At the beginning of every season, you want to win the championship. Maybe the Raptors had more modest expectations, maybe they didn’t. But, among those modest expectations they must’ve hoped that they would receive positive data and film on the partnership of their star-bound rookie and their incumbent max player.
From trade rumours in the off-season and draft night, to the early season theories (bad ones, of course) that Pascal Siakam infringed upon Scottie Barnes’ growth, to now. Barnes’ full-hearted declaration that Siakam was his favourite player, the burgeoning partnership that developed on-court, Siakam’s All-NBA candidacy, and Barnes’ fulfillment of one of his major goals – the Rookie of the Year selection. Siakam’s tremendous point-forward and All-Defense capabilities make long ball (Hank Ball, iykyk) something the Raptors can succeed with right now. But, Barnes is the avatar of the future. Separate timelines were merged into one because of tremendous play by both parties.
The ask was different of each player, of course. Siakam had to stamp himself as a tremendously valuable all around player in a playoff context once again. His excellent defensive play against the Celtics in the bubble didn’t grant him a max contract, his unique combination of skills on both ends did. I’ll lean very hard on internet jargon to get my point across quickly: Pascal Siakam beat the allegations. In a super unfriendly context, with a mammoth sized rim protector opposite of him, and a 76ers team that had no qualms about sending extra attention his way; Siakam snaked to his spots on some occasions, bullied his way in others, and he hit incredibly difficult shots while creating heaps and heaps of great looks for his teammates. He also played fantastic defense over the 6 games. Among the starting lineup, Siakam was virtually the only player to exceed his regular season numbers.
If Barnes is the Prince that was Promised, Siakam has positioned himself as King Regent. Eventually he’ll assume his role as Hand of the King. Watching Siakam work his way out of impossible situations to score or supply his teammates with opportunities, you could only imagine what that dynamic looks like once Barnes equals and (hopefully) surpasses him. The thought should excite anyone who cheers for the Raptors.
Now, Barnes. The young man stepped into his first playoff experience and threatened a triple-double before spraining his ankle. Then he came back really quickly from the injury and joined a team that desperately needed his presence on defense, his tremendous playmaking verve, and his brutal, physical offensive punch. Out of the walking boot, and into the fire. It was imperfect, but it was gritty and full of unbelievable highs that were spurred on by a winner with immense talent.
One of the first things Barnes did in the series was bully Tyrese Maxey into the middle of the floor, drop-step past him, and dare Embiid to step in front of his dunk – it went uncontested. Nick Nurse expressed pride post game, saying the Raptors were the more aggressive, more physical team for a lot of the series, and Barnes is a huge part of setting that tone. He is lacking as a shooter and a ball handler right now, but his completely unabashed attempts to do anything, everything on a basketball court, and that paired with his exceptional feel for the game and overwhelming physical presence make dominant playoff performances in his future a certainty. The Rookie of the Year did his thing.
The Raptors key matchups hinged on Barnes as the point of attack, Siakam as a devastating, roaming problem solver, and the ability of those two (among others) to swap roles at any given time. If the Raptors are sold on this defense and want to run it back, it’s impossible to imagine it reaching its full potential without both Siakam and Barnes firmly in the thick of it.
While the Raptors didn’t translate their new wave basketball philosophy and multivariate approach to winning the possession battle into lots of playoff success, they did cement the most important duo they possibly could have this season.
When asked what he and his younger teammates could take away from the series, Siakam expressed optimism: “I think everything. We have guys that have been in these situations, but a lot of guys that haven’t. So, just learning from it. Understanding, before the series coach was saying ‘it’s gonna be up and down, we gotta be prepared for it’. I thought we did a good job fighting. And obviously being down 3-0, that’s tough. And then being able to come back to 3-2, give ourselves an opportunity to tie the series. Yeah man, I think we fought hard. But obviously, we didn’t get the outcome that we wanted. But yeah, just gotta go back and learn from it.”
Maybe it seems silly now, to say that the Raptors believe in Siakam and Barnes together. But it was even sillier to suggest otherwise back then. A team that championed the idea of playing a bunch of 6’7″-6’9″ guys, and named all of Siakam’s outlier skills as reasons why they pursued this vision while doing so, and everyone was convinced he wasn’t long for Toronto. At the very least, it seems like everyone has their mind made up at this point. Nothing is ever considered real in the NBA until it’s been tested under the lights in a playoff series. The Raptors found something real.
Have a blessed day.