The last time the Philadelphia 76ers and Toronto Raptors met, the game ended with an iconic moment. In May, Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals ended with one, two, three, four bounces on a series-winning bucket by eventual Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard. Monday’s matchup produced a similarly viral snippet at the hands of Toronto’s new MVP candidate.
The Raptors won 101-96, and how they arrived at that score is worth examination. Down 96-94 with just over a minute remaining, Leonard’s spiritual successor, Pascal Siakam, put Al Horford through the spin cycle, and finished through contact from Joel Embiid to earn an and-1 that gave Toronto the lead.
PASCAL SIAKAM AND-1 TO TIE THE GAME AT 96 pic.twitter.com/YVlZngi3gZ— Lior Kozai (@LiorKozai) November 26, 2019
A few seconds later, after landing a key deflection on one of Philadelphia’s final possessions, Siakam decided to have a bit of fun.
After the Sixers’ desperation heaves missed, the fourth-year forward took a pass, and rather than let the clock wind down, he celebrated in style, throwing down a thunderous two-handed dunk as time expired. As far as the classical notion of “good sportsmanship” goes, it probably didn’t grade highly. But judging by pettiness and genuine enjoyment derived from watching it, it was metal as hell.
I’m religious now pic.twitter.com/GBsjDRDCQY— Trenton Hassles Carmelo (@TrentonHassles) November 26, 2019
Siakam had reason to want to let off some steam. No longer in Leonard’s shadow, the Cameroonian big man has exceeded all expectations, averaging a career-high 25.7 points, 8.4 rebounds, and 4.0 assists per game this season en route to what should be his first career All-Star appearance. Siakam’s rise is the main reason why Toronto sits 12-4 and is tied for second place in an open Eastern Conference, and why the Raptors locked him up to a max contract extension before he had played a single game this season as their no. 1 option.
On Monday, Siakam continued to show his worth, dropping 25 points on 9-for-19 shooting with seven boards and two blocks. It was a strong performance, and one made even more impressive when compared to his countryman and fellow ascendant Eastern Conference big man, Joel Embiid. As Sports-Reference’s Mike Lynch pointed out, Embiid became the first player in at least 35 years to go scoreless despite taking at least 10 field goal attempts and three tries from the free throw line. The result was the worst game of Embiid’s young career: zero points on 0-for-11 shooting, zero blocks, 13 rebounds, four turnovers, and five fouls. And to make matters worse, Embiid—the Patron Saint of Opponent Trolling—could only watch helplessly as Siakam yammed and set Scotiabank Arena ablaze. As of press time, Embiid had yet to post anything on the ’Gram.
In a game marked by weirdness (see: this Ben Simmons halfcourt 180-degree, game-tying 3-point attempt), Siakam’s continued dominance was a stabilizing force. The forward has now scored at least 20 points in 11 of his 16 games, and has broken 30 six times—one more than he did all of last season—which he did in a win over Atlanta on Saturday. The season is still young, but in its early going, Siakam has been a star, and Monday served as something of a Heisman Moment.
Much like Joe Burrow’s dominant performance over Tua Tagovailoa and Alabama in this month’s LSU-Alabama matchup, Siakam’s showing against an elite defensive team and a star center like Embiid is noteworthy. The MVP award, like the Heisman, is awarded for a body of work and consistent excellence, but that doesn’t mean highlight packages and individual games don’t matter. Siakam was the best player on the floor in Toronto on Monday. His on/off numbers are by far the best on the roster (plus-12.0 points per 100 possessions with Siakam on the floor, minus-8.7 with him on the sidelines), and every Raptors possession is made better with his involvement.
Siakam is still a second-tier MVP candidate thus far, idling in the shadow of former winners like LeBron James, James Harden, and Giannis Antetokounmpo, and fellow fast-rising youngster Luka Doncic. Climbing into that top group will be difficult. But with performances like Monday’s under his belt, it’s only a matter of time.