Pascal Siakam, Raptors Already Putting Kevin Durant-Less Warriors on Notice
TORONTO, CANADA - MAY 30: Pascal Siakam #43 of the Toronto Raptors reacts to a play during Game One of the NBA Finals against the Golden State Warriors on May 30, 2019 at Scotiabank Arena in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2019 NBAE (Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images)

Joe Murphy/Getty Images

Star power remains the most effective way to win an NBA title. The Golden State Warriors, at full strength, have noticeably more superstar heft than the Toronto Raptors

Without Kevin Durant, though? Not so much. They’re supposed to have the edge anyway. Whether they actually do is very much to be determined. 

Pascal Siakam is why. He led the way for the Raptors during their 118-109 victory over the Warriors on Thursday night, tallying 32 points, eight rebounds, five assists and two blocks on impressive 14-of-17 shooting from the floor.

Just to put his performance in perspective, here’s every other player to match those benchmarks in an NBA Finals game since 1974:

  • Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (eight times)
  • LeBron James (five times)
  • Julius Erving (twice)
  • Kobe Bryant
  • Tim Duncan
  • Kevin Durant
  • Dwyane Wade 

That’s a pretty OK list to join. And this company Siakam now keeps reinforces a larger point: Kawhi Leonard isn’t the Raptors’ singular source of star power. They have Siakam, and they have Kyle Lowry, and they have Marc Gasol.

They are more than the player who carried them here. 

This isn’t just about Thursday night. Overreacting to a 1-0 series lead is dangerous. Things can, and will, change quickly.

Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson received minimal help from their supporting cast. The rest of the team combined to shoot 5-of-16 from beyond the arc. They will be better.

The Warriors lived with Gasol, Siakam and Danny Green firing wide-open threes in the first half. They will adjust.

Nine days is a long time to rest. They will find a greater rhythm.

Kevin Durant’s partially torn calf muscle, meanwhile, looms over this entire series. He traveled with the team but isn’t expected to suit up for Game 2. His absence humanizes the Warriors, even if only slightly on some nights. His return, if it comes, stands to upset-proof them once more.

And yet, to completely ignore the Raptors’ Game 1 performance is an equal miscalculation. They had a chance entering the NBA Finals—happy-to-be-here optimism rooted in Durant’s absence, but a form of hope all the same.

That conditional optimism is now something more. The Raptors’ case has fewer strings attached, not just because of Game 1, but because everyone around Leonard already started peaking before it.

Siakam’s iconic stat line is an extreme, but it’s not a complete deviation. He has jockeyed with Lowry all season for the rights to Toronto’s fictive “Second-Best Player” award, and the Raptors are no stranger to him outperforming everyone else on the floor.

He is the favorite to win Most Improved Player honors. He earned almost as many second-team All-Defense votes (24) as Leonard (29). Leonard, Danilo Gallinari and Karl-Anthony Towns were the only other players this season to clear 19 points, seven rebounds, three assists and one made three-pointer per 36 minutes with a true shooting percentage north of 60.

Skeptics received license to doubt Siakam’s rise in the Eastern Conference Finals. He shot just 40 percent from the floor overall and 25 percent on threes, and Toronto’s half-court offense felt it.

That was one series, and it came after Siakam suffered a calf injury during the Raptors’ second-round matchup with the Philadelphia 76ers.

Six games is not a large enough sample to write off an entire season—or even his first two series. And his defense never wavered. Playoff opponents were scoring just 0.35 points per possession against him in isolation entering Thursday night. 

This is not meant to imply “Best Player on the Floor” is Siakam’s default setting. In a series against the Warriors, against Curry, it can’t be. But don’t let Draymond Green’s sentiments fool you. Siakam is not a player he can just stop:

Siakam cooked him in the post and on spin-cycle drives. It was a disarming experience for anyone who considered him the beneficiary of Leonard and Lowry. Everyone else had zero reasons to be surprised:

His tidy three-point shooting (2-of-3) is not an anomaly, either. He came into the NBA Finals hitting 27.7 percent of his wide-open treys for the playoffs, but he buried 38.5 percent of those same looks during the regular season.

So no, Game 1 isn’t about accepting Siakam’s stardom. That was, by and large, already known. This is about accepting the Raptors’ supporting star power and their general depth.

Lowry’s 2-of-9 showing in Game 1 won’t earn him any Finals MVP buzz, but his impact isn’t predicated on scoring. He worked his butt off on defense, stepping in for a charge against DeMarcus Cousins and soaking up meaningful time on Curry. He hit the glass hard (six rebounds) and kept Golden State on tilt in transition (nine assists). 

For him, Game 1 was just another day at the office.

Gasol, too. He has come alive since his passive play in the semifinals. He still hesitates on uncontested threes, but not as often. And his hands are all over the place on defense. He is a whiz at getting position near the rim and fared well coming out to trap Curry beyond the arc. The Warriors have almost zero chance of playing him off the court without Durant in the lineup.

Fred VanVleet hasn’t lost his Eastern Conference Finals mojo. He hit just one of his four three-point attempts in Game 1, but he kept probing inside the arc (4-of-4) and continues to defend like he’s a proper-sized wing instead of a 6’0″ guard.

Danny Green busting out of his shooting rut (3-of-7 from deep) with a championship on the line isn’t anything out of the ordinary—especially when the Warriors began Game 1 giving him so much space:

Again: The Raptors will have tougher nights, particularly if Leonard keeps moving on offense like he has weights in his shoes.

He fought his way to 12 free-throw attempts, went 3-of-6 from downtown and responded to Golden State’s collapses and load-ups with (jerky-looking) look-outs. A line of 23 points, eight rebounds and five assists is pretty darn good, even when it comes on 2-of-8 shooting inside the arc. But Leonard’s attacks don’t have their usual pep. His injured leg remains a thing.

Still, it makes sense that the Raptors would be peaking now. This is Year 1 of the post-DeMar DeRozan era, and they effectively overturned their roster twice: once with the Leonard trade, and then again with their February acquisition of Gasol. 

Bake in injuries—Lowry, VanVleet and Norman Powell all missed at least 17 games—and Leonard’s maintenance program, and the Raptors always profiled as an already huge sleeping giant.

They’re not even technically whole again (OG Anunoby is out), and they’ve consistently reached another gear. That they limited Golden State’s half-court offense to under 0.84 points per possession isn’t so much shocking as par for their postseason course.

TORONTO, ONTARIO - MAY 30:  Pascal Siakam #43 of the Toronto Raptors attempts a lay up against the Golden State Warriors in the first half during Game One of the 2019 NBA Finals at Scotiabank Arena on May 30, 2019 in Toronto, Canada. NOTE TO USER: User ex

Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

Use this to reclassify the Raptors as favorites at your own risk. Durant needs to be ruled out for the series—or Andre Iguodala‘s right leg injury has to be something sinister—to reverse course before Game 2. 

The Warriors will be more inventive on offense—more transition attacks, fewer dribble hand-offs, etc. They will get back in time to keep Toronto’s fast breaks in check. 

They will be better.

The thing is, the Raptors won’t necessarily get worse.

            

Unless otherwise noted, stats courtesy of NBA.comBasketball Reference or Cleaning the Glass. Salary and cap-hold information via Basketball Insiders and RealGM.

Dan Favale covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter (@danfavale) and listen to his Hardwood Knocks podcast, co-hosted by B/R’s Andrew Bailey.

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