Raptors need aggressive, confident Siakam to beat Sixers

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It was a detail that went unnoticed by most in the moment: When Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid cruelly quieted the sellout crowd at Scotiabank Arena on Wednesday night, making the overtime three-pointer that put the Raptors in a 3-0 series hole to the 76ers, Embiid’s right shooting thumb was sheathed in black athletic tape.

So if there was a glimmer of hope for Toronto heading into Saturday’s Game 4, it came in the form of an ESPN report that Embiid, who attended Friday’s practice with the same thumb in a soft brace, is experiencing discomfort in the digit and may require an MRI to check for potential ligament damage. While Sixers coach Doc Rivers told reporters that Embiid is expected to play, the notion that the reigning NBA scoring champ suddenly had a dent in his armour probably wasn’t enough to convince even the staunchest of Raptor-loving optimists that Toronto has a chance here. No NBA team has ever rallied from a 3-0 hole to win a series. Still, it was something.

Because while the Sixers clearly dominated the opening two games of the series, the crux of Game 3 was different. Sure, Embiid beat Toronto with that dagger of a shot. But long before that, in the final throes of regulation time, Toronto beat itself.

“We had about seven other chances (before Embiid’s winner) to put that game away in the last minute and 30 seconds,” Toronto coach Nick Nurse said Friday.

The list of could-have-beens was heartbreaking. Precious Achiuwa missed two free throws with 27 seconds to go and the game tied. Fred VanVleet missed an open three-pointer with 1:03 remaining that could have put the Raptors up four points. Pascal Siakam missed an open jumper at the elbow with 1:28 to go that could have increased Toronto’s lead to five.

“We have to make one of those plays,” Nurse said, “and the game is probably put away.”

Still, it wasn’t simply about making shots. The game is also possibly put away if Siakam, in particular, would have taken a few more. In a series in which Nurse has publicly spelled out his belief that it’s in the undermanned Raptors’ best interest if Siakam shoots more — in the lead-up to Game 3, the coach said he’d like to see Siakam take somewhere in the range of 25 shots a game from the field — Siakam took just 16 shots Wednesday. While Embiid was carrying the Sixers, shaking off a five-point first half to score 28 points after the intermission, Siakam had precisely zero points in the second half and overtime. Perhaps worse, Siakam attempted just five field goals after halftime. He didn’t make a single trip to the foul line all night.

Nurse said something you don’t hear from NBA coaches too often about max-contract employees: “We’ve got to be more aggressive in feeding (Siakam) that information that he needs to take shots.”

Nurse said Siakam often has his best games when he’s draining two or three three-pointers, made baskets that typically force defences to guard him more closely and open up space for the offence to operate. Given that Siakam is a combined 1-for-5 from three-point range in the opening three games of the series — and given that the Raptors figure to be without Scottie Barnes again in Game 4 as he continues to rehabilitate his Game 1 ankle sprain — Nurse reiterated his message to his top scorer Friday.

“When there’s space on the perimeter, he’s got to let ’em fly.” Nurse said. “He’s turned down some (shots) in this series. We’ve just got to make sure that he’s not turning any down. Like, he’s got to get in full-mode aggressive mode … Those shot attempts are there from the three. And he’s got to have some confidence to go ahead and take them.”

It’s the confidence part that’s clearly the problem. Speaking to reporters Friday, Toronto’s top regular-season point producer said he “didn’t realize” he launched just five field-goal attempts in Game 3’s second half and overtime combined.

He acknowledged he is still adjusting to the defensive attention afforded him now that he’s Toronto’s No. 1 guy — this is his first playoff go-round without Kyle Lowry’s steady hand on the wheel, don’t forget. And while Siakam hemmed and hawed about the importance of making the right play in the face of multiple defenders — never mind that Nurse is encouraging him to pull the trigger long before the double team arrives — he eventually seemed to acknowledge it would help his team if he got a little more greedy on the offensive end.

“I think that you get a lot of attention and it always feels like there’s help, so, I think for me I just gotta stay aggressive, get to my spots and live with the results,” he said. “I feel like I can get the shot that I want on the floor, I just gotta do it consistently. You’re gonna make some, you’re gonna miss some. It looks a lot better when you make them, obviously.”

To paraphrase a basketball sage: Everyone can live with the makes. The hard trick is to live with the misses.

No one’s saying it’s easy and it might sound silly that an NBA coach one game from playoff elimination has to coax a $33-million-a-year player to take a few more shots, Nurse pointed out one potential reason, beyond a lack of self-belief, that has kept Siakam from launching bombs.

“I think he thinks he can beat (his man) and get to the rim. So he kind of sometimes doesn’t want to settle (for a jump shot), because he thinks he’s going to be able to use his best go-to move,” Nurse said. “And if he takes the shot, he’s not going to know if he could have got by him. But having a little more of a healthy mix of that would be advised.”

With Siakam’s healthier mix, and Embiid’s unhealthy thumb, maybe there’s hope for a series beyond a sweep.

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