There’s something about the looseness of the Toronto Raptors this season that makes you wonder—is this the year they break through?
Take a hilarious pre-game exchange, for example. Getting set for their rubber match with the Cleveland Cavaliers at Quicken Loans Arena, veterans C.J. Miles and Kyle Lowry are sitting down at their lockers just hanging out.
The morning beforehand, Basketball Insiders conducted an interview with Pascal Siakam, so Miles was asked about the second-year forward and his progression. He began to rave over him and the plethora of young talent on the team’s roster. That is, until an interruption happened in the midst of his words.
*Siakam walks by and messes with Miles*
Miles: I’m talkin’ about you.
Siakam: Stop lyin’ dawg. What you talkin’ about?
Miles: Pascal is [expletive]!
Siakam: That’s crazy man.
Miles: See what you did? You did this. I was on your side until 10 seconds ago.
After the shenanigans, Miles got back to his thoughts on Siakam and three other sophomores he plays with as a part of a talented bench that has been “battle-tested.”
“Pascal—he’s just Mr. Do A Little Bit Of Everything, basically,” Miles told Basketball Insiders. “He just plays with a ton of energy and he does whatever it takes. You love having guys like that on your side.
“Just getting that confidence. That’s the biggest thing. Our league is about confidence, opportunity. A lot of guys come in with talent and ability. I think it’s just about having the chance to play themselves into a rotation, and if they’re working on the sideline, it always shows when they get the chance. And that’s what happened. It showed that those guys have been working the last two years ‘cause they got a chance to be thrown out there and they were ready.”
That still may be an understatement. The five-man group of Miles, Siakam, Jakob Poeltl, Fred VanVleet and Delon Wright is one of 26 units that have played on the floor for 315 minutes or more this season. Only the Philadelphia starters have a higher net rating than their plus-18.9 among the aforementioned combinations in the NBA.
When it comes to Toronto’s best defensive units, Siakam is a common denominator. The two rotations that allow the least amount of points per 100 possessions feature the 24-year-old (95.6 and 98.8, which are good for the only figures under 100).
“Everyone has a chip on their shoulders,” Siakam told Basketball Insiders. “Just a couple of GOATs on the team (smiles)—Delon, Fred, Jak. We got guys that work hard and I think it’s just good to see that we’ve been playing pretty good.
“We just play ball. We just hoop and we got that little chemistry going. Hopefully, we keep it going.”
So why is it that this collection of 20-somethings has been able to get the job done? You can boil it down to the faith that Raptors head coach Dwane Casey has in them, especially in crucial and late game situations.
“It means a lot,” Siakam told Basketball Insiders. “I think a lot of young players don’t get that privilege unless you’re like…Who’s getting that right now? I don’t know. But yeah, you see my point.
“We don’t really get that a lot (in this league), so it means a lot. We’ve proven that we’re capable of handling that and he’s trusting us to handle it when we have to.”
For Miles, he was surprised that “an old-school guy like Case” would afford this prominent of a role to guys so early in their respective careers, but he’s also been the one who has worked with them since day one.
“They’ve stepped up to the challenge,” Miles told Basketball Insiders. “He got a chance to see those guys work every single day. And then, it’s hard to shorten that rope when those guys continue to play well and continue to overcome obstacles and continue to show that they can take a punch and get back up. So you earn trust, and they’ve done it.”
Casey’s method in handling the situation has been simple—don’t be afraid to hand them to the keys to the car. Sometimes it’ll go well, sometimes it won’t—but they’ll gain the proper knowledge from it regardless.
“They’re learning, and it’s been that way all year,” Casey said. “I know their numbers have been really good, but they’ve been up and down all year. They’ve learned from their mistakes and some of their failures, which all young guys are gonna go through. That’s the positive of that—that you do get that experience and learn from it.”
In a disappointing 110-99 loss to the Boston Celtics six days ago, one of those lessons manifested itself when things went awry. Leading by two points after three quarters, Toronto was outscored 28-15 in the final period. It wasn’t because they weren’t trying, but rather one of those times where the inexperience came into play.
“I don’t think it was lack of effort,” Casey said. “I think it was execution, doing the little things that’s gonna help that group play well offensively and defensively. I’m not questioning our guys’ effort. I think right now we’re playing hard, but not playing smart. That’d be the way I would describe it.”
“We had a slippage [in Boston],” Siakam told Basketball Insiders. “At least we felt like we did, ‘cause I don’t think we played bad, but we’re just so used to us playing better. Had a little slippage. I think we’re pretty good at usually bouncing back, so we’ll be alright.”
Luckily for the Raptors, if things go downhill, there’s always the duo of Lowry and a guy named DeMar DeRozan to carry the load. At times, Casey likes to mix them in with players in the second unit. Siakam told Basketball Insiders that’s how he sees things shaking out in the postseason.
“It’s not gonna be all five of us at the end of a game,” he joked. “It’s gonna be starters in there. And if he can throw some youth in there to run with the vets, it’s good.”
Speaking of DeRozan, the outlook on him as a spectator and playing as his teammate has been two different experiences for Siakam.
“He’s just getting better every day, every year, man,” Siakam told Basketball Insiders. “Like I didn’t know him before the two years that I’ve been here—well I knew him before, but I’m saying I didn’t actually know him.
“I think it’s one thing to just watch basketball when you’re in college and stuff and knowing that DeMar DeRozan is one of the great players in the league. The other thing is just being on the team with him—seeing what does and how he works and the things he’s been able to do on the floor is incredible. So I think All-Star, my favorite player for sure.”
As for his own view on how he’s come along for Toronto this year, Siakam believes the most significant improvement has come as a ball-handler and a distributor. Casey has referred to him as a point forward multiple times, but he doesn’t go that far just yet.
“I don’t even wanna say all of that,” Siakam told Basketball Insiders when asked if that’s what he considers himself. “I’m just a ballplayer man. I’m trying to play and get my teammates involved and play the game the right way.”
The skill has been in his arsenal since he started playing. Now it’s just showing at the highest level in basketball.
According to Cleaning The Glass, the Raptors are scoring 113.7 points per 100 possessions with Siakam on the floor on an effective field goal percentage of 54.7 percent, ranking him in the 90th and 88th percentiles individually among others. In addition, his assist percentage (2.9 to 12.3 percent) and assist to usage ratio (0.25 to 0.8) has skyrocketed in just one year.
“It’s been something that I don’t think people saw coming,” Siakam told Basketball Insiders. “It’s something that I’ve always had and I’ve been working on and now seeing that development just gives me even more room to just even work harder and get even better at it.
“I think now that you have that freedom, I think it opens up a lot more things. Usually, it’s like, ‘Okay, I’mma work on this and address this for my development. I don’t know if I’mma do it in a game.’ But hey, now that I know that I can do it in a game, it helps even more to just work on it more.”
Siakam will keep attacking every day and get better with each game, as will the other young guns on Toronto’s roster.
In the meantime, Miles will continue to encourage them as the oldest member of the quintet. Nearing the end of his 13th season in the league, he put into perspective what it’s like to be the veteran, mentioning a time where he played for the Cavaliers in his eighth NBA season as the turning point for him grasping life as a professional.
“I was 25 but I was five, six years more than a lot of guys that were on the team,” Miles told Basketball Insiders. “Me and Luke Walton were the oldest guys the first year.
“But now at this point, I think I really understand it. I didn’t understand it then. It took me some time because I was still trying to figure myself out, but now I think I’ve embraced it as much as I can. And a lot of knowledge I was handed over the years, I just try to share it.”
Neither Miles nor Siakam have experienced life in the playoffs with this team. Outside of Wright and Norman Powell, the same can really be said for the other young guys on the roster.
In four straight years, it’s been a punch to the gut. Their last couple of postseason appearances have resulted in eliminations in the Eastern Conference semi-Finals and Finals, and the previous two years before that resulted in first-round exits. Seeing the late-season struggles serves as a reminder of those shortcomings, just sooner than what we’re used to seeing.
Prior to the dominant rebound victory over Boston, the Raptors had dropped four out of six games. There was a glaring lack of coverage on the perimeter where opponents shot 45.9 percent from deep and made over 11 threes per contest. It’s something they desperately want to get fixed before the regular season concludes.
“I mean, we just gotta do a better job,” Siakam told Basketball Insiders. “Be engaged more. It’s mostly communication. We get a little lazy sometimes, but I don’t think it’s a big deal. We gonna figure it out.
“Usually we execute pretty good in the last five minutes or something of the game, but recently a little bit we’ve gotten away from it a little bit. We lost some tough games.”
Despite the down stretch, Toronto remains the top seed in the East and can clinch it with a win over the Indiana Pacers on Friday night. Because of their last victory, it’s highly likely they’ll earn that number one spot and home-court advantage in the conference.
It’s an accomplishment that the team should be proud of, but they are hungry for more than that. They want to go far.
Forget the outside noise. Forget the past. Siakam is focused on now.
“I know this year, we got a pretty good team,” Siakam told Basketball Insiders. “I think our combination of youth and vets gives us a really good chance. I just like our chemistry. I like our chances. I don’t know about other teams, but I like our chances.
“I’m putting my money on the Raptors.”
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