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Toronto Raptors

One Play: How Toronto Raptors forward Pascal Siakam outsmarts teams in the clutch

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Pascal Siakam (NBA Getty Images)

Welcome to "One Play!" Throughout the 2019-20 NBA season, our NBA.com Staff will break down certain possessions from certain games and peel back the curtains to reveal its bigger meaning.

Today, Toronto Raptors forward Pascal Siakam takes centre stage.

Context: While doing some research on how Pascal Siakam has performed in the clutch - defined as the last five minutes of a five-point game by NBA.com - I noticed that a large portion of the baskets he has scored late in games this season have been set up the same way, beginning with Siakam bringing the ball up the court and receiving a screen from either Fred VanVleet or Kyle Lowry.

MORE: Where each Raptor ranks at their position

Simple as it may sound, it's been incredibly effective because of the amount of options that can come from it depending on how teams choose to defend it. We'll get into what some of those options are, but first, let's take a closer look at how the pick-and-rolls Siakam has been using to outsmart teams in the clutch this season work and why the Raptors keep going to them.

The play: Siakam blows by former New York Knicks forward Marcus Morris for a dunk to put the Raptors up by three points.

Breakdown: On the floor for the Raptors are Siakam, Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet, OG Anunoby and Marc Gasol. For the Knicks, Elfrid Payton, Damyean Dotson, Marcus Morris, Bobby Portis and Julius Randle.

Following a made basket by Payton to pull the Knicks within one, Siakam brings the ball up court while Lowry, VanVleet, Anunoby and Gasol space the floor by spotting upon the perimeter - Anunoby in the right corner, Gasol in the left corner, Lowry on the right wing, VanVleet on the left wing.

As soon as Siakam crosses halfcourt, VanVleet moves towards Siakam's defender, Morris, to set a screen. Unusual as it may seem to see VanVleet setting a screen for someone, him and Lowry are actually among the league leaders in screen assists among point guards this season.

Siakam uses the screen and VanVleet pops to the top of the 3-point line instead of rolling to the basket. Doing so puts the spotlight on Dotson, who started the possession on VanVleet.

Sticking with VanVleet would gift Siakam a straight-line to the basket, so Dotson decides to drop to the elbow to give Morris some time to fight over VanVleet's screen.

Because VanVleet has been one of the best 3-point shooters in the league this season, Dotson quickly retreats to prevent VanVleet from getting a wide open jump shot.

The problem? With Morris still recovering - he's on Siakam's hip at this point, not back in front of him - that opens up the paint for Siakam to attack.

Portis is glued to Gasol in the strongside corner, leaving Randle as New York's only hope of stopping Siakam from getting to the rim.

He's ... unsuccessful.

Why it matters: Of the 25 baskets Siakam has scored in the clutch this season, seven have been set up in this manner. It's not something the Raptors went to much at the beginning of the season, but Nick Nurse started to go to it more as the season wore on when they were in need of a halfcourt bucket at the end of close games, to the point where I wouldn't be surprised if we see a lot more of it in the playoffs.

In its simplest form, there are four ways teams can defend these big-small pick-and-rolls. You've seen the first - whoever is defending the roll man drops to give whoever is defending the ball handler the time they need to fight over the screen. Because the Raptors use a screener who is a 3-point threat, it leaves very little room for error when the defence rotates.

MORE: Where do the Raptors rank among title contenders?

The Knicks learned the hard way that rotating too soon can lead to a drive for the ball handler. The Spurs, on the other hand, learned here that rotating too late or doubling the ball handler can lead to the screener getting an open look at a 3-pointer.

That's the second option. The third is for the player defending the screener to hedge, meaning they jump out rather than drop back to slow down the ball handler when turning the corner.

That might have worked last season when Siakam was a more limited shooter, but he's a much improved 3-point shooter this season, capable of making them both at the top of the perimeter and off the dribble. It comes in handy when teams do hedge because Siakam can now walk into 3s if his defender goes underneath the screen.

The final option is to switch.

Again, it's something that might have worked last season, but Siakam is a much improved isolation scorer. According to NBA.com, only five players in the entire league are averaging more isolation points per game than Siakam this season. He ranks in only the 54th percentile in efficiency, but, as I've already written, that's more encouraging than it is worrying to me because of the volume with which he's scoring in isolation and how new all of this still is to him.

Besides, one of the reasons these pick-and-rolls are so difficult to defend is because it's a way for the Raptors to hunt a mismatch by putting someone who isn't used to defending a screen to do so. In this particular case, it's Golden State Warriors forward Andrew Wiggins. He at least has the size to better matchup with Siakam than, say, Stephen Curry, but Siakam is still able to put him in a blender.

In this one, it's Sacramento Kings guard Kent Bazemore. Again, Bazemore is better equipped to guard Siakam than De'Aaron Fox or Cory Joseph, both of whom are on the court for the Kings, but Lowry setting the screen at halfcourt helps Siakam get downhill, which is the beginning of the end for Bazemore.

The Raptors aren't the first team to work these pick-and-rolls into their offence and they certainly won't be the last. LeBron James, for example, has been using them for years. Him and Kyrie Irving used to pick teams apart with them when they were teammates on the Cleveland Cavaliers, with James playing the role of Siakam and Irving playing the role of VanVleet and Lowry. (Having had to defend it what I can only assume was close to a 100 times over the course of four Finals, Curry is probably still having nightmares of trying to tiptoe around switching onto James.)

Siakam obviously isn't the scorer that James is, but he doesn't have to be for these to be a go-to for him and the Raptors. And as he continues to fine-tune his game in the years to come, be it as a 3-point shooter, midrange scorer or passer, he'll only become more difficult to defend.

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