Playing against the Jazz was supposed to be hard for the Raptors. Utah’s offense, while ranked just 21st in the league going into Sunday, presented an odd challenge. Toronto’s spent the season targeting opposing stars and daring crummy supporting casts to beat them. With Utah, there’s nary a singular star nor a shit corner shooting role player in sight. That ended up not being a problem worth losing sleep over.
On the other end of the floor, things probably should have been more difficult against a defense that entered the game in the league’s top-five. Half of the Raptors’ paint and threes focus would come under fire against the Jazz. Outside of noted zero-point scorer Joel Embiid, Rudy Gobert is probably the scariest rim protector in the league, and he’s definitely the largest. For Toronto to score at its usual top-10 clip, straight-line Fred VanVleet drives weren’t going to cut it.
“It’s a good half-court defensive team, we didn’t want to have to face Gobert at the rim as much as we could. We obviously wanted to get out and play with some pace,” said Nick Nurse of the team’s plan of attack going into the game.
Toronto certainly did run. The second quarter was particularly coast-to-coast on account of the thousand steals the Raptors piled up. But what really served as the first domino on the path to 77 first half points and a 40-point lead after 24 minutes was the Pascal Siakam-directed first quarter offense.
It’s becoming more clear by the day that double-teaming him is not an awesome idea.
Thanks to the Raptors lovely social team, we have a supercut of all the ways in which Siakam toyed with the Jazz on Sunday. Let’s refresh our memories.
Spice up your morning with some @pskills43 highlights.— Toronto Raptors (@Raptors) December 2, 2019
35 Pts | 5 Reb | 5 Ast | 5 3pm#WeTheNorth pic.twitter.com/lmHY2eNday
Siakam’s shot chart on Sunday was a charcuterie board filled with oh so many different flavours of ass whipping. You’ve got the sharp transition stuff, of course. But on top of that Siakam offered a taste of his ever-expanding one-on-one excellence, with a handful of his custom slow-building, counter-filled post-ups mixed in.
But more than the leak-out sprints or the pull-up bombs or the mini-spins around solo defenders, it was Siakam’s early work diagnosing Utah’s double teams that stood out; in fact, none of the first three things happen against the Jazz’ top-10 defense without the latter. Siakam got a little help from his savant big man in those early, wheel-greasing stages of the game. Toronto doesn’t make first-half history if not for Siakam and Marc Gasol’s work pulling apart the Jazz from the inside out.
Toronto’s opening bucket came on a Gasol three, for which he had an Amir Johnson wind-up’s worth of time to get it off, seemingly by design. OG Anunoby was on one of his Tasmanian Devil looking forays into the paint, Gobert slid over to help, and Anunoby found Gasol basking in daylight atop the arc.
From there, Siakam went to work leveraging his own gravity, as well as Utah’s very clear distaste for the idea of guarding Gasol.
Imagine getting dunked on by Marc Gasol, in this economy.
Easy on the rim, @MarcGasol pic.twitter.com/PVAfyFuO8s— Toronto Raptors (@Raptors) December 1, 2019
“We expected to play a certain way, and knowing what kind of solutions we could present to our offense,” said Gasol, who broke double digits for just the third time all year, with his entire 11-point output coming in the first quarter. “And just taking the shot with rhythm, having the legs underneath you, and thankfully the ball went through net a couple times.
“And I got a dunk too which was pretty remarkable ... it was pretty re-Marc-able.”
Yes, I’m pretty sure ‘with-pun’ was the intended spelling.
“We kind of knew Gobert was gonna help a lot,” Siakam added on the way he and Gasol stretched the bounds of the Jazz defense in the early going. “You know just having Marc there, stretching the floor, making sure that early we kind of give him the ball, and he has to shoot ‘em, kind of like make them think a bit, and once you give me a little space, I’m just definitely more comfortable that way and then I can attack.”
Thing is, Siakam looks pretty damn comfortable with people crowding his bubble these days, too. And maybe that should be expected. Reps breed comfortability; with Siakam, they also serve as little micro-lessons. Each double you send only adds to his knowledge of how to beat your ass.
“I think the more you see it the better,” Siakam said when asked if he thinks he’s improving when it comes to diagnosis and picking part double coverage. “You kind of have an idea of what to do and you can bait them into something, and know what he’s trying to do.
“I’m definitely getting better at it.”
The numbers say he is, too, which is terrifying!
Over the opening couple weeks of the season, it wasn’t just foul trouble that hampered Siakam. Often the defense mechanism he’d use against double teams would be to throw the ball away to the other team. Through eight games, Siakam’s turnover percentage sat at 11.3, with his assist-to-turnover just hair above even (1.12).
In the 11 games since then, with Kyle Lowry not around to help steady the ship... and Siakam taking on even more burdensome ball-handling duties... and featuring heavily in lineups with all-bench dudes and no traditional point guard... and as the clear top target for opposing defenses, he’s somehow improved both on figures. He’s turning it over on just 9.0 percent of his possessions, and picking up 1.62 assists for every turnover since Lowry went down. He’s not prime José Calderon or anything, but considering the circumstances, it’s a little stupid that he’s improved at all with no Lowry out there to usher the offense along.
Or, I mean, maybe it’s not. Siakam himself proclaimed during training camp that the only things he’s not good at are the things he hasn’t tried out much. He started shooting above-the-break threes, and got good at them. He’s improving as a pull-up mid-range guy. Why should anyone doubt his ability to become one of the scariest dudes to tempt with a double team in the league. When he’s not yo-yoing the ball away from a lurching helper, or drop-stepping a poor Royce O’Neale type into oblivion to dodge the doubler coming over the top, he’s tossing passes into the soft spots in the defense that he creates by virtue of being so damn threatening.
He’s proven through Toronto’s spell of poor health that he can be a system unto himself, that he doesn’t necessarily need a Kyle Lowry to serve up success on a platter.
He’s getting Lowry back anyway, perhaps as early as tonight. Things are about to get easier for the guy to which everything comes easy. There are still three quarters of Siakam’s season of discovery to go. I’m done guessing where this growth curve is going.