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Pascal Siakam delivers superstar performance to keep Raptors season alive

·Raptors Writer
·10-min read

Sports fandom is inherently reactionary, and in the NBA that reactionary dial is turned all the way up to 10. After all, no league moves quicker, both in terms of how fast players rise or fall in the hierarchy and also in terms of how teams themselves are constructed and altered. So, our ideas about players and teams tend to swing wildly from one day to the next.

That’s why it wasn’t all that surprising to see the reaction to Pascal Siakam’s underwhelming performance in Game 3 of the first-round series between the Toronto Raptors and Philadelphia 76ers, where the Sixers pulled out a come-from-behind overtime win to pull ahead 3-0 in the series. Siakam was 6-of-16 for 12 points, taking just 5 shots in the entire second half and overtime, scoring 0 points in that time.

Raptors star Pascal Siakam bounced back in a big way from his disappointing Game 3, just like he has all season and really for his entire NBA career. (Getty)
Raptors star Pascal Siakam bounced back in a big way from his disappointing Game 3, just like he has all season and really for his entire NBA career. (Getty)

It didn’t matter that Siakam was Toronto’s best player for the final two thirds of the season, carrying them to a No. 5 seed that nobody thought they had any business getting, playing at an All-NBA level. It didn’t matter that the Sixers' entire game plan was to take away Siakam and wall off the paint, forcing him to shoot jumpers. It didn’t even matter that there is plenty of precedent across the league for it taking star players time to be able to translate their regular season performance into the postseason, like ex-Raptor DeMar DeRozan is doing now for the Chicago Bulls.

All that mattered following Wednesday’s heartbreaking Game 3 loss was that Siakam had failed to take his game to the next level in the playoffs while his opponent, Joel Embiid, did. And it seemed like that was enough of an indictment of his ability to carry a playoff offence that everyone was ready to move on from Pascal Siakam as the No. 1 option. Everyone except for Pascal Siakam, that is.

Siakam bounced back, just like he has all season and really for his entire NBA career. The Cameroonian forward reminded everyone why he is an elite two-way player, carrying the Raptors to a 110-102 win in an elimination Game 4 to keep the Raptors’ season alive, dropping a playoff career-high 34-points, 8 rebounds and 5 assists.

He made a three-pointer to keep the defence honest, hit countless contested mid-range shots over the top of a defender or two, and he drove relentlessly into the paint, getting to the rim at will and going to the free-throw line a playoff career-high 15 times, which just goes to show the change in mindset and increased level of aggression he had.

“I just think he was so much more assertive and decisive tonight. Less looking around and more just going,” Nick Nurse said about his star player’s performance.

“Resilience. He’s always been a resilient player. He’s always gonna fight through adversity,” Thad Young added about Siakam. “He knows his game. He knows who he is as a player. He knows how to bounce back and come back from having not so good games. That’s exactly what he did. He just came out and did what Pascal does, play basketball and not care about what people are saying or the last game. It’s about this game. It’s about moving forward, and that’s what he did.”

Plus, Siakam could have had more than 5 assists had the Raptors shot better than 8-34 from three (23.5 percent), with several spot-up shooters getting (but missing) open jumpers off of the gravity that Siakam created.

Perhaps even more impressive than his ability to carry the offence without any spacing was Siakam’s defence, where he seamlessly switched between guarding speedy guards like Tyrese Maxey and James Harden to holding Embiid out of deep post position. Best of all was his help-defence, where Siakam was crucial to the Raptors holding Embiid to 21 points on 7-of-16 shooting and 5 turnovers, playing free-safety as he helped off of his man and used his speed and length to double-team Embiid, making him increasingly uncomfortable and frustrated as the night went on.

“I think we are trying to make it tough on him. Obviously, we know he is a tough cover and it's got to be a team effort,” Siakam said about defending Embiid. “And I think that that's kind of like what we have to do in order to give ourselves a chance.”

“We want anybody else to beat us. That’s kind of like our mindset and then for me, just seeing those reads, I feel like I’m able to make those reads and whenever it’s my time to do that, I’m making sure I execute at a high level and hoping he finds somebody to make the next play.”

Of course, it wasn’t just Siakam that stepped up. After Fred VanVleet left the game in the second quarter with a left hip strain and Scottie Barnes struggled to score the ball throughout, it was the group of Siakam-OG Anunoby-Thad Young-Chris Boucher-Precious Achiuwa that opened the game up for the Raptors early in the fourth quarter, outsourcing the Sixers by 7 to take an 8-point lead before Trent came in for Boucher to close the game. The bench was fantastic, outsourcing the Sixers’ bench 33-24 (excluding garbage time) and making plays on both ends of the floor.

But more often than not in the NBA playoffs, star power prevails. And in Game 4, it was Siakam who had the last laugh, bouncing back from one of the most disappointing performances of his career to deliver one of the best, proving a lot of people wrong. But for a guy that spent a lot of time rounding out his game and who was confident it would translate to the playoffs, he most importantly proved himself right.

Breaking it down

If there is a reason to think that the Raptors could pull off the first 0-3 series comeback in NBA history, it isn’t that Siakam is going to put the team on his back for three more games in a row. Instead, the only way the Raptors are going to do the impossible is if their defence continues to be as good as it was on Saturday afternoon, when they held the Sixers to just 102 points on 42.5 percent shooting, forcing them to cough up 15 turnovers, allow 21 fast-break points and give up 13 offensive rebounds to the Raptors. Plus, the Raptors won the free-throw battle for the first time all series, 35-25, allowing them to get several stops in a row and to gain defensive momentum without allowing the Sixers to constantly stop the game by getting to the line.

OG Anunoby, Precious Achiuwa and Pascal Siakam have been wonderful all series on the defensive end of the ball (Achiuwa should probably start games so he doesn’t have to play so many minutes in a row at the end, but that’s another story). They’ve been versatile in that they can stay in front of their man on the ball and make them take tough shots and they can act as helpers off the ball, watching the play unfold in front of them and rotating over, sometimes multiple times in one play, to keep the ball out of the hoop.

More importantly in the context of a comeback, the Sixers got rattled for the first time all series. They were constantly bickering after defensive breakdowns and were getting frustrated with the refereeing as the game went on and the Raptors opened up their lead. Nick Nurse often talks about breaking the spirit of the other team as the game goes along with the Raptors’ aggressive style of defence forcing turnovers and making players uncomfortable and out of rhythm. While the Raptors haven’t necessarily broken anyone’s spirits, they certainly came close.

“We just kept sticking to the game plan. We had a great game plan. We just kept doing it over and over again and it just worked out so good tonight,” Barnes said about the defence. “Just trying to make them change up some things. Change their looks. Not let people get easy looks. Defending at the rim. We did what we needed to do.”

When asked if the Raptors have a chance at coming back in this series if the defence holds up, Barnes said: “For sure. For sure.”

Standout player

Siakam was obviously the best Raptor in Game 4, but they got key contributions down the entire roster, really for the first time all series.

At the top of that list was Thad Young, who turned back and looked spry as ever in this one, switching seamlessly on the defensive end, holding up Embiid in the post and boxing him out after missed shots, and hustling everywhere, coming up with 4 offensive rebounds, 5 assists, and 3 steals in 29 minutes of action. He also assisted on all 4 of Chris Boucher’s buckets (they call him Thagic Johnson for a reason), and brought the Raptors an exceptional energy boost off the bench.

Gary Trent Jr.’s scoring was also desperately needed, especially after his backcourt partner VanVleet left the game. He managed to keep the scoreboard moving throughout this one instead of allowing the Raptors to go into one of their trademarked scoring slumps. He scored 24 points on 8-of-20 shooting, hitting 3 three-pointers and getting to the line 5 times. Most importantly, he created most of it by himself, giving the Raptors a release valve and taking some pressure off of Siakam as he dribbled into side-step threes and elbow-jumpers, punishing Embiid for staying under the rim and eventually drawing him further out. He also played his best defense of his series, getting 2 steals to go the other way for transition dunks but, more importantly, playing within the scheme and staying in front of Harden and Maxey, who combined to go 9-of-19 from the field.

News and notes

Fred VanVleet left the game in the second quarter with what the Raptors are calling a left hip strain. He did not return. VanVleet was set to get an MRI on the hip on Saturday evening after the game concluded, so there should be updates to follow in the coming days. However, Nurse did say that he spoke to head trainer Alex McKechnie after the game, who said that VanVleet is going to need “some work” on the hip. On the bright side, Gary Trent Jr. is back to being 100 percent after being sick for the first couple of games and Scottie Barnes said his ankle was not bothering him during the game.

Also, it was a good game for highlights, if you’re into that sort of thing. Thad Young did this:

And Precious Achiuwa did this:

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