TORONTO – Looking at the Toronto Raptors team that won it all last season and the 2019-20 squad that is trying to repeat, and you’ll see quite a few similarities.
Obviously, Kawhi Leonard is no longer on the team, but much of the championship core remains intact – only now they have the added benefit of title-winning experience.
Like Leonard last season, it’s clear Pascal Siakam will be the team’s horse come playoffs.
The fourth-year forward has had a bit of a roller-coaster season as he adjusted to being the team’s top offensive option but, all things considered, has had success in the new role, leading the Raptors in scoring with a 23.6 point-per-game average and earning his first-ever all-star nod – as a starter, no less.
More pertinent to the scenario that’s ahead of him in the playoffs, Siakam has also been one of the Raptors’ top performers in high-pressure situations. Siakam has scored 74 points – good for second-most on the team – on 51 per cent shooting in minutes that NBA.com defines as “clutch.”
So while it’s true that Siakam has gone through his fair share of growing pains this season, when it’s mattered most he’s definitely shown up, and unless that drastically changes, there’s no reason to believe Siakam’s crunch-time heroics won’t translate to the post-season, either.
“I feel like I’ve been getting attention pretty much all season long and it’s something that I’m definitely working on,” Siakam said in a conference call Friday. “Obviously, the playoffs is more specific in terms of preparation and teams are going to be ready with different things. I think I’m just going to take it a day at a time and, obviously, I know the actions I’m involved in and how teams usually guard me. (I’m) definitely working on those things and making sure I’m ready to adapt to any situation.”
Siakam admitted that during the three-month span that he was forced into quarantine until when he arrived in Florida for the Raptors’ restart camp he hasn’t been able to get any shots up or do anything basketball-related. It’s the longest stretch he’s gone without doing something basketball-related since he first picked up the game.
As concerning as that may sound, it’s not like it’ll be when you go to play pick-up with your buddies for the first time in a few months and you’ve lost the feel for your shot. Siakam is an NBA all-star, getting his feel back is like riding a bike and he’s very aware of what he needs to do to return to form.
“I think for me, obviously after sitting around for a long time not being able to shoot the basketball or play basketball, it’s just being able to get out there on the floor, just run a little bit, make sure I get my shots up, work on things I’m going to see in the game,” Siakam said. “Pick and rolls to different actions that we run throughout our offence and just variations on ways to score.
“The more actions that I can have, the more options and different ways I can have to score, the better for me and my team.”
With that said, it’s not like Siakam isn’t aware the long layoff could have adverse effects on his game. To his credit, he said he’s working hard to look at that time off as just another challenge to overcome and get back on the court better than ever.
“It’s kind of tricky because at the end of the day sometimes rest can be a problem because our bodies aren’t used to being away for that long,” Siakam said. “I just felt like it’s been a really good season and a learning experience for me being able to be out there on the floor, seeing different things and adapting. And just for my journey and who I am as a person and as a basketball player, that’s something that always kind of excites me and will help me reach new heights and I’m excited about the challenge — I love it.
“I love going through the struggles – and obviously you want to win and be the best you can – but I really appreciate just being out there on the floor knowing that I struggle, knowing that I’m gonna miss a lot of shots, knowing that I’m gonna make mistakes and also knowing that I’m gonna work really hard to rectify those mistakes and be the best player that I can be.”
If the best Siakam can be in the bubble is anything like the guy we saw during the regular season, the Raptors will be in good shape.
But he won’t be able to do it alone, he’s going to need some help from his other Raptors teammates.
Thankfully, they’re a very balanced group, especially offensively, boasting six players averaging double-digits.
Ahead of last year’s post-season, everyone knew that Leonard was going to be the guy and then maybe Kyle Lowry would be that secondary offensive option. Instead, Siakam emerged as the secondary option, a welcome surprise for the Raptors as he not only was a key contributor to their title, but it also cleared up a somewhat foggy future for the team.
Coming into this year’s playoffs, that secondary guy once again looks like it might be Lowry – the team’s second-leading scorer this season – but it could just as easily be any other four double-digit scorers: Fred VanVleet, Norman Powell, Serge Ibaka or OG Anunoby.
Of that list of players, Anunoby is the most intriguing because of his circumstances during last year’s championship run.
Anunoby was relegated to the bench for the duration of the post-season because of an appendectomy he had just before the start of the playoffs.
This year it looks like Anunoby will be ready to rock, and given the strides he’s made defensively this season, he could be a surprise difference-maker for the Raptors similar to the way Siakam was last year, particularly if the improvements he’s made on the offensive end pay off.
“I think it’s coming along nicely,” Anunoby said of his offensive game. “I’ve been working on it the whole time we’ve been allowed to be back in the gym, just working on new stuff, shots from different spots on the floor, and then even the shooting, ball-handling, all that stuff. I think it’s coming together nicely.”
Just as recently as March 1 against the Denver Nuggets – just 10 days before the NBA season suspended – Anunoby enjoyed a career night offensively, scoring a 32 points on 12-for-16 shooting, including a 3-of-6 mark from three-point range.
Unfortunately, this was more of an anomaly for Anunoby this season, but it’s proof that he does have that kind of offensive capability and if he were able to string together performances like that a little more consistently, especially in the playoffs, the Raptors become downright scary, with legitimate offensive threats everywhere on the floor.
It would also help bring even more clarity to the Raptors’ future.
Like Siakam did with his post-season heroics last year, Anunoby could cement himself as a cornerstone of the team with a strong playoffs and prove to the organization that he’s worth investing in. Slated to be a restricted free agent in the summer of 2021, Anunoby will be up for a rookie-scale extension this coming off-season and Anunoby could force the Raptors’ hands to lock him up during the coming playoffs.
We’ve seen once before what happens with the Raptors in the playoffs when their top dog performs and a good young player steps up.
And the same thing could happen once again this year.
• During Friday’s conference call, Siakam and Anunoby were asked about the Black Lives Matter movement and how they use their platforms to affect change in Canada and abroad.
“We know it’s the U.S. that we talk about all the time, but I think those racial issues are kind of all over the world,” said Siakam. “So it affects Canada and I think we can do everything that we can and we’re going to try. And at the end of the day do our research and do our best, and I think we have on the Raptors a phenomenal team from the owners to management, everyone is really committed to the issues that are going on and we want to do our best to affect change and do something kind of meaningful, not just (because) it’s cool to do things.”
“I think just spreading awareness, letting people know what’s going on, and to make sure they’re aware of what’s going on, and how maybe unconscious behaviours they’re doing that are affecting people,” said Anunoby. “And just be more aware and then speaking up, like, people are doing stuff in their cities and their states. So just using our platform.”
Anunoby added in regards to any unconscious racist actions he’s experienced before: “I don’t want to speak about it, but it’s happened. I think it’s happened for everyone. Middle school, high school, just growing up, going to stores, restaurants, driving around, you see it.”
• Anunoby is a man of few words, but sometimes he flashes some dry wit that still makes him a fun guy for reporters to speak to. Here are a few of his highlights from Friday’s call:
OG on music during quarantine
Reporter: Do you have any quarantine music recommendations, OG?
Anunoby: I haven’t listened to any music the whole quarantine. No.
OG vs. Ibaka Iron Chef cooking contest incoming
Reporter: Outside of basketball, have you picked up any new hobbies to help you pass the time?
Anunoby: No, the only thing I do is cook.
Reporter: What’s your favourite thing to cook?
Anunoby: Depends what I’m trying to eat for dinner.
Reporter: OK then, what’s your favourite meal?
Anunoby: Favorite meal? Shrimp linguine.