After chasing Pascal Siakam around in Game 1 as the speedy Toronto Raptor rollicked for dunks, jumpers and transition baskets, Golden State Warriors defensive specialist Draymond Green remarked “he’s become a guy.”
It was a huge compliment.
Siakam’s career playoff-best 32-point performance in Toronto’s opening-game victory in the NBA Finals on Thursday placed him among the company of giants in the league history books.
Only four players have scored more than Siakam did in their first NBA Finals game. Allen Iverson tops the list, having roared for 48 points in his Finals debut in 2001. Kevin Durant rolled for 36 points in 2012; Michael Jordan had 36 in 1991 and Tim Duncan had 33 in 1999.
The springy and quick 25-year-old Cameroonian power forward was a menace in transition as his Raptors toppled the back-to-back champion Warriors 118-109 while opening the series at home. Siakam was a superbly efficient 14-of-17 from the field. He hit 2-of-3 from beyond the arc, and added eight rebounds and five assists, along with a steal and two blocked shots.
So when Green – the primary defender on Siakam in that game – says the young Raptor in his third NBA season has “become a guy,” his meaning was clear. Translation: Siakam has developed into a special talent, one who figures very prominently in opponent scouting reports.
“To gain that respect and become one of those guys, I think it’s special,” Green said. “Siakam has done that.”
Green admits he wasn’t at his defensive best in Game 1, but he was the NBA’s 2017 Defensive Player of the Year and is an expert on tough assignments. Siakam has become the Raptors’ No. 2 scoring option. On some nights, when opponents double-team superstar Kawhi Leonard, Siakam is the top option.
“I played against him last year. I had no clue he would be this guy this year,” Green said. “But he spent a lot of time in the gym and it’s paying off in his game.”
On Thursday, against a Warriors team chasing its third successive NBA title, Siakam beat the world champs to the rim, scored over their heads, blocked their shots and took them off the dribble. To see him compete now, it baffles the mind that Siakam didn’t even play basketball much as a child growing up in Cameroon. He didn’t take up the game seriously until he moved to the United States at the age of 16.
In the Eastern Conference final, the Milwaukee Bucks had kept Siakam out of the lane and unable to get loose for transition baskets. But in Game 1 against Golden State, Siakam repeatedly sped out on offence with Warriors defenders a step too slow.
“I was out in transition. That’s always something that I’ve done all year. I think that was kind of like the first time during the playoffs where we kind of got out in transition a lot,” Siakam said. “I was just running and it just felt good.” His highlights included a little bit of everything, and he did not look intimidated by the champs.
He scored over Curry and blocked shots by Green and Klay Thompson.
On one particular basket, he eluded Green, Thompson and Andre Iguodala on his way to the hoop.
Siakam received a bounce pass from Leonard, and side-stepped Green to score on a roll.
He beat Shaun Livingston off the dribble, and out-jumped DeMarcus Cousins at the hoop.
The lanky 6-foot-9 Raptor dragged Golden State defenders with him into the paint and then popped the ball out to a wide-open Danny Green for a perimeter three.
He absorbed a long alley-oop pass from Kyle Lowry, and then confounded the Warriors by deftly tipping it backward to Leonard, who completed the layup.
Seeing Lowry swoop up a turnover, Siakam sprinted the length of the floor like a wide receiver running a route. He caught the pass and barnstormed in to score, leaving a chasing Quinn Cook in his dust.
“He’s one of the better finishers in the paint in the game,” Thompson said. “I know we’ll step up to the challenge on Sunday to limit his opportunities, which a lot of them came in transition from sprinting the floor.”
After a breakout year that has made him a candidate for the NBA’s Most Improved Player Award, Siakam is starting to look and act like a bona fide NBA star. The guy they call Spicy P, always dressed in gear that sports his PS logo, speaks to media in English and French. Siakam’s widely told story of a raw talent discovered in Cameroon, fostered at Basketball Without Borders, and developed in North America, inspires.
“I’ve never seen anything like that before. That’s a pretty big stage for a guy to put that kind of performance on,” Raptors coach Nick Nurse said of Siakam’s Game 1 play. “He’s been given a God-given ability of having a big engine with lots of energy … he’s using that to the best of his ability.”
Siakam didn’t appear too excited by all the kudos. He knows it’s just one game, and Toronto is facing a dynastic team. The Warriors will adjust their transition defence for certain. Siakam might be relatively young in his career, but he’s a quick study.