The Raptors season turned on a dime when Pascal Siakam and Fred VanVleet started playing some of their best basketball at the same time. It came, largely, without fans in the stands. Fueled by the two stars, the Raptors busted off a run of play that put them in a position where they could actually pursue higher ambitions than a play-in spot. The top-6 has been within reach since then, but a mix of bad health, let downs, and shooting slumps have kept the Raptors at bay. Through it all though, Pascal Siakam has kept trucking as an All-NBA level talent.
Fred VanVleet has fought valiantly through his lingering knee injury, and OG Anunoby played a long stretch of basketball with an injured finger that’s only now being sorted out. But, neither was close to their best. Since these maladies have afflicted them, Siakam has been the guiding hand that paddles and keeps the team afloat. For a week at a time, sometimes just a game, one of the remaining members of the roster joins him in stardom. Gary Trent Jr. busted off 11 games where he averaged 28 points, Scottie Barnes has been on a fantastic run, but last night Precious Achiuwa was Siakam’s running mate.
Achiuwa’s performance is something that should live at the forefront of Raptors fans minds for some time. If you’re looking for potential futures, current realities, anything, Achiuwa’s game has been a feast for the eyes. Encapsulated in his star performance was a handful of impressive defensive stands against Embiid in the all-world center’s favorite playground, the paint; switches into deny defense against the rapid and herky-jerky Tyrese Maxey, and possessions where he was marched out to stop Superstar James Harden at the point of attack. Very few players get run through that type of defensive iron man competition, and even fewer come out on the other side with wins on the majority of those possessions. Achiuwa was tremendous.
If a star performance was good enough for you on one side of the floor, then Achiuwa delivered a surplus. His continued excellence as a 3-point shooter delivered the punctuation on multiple offensive possessions. He’s inspiring so much confidence and good will in his teammates that Siakam even passed out of a look at the rim to find him. And the left wing triple that VanVleet always makes off of the Siakam pass in transition? Achiuwa cashed that in as well. But, the 3-point shot is only something he’s become good at recently. The unique aspects of his game are the flashes of on-ball excellence. The self-authoring offensive possessions where he can transport himself to his spots. A pick n pop with Gary Trent Jr. became a drop dribble past a closeout and a push shot in the lane.
the “imagine if he finished that” plays from Precious are starting to dry up a little bit. lately, he’s just a player doing things. unique things, given what else he’s good at on the floor. the c & s triples are the most important for the team, but this stuff is great too pic.twitter.com/08krURpHcU
— Samson Folk (the coach) (@samfolkk) March 21, 2022
Achiuwa doesn’t operate in the linear fashion that accompanies most big men’s offensive decision making. It’s been a negative in a lot of ways, but every time he finds a bucket on the other side of his maze of possibilities it makes him a more unique player.
Siakam continued to pressure the rim, find teammates for opportunities, and push every chance he could. He forced the terms of engagement on offense even as Embiid lie in wait at the bucket. As Siakam has done in many games, he used the rim as a guard to separate would be rim protectors from his shots, an awareness of how long they spend in the paint, and a jumpshot that he’s starting to set his watch to. Possessions were saved by Siakam’s outside touch in this one. Housed under that excellence, Achiuwa punched in enough of his own.
“When Precious is playing the 5, he’s gonna have a center playing him.” Nick Nurse said after the win, regarding his fit next to Khem. “So, he can play underneath some. He can be in the dunker spot some. He can pick n’ pop more against a big, he can play in the corners more against a rim protecting big and that’s an advantage. And if he’s got a 4 guarding him usually those guys know how to play that stuff a little differently and it just looks different out there. I think you could probably, you know a couple years ago when we used to run Chris at the 5 and that was his big advantage when he was a kind of undersized 5 man and he’d pick n’ pop those guys and things like that. We just gotta do a little more work on some spacing and figuring out where those guys are gonna go when they’re out there together.”
In Nurse’s expression of dissatisfaction with how Khem Birch and Achiuwa played together in the starting lineup, he hit on some of the unique qualities of Achiuwa’s game. When he has it going he is too fluid a player for traditional bigs to hang with. Paired with his excellent defense, you get to punch up at a marriage of some wing skills and some big skills. How many of these interlope remains a question, and how all of this looks when Achiuwa isn’t an absolute flamethrower from downtown is something to consider as well. But, these are considerations we’re lucky to even entertain. Achiuwa is well past where most expected him to be at this point.
Siakam’s casual excellence today, VanVleet’s casual excellence to start the season – both created environments for the Raptors young players to grow in. And did so without sacrificing too much, erm, standing in the standings. It may be the case that some of the higher-seeded Eastern Conference playoff teams are shuddering at the thought of the fully healthy Raptors matching up with them. Up against it, these Raptors have counter-punched against all their less than ideal circumstances. A gritty game in Philly, against the likely MVP in Embiid and his superstar running mate, Harden – the Raptors found a way by leaning into the grittiest form of their defense, a healthy dose of extra possessions on the offensive glass, and as much brilliance from Siakam and Achiuwa as they could muster. It was enough. And teams that keep finding “enough” are a nightmare to play against.