Almost six months before the Raptors shocked the world by soundly defeating the Golden State Warriors, 118-109, in Game 1 of the 2019 NBA Finals, Pascal Siakam had his coming-out party on national television, against these same Warriors, on the same Scotiabank Arena floor in Toronto. He was too fast, too skilled, and too unpredictable for the undermanned Warriors front line then. He sprinted out in transition, relocated for wide-open 3s, made plays off the dribble—he carved the Warriors up for 26 points on 8-for-10 shooting that night, looking every bit the part of a modern star at the power forward position. The Raptors won that game in overtime, in what was roundly regarded as one of their best regular-season wins in history, back when such trivialities still held weight for a franchise that always had to look for something to be proud of. So much has changed since then, but, luckily for the Raptors, some things haven’t. Siakam, in the biggest game of his career to date, once again shocked the NBA viewing public with a star-making performance against the champs—this time with much higher stakes.
There could be an asterisk placed on that November game—Draymond Green, perhaps the most obvious of Siakam’s stylistic forebears, sat out with a sprained toe. There were no such excuses on Thursday. Siakam won his matchup with Green in a landslide, punctuated with a play with just over six minutes remaining in the fourth quarter. Green, who has been one of the very best players in this year’s postseason, hit Siakam with a left-to-right crossover on the right wing, blowing by him with right arm extended and Siakam left shading his left side. Green jumped from outside the paint, en route to what should’ve been an easy layup, but Siakam’s length, explosiveness, and sheer recovery speed closed the gap on Green and the Raptors forward sent the ball clanging off the rim and into the hands of Marc Gasol. Siakam had bested the archetype that the Raptors coaching staff had spent the past three years drawing inspiration from for his development. Siakam may not have been included in any of this season’s All-Defense teams, but, with respect to Danny Green and Kawhi Leonard, he was the team’s most consistent defender. Siakam can credibly defend all five positions. His ability to close the distance between himself and any offensive player on the floor was often mesmerizing to watch, and in Game 1, he put pressure on not only Draymond, but true perimeter weapons like Klay Thompson. He may always be defined as a hustle player, but it isn’t a slight on his talent. It’s the very foundation of his game.
While Siakam’s defense (and the entire Raptors rotation) was stellar, it was his welcome return to form on offense that changed the tenor of the game, quickly. Siakam flirted with perfection for more than half the game, finishing the night hitting 14 of his 17 shots, including a stretch in which he had 11 consecutive makes. Siakam had 26 points in that overtime matchup in November; he had 26 points with 4:19 remaining in the third quarter in Game 1, before finishing with a playoff-career-high 32. Green, whose all-world defense is predicated on being able to read his opponent’s moves a step before they’re made, was often left in the dust defending Siakam on the break or down in the post. It was like a jazz scholar trying to discern ambient drone. Siakam, for all his fluidity on the court, does not play with an easily identifiable rhythm. He has his pet moves on drives—his spin move has earned much-deserved acclaim all season—but with a full head of steam, he often crazy-legs his way into open spaces and jams his body into his defender’s airspace, placing his defender in an awkward position and himself with just enough daylight to let his soft touch carry his vision to fruition. If that sounds a bit like Draymond, it should. But Siakam is a few years younger and a few steps quicker, and at the pinnacle of basketball, every advantage matters—especially when you’re facing a version of yourself.
The Siakam who showed up in Game 1 was a reminder of why the Cameroonian is the favorite to receive the Most Improved Player Award at the end of this season, and a stark departure from the muzzled version we saw in the back half of the second-round series, against the Sixers, and the Eastern Conference finals, against the Bucks. Siakam, who injured his calf in an apparent tripping of Joel Embiid in the Sixers series, hasn’t used his health as an excuse for the past month, but for a player whose game is built on speed and effort, it always seemed more fair to question his comfort level with his right leg than his mental state. The extra days of rest might’ve been just what he needed.
Game 1 has flipped the Raptors narrative on its head. It was one of the best Finals debuts by a team we’ve seen in recent years, and suddenly, the Raptors don’t just have a cavalry riding alongside Kawhi Leonard, they have their legitimate second option back. Leonard may be on a historic individual run these playoffs, but for only the second time in the past three weeks, the Raptors didn’t need an all-time effort from their superstar to win this game. A team that seemingly was dragged into the Finals on the coattails of Kawhi now appears to have a depth advantage. The Warriors played 12 different players in hopes of keeping their three best players fresh, but if this is the Siakam that we’ll be seeing for the rest of the series, that may just force Kerr to ride his best players for longer; Golden State, should it continue without Kevin Durant, just doesn’t have enough talent at the end of its roster to win a series of attrition.
Take a look at the Raptors’ starting lineup: Leonard. Siakam. Gasol. Green. Kyle Lowry. Only Lowry has been a starter for Toronto in the past. This is a completely different team in spirit. For so long, the Raptors have waited for the cyclical nature of the NBA to do them in; this time, if history is to repeat itself, it’ll be in their favor. Siakam, in Year 3, is beginning to replicate the star turn that a Year-3 Kawhi made in San Antonio five years ago, when he won Finals MVP at just 22 years old. In reminding Toronto (and introducing a much, much larger international audience) of just how good he can be, Siakam, 25, might have just given Kawhi the best sales pitch of the year. Elite two-way players who can create plays off the dribble, hit 3s, and do all the dirty work necessary to win games are some of the rarest commodities in the NBA; Kawhi, who can become an unrestricted free agent this July, currently shares a frontcourt with one of them. Their long-term union could change the landscape of the NBA by replicating the kind of symbiotic relationship that Draymond Green has with Steph Curry, which has allowed the two-time MVP to maximize his abilities. Combine the promise of Siakam’s future with the brand-new history they’re creating in the present on this franchise-changing postseason run, and suddenly the Raptors are looking like forerunners. Both now in this series, and in the looming future.