clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

The Raptors Have an Ace in the Hole Against the Warriors. Will They Use It?

Pascal Siakam, the NBA’s Most Improved Player Award favorite, has one big improvement left to make in these playoffs: becoming consistent. The Raptors will need him at his best moving forward. Here’s how they get it out of him.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The last hurdle for Pascal Siakam to clear on his path to stardom is consistency. The 25-year-old forward broke out in his first season as an NBA starter, and he has been even better in the postseason. He was the best player on the floor in the Raptors victory in Game 1 of the Finals, finishing with 32 points on 14-for-17 shooting. The challenge for Siakam has been maintaining that level of play. He has had five games with at least 25 points in the playoffs, and three with fewer than 10. He regressed to the mean in their loss in Game 2, finishing with 12 points on 5-for-18 shooting. Toronto has shown it can compete with Golden State in the first two games of the Finals. The Raptors need to unlock the best version of Siakam to actually beat the Warriors.

There aren’t many NBA players who can run and jump with Siakam. At 6-foot-9 and 230 pounds with a 7-foot-3 wingspan, he’s a mismatch nightmare who uses his combination of length and speed to physically overwhelm his opponents. He gets from Point A to Point B incredibly quickly, and he can finish over the top of most defenders once he gets there. Toronto doesn’t run many plays for him. He creates a lot of his offense off of his own activity, whether it’s getting out in transition, crashing the offensive glass, or cutting into open areas. That was on full display in Game 1, when he repeatedly beat Draymond Green to spots on the floor.

But Siakam is more than an energy big man. He has a fairly well-rounded offensive game, too. He’s an excellent ball handler for a player his size, and he can switch effortlessly between facing up and posting up to go wherever he wants on the court. Siakam is constantly in attack mode, using his speed to get around slower defenders and his length to put smaller ones on his back. He has great touch around the rim, as well as a developing jumper and the ability to find the open man when the defense sends help. There isn’t much that any defender can do when every part of his game is clicking. Siakam is averaging 19 points on 46.7 percent shooting in the playoffs, but the most intriguing part of his statistical profile is the flashes of things besides scoring. He is averaging 29.2 percent shooting from 3 on 4.5 attempts per game, to go with 2.7 assists and 1.3 turnovers.

The problem for the Raptors is that they are still just flashes. Siakam can do a lot of different things on a basketball court, but his only elite skill is his energy. His jumper comes and goes, and defenses leave him open on the perimeter when he doesn’t have the ball. He doesn’t have a Plan B if he can’t physically overwhelm his defender. One of the big adjustments the 76ers made in their second-round loss to the Raptors was switching Joel Embiid onto Siakam after he exploded for 29 points on 12-for-15 shooting in Game 1. He averaged 17.8 points on 38.5 percent shooting over the next six games. He couldn’t get around Embiid, who played a step off of him and dared him to shoot.

The Warriors may have found a similarly effective adjustment in the second half of Game 2 on Sunday. They put Andre Iguodala, one of the best perimeter defenders in NBA history, on Siakam after falling behind 59-54 at halftime. Even at the age of 35, Iguodala still has quick hands and feet, as well as the strength and toughness to hold his own in wrestling matches with bigger players. He’s also a very smart player who always seems to be in the right place to make a play on defense. Iguodala hasn’t allowed Siakam to get anything easy, holding him to two points on 1-for-3 shooting in 20 possessions as the primary defender in the series.

The struggle for Toronto throughout the playoffs has been finding secondary sources of offense to back up Kawhi Leonard, who has been playing like an all-time great. Golden State didn’t just change up its coverages on Siakam in the second half of Game 2. The Warriors shuffled all of their most important defensive assignments, moving Iguodala from Leonard to Siakam, Draymond from Siakam to Kyle Lowry, and Klay Thompson from Lowry to Kawhi. The Raptors didn’t know what hit them, giving up an 18-0 run that effectively ended the game. The switches allowed the Warriors to account for Siakam’s strengths and Draymond’s weaknesses. Green may be outmatched physically by Siakam, but he can still stay in front of Lowry without conceding open shots. He went from a defensive liability in Game 1 to being a stopper in Game 2. Lowry and Siakam combined for 25 points on 9-for-29 shooting, which allowed Golden State to live with a big game (34 points on 8-for-20 shooting) from Kawhi.

Getting Siakam going will be one of the keys for Toronto in Game 3 on Wednesday. He needs the right matchup to be successful. There is no guarantee that he will have any more success against Iguodala than he did in Game 2. He doesn’t have the same edge in quickness in that duel that he does against Draymond, and he can’t overpower Iguodala, either. Toronto head coach Nick Nurse will have to adjust his lineups. The biggest mismatch for Siakam among the other Golden State starters is DeMarcus Cousins, who had a big offensive game in Game 2 (11 points and six assists), but hid on Marc Gasol on defense. It’s hard to imagine Cousins, who is still recovering from injuries to his quad and Achilles, being able to stick with Siakam in space.

Playing Siakam at the 5 would have a number of advantages for Toronto. It would also allow the Raptors to keep their best perimeter shot-creators (Lowry and Fred VanVleet) and defender (Danny Green) on the floor at the same time. They can’t play all three while also playing Kawhi, Siakam, and one of their 5s (Gasol or Serge Ibaka). There would be nowhere to hide Cousins against a small-ball lineup. Either he would have to guard Siakam or Kawhi, or he would have to chase a guard around the 3-point line. Golden State would be caught in the horns of a dilemma. The Warriors need Cousins on offense, especially if Thompson and Kevon Looney are limited after suffering injuries in Game 2, but he would kill them on defense.

But while Nurse has made his name as a fairly flexible coach, he has been reluctant to play Siakam at the 5 in the playoffs. Siakam has played far more as a 3 next to both Gasol and Ibaka (36 minutes) than he has without either (three minutes). There are several complicating factors. Toronto went to jumbo lineups to match up with Philadelphia, whose perimeter size made life difficult for its smaller guards. The absence of OG Anunoby, who has been out the entire playoffs after undergoing an emergency appendectomy, left them without many reliable perimeter options. Gasol and Ibaka are two of the only players whom Nurse trusts, which makes it hard to bench both. Anunoby was active in Game 2 for the first time all postseason, but it would be a huge gamble to play him considering how long he has been out.

Nurse may not have a choice. The shadow looming over the Finals is the potential return of Kevin Durant, who has been out for the past month with a strained calf. While Golden State has shown it can win without Durant in the playoffs, his presence would make life so much harder for Toronto. The Raptors have been able to play gimmick defenses to slow down Curry, including a box-and-one in the fourth quarter of Game 2, because they don’t respect his supporting cast. Durant wouldn’t just make the Warriors better on offense, either. He would also give them another elite defender to put on Siakam. Golden State hasn’t been able to go to its best small-ball lineups in the Finals because it doesn’t have enough perimeter depth. The Warriors don’t have a fifth option to round out the Lineup of Death, which has forced them to play Draymond next to more limited big men, instead of unleashing him at the 5.

The Raptors have never deployed Siakam in the same way. He has some similarities to Draymond, most notably his ability to defend players at all five positions. He guarded Draymond in Game 1, switched onto Thompson in Game 2, and spent significant amounts of time on Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton, and Eric Bledsoe in the Eastern Conference finals. Siakam has the physical tools and defensive IQ to protect the rim, as well as the playmaking and finishing ability to be an excellent roll man. Moving him to the 5 and using him in the two-man game would also force defenders to stay on him, instead of roaming off of him when he is playing off the ball at the 3-point line.

Few players have developed in the NBA as much as Siakam, who was taken with the no. 27 overall pick in the 2016 draft. He may grow into a player who can dominate no matter who is guarding him, or what position he plays. The Raptors just don’t have time to wait. There is no guarantee they will keep Kawhi when he enters free agency this summer, or that they will get back to the Finals even if they do. They need Siakam to be a consistent no. 2 option to win a championship. The best way for them to do that is to play smaller lineups that force a bigger and slower defender like Cousins to guard him. Siakam’s game is based on creating mismatches. Toronto needs to create bigger ones for him in order to beat Golden State.