Pascal Siakam shows room for growth against Bucks and Giannis Antetokounmpo

A high-profile battle on Tuesday night highlighted why Pascal Siakam is still a cut below the reigning MVP and how his limitations could hold the Toronto Raptors back in the playoffs.

Pascal Siakam is clearly a triumph for the Toronto Raptors organization. He is both a symptom and a cause of the way they play, their player development expertise and their championship pedigree. An undeniable All-Star starter this season and All-Defense First Team candidate, Siakam also has cemented himself among the best players in the NBA.

Still, as Toronto looks past the regular season and toward defending its championship in the Eastern Conference playoffs, it will need Siakam to be even more. In a bracket that figures to be dominated by superstars like Giannis Antetokounmpo, Jayson Tatum and Joel Embiid, it remains to be seen whether Siakam can be a reliable shot creator and stopper during a prolonged playoff run.

In a matchup against Antetokounmpo and Milwaukee on Tuesday night, Siakam was not the game-changing presence Toronto needs him to be. Siakam was 6-for-14 from the field for 22 points in a 108-97 loss. Even worse, the Bucks’ starters dismantled the Raptors, as the Toronto bench was the only unit capable of driving a real run in the game. Siakam was a minus-20.

While a casual observer could paint Siakam as a lite version of Antetokounmpo, Tuesday’s game illustrated the differences in their games. The Greek Freak was also quite inefficient, shooting 5-for-14 himself, but he helped his team by gobbling up 19 rebounds and dishing out eight assists. Whether he’s scoring or not, Antetokounmpo is a driver of great offense for his team, turning boards into transition looks and using the attention he gets in the half-court to create good shots for the Bucks.

On the other hand, Siakam is still primarily a finisher. Though he’s traded in a portion of his spot-up scoring opportunities this season for chances to handle the ball in the pick-and-roll, Siakam mostly excels in transition and in the post — situations that require teammates to set him up.

Coincidentally, Siakam lies just below Antetokounmpo in terms of isolation efficiency at 0.89 points per possession, per Synergy play type data. That’s almost entirely because of Antetokounmpo’s willingness to take risks, though. The presumed back-to-back MVP turns the ball over more often than Siakam in those spots but is far more efficient, with a 49.0 effective field goal percentage compared with Siakam’s 44.0. When it comes to running a pick-and-roll, Antetokounmpo has Siakam beat by a mile.

It’s impossible to separate team context from how specific players perform in one type of play. Though the margin is narrow, Toronto’s roster is deeper with playmaking talent than Milwaukee’s. The Raptors also have the third-best 3-point percentage in the NBA, while the Bucks are at 13th. Though Toronto’s offense is 6.6 points better when Siakam is on the court (per Cleaning the Glass), the case could be made they need him less than the Bucks need Antetokounmpo, buoyed instead by depth, smarts and perhaps the best coach in the league.

Siakam also is earlier in his career and is clearly still tinkering with his playing style. After taking just eight 3s off the dribble last season playing next to Kawhi Leonard, the New Mexico State product has launched 112 already this year. Many around the league are uncovering the defense-bending, efficiency-boosting wonders of the pull-up triple, and Siakam is just scratching the surface. For a player who just last season was a question mark from the corner in the playoffs, flashing the confidence to pull up and bomb away is impressive.

If Siakam takes on the late-game creation burden come playoff time for Toronto, it will serve a few purposes. First, he’s the best option they have, and the experience will be invaluable for the soon-to-be 26-year-old. At the same time, the best option Milwaukee has to guard him is Antetokounmpo. In becoming one of the NBA’s best defenders, Antetokounmpo has embraced a free safety role in the Bucks’ paint-preserving scheme. The Bucks are hesitant to ever sic the MVP on the opposing team’s best player, instead taking advantage of his aggressive team defense.

A few nasty pull-up 3s or pick-and-roll dimes from Siakam could change that. Forcing the Bucks to put Antetokounmpo on Siakam would take Giannis away from the back line, put more pressure on Brook Lopez and spread Milwaukee thin. That’s when the Raptors’ incredible shooting and passing could really turn the tide of a series and put Toronto in business en route to a possible second straight NBA Finals.

Right now? This isn’t cutting it. With the Raptors within 10 closing out the third quarter on a run, they hand the ball to Siakam to get a quick bucket. He aborts his drive, nearly turns it over, then tosses up a bad shot right at Lopez’s finger tips.

Siakam needs to make better decisions and develop a few more reliable go-to moves (besides the pull-up 3 or the driving spin) to be trustworthy late in playoff games. That’s not to mention the fact that Leonard was also the Raptors’ Giannis stopper last summer, and they may need Siakam to fill that void, too.

Assuming the Raptors retain the second seed, they will have to get through at least one more formidable foe before facing the Bucks. To beat the likes of the Miami Heat or Philadelphia 76ers, they will need this version of Siakam as well. Right now, he ranks 331st in points per possession overall in the half-court, which obviously isn’t going to cut it.

While the sum of the Raptors’ parts could push them all the way to the conference finals, the mano-a-mano matchup on Tuesday night showed the team’s limitations against Milwaukee and Antetokounmpo. In the league MVP, Siakam has a player to emulate and a stylistic model, but there is a chasm between them that will likely make Toronto the clear underdog in a series against the Bucks.

Next: What your NBA MVP says about you

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