Pascal Siakam didn’t start the second round like he did last year’s Finals. On Sunday, in the Toronto Raptors‘ 112-94 loss to the Boston Celtics, he scored 13 points on 5-for-16 shooting, with three rebounds and two assists. Siakam picked up three fouls in the first eight minutes, missed all three of his 3-point attempts and was visibly frustrated when he didn’t get foul calls in the paint.
In a perfect world, Siakam would have made Game 1 his stage, issuing a reminder that he started in the All-Star Game and was the primary scorer on a team that had a better regular season than it did with Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green in the fold last year. As Toronto coach Nick Nurse said after Monday’s practice, though, now is not an appropriate time to preface anything with in a perfect world.
The 26-year-old forward took predictable criticism on national TV. “Siakam is not a star, he’s a designated star because Kawhi left,” Turner Sports’ Shaquille O’Neal said on “Inside the NBA” on Sunday. Charles Barkley followed up with, “Siakam’s an All-Star, so he’s a heck of a player, but this is his first time in the Batman role.” Both Hall of Famers said it was his responsibility to stay out of foul trouble.
Elsewhere, the Siakam discussion has shifted to the way the Raptors are using him. Against such an excellent defensive team, should they continue to post him up? Is he getting the ball in the right spots?
“I think I got to where I wanted to,” Siakam said in the post-game Zoom conference. “I’ve just got to finish some of the shots that I took.”
Nurse said Toronto always wants to get him involved everywhere — in the post, as a shooter, as a ball-handler, as a screener, in transition — and pointed out that he missed some layups “literally right in front of the basket.” The next day, a reporter asked if the coach had given the post touches more thought.
“They looked pretty good to me, for the most part,” Nurse said. “You know, I thought [Marcus] Smart pulled him into an offensive foul that was a bad call. Right? So that was one that wasn’t very good. He got clearance at about 2 feet on one that he missed the layup. He got two and-1s, so those were pretty good, and he got another bucket over Smart.”
In a column, The Athletic’s Eric Koreen called posting up against Smart a bad idea and suggested that Siakam will be more involved in pick-and-roll actions in Game 2. In general, post-ups are relatively inefficient plays in 2020, and the Philadelphia 76ers had trouble even getting the ball to Joel Embiid on the block against the Celtics, who proved adept at forcing turnovers and closing passing lanes after the catch, too.
But Boston is not defending Siakam the way it defended Embiid. Instead of doubling him, it dared him to attack one-on-one. And in the regular season, Siakam generated 0.972 points per post-up possession, including passes, which is the equivalent of a top-10 halfcourt offense, according to Synergy Sports. Overall, Toronto scored 0.945 points per possession in the halfcourt, according to Cleaning The Glass, which ranked 16th.
No one is about to compare Siakam to Raptors legend Hakeem Olajuwon. He is, however, typically a tough cover around the basket. Few players combine his quickness, strength and length. He has the footwork to create an advantage and the soft touch to finish in tight spaces. On the way to the 2019 title, he got good looks backing down Andre Iguodala, Klay Thompson, Shaun Livingston and even Draymond Green one-on-one, and when the Warriors started double-teaming him, he found open teammates:
All season, Siakam’s post-ups have been a reliable source of offense for Toronto. He doesn’t always make the right decision, but he’s dangerous enough that most teams elect to send help his way. And while he hasn’t been all that efficient offensively in the bubble, it’s not difficult to find recent examples of him scoring or forcing a rotation on the block:
Attacking the Celtics is not the same as attacking what was left of the Brooklyn Nets. Smart is an all-world defender, and Jaylen Brown is on his way there. But Siakam won some of those battles on Sunday, and has won them before:
The thornier issue is whether or not Siakam should try to be his aggressive self against Semi Ojeleye, the hard-to-move reserve forward who got three stops against him in the second half:
I’m not convinced that those were all bad choices, but repeatedly going at Ojeleye isn’t my favorite strategy. More broadly, I’d argue that Siakam needs to make Boston pay for its single coverage. If he can successfully bully Brown and Smart, coach Brad Stevens will have to reconsider his approach. Getting either one in foul trouble would be particularly damaging with Gordon Hayward unavailable. And if Stevens counters by giving the offensively limited Ojeleye more minutes, the Celtics will be easier to stop.
It is only natural that Siakam is under the microscope after the most significant game the Raptors have played since last June. The Raptors’ energy, though, was more concerning than where he operated on the floor. They appeared perturbed by some calls and non-calls at the outset, didn’t play with their usual oomph and fell down by 19 points in the first quarter. Nurse said Monday that they need to do more around Siakam’s post-ups: cutting, spacing, relocation.
This is exactly the point Nurse made during last year’s playoffs when Leonard was getting buckets in isolation. At their best, they blend isos and post-ups into a movement-oriented, five-out attack, making defenses worry about the playmaker with the ball in his hands and everything happening around him. Leonard had a playoff run for the ages in 2019, but Toronto wouldn’t have beaten the Bucks or Warriors without finding an offensive flow that was too often absent against the Celtics on Sunday. If that doesn’t change, it doesn’t matter where Siakam gets the ball.