TORONTO -- Pascal Siakam brought the ball past half court, sizing up the Golden State Warriors' defense. The shoo-in for Most Improved Player ran a pick-and-roll with guard Kyle Lowry, forcing a switch. Siakam backed Shaun Livingston down, drew a double team and passed the ball out to Lowry, who immediately gave it back to him. A quick jab step followed, and he attacked the rim with one hard, purposeful dribble. He flipped a tough shot over DeMarcus Cousins's outstretched arms, and it went off the glass and in.
The shot put the Toronto Raptors up by nine points with about nine minutes left in Game 1 of the NBA Finals. It gave Siakam 30 points. It was his 11th consecutive made field goal, the longest streak in any Finals game in the last 20 seasons, per Elias Sports.
If there was one play on Thursday that captured the duality of Siakam, who finished with 32 points on 14-for-17 shooting, plus eight rebounds, five assists, two blocks and a steal, it was that one. The setup was all poise and maturity. The finish, which caused Scotiabank Arena to burst into a frenzy, was wild. Siakam is mature for a young player and, if you aren't accustomed to his herky-jerky moves, you might think he is reckless. When he approaches the rim, he appears out of control until he doesn't.
Siakam is in his first year as a starter. Entering training camp, the Raptors' coaching staff thought the power forward spot might be fluid, but he grabbed it and ran with it. He has played organized basketball for only seven years, a fact teammate Danny Green learned only after a first-round game, sitting next to him at the podium. His rise is a crazy story, and it has been told many times on national TV broadcasts throughout the playoffs. In Toronto, however, it is not a big deal anymore.
"Obviously it's a huge stage for him," Raptors general manager Bobby Webster said after their 118-109 win. "But we've seen that game before, right? The refreshing thing about him is that it doesn't matter that it was Game 1. It could have been Game 63 on the road in the season. And we've all seen very similar games to that throughout the year. I don't think the moment affects him."
Toronto coach Nick Nurse shared an anecdote about Siakam's work ethic: After being swept by the Cleveland Cavaliers two years ago, he was back in the gym, working on shooting mechanics. He had just won Finals MVP in what was then known as the D-League, but he wanted to be able to stay on the floor in the NBA playoffs.
"It's normal to me," VanVleet told CBS Sports. "That's why. Obviously we appreciate it and at some point we'll sit back and have a drink and think about how great he was. But I've seen him work that way from the day I met him. He's in the gym every day. He's working on his game, he's in the gym all summer. And you see it pay off."
All season, VanVleet has watched as teams have realized what Siakam can do with the ball and adjusted their game plans accordingly. Several Warriors bemoaned his scoring opportunities in transition, and Draymond Green blamed himself for Siakam finding a rhythm. Klay Thompson said he had the game of his playoff life. No one sounded shocked, exactly, but they made it clear that they had to be more alert when Siakam had the ball in his hands.
"Especially for a young player, it's his first Finals, you might say, 'OK, we don't need to send as much help,'" VanVleet said. "I think there will be a different game plan in Game 2. I think that he's hard to guard one-on-one in the open floor like that, especially when you're doubling Kawhi (Leonard). That's what makes us tough. We got a lot of weapons."
There was a time, not all that long ago, when "we all used to hold our breath when he took a 3-point shot," Raptors president Masai Ujiri said before the Finals started. They held their collective breath when he sprinted down the floor on fast breaks, too. "Now we can't wait until he does that." After one of the best NBA Finals debuts ever, in which Siakam's maniacal defense was just as impressive as his offense, VanVleet described him as a special player, a great scorer and someone the team has "extreme" confidence in. As the world watched him run circles around the Warriors, his teammates did not see him as former No. 27 pick who went from Cameroon to the WAC to the fringes of Toronto's rotation. They saw him as the star that he has become, and they knew exactly what to do.
"Just give him the ball and get out of the way," VanVleet said.