Amazing story, amazing game: Raptors’ Pascal Siakam plays the hero in Game 1 win
TORONTO — Pascal Siakam has an amazing basketball story, and it starts in Africa with a basketball camp he attended only because it was a chance to visit with his sister he hadn’t seen in five years.
It’s impossible to tell where Siakam’s basketball story ends, but here’s where it is today: In his first NBA Finals game, Siakam excelled with a playoff career-high 32 points, eight rebounds, five assists and two blocks in Toronto’s 118-109 victory against Golden State in Game 1.
"Siakam was brilliant, he was hitting shots from everywhere," Warriors coach Steve Kerr said.
The Raptors didn't need Kawhi Leonard or Kyle Lowry in the series opener as much as they needed Siakam, who is going to make this series difficult for Golden State if he continues to play with that kind of energy.
During one stretch of the game, Siakam made 11 consecutive shots, the longest streak in the Finals in the past 20 seasons, according to Elias Sports Bureau.
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"He played with really good composure, right," Raptors coach Nick Nurse said. "He got to his spots and got on balance and was patient, and when he needed to go quick and get around him, he did as well. He had a couple of really tough ones go in for him as well."
Raptors president Masai Ujiri remembers seeing at teenage Siakam at a Basketball Without Borders camp in Africa seven years ago.
He was all limbs and not very coordinated. But the native of Cameroon gave an effort that made a lasting impression on Ujiri, who followed Siakam’s career. Siakam eventually moved to the United States and played college basketball at New Mexico State.
"I didn't even know if I really dreamed of being at this level," Siakam said. "I couldn't even think about this moment because it wasn't reachable for me."
Pascal Siakam describes his journey to the big stage of the #NBAFinalspic.twitter.com/bsG6oUNHAE
By the time the 2016 draft rolled around, the Raptors’ scouting department identified Siakam as a draft candidate. Ujiri is known for taking risks on draft picks — Bruno Caboclo and Lucas Nogueira previously — with the idea that one might turn into a special player. The Raptors picked Siakam 27th.
Could Ujiri have imagined Siakam turning into a favorite to win this season’s Most Improved Players award?
"When I saw him in Basketball Without Borders, no," Ujiri said. "We all want to act like we know everything, but we don't. That guy has been incredible. Even during the year, Pascal, I think should have been an All-Star."
Nurse retold the story of Siakam in the gym the day after Cleveland eliminated Toronto in the 2017 playoffs. He wanted to become a complete player.
"We have had these moments of talk, and he specifically said to me a couple years ago that he doesn't want to be one of those African players that's labeled, whether it's a shot blocker or a defender or rebounder or he runs," Ujiri said. "He wants to be a star. He wants to be a versatile player in this league and he wants to be able to do it all. And he's put the work into it.
"We all used to hold our breath when he took a 3-point shot. We all used to hold our breath sometimes when he went on the fast break. And now we can't wait until he does that. Again, it's preparation, it's practice, it's work ethic, it's that mindset of winning and he has that mindset, too."
Kyle Lowry on Pascal Siakam’s huge Game 1 performance for the Raptors #NBAFinalspic.twitter.com/9fPP7CHs4i
He delivered big-time, making 14-of-17 shots, including 9-of-10 for 20 points in the second half. He is the first player to score 30 or more points on at least 80% shooting in the Finals since Shaquille O’Neal in 2004.
The Warriors weren’t nearly as physical with Siakam as they needed to be, and Golden State’s elite defender Draymond Green took responsibility.
"I let him get in a rhythm in the first half — first quarter really," Green said. "So I’ve got to do a better job of taking his rhythm away, and I will, but he had a great game. But that's on me."
Siakam, whose three brothers played Division I basketball, understands the amazing aspect of his journey.
"It's something that it's so cliché most of the time, but that's the story of my life, just going out there every single night, working hard to get to this level, and knowing that I have so much to learn and I have so much room to improve and grow," he said.
After the game on ABC, he dedicated the game to his father Tchamo who died in a car accident in 2014.
He shared a tender moment in the postgame news conference. He wished his father was still around so he could hear how proud his dad would be.
"I kind of want to hear it from his mouth, and I think it would be really cool," Siakam said. "But for me like I always say, man, it's bigger than basketball, and every night that I go out there, I have a bigger purpose, and I play for something bigger than just basketball. And I think that's what make it special that every night I'm out there, no matter the result, no matter how many points I score, I'm playing for something bigger than myself."
Follow Jeff Zillgitt on Twitter @JeffZillgitt.
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