In a way this Raptors season was a product of destiny. The 2017-2018 season had the franchise hit a record in regular season with a record of 59-23. Many thought this was THE year. We didn’t have to win the finals: in fact any reasonable basketball fan would take Golden State against any Eastern team that year. But there was a hope that the team would go to the finals and the only Canadian team in the NBA would be able to play in the brightest of all lights in the playoffs. Even a finals appearance could have benefited the franchise: it would increase its mainstream popularity, leading to a plethora of ripple effects. Free agents. Recognition. The list goes on. Regardless making the finals wasn’t just a dream that year: it seemed doable.
Alas that wasn’t meant to be. All because of one man, the King in the East. Lebron James. Lebron annihalated the Raptors had with a sweep in the 2nd Round, renaming the city Lebronto. The Raptors playoff boogeyman had done it again, humiliating an entire city. The sweeps hurt every year, but that one hurt in particular. The Raptors really thought DeRozan taking them there that year. Yet this sweep showed one thing: DeRozan wasn’t the man for the job. DeRozan is a great player. An inverted Harden: midrange iso instead of threes. DeRozan can handle, he can pass, and a plethora of midrange moves. At his peak DeRozan looks like a bonafide superstar. But when everything goes wrong… then that’s a different story. The story that ended the same each year: Cavs in 4.
As a result of the sweep Masai Ujiri decided that enough was enough. A trade was finalized with the Spurs for DeMar Derozan (and Jakob Poeltl and a pick) to be traded for Kawhi Leonard (and Danny Green). This situation wouldn’t have been able to happen without some factors within the Spurs organization. Masai was willing to trade a fan favorite for an unknown factor just for the chance to win. The team was doing the same thing every year, getting beat in 4 and doing the same thing again. That team was given a chance. This sentiment is echoed by Masai himself. After the trade a new chapter had opened in the Raptors history book. This chapter may be a short one: Kawhi Leonard is a free agent in this upcoming summer, and may well leave. But it is a part of the book nonetheless.
The ascension of a truly phenomenal player allowed the Raptors to embrace their new identity. Not only a year ago, that player was coming off of the Raptors bench. Pascal Siakam from Douala, Cameroon. Over the summer, Pascal relentlessly worked on his game. Siakam added an extensive amount to his game: corner threes, revamped ball handling, and insane finishing. Pascal Siakam has drawn praise from all over the league. This extends even to his opponent for this series, Joel Embiid. The Raptors needed someone to step up this year and take the scoring load off of an aging Kyle Lowry. Pascal Siakam stepped into that role and diversified his game. Siakam was going to be good regardless, but nobody expected him to be this good.
Prior to this season, Pascal Siakam was known as an “energy guy” coming off the bench. Since then, has become a candidate for the Most Improved Player award due to the massive leap he has taken. His main competition is D’Angelo Russell of the Brooklyn Nets. While D’Angelo’s box scores stats were better in the regular season, the difference between the two was shown in the playoffs. D’Angelo Russell averaged 19.4/3.6/3.6 on 35.9/32.4/84.6 splits. Those are down from his season averages of 21.1/3.9/7.0 on 43.4/36.9/78.0. Most of his box score stats are down from his regular season. Aside from the Game 1 against Philadelphia, Russell did not have a good post-season.
Siakam is a great player who plays his role. He is not more talented than DLo nor would you start your team with him over DLo. Let’s be logical
— Spencer Dinwiddie (@SDinwiddie_25) March 6, 2019
Pascal Siakam improved his game this year. That is an objective fact. Even with that fact, no one expected him to elevate his game in the playoffs. On the season his splits are 16.9/6.9/3.1. on 54.9/36.9/78.5. Doesn’t necessarily match the raw stats of a traditional “star”. Spencer Dinwiddie claimed that Siakam is a “great player who plays his role” in support of his teammate D’Angelo Russell winning the MIP award. Dinwiddie calling Siakam a role player could have been warranted early in the regular season. Since a lot of Siakam’s buckets came from transition opportunities and corner 3s, it is easy to see why one may consider him a role player. What Dinwiddie couldn’t have predicted, is that Siakam would progress over the season as well, becoming more of a secondary scorer to Kawhi Leonard.
True stars are forged in the crucible of the playoffs. Pascal Siakam has unleashed his “playoff mode” this season and it has been a delight to watch. Through the first 6 games of the playoffs, Pascal Siakam is averaging 23.7/8.2/2.7 on 57.1/42.3/78.6 shooting. Stats are up largely across the board (except assists) and even to the eye test one thing is clear: Pascal Siakam is past the door of stardom. He has increased his efficiency in the playoffs while being the 2nd option. While I expected him to have a good postseason, I never expected that we would find another star. Kyle Lowry is a great player: but for years, the Raptors have lacked a 2nd true scorer, and Siakam has shown that he is exactly that and some. Spicy P has arrived.
In a way, Siakam has some of the traits of Kawhi Leonard, the Raptors enigmatic super star. The similarities are similar: both have a clutch factor (see game winner vs Phoenix and game winner vs Nets) and they can both guard 1-4, sometimes 5. Length and athleticism comes to mind as well. But there’s something about Leonard that allows Pascal to play the way he plays. Kawhi’s gravity as a scorer is visible when he gets double teamed on his way to the basket. Kawhi’s scoring prowess creates space and open looks for his teammates. Kawhi may not get a ton of assists: but that’s not necessarily his job. His gravity as a scorer is something that assists his teammates in scoring their own buckets as their defenders will collapse on him, and he can simply get out of the double team and make an assist/hockey assist. (See: this assist)
Kawhi had a phenomenal year himself as the undisputed #1 of the Raptors. Leonard averaged 26.6/7.3/3.3 on 49.6/37.1/85.4 splits. Career highs in points and rebounds and astounding efficiency. He also achieved all this with “load management” days to rehabilitate his quad. There were many mitigating factors: chemistry, injury and novelty. Despite those factors, everything has come together at the exact right time. During the regular season, the game looked so effortless for Leonard. There’d be games he would dominate on both ends of the floor. He scored his career highs in points earlier in the season against the Jazz, and he did so without hitting a single 3 pointer. It seemed that there would be more to see. The focus on this year was not on “Will he stay or will he go?”. The focus was this playoffs run. Kawhi Leonard has delivered.
(Watch following video before reading next section)
In the recent Game of Zones episode we see an animated Kyle Lowry, Knight of the North proclaim that “Well whoever we’re getting back (for DeMar), he’d better be a bloody monster!”. Cue White Walker Kawhi laugh. Kyle Lowry did get his wish: Kawhi has been a monster on the court in the playoffs. 30.7/7.3/2.8 on 58.4/51.5/89.7. Kawhi elevating his game in the playoffs is nothing new (Remember pre-injury). Kawhi Leonard is a superstar: he unleashed his true ability in the playoffs. Earlier in the postseason, Kendrick Perkins made a stylistic comparison between Kawhi and Jordan. Others, like CJ McCollum of the Trailblazers have concurred. Kawhi is obviously not as good as Jordan. But for this postseason Leonard is the Maple Jordan of the Toronto Raptors and what matters is the present.
North Over Everything
Masai Ujiri has assembled the most talented Raptors team ever. The Raptors have a former DPOY in Marc Gasol, and another All-Star in Kyle Lowry. This post season one thing has been clear: the Raptors are a team first and foremost. Even so, they don’t have any qualms going to two people when a bucket is absolutely needed. Kawhi Leonard and Pascal Siakam are the players who can score at will on opponents. Siakam has a less diverse game than Kawhi, but when paired together they can absolutely eviscerate defenses. Game 1 vs Philadelphia the Raptors leaned heavily on their scorers and it paid off. Kawhi Leonard finished with a playoff career high with 45 points, and Siakam finished his own game with 29 points. They outscored the Sixers starting line up 74-71 by themselves.
The Song of Ice and Spice has been written. Kawhi is the ice of the team: he provides calm and collected leadership. Kawhi Leonard is unfazed even with the intensity of the playoffs, slicing through defenses like butter. The Mammoth is an assassin in the playoffs, cold blooded. Pascal Siakam, the Spice is the team’s young talent: the fiery star seeking to assert himself, and thriving within the pressure of the postseason. Spicy P matches the pressure of the playoffs with his own hard work and humble hustle on the court. I don’t know what will happen after this season: Kawhi may leave and this article will essentially be useless. Even so, that doesn’t matter. What matters is the NOW, and Leonard and Siakam are both huge parts of the beautiful present. Let’s beat the Sixers and move forwards. One step at a time.