In Game 2 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals, the Philadelphia 76ers revealed the blueprint for slowing down Toronto Raptors forward Pascal Siakam.
After watching him explode for 29 points on 12-for-15 shooting in Game 1, the 76ers made the first big adjustment of the series by matching up Joel Embiid with Siakam as opposed to Tobias Harris. What Embiid lacks in foot speed compared to Harris he makes up for in length as a 7-footer with a 7-foot-6 wingspan. So rather than even attempt to chase him around the perimeter, Embiid used that size to his advantage by sagging way off of Siakam.
Doing so meant there were times when Siakam was unguarded outside of the paint, but it was a gamble the 76ers were willing to take for good reason. Even though he was a much improved 3-point shooter last season, almost all of Siakam's makes from the perimeter came from the corners and were set up by one of his teammates.
Additionally, Siakam wasn't much of a threat to score from midrange - he attempted only 10 pull-up jumpers during the regular season, per NBA.com.
"[Siakam] shoots a low percentage from anywhere around the top of the key," Embiid said in his press conference following Game 2. "So the goal was to make him drive, make him go left."
The result? Possessions like this, in which Siakam was left dribbling around aimlessly before settling for a shot he wasn't particularly comfortable taking:
Siakam still averaged 19.4 points per game in the series, but his efficiency took a massive hit compared to what he did against the Orlando Magic in the first round, and he was a completely different player when Embiid was defending him. According to NBA.com, Embiid guarded Siakam more than anyone else on the 76ers and limited him to 55 points on 20-for-56 (35.7 percent) shooting from the field over the seven-game series.
For comparison, Siakam scored a total of 26 points on 10-for-23 (43.5 percent) shooting when defended by Harris and 22 points on 9-for-10 (90.0 percent) shooting when defended by Jimmy Butler, a four-time member of the All-Defensive Second Team.
The on-off numbers are even more telling of the impact Embiid had on Siakam.
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With how effective the strategy was, the Milwaukee Bucks took a page out of Philadelphia's book in the Eastern Conference Finals by alternating between having Giannis Antetokounmpo and Brook Lopez defend him. Both had their success, although it was Lopez - another 7-footer with a massive wingspan - who Siakam had more trouble scoring against.
Defending Siakam in the way they did also made it difficult for everyone else on the Raptors to score in the halfcourt. Both Embiid and Lopez were aggressive helping off of him in order to shut down driving lanes for Kyle Lowry and Kawhi Leonard, even when he was spotting-up in the corner, where he's always been more comfortable shooting from.
The solution for Siakam is rather simple: expand his range to the top of the perimeter or become more comfortable creating his own shot from midrange.
If he expands his range, it would allow the Raptors to use Siakam more creatively when he's off-ball. The Raptors didn't use him much as a screener last season - when they did, he either slipped the screen with the intention of driving or rolled towards the basket for a layup - but an improved jump shot would give him the skills needed to pick-and-pop.
The Raptors would be able to run more handoffs with Siakam as well, with him being the one receiving the ball. It wasn't much of an option last season, mostly because his defender could drop underneath any screen he was involved in to prevent him from getting downhill.
It culminated in Siakam ranking in the 8th percentile with 0.56 points per handoff possession, albeit on a small sample size.
If he becomes more comfortable scoring from midrange, it would make Siakam far less predictable when he has the ball in his hands. Opponents wouldn't be able to back off of him as aggressively as Embiid and Lopez did in the playoffs, opening up even more opportunities for him to play to his strengths as a driver.
Siakam was one of the best drivers in the entire league last season. According to NBA.com, he was one of 121 players to average at least 5.0 drives per game on the season, joining the likes of Kevin Durant, LeBron James, Chris Paul and Paul George. And of those 121 players, Antetokounmpo (63.3 percent) was the only one who shot a higher percentage than Siakam (57.2 percent).
Siakam is similar to Antetokounmpo as a driver in that he's too big for guards to match up with and too quick for most forwards to keep him in front of them.
The combination of more range on his jumper and a willingness to shoot from midrange would give Siakam an answer to every defence he's likely to face. That's going to be particularly important moving forward because teams are only going to be more keyed in on his strengths and weaknesses now that he's Toronto's No. 1 option following Leonard's decision to leave the Raptors for the LA Clippers in free agency.
Siakam alone won't be able to replace Leonard's production, but his development into a more versatile shooter could be the key to making him the superstar the Raptors need to maintain their place at the top of the Eastern Conference next season and beyond.
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