How Pascal Siakam’s breakout NBA Finals Game 1 performance was typical Siakam

TORONTO — Sitting in an apartment in downtown Toronto hours before Game 1 of the NBA Finals, an ocean away from Douala, Cameroon, where the boys used to kick around soccer balls, Boris Siakam — the eldest of five siblings, firmly ensconced in a life he couldn’t have imagined seven years ago — turned to his younger brother, the rangy 6-foot-9 forward he flew in from Kentucky to watch.

“Just go out there and have fun,” Boris told him. "You’re here for a purpose. This is your destiny.” To live out their late father’s dream, to carry the basketball hopes of two nations.

In 2012, Raptors president Masai Ujiri saw Pascal Siakam, more spindly than sinewy then, at a Basketball Without Borders camp and wasn’t sure if he was an NBA prospect. Four years later, he drafted Siakam with the 27th pick overall. On Thursday night, Siakam scored a career-high 32 points, with eight rebounds, five assists, two blocks and a steal, securing a 118-109 victory over the Golden State Warriors.

Pascal Siakam, alero de los Raptors de Toronto, bloquea un disparo de Draymond Green, de los Warriors de Golden State, en el primer partido de la Final de la NBA, el jueves 30 de mayo de 2019 (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press via AP)
Pascal Siakam blocks Draymond Green's shot Thursday night in Game 1 of the NBA Finals. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press via AP)

When the final buzzer sounded, Siakam stood on the sideline with ESPN’s Doris Burke and shared how he handled the pressure. “I’m just doing it for my dad, man. Doing it for my dad. Going out there every single night, not worrying about what’s going on, just having a bigger purpose.”

In 2014, when Pascal was a freshman at New Mexico State, his father, Tchamo — who dreamed that the NBA would pluck his sons out of Cameroon — was killed in a two-car collision. All three Siakam brothers landed NCAA scholarships, but Pascal ended up being the only one with NBA potential. “It started with my dad,” Boris said. “He was just so positive with us. We picked up on it, obviously, being his kids. We stayed positive, because we always felt like things were gonna change.”

After the game, donning apparel stamped with his signature “PS” logo, Pascal Siakam sat at the podium with a sparkling, gold pendant, engraved with a picture of his parents, hanging from his neck. Fred VanVleet, Siakam’s teammate, got a similar necklace, engraved with a picture of his daughter, for Father’s Day. When Siakam saw it, he decided to have one made. He wears it every day now, he says, “Mostly to remind me that they’re close to me.”

Late in the first quarter, Siakam stonewalled Kevon Looney at the rim, sprinted up the floor, spotted up and drilled his first three of the game, holding his follow-through for an extra second before turning around and running back down the floor. “I saw him, and I felt it,” Boris said. “I felt he was gonna have a good night.”

Two years ago, after the Raptors were swept by the Cleveland Cavaliers, Pascal Siakam showed up at the practice facility and asked the coaching staff to teach him how to shoot. “‘I see that in playoff basketball you better be able to shoot to be on the floor,’” Nurse recalled Siakam saying. “So we went to work that day on his shooting, changed some mechanics. He took it and absolutely ran with it — two, three times a day, every day, just trying to get that part of his game better.” The next year, Siakam jacked up 1.6 triples per game and made 22 percent of them — the worst clip in the NBA — and missed many more in empty gyms and during warmups, where he would smile after every miss, until they eventually started going in. After this year’s All-Star break, Siakam shot 42 percent from beyond the arc.

“It's so cliché most of the time, but that's the story of my life,” Pascal Siakam said. “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. I think that's what makes it fun.”

He has failed so many times, and yet his failures never obliterated his confidence. Heading into his rookie year, a promising start to summer league was cut short by a knee sprain. He was called up and down from the G League too many times to count, going from frustrated and confused to potential Finals MVP. “It’s not a confidence where he gets complacent in who he is,” Toronto general manager Bobby Webster said. “It’s a confidence that continues to push him to get better, not see the adversity and the obstacles in his way.” Weakness, for Siakam, is just another word for potential.

That’s just how I am,” Siakam said. “That’s how I was raised. My parents were like that, in the sense where they always had positive vibes.” Tchamo saw value in discipline, sending Siakam to St. Andrews Seminary when he was a child in Cameroon, but when Tchamo was faced with his children’s missteps, he appealed to their developing characters, choosing reason over punishment.

“He would kinda make you kinda see his point,” Boris laughed. “You’d feel kinda stupid sometimes. He was the kind of man who would talk about things and then you kinda see … they resonate. You’re like, ‘Oh, OK, you’re right, I never see it that way.’ Instead of punishing us physically, he just made us think about what we’ve done.” When Boris got in trouble as a freshman at Western Kentucky, Tchamo impressed upon him the stakes and sacrifice of his trek to the United States. “He’d make sure we understood that the name that we carry is very important,” Boris said. “Not just to him but to the entire family.” When a 15-year-old Siakam devised an exit strategy by misbehaving on purpose, Tchamo persuaded him to stay at St. Andrews.

“We sometimes watch Pascal and I wish [our dad] was here just for a little bit just to see it,” Boris continued. “And I feel like everybody else would come and see where Pascal got that kind of mindset.”

In the final minute of the fourth quarter, Siakam leaned into Draymond Green’s chest, missed an awkward layup attempt, and exploded sideways immediately after landing, like a volleyball player desperate to get the ball to the other side of the net, tipping it in with his left hand. It was a fitting finish for a player who moves gracefully, but like he is playing another sport altogether — some mix between soccer and ballet and track and field.

“That was a shot that 90 percent of the time, he’s probably going to miss,” Boris said. “But he hit it and it went in.”

Siakam is making a habit of hitting shots he isn’t supposed to make. Midway through the third quarter, in anticipation of the 360-degree spin move that, earlier in the game, helped Siakam traverse six feet in one second and over 9,000 kilometers in seven years, Draymond Green retreated into paint. Siakam, 25, didn’t play organized basketball until he was eighteen. And before Thursday, he had attempted and clanked a total of two stepback jumpers during the playoffs.

But he calmly gathered the ball and hit one in his first NBA Finals game, over a perennial Defensive Player of the Year candidate, following an Eastern Conference finals series in which he slugged out a 40 percent shooting clip. Nearly every game — hell, every quarter — Siakam tries something new. He is both unpredictable and intrepid, in a race against the scouting report rapidly developing against him, surprising everyone but himself.

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