• Most of the Raptors’ postseason story has been defined by which player steps up alongside the ever-brilliant Kawhi Leonard. It’s been a rotating cast of characters, with Kyle Lowry, Marc Gasol, Fred VanVleet, Serge Ibaka and Norman Powell all stepping up over the course of the last two rounds of the playoffs.

    Pascal Siakam, the easy frontrunner for Most Improved Player, has struggled to gain traction since a strong first round against Orlando and a 12-for-15 performance in Game 1 against the Sixers. Whereas the other non-Leonard Raptors are largely role players, Siakam has risen the ranks and become a true go-to option. The defensive attention has increased accordingly.

    For one night at least, Siakam broke through. In his Finals debut, the third-year forward exploded for a playoff career-high 32 points on an incredible 14-of-17 shooting with eight rebounds, five assists, a steal, two blocks and two 3-pointers. It was a dominant performance where Siakam emptied the toolbox to get himself going.

    Siakam had a hard time cracking Joel Embiid in the second round and Giannis Antetokounmpo in the third. The Bucks tried to get cute with it and cover him with Brook Lopez, but Siakam is too quick to be bothered by players with merely average footwork. Length, strength and quickness are the key, and there’s a reason that it took elite names to shut Siakam out.

    For as great as the Warriors are, there is nobody that fits the description of a certified Siakam-stopper. At least nobody that’s currently on the active roster, anyway.

    Draymond Green is an all-world defender and is mobile enough to make things tough, to put it politely. Siakam will certainly shoot worse going forward – he definitely got some breaks in Game 1 – but as it stands there’s nothing to stop Siakam from getting the ball over and around Green.

    Kevin Durant can bother Siakam in a similar way to how Antetokoumpo did. What it means for the other Warriors is up for debate, and it seems likely that Steve Kerr would prefer to put KD on Kawhi Leonard if at all possible. That Siakam is good enough to raise that hypothetical is astounding.

    Green has already addressed that he needs to be better and while it isn’t entirely his fault, he is the one that chose to fall on the sword following Game 1.

    The night began in a predictable fashion, with the Warriors giving Siakam plenty of space on the perimeter to hoist up shots. That he managed to knock most of them down (5-of-7 outside the paint) is a bad break for Golden State, and it would be surprising if they didn’t welcome more shots away from the cup going forward.

    Where Siakam truly rose to the occasion is in the paint and on the run, as usual.

    He hit a number of tough shots and was the recipient of some lucky bounces, but Siakam was able to use his speed to get to his spots before the Warriors could lock in and force him into uglier possessions. Green has been able to lock down most of the Western Conference’s elite throughout his career, but Siakam’s unique attributes introduce some new variables to the equation.

    Going into Game 2, the Warriors have a few methods they can try to limit Siakam’s effectiveness.

    The most obvious would be additional pressure and the occasional double-team, though that may only come into play when Kawhi Leonard is off the floor. Siakam doesn’t have a long history of dealing with that type of coverage, and if the Warriors can force him into awkward situations or at least eat up clock they’ll likely be happy to live with the results.

    One pitfall is the fact that the Raptors tend to run with multiple point guards when Leonard is off the floor and Siakam is not, and getting the ball in a 4-on-3 situation with multiple creators and shooters could spell trouble depending on which personnel the Warriors use in those Kawhi-less windows.

    Another option, and one that requires some serious tightrope-walking, is to try and force Siakam into making plays on the move. If those jumpers are not falling, Siakam will try to drive. When you account for the fact that none of the Warriors offer the combination of strength and length that can take away all of his game, it’s not hard to envision Siakam using the extra space as a runway. It will involve timely help and expert rotations, but the Warriors can try to goad Siakam into driving and kicking through a forest of limbs.

    It’s not a strategy for the faint of heart, but the Warriors have enough collective experience as a top-flight unit to try and make it work. If they can bait Siakam into opportunities that are not really there, it could ignite the transition game and even up the turnover battle.

    That’s not to say that Siakam can’t facilitate against extra pressure – just that it can make his life a whole lot harder. If the Warriors can’t do it outside of the predictable ways, however, it’ll be easy pickings.

    For the Raptors, it seems wise to keep using Siakam as a pick-and-roll threat, particularly as a ball-handler. Doing so prevents Green from sagging off too far, cramping the rest of the floor and giving Siakam the opportunity to blow right by him rather than attack right into additional help defenders.

    It’s a delicate balance. You want to leave Siakam with just enough space to engage in a tough drive, but not so much that he’s running at full steam by the time he meets his defender. You don’t want to be too close, or he’ll leave his defender in the dust and have an easier time finding the open man. The minutes spent bringing the ball up last season may pay off in spades now.

    Most easily, the Warriors could play it straight up and count on Siakam’s shooting returning to the stratosphere. Green is not the type of player to shrink from a challenge, and they can reasonably count on him gearing up and turning in a better performance in Game 2 – not that he was bad in Game 1, by any stretch of the imagination.

    For the Raptors, any second that an opponent spends with Leonard on the back-burner can be treated as a win. They have an opportunity to leverage that into a 2-0 series lead on Sunday.

    Siakam and the Warriors have presented a new challenge to one another. It’s a matchup of unique styles and talents, with neither side really having squared off against a foe quite like this one. How the two counter each other’s moves may come to define the Finals.

    Other Observations

    1 – If not for Siakam’s masterpiece, Marc Gasol would’ve been the featured player here. Gasol finished with 20 points (6-of-10 shooting), seven rebounds, two steals, a block and a pair of 3-pointers. It was the most that he’s scored as a Raptor and Gasol will be taking on a very prominent role in this series with the way that the Warriors aggressively set out to double Kawhi Leonard. The Raptors will have 4-on-3 scenarios against a roster that doesn’t have a true giant, so Gasol will have tons of passing and scoring opportunities all over the floor. Perhaps most impressive was his defense, as Gasol was able to handle his business on the perimeter. He did a nice job forcing his cover wide in space, allowing his more-nimble teammates time to recover, and there were a few moments where he created turnovers thanks to extra pressure. Things will change when the Warriors are at full strength and have enough shooters to roll with Draymond Green at center frequently, but Gasol will not be played off the court.

    2 – Aside from Siakam, the only player who looked to be in true takeover territory was Stephen Curry. He got going with a few clean looks, including some off offensive rebounds, and ended up on a parade to the free throw line with the Raptors racking up team fouls. All told he finished with 34 points on 8-of-18 from the field, 4-of-9 from deep and 14-of-14 from the line. The Warriors were frustrated with the physicality of Toronto’s defense and Steve Kerr looked pretty close to a technical foul late in the fourth, but it’s not like Curry wasn’t getting calls.

    3 – Fred VanVleet was responsible for most of the defense on Curry and he did a wonderful job. Curry shot 1-for-6 in 33 possessions against VanVleet, and the Warriors only scored 27 points as a team in that time. He’s going to be in the spotlight all series long, and you can expect the Raptors to do whatever it takes to keep him fresh considering the number of screens he’ll need to run over, around or through as he chases Curry around the perimeter. The ball-denial efforts that came to define VanVleet’s defense from earlier in the postseason aren’t as important here, but keep an eye on how frequently he applies full-court pressure.

    4 – Andre Iguodala appeared to injure his left leg late in Game 1 and though he’s going to play in Game 2, it’s a development that could completely change the series. The Raptors are already using him as a spot to hide defenders that need to conserve energy, and that would only become more apparent if Golden State is forced to dip into its bench to fill the Iguodala role – at least until Kevin Durant returns. Iguodala is also the player who will do the heavy lifting on Kawhi Leonard. Considering how quiet Leonard was in Game 1, it wouldn’t be surprising to see him make a concerted effort to get going earlier in Game 2, especially if Iguodala looks off.

    5 – Danny Green was in for a good night after a terrible Eastern Conference Finals and he came through with 11 points, a steal and three triples on 4-of-9 shooting. The regression was bound to hit, and Green continues to add to his resume as one of the best 3-point shooters in Finals history. To his credit, Green has never wavered on taking open shots and the Raptors, to their credit, have not hesitated to feed him when the play calls for it.

    6 – DeMarcus Cousins had an uneventful return to action with three points (all on free throws), two assists and two steals in eight minutes of action. He didn’t look out of place despite his layoff, though the Raptors didn’t try all that hard to go at him. It’s also a little telling that they were comfortable leaving Serge Ibaka – who was not at his best – in the game to match up with DMC rather than go with the more traditional option in Gasol. Expect his involvement to carry greater weight going forward.

    7 – Kyle Lowry was quiet, going 2-for-9 for seven points in 36 minutes. He did add six rebounds, nine assists and a steal while playing through foul trouble again, and did lots of solid work on the defensive end while being switched onto a number of Warriors. The matchup data is going to be less illuminating than usual given the amount of switching that will occur in this series, but Lowry spent at least 15 on possessions covering three different Warriors (Iguodala, Curry, Thompson) and at least five possessions on three others (Green, Alfonzo McKinnie, Shaun Livingston). His ability to defend in the post should come in quite handy even if that’s not how Golden State tries to operate. Beyond that, Lowry creates transition buckets because of his willingness and ability to drop dimes on long passes that most other guards don’t even consider. Toronto’s speed helps, but without Lowry running the show it’s just running for the sake of running.


    8 – OG Anunoby is likely going to be active for Game 2, though there’s no telling how many minutes he gets. He’s a really nice fit for this series and will lengthen a Toronto bench that’s been at either end of the spectrum for most of the postseason – either they’ve got it and are swinging games or they’re a complete non-factor. Nick Nurse has run a fairly tight ship but the fact that the Warriors went so deep into their own bench might give him an excuse to open things up a bit if he feels the need.

    9 – In Game 1 the eighth-man minutes were split between Norman Powell and Patrick McCaw. It’s interesting that McCaw jumped back in after missing the entire Eastern Conference Finals while Powell was a major catalyst, so we’ll have to see how that plays out. Powell had a few defensive mistakes in the first half and sat for the entire second, in which McCaw buried a late-clock three. It’s interesting that Nurse seemed to get out ahead of Powell having a tough game and cut the cord before things snowballed, especially given his recent play, but the Finals are not the time to rest on laurels. You wouldn’t think that Anunoby would be coming for guard minutes, but you never know.

    10 –The Warriors won the offensive rebounding battle by a 9-7 margin but dominated in second-chance points, winning the category 20-9. They were able to get 16 such points out of Curry, Thompson and Quinn Cook, with a good chunk of those coming on threes. The Raptors got the easy edge in turnovers at 17-10 yet the two teams both scored 17 points off turnovers. Both teams should feel confident that they have another level to hit going forward beyond those pressure points, with the Warriors playing fairly sloppily and Pascal Siakam shooting better than should be expected and the Raptors knowing that Lowry and Leonard will increase their own scoring output. Game 2 should be a blast.

Fantasy News

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