Last Friday, Pascal Siakam eviscerated the Phoenix Suns in a 37-point performance. The next game, against the Pacers, he had an effortless 21 points on 67% shooting. It felt like he could have scored much more if he wanted, but an enormous margin of victory allowed him to ease off of the gas pedal. Pascal Siakam was dominant in both games.
Of course he was. Neither team has a Siakam Stopper.
The Raptors won both games, as good teams tend to do when their star player performs well. In their next game, however, Pascal Siakam struggled, and the Raptors lost. He ran into Giannis Antetokounmpo, defensive nightmare and prototypical Siakam Stopper, and was unable to control the match-up.
Siakam Stoppers are a rare breed — only a handful of teams employ a true one. Coincidentally, many of them roam the upper echelon of the Eastern Conference. The way in which Pascal Siakam responds to the challenges that his foils present could be the difference between an NBA Finals appearance and a second-round exit.
Pascal Siakam is a walking mismatch. Standing 6’9” with a 7’3” wingspan, Siakam has the size of a modern 4, with more wiry strength than his thin frame may suggest. He combines that with speed, coordination, and a relentless motor that makes him an exhausting cover. If his defender is unable to match Siakam in any of these categories, lunchtime commences. If they are deficient in multiple of them, offense becomes an all-you-can-eat-buffet for Pascal.
Pascal Siakam is a unique athlete, but this is the best basketball league in the world. Unless you are Zion Williamson, who is simultaneously the heaviest and most explosive player in the league, there are players that will compare to you athletically. Those that are able to match Siakam in size, strength, speed, and smarts have stifled him, and had him looking clearly shaken.
Although there are many great defenders in the NBA, just a few fit that bill. Bam Adebayo, Jonathan Isaac, Ben Simmons, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and Al Horford are the defenders that have the physical requirements as well as the reputation of a Siakam Stopper.
Upon digging into these match-ups, it is evident that Siakam really does struggle against these players. It takes a unicorn to stop a unicorn, and these defenders have proven thus far that they have the tools to combat Siakam. This table, compiled using stats from NBA.com shows his statistical success, or lack thereof, against these defenders.
The Siakam Stoppers
Jonathan Isaac has long been discussed as a prototypical Siakam Stopper. The reality, however, has seen Siakam take a clear edge in that matchup. Siakam’s success against Isaac is a positive sign. In some possessions, Isaac has truly flummoxed Siakam, so to see him work out the kinks and find success is important, because he has not yet solved the next four defenders. This video gives a nice, comprehensive look at the Siakam-Isaac matchup from October this year.
Siakam was able to get some separation in the post with his spin move and get to the rim against Isaac. He also shot with confidence from deep and from the mid-range. Isaac’s length and quickness clearly still gave him trouble in some possessions, but Siakam clearly has gained the edge in this battle. Unfortunately, we may have seen the last of this match-up this season, as it appears Isaac will be out for the season and playoffs with a knee injury.
Giannis Antetokounmpo, the next Stopper on the list, is often deployed as a help-defending agent of chaos in Milwaukee’s system, but he has spent time guarding Siakam. In that time, Siakam has looked far more apprehensive in this match-up than he does against Isaac. Between the presence of Antetokounmpo and the excellent help defense of the Bucks led by Brook Lopez, Siakam has spent stretches against the Bucks acting like there was a force field around the paint, content to hang around the fringes.
His numbers are boosted by some solid shooting beyond the arc, but don’t let that fool you. Siakam was settling for threes and tough midrange shots. Sure, if they’re falling, he’ll get his points, but getting to the rim and the foul line has and will always be the most reliable source of offense for Siakam, even if the numbers from this game don’t bear that out.
Based on just the numbers, Philadelphia may present the biggest challenge for Pascal. He has struggled mightily against both Ben Simmons and Al Horford in Toronto’s match-ups against the 76ers this season. Although these players have been on opposing sides of many big games prior to this season, individual match-ups between them are relatively new. Ben Simmons spent the bulk of last season’s playoff series guarding Kawhi Leonard, and Horford rarely was given the Siakam assignment in the lower stakes moments of the regular season.
This year, they have both spent substantial time on Pascal, with Simmons getting heavy minutes doing so. Simmons has reached another level as a defender this season. He has the athleticism of Russell Westbrook in the body of Karl Malone and has made a clear commitment to that end of the floor. He has a large sample on Siakam, and the statistics suggest he has comfortably handled that match-up.
Al Horford is the one defender on this list whose athleticism does not jump off the screen. He is, however, one of the smartest defensive players in the league. He has had success guarding both Giannis and his now-teammate Joel Embiid in the past. Both as a help defender, and in one-on-one situations, Horford’s savvy positioning and disciplined contests have bothered Siakam into some real rough shooting.
Watching Siakam’s play, however, tells a bit of a different story. It does not appear that Siakam was dominated by either Horford or Simmons. Yes, he does settle for some contested jumpers, but he actually gains some separation on them in the paint and misses a couple bunnies. The threes that he does take are mostly good looks, he just misses them. If you have the time, watch Siakam’s performances against Philly. He looks confident and aggressive. If a few bounces go his way, the stats could look very different.
It feels as if Siakam could have won these match-ups. If these two teams are opponents in the playoffs, he will have to do so multiple times for the Raptors to win. He doesn’t have to shoot the lights out necessarily either. Kawhi Leonard showed that people will forget very quickly about a so-so three quarters if you bring it in the fourth, and Siakam closed one of those games with this.
This one play encapsulates everything you want to see from Siakam. Owning the moment, imposing his will, driving through contact on a pair of tough defenders — it’s all there.
It must be noted, however, that there is another Cameroonian who looms quite large in this match-up. Joel Embiid is there to cover up any mistakes made in one-on-one defense, and he does so as well as anyone in the league. He is even an option to guard Siakam straight up, as he did in the playoffs last year to a high degree of success.
Embiid guarded Siakam for 30:08 minutes in their seven-game series, more than anyone has this regular season, and held him to 32.6% shooting on 43 shots. Embiid played off Siakam’s shooting but made him run the gauntlet to get to the rim. Siakam’s shooting and offensive creativity have improved, so that should dissuade Brett Brown from this match-up, but it looms as a potential Siakam contingency plan for this Philly team that certainly has the most depth in that regard.
It should be mentioned that Philly’s injury situation is something to monitor. Both Embiid and Simmons have recently sustained injuries, with the former spraining his shoulder and the latter hurting his lower back. If either is injured in the playoffs, it could change the complexion of the whole series.
Although a healthy Philadelphia has three Stoppers to throw at Siakam, no one player has taken the Raptors star out of his game more than Bam Adebayo. Adebayo is a force of nature. Physically, he looks like a 6’9” Apollo Creed, and sacrifices no speed. He is a heady player, tough as nails, and his defense is as intimidating as his stature.
It was just one game, but Siakam’s performace against Adebayo was alarming. Examining the stats, the 3 attempts is a worse sign than the 0 makes in his field goal numbers. Adebayo guarded Siakam for close to eight minutes, and after taking a couple runs at Adebayo, Siakam backed off. He looked spooked by the physical defense that he was up against.
Once again, it was just one night. Maybe he was fatigued, or just had an off night, but he did look confident and comfortable against Jimmy Butler, a solid wing defender. Against Adebayo, he looked skittish and timid. That won’t work in a playoff series. The teams play once more in the regular season. It would be a positive sign to see an aggressive Siakam swing this match-up back in his favour.
So, what does this mean in the grand scheme of things?
Other than health, this is perhaps the most important aspect in determining the playoff ceiling of the Raptors. So far, it is not entirely promising. Kawhi Leonard proved how important star scoring is in a playoff series, specifically in last year’s grudge match with Philadelphia. Yes, the Raptors are deep. Yes, the Raptors have a great defense, but that will not be enough.
Throw out Orlando, who is clearly an inferior team to the Raptors beyond Siakam and Isaac, and Toronto is 2-4 against the opponents with Siakam Stoppers in games that Pascal has played. Their offense has been what has struggled the most. In those games, the Raptors offensive rating has been 104.6. That would comfortably put them at dead last in the NBA. Their highest rated offensive game in that collection is still below their season-long offensive rating.
That is a problem. It may not always seem like it, but the Raptors are reliant on Pascal Siakam, especially against contenders.
There are solutions, however, and reason for optimism. We’ll start with the solutions, then finish this off on a positive note.
The first, most obvious solution is to start with and maintain an aggressive mindset. Siakam needs to go at his defender’s chest early and often. I always feel more confident with a semi-contested layup than a pull-up midrange from Siakam. The numbers support the eye-test as well, as he has shot 65% at the rim this season, and only 35% from the midrange, according to Cleaning the Glass.
This also increases the chances of getting the Siakam Stoppers into foul trouble, which can really snowball into some positive results. If the defenders get a few early fouls, this can take them out of the game, move them off of Siakam, or force them to play less physically. All of these outcomes would improve Siakam’s outlook.
Along the same lines as staying aggressive, Siakam must also not allow the first few possessions to dictate the game. An unfortunate pattern is Pascal getting discouraged by a rough offensive start against these players. This is not to suggest Siakam is mentally soft. Any understanding of his background makes it very clear that he is as resilient as they come.
Siakam, however, is unselfish by nature. If he is unsuccessful early in his match-up, he may deem it more effective to defer to his teammates. That is not the case. Siakam needs to understand that forcing the issue will often be the best option for the Toronto Raptors.
His playmaking will also need improvement. In these match-ups, he has an even assist-to-turnover ratio. That is not good enough. Obviously, it is more difficult to distribute if he is having a hard time beating his man and drawing help. Once again, however, an attacking mindset will open up more windows to find teammates than settling for jumpers will.
Finally, when he is forced into contested jumpers, simply put, he has to make some. This is not advanced analysis, nor is it shocking, but it is true. Difficult shot-making is what separates the stars from the rest of the league. Creating a basket when there are no other options is now the job of Siakam as the number one offensive threat. The midrange jumper is a relatively new addition to his game, especially in the ways he has deployed it this year, so some growing pains are excusable. A little more consistency, however, will go a long way.
That leads right into the cause of optimism. Siakam has improved drastically every year, and oftentimes during the season itself. He has shown awareness of his deficiencies, and methodically worked to eradicate them from his game. I have no doubt that he will improve in these match-ups and get to a point where he is winning them far more often then losing. The term “Siakam Stopper” will eventually be extinct, but it is a matter of when.
If Siakam gets locked up in a seven-game series, then it is hard to see the Raptors emerging from it victorious. If he can solve these woes, however, this is a very dangerous Toronto team that can mount an unprecedented title defense. It may very well come down to Siakam, and those tasked with stopping him.