and Scottie out it makes it, not easier, but you have to do it, right? – Pascal Siakam on playing without two of the Raptors stars
It didn’t really strike me as odd that Siakam was playing the part of primary initiator, breaking down the Hornets defense, and passing his teammates into great looks – this is what Siakam does. However (comma) it did strike me as fascinating that I got to sit back and listen to Matt Devlin compliment the Raptors ‘backcourt’ duo of Gary Trent Jr., and Siakam. So, why not celebrate the fact that nobody had to hedge with the ‘point-forward’ moniker, when we could all just watch Pascal Siakam, the point guard for one beautiful night.
And the outcome? Gorgeous basketball. Siakam is a uniquely talented and gifted player in the NBA, so while he doesn’t possess the pull-up jumper that many other All-NBA caliber players lead with, he has a diverse set of skills and exceptional length and speed at his size. The Hornets couldn’t muster much of a defense against him, as he surgically picked apart whatever came his way.
Anunoby puts in the early work and seals Ball in the post. The Hornets had already made the adjustment of sending Plumlee high and asking the wings to dig down so Siakam can’t drive. So, Siakam picks Anunoby out early in the clock, and with Plumlee already stepping up high to meet him, no one with size can challenge Anunoby’s attempt at the rim. There’s always a counter. Next play, Boucher cuts in and drags Ball, Siakam picks out the best pass under duress, and it’s a bucket.
If the dig-down came 18-feet from the rim, he found the shooter the defender helped off of. If it came 11-feet from the rim, he spun away from it and into his own shot. If they brought help from two passes away, he outfoxed the man left to zone up the weak-side. He had 12 assists, hit 8 shots in the paint and largely on self created looks, and he did so with the Hornets loading up on him. He was damn near perfect.
Siakam has a pretty good understanding of what he can do against single coverage, so a lot of his drives become probes in attempts to see if the defense will dig, stunt, rotate, whatever. You can see this across a lot of games. Siakam rarely gets a straight line drive. He has to segment it with misdirection to outfox help-side defenders. The push shots, the passing, the mid-range jumper – they’re all a weapon to be used at any point in his forays through the defense. He’s been exceptional at keeping defenses off-balance and the Hornets were no different.
And in all this space, Trent Jr, and OG Anunoby were allowed to thrive. Swimming in the empty chasms of the Hornets defense, left that way by the disruptively tectonic impact of Siakam, they unleashed a barrage of buckets on the Hornets heads. Combining for 8 made threes between the two of them, and a very healthy 56 points. And that was probably the most ‘point’ thing about Siakam in this game; his assist numbers nearly equaled the amount of shots he took. This is an example of his immense growth, even since his All-NBA 2nd team selection. That year, he may have seen advantages, a missing VanVleet, and thought that should translate to 25 shots taken. This year, after all his growth, he empowers his teammates with his playmaking and the result is a far better team offense.
“I’m getting more and more comfortable, the more I do it the better I get.” said Pascal Siakam about his role as a primary initiator on offense. “Like with anything I do, I feel like I put my mind to it, work hard at it, watch film, get the reps to do it. And I believe that I can get better at it, and that’s what I’m doing. Just continue to get better, trying to make reads and kind of understanding where everyone is on the floor. And I think it’s, not easier, but just knowing that I’m going to get that attention regardless right? So, I think making plays just comes naturally, because they’re open most of the time.”
Many people have remarked upon the Raptors limitations in the halfcourt this season, and for good reason. In the 2-5 stretch prior to this game, the Raptors points per play in the halfcourt were hovering around .85 points – the worst in the league. In this game against the Hornets, their halfcourt offense scored a remarkable 1.11 points per play. If you’re saying: “What the hell does this mean? Why should I care?”, well, that is the most potent halfcourt scoring night of the Raptors season, and they did it without VanVleet or Scottie Barnes. The point obviously isn’t that the Raptors are better without those two, it’s that Siakam took the responsibility that was thrust upon him and delivered an absolute masterclass of offensive manipulation and decision making.
The Raptors have had more explosive scoring nights this season, but those are often buoyed by transition play, and offensive rebounding. After watching the Raptors grind their way through some of the worst halfcourt offense in the NBA, they put on a show of elite shot creation and shot making for the fans. A palate cleanser as they continue to fine tune the slower parts of the game, largely, on the back of Siakam. The triple-double alludes him, but great basketball doesn’t.
Have a blessed day.