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Pascal Siakam does everything when you least expect it

The Toronto Raptors’ forward cannot be stopped because he weaponizes his idiosyncratic tendencies.

To understand the essence of Pascal Siakam, the hero of the Raptors’ Game 1 NBA Finals victory over the Warriors, all you have to do is watch one 22-second sequence from a Game 2 first-round playoff victory over the Orlando Magic. (OK, so maybe you need to watch it a few times.)

In that short time span, Siakam:

  • Fronted Aaron Gordon in the post, rather than be distracted by the pick-and-roll being set up at the top of the key.
  • Locked and trailed Gordon’s tight curl into the lane when said misdirection failed.
  • Switched onto the bigger Nikola Vucevic, even though Marc Gasol was also scurrying back to him.
  • Stood up the bigger Vucevic in the post to enable Gasol to reach in and force the turnover.
  • Sprinted the wing to create a transition opportunity.
  • Finished with a right-handed dunk.

Any of those six tasks, by themselves, would have benefited the Raptors. It would have been enough if he simply fronted Gordon, or if he simply stopped Vucevic’s post-up, or even if he sprinted the floor to benefit from a turnover two other Raptors teammates created. But it’s only because Siakam followed through on all six that the Raptors got a critical four-point swing that converted a lead from 10 to 14.

There are other players in the NBA that can do those isolated things. But there isn’t another NBA player who actually does all six of those tasks in one 22-second span. Only Siakam plays so counterintuitively that a possession designed to take advantage of his supposed weaknesses instead showcased all of his greatest strengths.

Siakam’s game is impossible to define in any common basketball way. He’s not the first or maybe even second name on any Raptors scouting reports, yet he’s the one player the team cannot live without. Given all their personnel changes, injuries, and years of playoff baggage, Siakam’s ability to be a total wild card on any given night has been the Raptors’ one constant.

And after an up-and-down East playoff run, Siakam is showing the Warriors just how devastating a player he really is.

Expect Pascal Siakam to subvert opponents’ expectations

Identifying his tendencies on either end of the floor is fruitless because he’ll just flip them on their head. Defend him like a big man, and he’ll just become a point guard and run pick-and-roll.

Assume he’s more guard than big man, and he’ll back down and spin your guard into circles in the post.

Try to make him score, and he will. Try to make him pass, and he will. Try to leave him alone and load up on the Raptors’ other scorers, and he’ll increasingly knock down open looks, especially from the corner, where he’s upped his shooting percentages from 24 percent last year to 42 percent this season. Making him shoot is still best-case scenario, because he becomes more dangerous when he uses the space handed to him to drive, cut, spin, or somehow all three without dribbling.

Opponents also can’t run away from him on the other end. Trying to attack him off the dribble with quick guards has never really worked, even if those quick guards also are strong as hell. Even when pushed back, Siakam has the balance to stay upright and quick-jump forward to close the space most others would yield.

Life is even worse for opponents when they let him roam around off the ball. Siakam is the scariest closeout artist in the league, thanks to his court awareness, rapid reaction time, lateral speed, and 7’3’’ wingspan. Nobody came close to contesting more three-point shots this season, per’s player tracking data. He blocked more corner threes (eight) than 22 entire teams.

If anything, these stats undersell his lateral speed. They don’t account for countless closeouts that are so scary that they prevent a shot from even going up.

Nor do they fully illuminate the state of confusion Siakam causes on plays like this, where he flies past a shooter, yet redeems himself twice over by hustling to stone Goran Dragic and Dwyane Wade.

Siakam’s able to do all of those things because even his footwork subverts expectations. We think well-rounded basketball players are such because they can dribble or shoot with either hand, but the key to Siakam’s success is that his feet are also ambidextrous. He can plant off the right or left foot, no matter which one is the “inside foot” and which one is the “outside foot.”

That’s allows him to get off those soft floaters that swish or kiss beautifully off the glass. He doesn’t need to actually create space to get by Brook Lopez on this drive. All he has to do is attack and then glide off his outside foot before Lopez can react.

This is technically considered a “wrong-footed” bucket, because it’s designed to get a shot up quickly rather than taking the extra step to power through a defender. But Siakam doesn’t have to sacrifice power for a quick release, nor does he lose any touch because he can control his body while leaping off either foot.

This is also the reason his spin move is so vicious. It is even quicker than most spins because Siakam is able to take on-balance shots from these foot positions, saving him a step the defense could use to recover.

Of course, he’s not just a wrong-footed driver. If a defender tries anticipate his quick-shot tricks, he can cut off their angle by leaping off the inside foot, as he did to Myles Turner on this play.

Or, make them look incredibly silly by pirouetting back the other way.

What player his size has this much acceleration and closing speed, all while using his feet in the opposite way most pros are taught? Even if an opponent is able to wrap its head around these odd tendencies, Siakam has so many quirks that it’s impossible to predict when, where, and how he’ll use them.

It’s no accident, then, that he particularly thrives within the chaos of transition, when the game’s existing structures are crumbling and reforming at rapid speed.

Pascal Siakam fast-forwards the Raptors to success

He is a one-man opportunity creator, conjuring chances for the Raptors no matter how prepared the opponent may be. According to Cleaning the Glass, a subscription-based advanced stat site engineered by former Trail Blazers and 76ers executive Ben Falk, Toronto led the league in points per possession on transition opportunities and most additional points created in such situations. They were also tops in both categories when narrowed down to transition opportunities that came specifically off defensive rebounds, rather than including turnovers. In plain English, that means Toronto created the most chaos situations in the league and converted them most effectively, a double whammy that makes them difficult to scout.

Siakam is the linchpin of that approach, whether he has the ball or not. In a league full of grab-and-go forwards that snatch rebounds and immediately push without an outlet pass, nobody transitions from grab to go as quickly Siakam.

The opponent can’t figure out what Siakam’s trying to do at full speed because he waits until the last moment to decide himself. That led to cringe-worthy turnovers early in his career, but the Raptors let him experiment anyway. The effect of that patience can be found with unlikely finishes and head-twisting passes from odd angles that somehow find their mark perfectly.

Nobody — nobody — runs the wing like Siakam when he doesn’t grab the board. He flies off the line of scrimmage like an Arena Football wide receiver, sprinting past the last defender for layups, deep post-ups, or simply to occupy one defender and open space for a teammate. It’s common for him to begin a change-of-possession as the furthest away from the bucket and still end up behind every other defender.

The end result is that Toronto picks up a handful of cheap points other teams wouldn’t. When Siakam is on the court, the Raptors average nearly 20 fast break points per 100 possessions, an elite number. When he’s on the bench, that number dips to 14.5 per 100 possessions — still good, but not elite. That difference is often what decides games, especially ones in the playoffs, where scoring points in half-court situations is often at a premium.

In a literal sense, Siakam is a wild card. He provides whatever additive, unique element his own team needs, using methods his opponents aren’t used to seeing and cannot predict even once they learn all of them.

There is no mold for Pascal Siakam

It’s common to see Siakam referred to as an “energy player,” even if it’s meant as a “GREAT thing” because “there’s so few guys in this league who play with his speed, energy, and passion,” as ESPN’s Jeff Van Gundy insisted during a March 20 ESPN Raptors-Thunder broadcast.

Siakam pushes back on such coded language because it reduces his attributes to physical characteristics rather than classifying them as a combination of outstanding skill and intelligence. It’s why he’s embraced the nickname “P-Skills,” to the point that it’s now his Twitter handle.

“I think it’s like a stigma with a lot of African players,” Siakam told CBS Sports’ James Herbert. “You come in, and we’re just bigs. We’re supposed to run the floor and do these things. But I always wanted to break that cycle.”

In addition to perpetuating racial stereotypes, defining Siakim as merely an “energy player” is a horribly incomplete way to describe the complexity and skill of his actual game. He does too many things too well to fit any mold. He confounds too many opponents by doing the unexpected to fit any cycle. There is only one Pascal Siakam.