With just over 10 minutes remaining, the Raptors were in dangerous territory. Philadelphia had just cut the lead to one on a pair of James Harden free-throws and handed the same test to Pascal Siakam that they did in Game 3: Be The Man.
The fourth quarter of Game 3 was a tough pill to swallow, after leading by as many as 17 points Toronto found a way to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory with Siakam failing to score a single point in the second half or overtime. Upon reviewing the film, the Cameroonian was surprised to learn he only attempted five shots and so the biggest takeaway was that he needed to be more aggressive.
He certainly started Game 4 with the right mindset, but the real test was here, when the Raptors were down to 10 minutes to save the season. At first, he drove to set up a Precious Achiuwa three-pointer that clanked off the rim, and after an offensive rebound, did the same to tee up an OG Anunoby attempt that fell short.
Selfishness is most often considered a negative trait, that any display of it is inconsiderate or sometimes even harmful to others. Within the context of team sports, though, there are times when it is actually unselfishness that can harm. Knowing that one is the best scorer on the team but excessively deferring to teammates because that is what the defence is tempting you to do can make one unselfish to a fault. In uncertain times, people generally look to their leaders for guidance. When the night is as dark as an 0-3 series deficit in a best-of-seven, you need a hero.
On the Sixers’ next possession, Siakam stuffed Harden at the rim and then took the ball down the court, recognized a mismatch with Tyrese Maxey in transition and went right at him towards the basket. He knocked a free throw, then had the second make revoked for a lane violation. Philly came down the floor and now looked to go at Siakam through a Tobias Harris post-up, Siakam drew an offensive foul. Now facing another opportunity to attack matched up against Georges Niang, Siakam went to the basket again and not only made the shot but drew the foul as well. Another Philly possession, another moment where Siakam stamped his authority by helping Achiuwa with a double-team on Joel Embiid and forcing another turnover. In transition, Siakam bolted towards the basket before laying the ball off to Achiuwa for a layup.
Philadelphia called timeout, but it was too little, too late to escape from this Siakam tornado. All told after those Harden free-throws with just over 10 minutes remaining, Siakam scored or assisted on 20 of the next 24 points before exiting with a little over a minute remaining and the Raptors up 12. The only four points he didn’t account for were an Achiuwa free throw after a foul at the basket courtesy a pass he made, a technical foul shot by Gary Trent Jr., and a spectacular individual move by Achiuwa pulling off an audacious in-and-out dribble with his left hand before finishing at the basket with his right.
This was a game that featured several teammates including Rookie of the Year Scottie Barnes returning from a left ankle injury being stars in their role for the Raptors but was ultimately going to need its biggest star to shine brightest and he found a way to score a playoff career-high 34 points that included a season-high 15 trips to the free-throw line to go along with eight rebounds, five assists, a steal, and his usual stellar defence.
“I was probably more assertive and not a lot of looking around,” Siakam said after the game. “Taking whatever’s there, like I talked about earlier, just attacking and taking advantage of whatever I feel is an advantage and making the right play or at least trying to make the right play.”
Siakam has steadily risen to every challenge thrown his way this season so why should we let it surprise us that he was able to take the lessons of Game 3 and apply them immediately to Game 4? As we’ve seen with his ascension to this point, just as the spin move is his trademark on the court, it’s his ability to speed learn that is his most impressive trait off it.
The championship run showed that this isn’t a player who shies away from the spotlight. It almost feels as if what Siakam did in the NBA Finals doesn’t get enough credit because of Kawhi Leonard and Kyle Lowry’s exploits and the main thing people talk about when remembering his performance is the championship clinching shot over Draymond Green in Game 6. Quick reminder: He also finished with 26 points and 10 rebounds in that game while shooting 59 percent from the field. In Game 1 of those Finals he had 32 points on 82 percent shooting to go along with eight rebounds and five assists and he tacked on another 37 points,15 rebounds and seven assists across Toronto’s two other wins in the series. In the dramatic seven-game East Semis against the Sixers that year he scored at least 20 points in five of the seven games. Yet, the recency bias of the series against the Boston Celtics in the bubble in a new role he had in that series still reigns supreme. Oh, by the way, he was still on his rookie contract that season.
Yes, it is absolutely a completely different challenge to thrive as a secondary or tertiary scoring option than it is the No. 1, but he is now in just his second year of the rookie max contract extension he signed which shouldn’t be confused with a veteran max contract. The easy, even lazy answer is to conclude that when someone doesn’t do something it’s because they can’t. The truth, sometimes — and especially when they’re young — may just be that they can’t… yet. For someone like Siakam who has proven himself to be amongst the league’s quickest learners, the answer as to when that might be may come sooner than expected, too.
There are those who may wonder if 28 in a sporting context can be considered young, and sports science would lead us to believe that’s an overwhelming yes. 30 no longer spells doomsday the way it once did, and Siakam is reasonably looking at another five to seven years of high level play as long he maintains his current level of dedication to fitness and nutrition. Placing an imaginary ticking time bomb on him because of his age would be shortsighted.
All season long, Toronto’s theme has been growth and development, giving young players the room to make mistakes and learn from them with the hope that it could accelerate their learning curve. For some it clicked sooner than others but, on the whole, the season has been a huge success because of the lengthy strides that have been made. Perhaps lost in this shuffle is the fact that the ones leading them are themselves experiencing certain aspects of life in the NBA for the first time, namely getting their first full crack at being at the forefront of taking a franchise forward after the iconic Kyle Lowry departed in the off-season.
Siakam and Fred VanVleet have put that perspective in the rear-view mirror through their stellar play over the course of the season, the former likely on course for an All-NBA Third Team selection and the latter earning his first All-Star selection back in February. When the younger ones were struggling to come to terms with the defensive principles and the nightly requisite intensity and effort, VanVleet was the biggest reason the team stayed afloat. When VanVleet and OG Anunoby both struggled with injury after the all-star break, it was Siakam who did the heavy lifting in helping the Raptors earn a direct playoff berth and extend the learning opportunities not just for the youngest members of the roster, but himself.
“A lot, definitely a lot,” Siakam said of how much he still learns. “What I was two years ago, it’s not the same thing I am now as a player. I think you command a lot more and, for me, I feel like as long as I go out there and I take the shots that I feel like I should be taking and I keep being aggressive, I'm okay with that. Everything's always gonna balance out and I think that the experience from just being in the playoffs, we all learn from it.
“I think that even players that’s been in the league for a long time, that's been in many playoff games, I'm sure that there's some serious way to learn something about themselves or about their game or how they can evolve and I think that we all continue to grow as players and the playoffs are kind of like the perfect time for that to understand different things about your game.”
What Siakam mainly needed to learn was that aggression doesn’t always come in the form of attacking the basket. With the Sixers selling out on packing the paint in Game 3, they dared Siakam to show intent with his jumper and that he was comfortable taking that shot. Instead, he kept looking for the drive and missed out on some opportunities to take a shot that he’s taken and made time after time in the regular season and when he did end up taking them it came as a last resort with the shot clock winding down rather than the blueprint. In Game 4, he took six jumpers in the fourth quarter alone but he also got to the line 11 times. Siakam showed in the regular season he’s become a player who can do it all but it’s a process in carrying over that mentality from regular season to playoffs.
Siakam was overly passive in the second half of Game 3, and that’s a big part of why Toronto fell into the impossible hole that 0-3 has proven to be in the NBA playoffs. He’s just as big a part of why that deficit has been cut to 1-3, and now he’ll have to dig even deeper, that’s life as the man. The key is in taking the lumps that come with it and coming back better the next day. That’s what Siakam did on Saturday.
Under the bright lights of the post-season, it is the stars who bear the biggest burden and so it becomes easy to be blinded by the ebbs and flows that come with each win or loss. In a season that has been all about growth, and in a series against Mr. Process himself, there’s more trust to be had in a player who’s still very much learning and improving.