Have fun again—that’s what Pascal Siakam said he wanted to do at the beginning of the season after coming off a playoff performance in the bubble that can kindly be labelled as disappointing.
Siakam felt as though he had let his team down after a regular season performance that saw him earn a spot on the All-NBA Second Team. The impact of not having played basketball for over four months because of the pandemic had clearly taken its toll.
Since then, it’s been a mission to rediscover that player the Raptors thought enough of to offer a four-year extension worth $137M, but the unmistakable, infectious smile is back and so is his game.
“It’s been a crazy year,” Siakam said Thursday after dropping a career-high 44 points on the surging Washington Wizards. “My mentality is just that: Eventually, the storm ends. Just got to continue to keep getting better, continue to work on my game, learn things that are going to get me to the next level. I think that’s my focus: Try to win every game [when] we go out there and give it everything we’ve got, do everything that you can to help the team win, and just live with the results.”
Taking away what can be classified as a three-game blip between April 27 and May 1, Siakam has averaged 25.8 points, 7.7 rebounds, and 4.5 assists while shooting 49.2 percent from the field and 84.3 percent from the free-throw line (6.7 attempts) in 19 games since March 22. The All-Star level play is well and truly back.
And yet, the forest is being missed for the trees. The in-and-outs at the end of games have left an indelible image in many fans’ eyes. His performances in the clutch this season have certainly left much to be desired. He has shot 35 percent from the field (40 attempts), 1-of-7 from three, and 72.7 percent from the free-throw line when the game is within five points in the final five minutes, and has made some, frankly, bizarre decisions that have led to costly turnovers.
“Being put in these situations where you have the ball and you have to make the right decision at the end of the game, I think, obviously, I feel like it’s just something new,” Siakam said. “Just learning from those experiences, I feel like a lot of players go through their career and don’t get to be in these situations and I’ve been blessed to be in those situations and no matter the outcome, just learning from it.
“I think that’s something that I feel I can only get better from; it’s all those moments and you learn from it and you hope to make the right decision the next time.”
There needs to be improvement in his decisiveness during those moments if the Raptors are going to be championship contenders with its existing core. But the dismissive approach to everything else he’s doing because of those struggles is strange to say the least and is a bit of being a prisoner of the moment as well. Siakam was plenty clutch just last season before the world shut down, shooting 52 percent from the field, including 4-of-8 from deep, and 82.3 percent at the line as the No. 1 option in the last five minutes of games within five points.
“I didn’t really know a lot about him besides what I saw outside looking in,” newcomer Gary Trent Jr. said of his impressions of Siakam before joining the Raptors. “Now, being close and being able to see what he does every day, knowing his approach to the game, how he works…. Him on the plane either telling jokes or just talking to guys and making conversation. The little things like that. He’s great to be around… To be around him and be able to play with him has been fun.”
Perhaps some of the hyperfocus on what Siakam has been bad at stems from some feeling they’ve seen this movie before with DeMar DeRozan and are having to relive the possibility of a No. 1 option with real flaws. The LeBronto scars run deep. Has Kawhi Leonard made anyone beneath that seem unworthy? To truly appreciate the championship is to understand what the journey was all about and everything that went into building up to the DeRozan-Leonard trade, not just what came after it.
What stands out about Siakam’s improvement this season is his handle, his mid-range shooting, and the aggressiveness with which he’s been attacking the basket. All of those are related and come back to work ethic and getting those reps in. Siakam’s dribble game seemed to have taken a nosedive after the extended break last season and it has been a steady process throughout this jam-packed regular season to get it back.
Siakam couldn’t find a home he wanted until after Super Bowl LV, the second week of February. With Tom Brady’s Buccaneers surging to the championship, demand was high even during a pandemic. He was living at the hotel the team initially set up when they moved to Tampa, Florida just a couple weeks before training camp and had been there long enough to know the hotel staff by name. Throw in the forced absence from the team between late February and mid-March due to health and safety protocols and continuing to get booed at home and it’s been—as Nick Nurse has called it—cement wall after cement wall thrown at the team. Yet, here is Siakam, continuing to stand tall with his teammates and power through their 72 road games and take the blows that come with it.
“For me, it’s that he’s getting buckets in a variety of ways and that he’s playing at the other end like he can, because he is a super defender,” Nurse said about what he’s encouraged by. “And that’s not easy to do, to be the guy that’s putting up 25-plus some nights 30, 40, whatever it is, and still producing at the other end as well and that’s it. He’s a tremendous talent, he’s a tremendous person, and we’re trying to continue to build his game. There’s always going to be things to add and things to work on.”
Siakam missed a three-point shot that could have tied the game as the overtime buzzer sounded against the Wizards. He and VanVleet exchanged knowing smiles suggesting, Hey, that’s just how this season has gone. Siakam joined Kawhi Leonard and Vince Carter as the only players in Raptors franchise history to record a 40-10-5 game with his 44 points, 11 rebounds, and seven assists, but the loss virtually ended all hope the Raptors could feature in the play-in tournament. That now brings the off-season closer and with that, another chance for Siakam to grow, another chance to get better, another chance to have more fun.