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Pascal Siakam’s NBA playoff baptism by fire

After a regular-season joy ride, the Raptors emerging star experienced speed bumps leading up to the NBA Finals. What do they mean for his future?

Pascal Siakam spent his third NBA season basking in the glory of unconditional praise. His vault from “tantalizing role-player” to “eyebrow-raising battle-ax” was swift enough to exceed even the highest expectations. In short time, the 25-year-old became an NBA darling, the unflappable do-it-all who savaged opponents on both ends while blending unearthly athleticism with the energy of a triathlon addict.

Siakam was likable, assured, and imposing as a central part of a ferocious contender, inside a role that unexpectedly exploded within Nick Nurse’s up-tempo offense. The stress of Kawhi Leonard’s contract year was unavoidable for the entire organization, but Siakam’s Most Improved Player campaign made the Raptors feel less vulnerable about the future, regardless of what happens in July. Siakam scored at least 20 points in 26 games this year. Last season, he cracked 20 once, in a late October loss to the Golden State Warriors.

The success seemingly put reasonable concerns about his game holding up during a lengthy playoff run to bed. You could suddenly count on Siakam to not only find his own groove, but assume control of the game’s entire rhythm. He was the Raptors’ Randy Moss, running the NBA’s most enjoyable fly pattern.

Even when things ground to a halt, Siakam knew how to dip and duck his way through the gears of a methodical half-court action. He went from 27 total isolations to 121. Post-ups rose from 12 to 148. The percentage of his assisted baskets fell 16 percent, while help scoring at the rim became unnecessary. Most importantly, he nailed 38 percent of his spot-up threes, up from an atrocious 22 percent in 2017-18. Only four players had a better overall plus/minus, and three were Steph Curry, Kevin Durant, and Giannis Antetokounmpo.

This was now a borderline all-star whose name even popped into semi-serious All-NBA consideration. When the lights shined bright, he would exploit the opposing team’s weaknesses instead of turning into a victim.

But Siakam’s postseason — at least before a brilliant Game 1 of the NBA Finals in which he scored 32 points in a Toronto victory — hadn’t been nearly as smooth as anyone who watched him coast through the winter thought it’d be.

The postseason’s grueling nature tends to expose flaws that can otherwise stay concealed for 82 games. It’s when stakes skyrocket and the same two teams have nothing to ponder except ways to beat each other up. It’s where “two feet become two inches,” an adage that illustrates how drawbacks expand beneath a microscope.

For Siakam, the luxury of playing out in transition has dwindled. Against set defenders, he’s taken more spot-up corner threes and mid-range attempts than he launched during the regular season. Unfortunately, they haven’t dropped — Siakam is shooting only 30 percent on corner threes despite jacking up 10 more than anybody else in the playoffs. Some of this can be chalked up to bad luck — he canned 42 percent of them during the regular season — but it’s not a great sign when the other team keeps allowing the shot. (Only Marc Gasol has attempted more wide-open threes than Siakam’s 65 in the playoffs. He’s only made 27.7 percent of them. That number was 38.5 percent during the regular season.)

The Philadelphia 76ers and Milwaukee Bucks both found ways to make Siakam squirm inside those “two inches.” Joel Embiid spent 186 possessions on him in the second round (more than anyone else in the entire playoffs) while Antetokounmpo and Brook Lopez were Siakam’s primary defender for 253 possessions in the conference finals. He shot 35.7 percent against Embiid and 40.3 percent against Antetokounmpo and Lopez. That size kept Siakam from partying at the rim (his field goal percentage there dropped 11 percent from the regular season) and allowed his man to stifle penetration elsewhere while he stood in the corner.

The calf injury Siakam suffered in Game 3 in the second round might explain some of his relative sluggishness, but the sheer length of those three players also impacted his effectiveness. No player has had more of his two-point shots blocked in these playoffs than Siakam. During the regular season, just over five percent of Siakam’s twos were blocked. That’s up to more than 11 percent in the playoffs.

Everything Siakam still can’t do has surfaced enough to be worrisome. At times, he can’t score unless it’s off an advantage created by someone else’s penetration. The menacing bite we saw throughout the regular season floats in and out. Sometimes he’s more observer than participant, thinker than doer.

But not every team can discomfit Siakam with colossal monsters like Embiid and Antetokounmpo. In Game 1, Golden State put Draymond Green on Siakam, ostensibly to letlet the former Defensive Player of the Year roam as a helper and force Kawhi Leonard to play in a crowd. This strategy will be critical if the Raptors follow LeBron James and James Harden precedents by battering Curry with a tidal wave of ball screens.

But that matchup cuts both ways. Putting Siakam on Green all but obliterated the 4-on-3 advantages Golden State has enjoyed whenever two defenders trap Curry in the pick-and-roll. Instead, the Raptors can simply switch it, then help off non-shooters. Siakam only allowed 0.80 points per possession as a defender in isolation, and in the playoffs, that number has dropped to a ridiculous 0.35, best among all players who’ve tallied at least 15 possessions.

Toronto wouldn’t be in its first NBA Finals if not for Siakam’s defense, on the ball, and even more so off it. Siakam has a habit of soaring from one side of the lane to the other with faster closing speed than, well, anybody? His timing is remarkable. He’s also a cat burglar in tight quarters, with subtle, seamless switches on and away from the action.

He combines unteachable anticipation with arms that never end, and always puts himself in the right place at the right time. Some of his steals look like passes that were actually intended for him. On the play below, he’s moving before the ball is airborne!

These playoffs won’t erase Siakam’s progress, but they do stunt some of the excitement Toronto had for its unexpected foundational piece. With their future unknown no matter what happens in the Finals, what Siakam is and can still be becomes a pivotal question for Masai Ujiri and the Raptors’ front office.

If Leonard stays, nothing changes except everyone’s comfort level. The Raptors will be better next year, able to flow without a piano dangling overhead. But if he leaves, Siakam becomes more prominent. His touches will balloon and better defenders will check him. Perhaps he’ll be able to benefit off sprawlball in the same way Green, Antetokounmpo, and Ben Simmons have (or theoretically can): as physical freaks who excel in transition, with the ball in their hands, surrounded by shooters, while providing Defensive Player of the Year work on the other end. Does Siakam have the playmaking chops for that responsibility?

Siakam has shown an ability to feel a defense out. He can draw two opponents off the bounce and then throw it back to a popping big man, or, when afforded a mismatch in the post, sense where help is coming from and know how to time a kick-out.

He usually does all this with extraordinarily gifted teammates also on the floor, and sometimes it’s hard to disentangle that surrounding talent from Siakam’s own ability to make those around him better. If he isn’t a high-usage focal point, Siakam’s ceiling “drops” to that of a fun, talented two-way building block, but not someone worth molding an entire roster around.

Either way, he’s eligible for a contract extension after this season ends. If the Raptors can’t lock him up on a team-friendly deal, he’ll hit restricted free agency next summer and will command max offer sheets from rival suitors.

Holding onto Siakam no matter what happens with Leonard is a no-brainer, but how great he and the Raptors can then be is more of a question than it was six weeks ago.