For the Toronto Raptors, many thought All-Star forward Pascal Siakam would be the one to lead the team throughout the bubble experience in Florida.
But even during the seeding games, something with Siakam’s game was just off. The Raptors’ leading man just didn’t seem himself. As much as he could give defensively, his offensive game was seemingly left in March, before the NBA season came to a screeching halt.
So when the Raptors’ title defense officially ended Friday night in a 92-87 loss in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals to the Boston Celtics, Siakam put the blame squarely on his 26-year-old shoulders.
“Obviously, I have to be better,” Siakam said. “It was definitely a learning moment for me just learning from this experience and just learning that you’ve gotta be ready and I wasn’t able to help my teammates. I take a lot of the blame, man.”
Siakam was averaging 23.6 points on 45.9% shooting overall and 35.9% from deep during the regular season before the stoppage. It led to him earning his first All-Star nod and went on to further justify the four-year max extension he signed in the offseason.
But once the restart began, Siakam’s offensive output dipped. In the seven seeding games in which he played in Lake Buena Vista, he averaged 16.9 points on 39.4% shooting from the field while maintaining roughly the same 3-point percentage as before (35.6%).
Boston, however, hounded Siakam throughout the series, and the struggles continued in a big way. In seven games against the Celtics, Siakam’s scoring average dipped to 14.9 points and his shooting to 38.2%.
His 3-point percentage was historically bad. Siakam went 4-of-32 (12.5%) against Boston, the worst 3-point percentage in a playoff series in NBA history (minimum 30 attempts), according to ESPN Stats & Information research.
His overall 3-point playoff performance of 10-for-53 (18.9%) is the second worst in a postseason (minimum 50 attempts) behind only Lindsey Hunter’s 8-for-53 effort in 2001.
While Siakam was down on himself for his overall game, his teammates and his coach were quick to defend him following Friday’s ouster.
“I’m proud of him and I love him,” Raptors guard Fred VanVleet said. “He’s my brother. I’ll go to war with him any day, and I know that he didn’t play up to his standard and he didn’t play the way that he’d like to, but I loved his effort and his intensity, and he never pointed fingers, he never was a bad teammate.
“He just kept trying and it didn’t work out for him. It’s part of the journey. Everyone has ups and downs, and unfortunately his came at this time. It happens. It happens to everyone.”
Raptors guard Kyle Lowry has had similar downs in the playoffs before turning things around in recent years. Lowry said when he was struggling, he made sure to read everything that was written about him at the time — good or bad.
He used that as motivation moving forward and suggested that Siakam do the same.
“For a guy like me, that has gone through the type of things that he is going through in this moment, he’ll be able to call me whenever and I won’t tell him nothing wrong,” Lowry said. “I don’t think he did anything wrong, I think this is a learning experience. I think this is only going to make him a better basketball player, a better man, a better everything. I would not be surprised to see him come back even more hungry and destroying people.”
Nurse said his advice to Siakam would be to take some time away and then go back and watch this postseason run to see what they can build from.
“I think as with any young player, you go to work on your body and your skills,” Nurse said. “That’s what gets your mindset clicking for confidence, being in extremely great physical conditioning and knowing you put the time in in the gym between now and the next time we get together.”
Nurse also pointed back to how Siakam was playing before the hiatus when asked about looking forward, calling this playoff stretch a “minor setback.”
“I’m really confident,” Nurse said. “I think that there’s been nothing but progress like this for him. This is a weird and unique scenario. I can’t stress enough how well he was playing leading into this pandemic break. He was absolutely dominating games down the stretch for us either at the basket or shooting the ball or kicking it out for wide-open shots. For whatever reason, all of us have been affected differently by this. I’m not going to sit here and try to read too much into it.”
Siakam called his teammates having his back in this moment “unbelievable.”
“It’s part of the journey, and it’s something that years down the line, I’m gonna look at and I’m just gonna be like, man, like, look where you came, look how far you came and look what you did,” Siakam said. “So it’s unbelievable to have that type of support. It just means a lot and I really appreciate it, for sure.”
With the impending free agency of VanVleet, Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol, and with OG Anunoby becoming extension-eligible, Nurse also took some time to reflect on winning a championship last season and then the performance this season.
“I already miss this team, you know what I mean?” Nurse said. “That was a hell of a two-year run with the core group of these guys. But I didn’t think that at all until since the game ended. I wasn’t thinking about it being over. I was really hoping on winning this series and getting ready for Miami tonight.”
For most of the Raptors, it was hard to immediately reflect on a tough series they just lost. But Lowry still said Toronto had a little more to give.
“It was an unbelievable battle, man,” Lowry said. “Those guys, they beat us fair and square. They played extremely hard; they made it tough on us; we made it tough on them. We had opportunities to win it, but they came out and they did their job and they won. And they moved on. For us, it’s just — it’s sad that we had more to give. But unfortunately, we’re not giving no more right now.”