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Toronto Raptors

How heavy a load can Pascal Siakam carry for the Toronto Raptors?

Pascal Siakam and Giannis Antetokounmpo
Pascal Siakam and Giannis Antetokounmpo (Getty Images)

With great success come great expectations.

Pascal Siakam has officially entered the territory where it's OK to hold him to the highest of standards. That's what happens when you graduate into All-Star Game starter status for a team with the NBA's third-best record that also just happens to be the defending champions.

There aren't many players capable of being the best player on a championship team. There are All-Stars. There are ALL-STARS. And then there are the truly special talents capable of Atlassian feats of strength, namely, leading a team to the promised land.

That Siakam has blossomed into an All-Star following his unlikely path to the NBA is perhaps the single-best story in the entire league. He's reached a loftier status than even the most optimistic could have ever dreamed of and it's something the Toronto Raptors would sign up for 100 times out of 100. That we're even entertaining the question of whether or not Siakam can be the best player on a championship team is itself a sign of the utmost respect. It's a conversation reserved for the truly elite players. All of that being said...

I have some doubts.

Tuesday's loss to the Milwaukee Bucks was just the latest example of a high profile game in which Siakam wasn't able to elevate his level of play to match the star on the other side.

MORE: How the Bucks outmuscled the Raptors

Sure, he had a team-high 22 points. And while he deserves credit for knocking down five 3s, noticeably absent were the plays in which Siakam took it upon himself to create something out of nothing either for himself or his teammates.

Of his six made shots, five were long jumpers - either catch-and-shoots off dribble penetration or pull-up 3s that Milwaukee was more than happy to allow him to take.

The one make inside? A post-up against Khris Middleton following a switch. There were other opportunities in which Siakam failed to take advantage of matchups, like this miss on a clear out post-up against Marvin Williams:

via GIPHY

These are the types of situations that Siakam needs to be able to punish defenders as he's able to catch a rare break from going up against Giannis Antetokounmpo.

And yet most telling was how he fared when guarded by Giannis.

Now to be fair... that's a tough assignment for anyone to handle. And yet again, the bar has been raised to the point where it's OK to ask for production even when lined up against one of the league's elite defenders.

According to NBA.com's tracking data, Siakam was guarded by the Greek Freak on over half of his time on the floor. Of the six shots he attempted against the reigning MVP, five were from beyond the 3-point line. On the other 21 possessions in which he didn't shoot, Siakam handed out two assists, turned it over once and failed to draw a single shooting foul.

In other words: Siakam couldn't apply pressure and dictate the terms of engagement against the one player he needs to answer if the Raptors are going to threaten in the Eastern Conference.

But this isn't just about one game. It's become a repeated pattern in the Raptors' biggest games of the year.

  • October 25: 11-22 FG against Jayson Tatum and the Celtics
  • November 2: 7-19 FG against Antetokounmpo and the Bucks
  • November 10: 9-25 FG against Anthony Davis and the Lakers
  • November 11: 6-17 FG against Kawhi Leonard and the Clippers
  • November 16: 6-24 FG against Luka Doncic and the Mavericks
  • November 25: 9-19 FG against Joel Embiid and the 76ers
  • December 3: 5-14 FG against Bam Adebayo and the Heat
  • December 5: 9-22 FG against James Harden and the Rockets
  • December 8: 7-18 FG against Embiid and the 76ers
  • December 11: 9-20 FG against Leonard and the Clippers
  • January 22: 8-23 FG against Embiid and the 76ers
  • February 5: 7-18 FG against Domantas Sabonis and the Pacers
  • February 7: 6-20 FG against Sabonis and the Pacers
  • February 23: 8-12 FG against Sabonis and the Pacers
  • February 25: 6-14 FG against Antetokounmpo and the Bucks

By my count that's 15 high profile games.

The best of the bunch came against the Boston Celtics way back in the second game of the season, a game in which the Raptors lost after taking a six-point lead into the fourth quarter. He scored 33 points, but also committed a season high five turnovers and didn't record a steal or block.

Was he actually bad in all 15 of those games? No. And there's far more to it than simply looking at how he shot.

But there's not a single stand-out, "get on my back" performance among that group. Not one.

If you go to Siakam's game log on Basketball-Reference and sort his games from best to worst according to Game Score, just two of his top 16 are against teams currently with winning records. He was fantastic in a win over the Utah Jazz on December 1 and then decent in a win over the Pacers in February in a game that he struggled shooting but was impactful elsewhere.

For the most part, Siakam's eye-popping worthy numbers have largely been built on dominant performances against middling competition. That's fine for making All-Star teams and earning All-NBA consideration, but the playoffs are a whole different animal and this could prove to be a red herring. And though he certainly showed up in last year's playoffs, this time around will be different given his role as Toronto's bonafide number one option.

MORE: Is Siakam now a top-10 player?

It's worth pointing out that all of this has happened very quickly. Nobody expected Siakam to make this type of leap this soon and perhaps it will still come next year or the year after. Then again, his own coach mentioned at All-Star weekend that the team expects even more out of Siakam come playoff time.

As I wrote heading into Tuesday's game against the Bucks, it's dangerous to read too much into one game in February. Circumstances change as do roles, and the matchups which determine the outcome one day during the middle of the 82-game grind might not mean as much come April, May and June.

But again... this isn't about one game. It's a troubling pattern that's emerged and brings to light some questions about Toronto's ceiling as a legitimate contender to reach the NBA Finals.

Siakam stands proud as the crown prince in Toronto's title defence. But should he continue to struggle in that role against the other top teams, it's fair to ask if that crown is melded not from the finest gold in the land, but of shiny pyrite which becomes unstable under mounting pressure.

The views expressed here do not represent those of the NBA or its clubs.

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