NEW YORK — Pascal Siakam missed his first four three-point attempts on Wednesday night in Brooklyn, a couple of them barely acknowledging the rim as they sailed past.
For his fifth attempt, with Siakam wide open in the corner, two Nets players jumped up from the bench and hollered and waved as he took his shooting stance. The shot was pure, and Siakam had a look, a word, and a smile for the Brooklyn bench as he went back up the court.
He would hit two more corner threes on the night as the Raptors cruised, mostly, to a victory that they didn’t need and which the Nets very much did. It was a game that didn’t tell anyone much they didn’t already know. Brooklyn can be dangerous when the three-pointers are falling, but if they are not there is not an evident Plan B. The Raptors have more depth and more ways to score, and on a night in which they didn’t want to give away any playoff secrets, they played straight defence and largely shut the Nets down.
But as with so many nights this season, it was a game in which Siakam underlined how much he has grown as a player in a remarkably short time.
Asked after the game if has had to learn how to keep shooting even when he has been cold, the 6-foot-9 forward said he learned that last season. “I missed (for) a whole month,” he said, a slight smile on his face. “So I don’t think I’m fazed by that, I just continue to play my game and trust my work.”
He’s not joking about that whole-month thing. In December of 2017, Siakam was a smooth 1-for-27 from three-point range, which is, uh, four per cent. If you round up.
Head coach Nick Nurse also said after the game that the progression of Siakam from an athletic defender and transition scorer to someone who can take spot-up jumpers — and shoot his way out of slumps — began when he was still a bench player.
“I think I would give our entire organization credit for some of that,” Nurse said. “It hasn’t been just this year. He has shot really poorly, as you guys know, in the past, and we have encouraged him to keep firing away.”
The coach said the 25-year-old from Cameroon, who famously has only been playing basketball for a decade, has continued to work and develop the proper shooting mechanics. He’s up to 36 per cent from distance this season, and though he is still a little streaky, he’s had multiple months where he has been over the 40 per cent bench mark from three-point range.
“He’s legitimate now,” Nurse said. “I think you are going to see this continue to climb year after year, because he’s got it now, mechanically, and he’s starting to get it psychologically to where he really believes in himself as a shooter.”
He might even believe in himself a tad too much. Siakam said post-game that he was quick to shoot from deep when he saw how much space the Nets were giving him.
“I kind of got thrown off in the beginning of the game just seeing how they were guarding me and I kind of got a little bit excited,” he said. “I had to calm down a little bit and let the game come to me and just be me.”
And the reason he can just be himself is because there are so few players in the league like him: a big body with speed and natural athleticism and moves that often look like he’s not entirely sure what he is doing until he has done it.
“He’s hard to guard because he’s so, like, elusive,” Nurse said in Brooklyn. Then he gave a description of Siakam’s game that was at once kind of rambling and yet also quite accurate: “He’s one way and another way and he’s this way and he puts his back on you and spins around on you and he stretches out underneath.” Pretty much, yeah. “So, there’s a lot of problems he presents,” Nurse said. “I don’t know what else to say, he’s a good player, man. He’s good.”
The game against Brooklyn put Siakam on the floor with D’Angelo Russell, the Nets’ breakout star who is the other main contender for the NBA’s Most Improved Player award. Siakam has said he doesn’t much care about the trophy, which is fair enough, since it’s one of those awards, like the Lady Byng in the NHL, which is hard to define. Do you have to be very good and also improved, or if you were really terrible one year, do you just have to make it up to mediocre levels? Regardless, some of the Brooklyn fans were aware of the rivalry, such as it is. A small, loud section of the Barclays Center was on Siakam early, chanting “D-Lo’s Better” when he went to the free-throw line.
By the end of the game, when Siakam had led all scorers with 28, and added 10 rebounds and five assists in the 115-105 Toronto win, that section had gone quiet.
Siakam has been leaving a lot of people with not much to say. Teammates, coaches, and otherwise.