Pascal Siakam took a lot of threes in Game 4 against the Celtics. He let fly with a career-high 13, which reads as a way too-high number considering the league-leader in the category, James Harden, averaged 12.4 three attempts per game during this past strange regular season. By way of additional comparison, Kyle Lowry is the Raptor with the greenest light from deep; he averaged a mere 8.0 three-point attempts per game in 2019-20, good for 15th in the league. The point here: at 6.1 three attempts per game on the year — even at a much-improved 36 percent accuracy — Siakam is not a volume three-point shooter. He hit just two 3s in Game 4.
Now, if you’ve stood on a regulation-sized NBA court, or better yet, if you’ve shot a regulation NBA three-pointer, you’ve likely noticed something: it is an incredibly difficult shot to make in more ways than one. Aiming is the first significant problem, but that’s overlooking the real challenge of generating enough force from the bottom of your being all the way to your fingertips to launch the ball at the rim. Watch enough NBA basketball and it’s easy to be fooled into believing that shooting a three is a matter of routine — catch and shoot, in it goes, nothing to it. Hell, you can easily find clips of NBA players practicing and just bombing in three after three like it’s the easiest thing in the world. It’s not.
But there is a funny confluence of events at work in basketball these days, one that implies hitting three-pointers is a must, that they are the most efficient shot in the sport, the backbone for an entire offense, the only way to win. Watching the Raptors’ three-point shooting slowly tick up across four games against Boston indicates this is true. And when you think about it — especially after watching these two teams bang into each other for 48 minutes at a time — the three is an easier shot to execute. It definitely looks easier than grinding out a possession in the post against, say, Marcus Smart, or trying to pick up a head of steam to drive into a thicket of Boston’s long-limbed defenders for a chance to flip the ball at the rim. There are physics formulae that could be used to explain this, but you know it when you see it.
At halftime of Game 4, with Siakam at nine points on 1-of-8 shooting from three and zero free throw attempts, TNT’s Kenny Smith had some comments ready. “Being the offensive number one option is not a skill-set, it’s a mind set, which is different. There are certainly guys who have skill-sets who can actually do it, but don’t have the mindset.” Smith was cut-off there by Ernie Johnson who noted that the ever-chatty Charles Barkley, off-camera, was nodding along. This is where things stood with Siakam at the half — threes falling or not, he wasn’t quite playing with the right mindset. As Barkley implied: it was time for Siakam to find his Plan B.
The TNT talking heads were not wrong, and most Raptors fans watching the game would probably agree too. Siakam was working very hard on defense for Toronto, but the flow to his offensive game was jammed up, misdirected, confused. For every trip to the rim for Siakam — as highlighted in that above clip — there were notes of hesitancy too, some killer indecision that couldn’t quite resolve itself fast enough. The three-ball opportunities were still waiting there, but it didn’t feel like that would be enough for Siakam — or the Raptors — to get the win. More work was necessary.
Playing as if he heard all those voices, Siakam went after it in the third quarter, doing his part to turn an early two-point Celtics lead into a cushion that got as large as 11 for Toronto. He played that entire frame, shooting 5-for-9 from the floor while putting in that extra effort we knew was there. A look at his third quarter shot chart confirms Siakam’s inside-out ability. Yes, the three attempts were there — he went 1-for-4 from deep in the third — but Pascal’s Plan B had clearly been put into effect. This was how the Raptors would beat the Celtics after coming back from an 0-2 hole in the series.
So why keep harping on this? We could write about Kyle Lowry’s continued magnificence, or Fred VanVleet’s much-needed 5-of-11 three-point form in Game 4. We could maybe even dare to dive into the headspace of Norman Powell, who has looked like a shell of himself these past four games. There is no shortage of storylines where these defending champion Raptors are concerned. It’s just that Siakam has so clearly emerged as the symbol of this team’s present and future. While others Raptors have improved or discovered new facets to their game, Pascal has wholly reinvented himself as one of the league’s top players. Fair or not, these playoffs have become almost a personal test, each success or failure a referendum on that standing. This is what it will take to be Toronto’s number one offensive option.
We can expect more threes from Siakam, and more misses as a result. It will continue to be both the easiest and most difficult shot for him to take and make. But watch him in and around those moments too. Watch the Plan B spring into action. Watch as Siakam calculates what is easy and what is hard, and how much work will be necessary to get him from here to there. No, he’s not a volume three-point shooter — yet — but he’s really just testing that limit, finding out how much empty space is there before rushing to fill it. There are physics formulae for that too — but you definitely already know it when you see it.