TORONTO — It wasn’t that long ago when Pascal Siakam was battling OG Anunoby for a starting spot, and now the Toronto Raptors can’t live without him.
Siakam contributed 21 points in Game 2 against the Philadelphia 76ers, but it was far from his best performance. Sixers coach Brett Brown shuffled his coverages and assigned 7-foot-3 Joel Embiid to the job, and Siakam struggled. He went from an ultra-efficient 12-of-15 in Game 1 to a dismal 9-of-25 in Game 2.
In some sense, Siakam should take it as a sign of respect that Brown tasked a perennial Defensive Player of the Year candidate to cover him. It’s a reflection of Siakam’s incredible ascent into stardom that he’s drawing such difficult covers. Brown even said it was Siakam’s similarities to 2019 MVP favorite Giannis Antetokounmpo that gave him the idea of using Embiid.
“You have a hunch, you hope it works well. We’ve had a taste of some success on Joel on Giannis in our Milwaukee series, we felt like there was some similarities there,” Brown explained post game.
Siakam didn’t handle it well in Game 2. He went 0-of-4 from the midrange area, which remains a glaring weakness in his game, and only shot 7-of-14 around the basket. Siakam is at his best when he’s creating controlled chaos, but tonight he was just rushing. Siakam shied away from going into Embiid’s body, and settled for a gaggle of contested push shots against his fellow countryman.
Embiid was rather blunt post game, as he explained that his fellow Cameroonian basically played right into the Sixers’ game plan.
“He shoots a low percentage from anywhere on the top of the key, so the goal was to make him drive, make him go left, and they did a good job today,” Embiid said.
Odds are that Siakam will be better equipped to attack Embiid after seeing the tape. Embiid is flat-out ignoring Siakam on the perimeter, so there will be opportunities to shoot corner 3s, or to use Siakam in screen actions that would give the Raptors a 2-on-1 advantage. Expect more of Siakam playing pick-and-roll with both Kyle Lowry and Kawhi Leonard going forward. The playoffs are about adjustments, and Siakam is dynamic enough to adapt.
But these are just the stakes for Siakam as his career progresses. He will continue to see tougher defenders proportionate to his improvements, and more difficult encounters lay ahead in this playoff run. Siakam will draw one of Al Horford or Antetokounmpo if they reach the next round, and a showdown against DPOY winner Draymond Green awaits if the Raptors advance to the NBA Finals. That’s the type of gauntlet that would break most third year players, but Siakam might just be special enough to make it through. It would be silly to doubt him after he’s come so far in such a short amount of time.
And truth is, the Raptors are counting on Siakam to actually be the real deal, because they’re screwed if he’s not. Leonard is a force of nature who will always score an efficient 30 points, but the Raptors still need a consistent second option to advance any further. Siakam rose to the challenge by averaging 22 points on 53 percent shooting in the first round, but can he do the same against the Sixers? So far he’s one for two, but the Raptors need four of seven.
There’s nobody else to pick up the slack. Lowry gutted it out and finished with 20 points in Game 2, but he couldn’t even capitalize when he got the lead-footed Greg Monroe on a switch. Marc Gasol is a good shooter, but he’s no longer a dominant force around the rim, and his mentality since becoming a Raptor has been to pass first, second, and third. Danny Green strictly feeds off his teammates, and he turned into DeMarre Carroll when the Raptors needed him most. And don’t even look to the bench, because Fred VanVleet, Norman Powell and Serge Ibaka have all forgotten how to play basketball since the playoffs started.
The responsibility falls squarely on Siakam’s shoulder, and he’s not running away from it. The Raptors can’t afford for him to have an off night, and he’s willing to rise to the challenge.
“It’s part of growing, part of learning, and that’s what makes the game so fun, is that you can play so well one day and then the next day, it gets tough and you have to bounce back. I’m sure that’s the character we have on this team. Watch film and get ready for Game 3,” Siakam said.
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