For the past 10 years, no NBA championship team has employed an All-Star center. Yes, the “five” still provides value, usually in the defensive department. However, the end-all-be-all designation belongs to the highly coveted wings. Whether it’s a point forward with the ability to score at will or a 6-foot-7 defensive threat who shows flair from 3-point range, multi-faceted players are typically small forwards.
Two Eastern Conference contenders match up in the conference semifinals: the Toronto Raptors and Boston Celtics. Both teams terrorize opponents with top-tier defenses, mostly due to the wings in the teams’ rotations.
While the reigning champion Raptors deserve recognition, they maintain a rugged exterior. Coached by elite head coach Nick Nurse, with capable defenders, multiple players with shot-creating prowess and perhaps a superstar in the making, the Raptors are a threat to spoil the Milwaukee Bucks‘ historic season.
The never-die attitude the Raptors exude on a nightly basis adds to the anticipation of this matchup with the Celtics. While the Celtics made light work of the Philadelphia 76ers, Toronto further cemented its position in the league as a viable contender.
Pascal Siakam vs. Jayson Tatum
As alluded to earlier, the battle of the wings is crucial to the story and strategy of this series. In the story department, each franchise is equipped with a star forward. Pascal Siakam embodies a championship attitude and is coming into his own as a star player. Jayson Tatum is also no stranger to stardom, as he achieved All-Star status in February.
Strategically, the two stars lead their teams in minutes played. Notably, Tatum and Siakam also stand as the most-used players on the two Eastern Conference contending squads. Both offenses seldom fall to lulling iso-ball possessions. With Tatum and Siakam shining on well-coached teams void of a system crafted to their liking, it’s fitting that the two face off in a playoff matchup.
Although the NBA bubble caters to the players in nearly every possible way, Siakam didn’t get the memo. Pre-pandemic Siakam ignited MVP candidate talk in November; the Raptors forward averaged 24 points, 8.4 rebounds and four assists on the month.
Unfortunately, the superstar level of play didn’t reappear in the NBA restart. Moreover, regression in Siakam’s performance bled through his early goodwill like Curt Schilling’s sock. The 2019 Most Improved Player saw his numbers dip in points, assists, rebounds and all shooting-percentage categories.
Most notably, the Raptors fell to the Celtics 122-100 on August 7. In the bubble-bursting beatdown, Siakam posted his lowest points per shot attempt at .733; the Milwaukee Bucks forced him to .778.
Even so, the dip in production didn’t change the Raptors’ path to a repeat title. The Raptors found themselves facing the depleted Brooklyn Nets for a comfortable 4-0 series victory.
Consider the slate wiped clean as Siakam looks once again to take the helm of the Raptors’ offense.
Tales of the tape: Pascal Siakam vs. the Celtics during the 2019-20 season
For a team with high hopes to eliminate the Eastern Conference juggernaut Milwaukee Bucks, the Raptors must outduel a Celtics squad that also has championship aspirations. The Celtics won the regular-season series with a 3-1 record over the reigning NBA champions.
Although Siakam provided some offensive firepower from distance with 6-of-12 shooting, his presence faltered from a team standpoint, with a minus-21.0 plus-minus rating in the two losses to Boston.
By looking back at the game tape, you will find the overall below-par performances didn’t stem from lockdown defense, as Siakam was open on six shots. However, in no disrespect to the Celtics’ defense, Jaylen Brown was a deterrent to the Raptors’ All-Star in both games. Tatum guarded Siakam only once, on a missed shot.
Considering those sequences, it’s well within the realm of possibility that Siakam has a bounce-back performance versus the Celtics. Perhaps a few wide-open 3-point shots find the bottom of the net or some layups attempts end in the 2019 Most Improved Player award winner’s favor.
Tales of the tape: Jayson Tatum vs. the Raptors during the 2019-20 season
The shameless box-and-one utilizers aren’t afraid to share the wealth defensively. In this case, consider Tatum a victim of an all-out barrage of defense.
Point guard Kyle Lowry, the only player to take a charge in NBA All-Star history, revels in his matchups with Tatum. In 17 matchup minutes, the feisty guard forced Tatum to 28% 3-point shooting.
Many possessions see OG Anunoby as the primary defender on the Celtics’ star. However, as Brad Stevens incorporates a multitude of screens in his offense, Tatum finds himself in front of help defenders, often matching up against an array of Raptors defenders.
According to NBA.com’s tracking numbers, Tatum shot 9 of 29 on shot attempts in which a defender was within 2-to-4 feet. Once again, the Raptors’ personnel, built for guarding wings, will cause a serious threat to the Celtics’ title hopes.
Even when Tatum breaks free of the perimeter help defense, *insert Toronto rim protector* waits at the rim. Serge Ibaka alone had three blocks on Tatum this season. Chris Boucher and Lowry are also members of the “I blocked Jayson Tatum” fan club.
Despite the suffocating 48% true-shooting mark that the Raptors’ defense forced on Tatum, the Celtics’ support staff guided the woefully performing wing to three victories. Going by Tatum’s in-and-out superstar-level offense, the All-NBA caliber play will show itself this series.
Small sample size theater
It’s been a week since the Raptors and Celtics swept their first-round opponents. Despite the rest, Siakam, along with the rest of the Raptors, appeared rusty in the first quarter of the series. Behind Siakam’s three fouls in the opening quarter, the reigning champions fell into an 18-point deficit despite Tatum not contributing a made field goal until the 39-second mark of the first quarter.
Without the poor start, it’s safe to say Toronto wouldn’t have succumbed to an 18-point loss. Even when down early, it never felt like Raptors were completely out of the contest. Unfortunately, Siakam never mustered up the steam necessary to pull off another late-game comeback.
As mentioned earlier, Tatum was bound for a playoff-worthy performance over the bothersome Raptors defense. So far, Tatum has the upper hand with 9-of-18 field-goal shooting, 2 of 5 from deep and nine boards. On the other hand, Siakam finished an abysmal 5 of 16 from the field and a bagel in the 3-point shooting department. Not to pile on, but the Raptors’ second-best rebounder finished with a mere three boards.
Forecasting the matchup
Consider Game 1 a calibration for the players. The Raptors won’t look as undisciplined and out of touch as a team as they appeared in the first half for the duration of the series. Siakam, although not the best performer against the Celtics, isn’t a disappearing act in the playoffs.
Expect a 24-7-3 line for Tatum and a 22-8-2 line from Siakam for the series.