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Toronto Temperature: Pascal Siakam and Fred VanVleet come up big

The Raptors, with Pascal Siakam leading the way in Game 1, enjoyed a wire-to-wire victory. In Game 2, the Warriors came rollicking back to even the series, but not before a big Fred VanVleet performance. Let’s take the Temperature.

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NBA: Finals-Golden State Warriors at Toronto Raptors Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports

Another hot week. The Raptors split a pair of games at Scotiabank Arena with a big Game 1 performance from Pascal Siakam and an almost-comeback in the final minutes of Game 2. The fans were fantastic and the Raptors were focused. The stage now shifts to Oakland with Kevin Durant looming over Game 4.

But before we look ahead, let’s see what got us here first and take the Toronto Temperature.

Who’s Hot

Fred VanVleet, Creator

It’s not unreasonable to think that Fred VanVleet was the best Raptor on the court in Game 2. It’s either him or Kawhi Leonard. Kawhi was physically relentless, tearing down 14 rebounds and scoring 34 points on 8-of-20 shooting from the field and 16-of-16 shooting from the line. Obviously, that is a pretty great box score. But Leonard also had five turnovers and a below-average defensive game. He got back cut by Klay Thompson in the third quarter which led to a layup, and got stuck in mud guarding Draymond Green, who blew past him for a layup on one occasion.

Fred was great in many different aspects of the game. He got his hands on the ball, nabbing three crucial steals. He jumped up in the post to intercept a big-to-big pass. Later, he got back in transition to bat away a full-court pass from Draymond Green. And in the fourth quarter, VanVleet used ball denial on Steph Curry to tip a ball and get out in transition. Those are momentum changing plays, most of them unlikely.

The box score was impressive as well. VanVleet scored 17 points on 7-of-17 shooting, with three assists and three steals in 38 minutes. He was the only Raptor with a positive plus-minus that logged over 25 minutes (six players). Looking ahead to Game 3, expect VanVleet to be used just as frequently.

Pascal Siakam’s Game 1

What an impressive Game 1 from Pascal Siakam. He scored 32 points on 14-of-17 shooting, to go along with eight rebounds, five assists, and two blocks. He was the eighth player ever in a Finals game to put up a stat line of 32-8-5-2 or greater, per Blake Murphy.

His explosion looked all the way back, after dealing with hamstring and calf issues since the Philadelphia series. His spin moves and passing in the post were on point, along with his three-point stroke. His best play of the night? An isolation play to start the third quarter. Siakam backed down Draymond Green from the three-point arc, shimmying to keep Green off balance. Then, once he was deep in the paint, it looked like he was going to go for the lefty finish off glass. But not so soon. He agitated his left shoulder, freezing Green, and went back over his right shoulder for the lefty finish. It was an impressive move. Draymond, the former defensive player of the year, didn’t even have a chance to contest.

What Siakam can do against Green is critical for the Raptors’ offense. He was fantastic in Game 1, but less efficient in Game 2. Game 3 awaits.

Finals Energy

The energy of a Finals feel different from the rest of the playoffs. It’s the championship round, so of course the stakes are higher, but it’s more than that. More celebrities, more player appreciation, more people gathering together. The Finals unite.

This year, there have been many examples of good Finals energy. Drake firing the team up whenever the Warriors take a timeout. That’s good Finals energy. Jurassic Park popping up in Mississauga and Brampton, among other places. That’s good Finals energy. Jack and Matt reacting to Pascal Siakam’s Game 2 dunk. That’s good Finals energy. “VanVleet, up top... Pascaaaaaal, bringing down the rain, the heavens, the skyy.”

Who’s Not

The Serge Ibaka Dilemma

Serge Ibaka is still searching for his optimal role in the Finals. So far, he has been deployed primarily as a rebounding threat, chasing offensive rebounds, finding offense around the edges of the game.

The results? Mixed. He had three offensive rebounds in 16 minutes during Game 2 and was a cog in most effective units, playing to a +3. But the concern for Ibaka can be seen in his first few minutes of the game. On the Raptors first offensive possession with Ibaka in the game, he stayed under the basket too long fighting for Kawhi Leonard’s missed jump shot. By the time Ibaka was back on defense protecting the hoop, Draymond Green had already made a pass to a streaking Shaun Livingston for the dunk. If Ibaka runs back on defense earlier, that shot is contested. If Ibaka stays back for offensive rebounding opportunities, the Warriors feel better about their transition attack.

Looking forward to Game 3, I wonder if Nick Nurse adjusts to have Ibaka get back on defense sooner. If you want an offensive rebounding threat, look to Leonard, who is mostly guarding on the perimeter. Against the Warriors, a big part of transition defense is protecting the paint. You need someone to be there early, to stop Green barreling towards the rim among other cutters looking for lanes.

Kyle Lowry’s Game 2, Mixed Bag

It was a strange Game 2 for Kyle Lowry. Not terribly poor, but not his best game either. He scored 13 points on 4-of-11 shooting from the field and 3-of-7 shooting from deep, with what all seemed like crucial three-pointers.

But people will look at the fouls (he fouled out with four minutes to go), the assists (he had two), and the turnovers (only two, but they happened nine seconds apart and were dribbling gaffes).

Looking back at it, only two of his six fouls seemed frustrating. His sixth foul, when he swiped for the ball in the back court, probably wasn’t worth the risk. And his second foul, reaching over the back of Draymond Green in the first quarter, `didn’t make a whole lot of sense.

The low assist total for Lowry cuts a few different ways. He looked hampered by his left thumb all night, which could have played into his lack of aggression. And, on a few occasions, players just missed shots. Serge Ibaka missed his patented midrange shot on a feed from Lowry. Just one of those nights, it seems. The Raptors, as a unit, shot 37.2%.

The two turnovers were unusual for Lowry. On the first turnover, Andre Iguodala straight up took the ball away from Lowry at the top of the key, Kawhi Leonard style. Moments later, on the next Raptors possession, Lowry dribbled up the court, assuming nothing of the situation, and dribbled right into Steph Curry, who unexpectedly went for the steal. The Raptors need Lowry to bounce back in Game 3 in a big way.

Warriors Third Quarter Run

The Raptors started the third quarter leading 59-54. Just over five minutes later, the Raptors were trailing 72-59. 18-0 run. It got away from them quickly.

Offensively, the Raptors weren’t getting the ball into the paint. On their first possession of the quarter, Kyle Lowry and Marc Gasol went through a dribble handoff sequence, looking to play off one another other. Nothing useful materialized and the ball swung around the perimeter, ending with a contested three-pointer from Kawhi Leonard (he missed).

And when they ran the Leonard-Gasol pick-and-roll, Gasol was hesitant to shoot as the popping big. The ball would often swing around the perimeter some more. Eventually, Nick Nurse went to Fred VanVleet in place of Danny Green, presumably to get some more rim attack.

Defensively, the Raptors were just as poor. They had lot’s of problems matching up in transition. Even when the Warriors were in semi-transition, the Raptors found themselves in undesirable matchups, such as Gasol on Andre Iguodala and Lowry on DeMarcus Cousins.

Looking ahead to Game 3, the Raptors can feel good that their third quarter woes are largely correctable. Make paint touches and pace a priority on offense and get back quicker on defense. Obviously easier said than done, but the Raptors are capable.