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Can Pascal Siakam and Kyle Lowry pull off the comeback?

Another fantastic game 7 awaits in the NBA Bubble

In the East, a fascinating semifinal series comes down to one tense Game 7 tonight. The Toronto Raptors forced a win-or-go-home after falling down 2-0, while the Boston Celtics toss and turn, wondering if Jaylen Brown’s near block at the end of Game 3 could have produced a sweep.

Boston and Toronto battled in an instant classic in Game 6, a brutal double-overtime grind that forced tonight’s conclusion. The game felt like championships rounds in a close UFC title fight, where two exhausted fighters answer the bell and summon some reservoir of spirit and will to keep throwing shots.

Tom Ziller captured the undying grit of the defending champ Raptors perfectly.

Every player in the rotation was on the roster last season. They all have championship rings. They all know what it feels like to reign, they know how much work is left if they are lucky enough to get past the Celtics. And they are fighting for every inch, every loose ball, scrapping for every point. Even though they lost the best player off of a title team and the next star up has struggled in the bubble environment, they are refusing to concede. If Boston wins this series, the Celtics will have had to earn it. Toronto isn’t giving anything away.

Toronto thrived all season with a deep and versatile lineup. Bench lineups with young prospects like Terence Davis and defensive stalwarts like Serge Ibaka propelled the Raptors to the second-best record in the East. Yet, with tightened playoff rotations, tonight’s game seven might be decided entirely by the play of two of Toronto’s finest.

Toronto’s title defense rests in the hands of Pascal Siakam and Kyle Lowry.

Pascal Siakam must find his footing

Pascal Siakam won last year’s Most Improved Player and did his best to repeat again this year. Toronto mitigated the loss of Kawhi Leonard by relying more on Siakam, and he delivered all year long. He continued his steady improvement by producing career highs in points, rebounds, assists, blocks, and steals, per Basketball Reference.

Unfortunately, this trend did not carry over to the NBA Bubble. Siakam’s production slipped in nearly every per game metric, again per Basketball Reference.

His scoring per game dipped by more than six points in the seeding games and in the first two rounds of the playoffs. Perhaps most worryingly, he’s lost any and all efficiency. Siakam converts less than 40% of his field goals in the NBA Bubble, including a rough 5 for 19 game six against Boston.

Seth Partnow at The Athletic wrote a fascinating study on alpha scorers and the difficulty of self-generating efficient shots. I highly recommend the article in its entirety, but this section on Siakam summarizes his impact on Toronto and the challenges posed by a relatively inexperienced lead scorer.

Back to Siakam, in the Game 4 under discussions by Smith,  he was a very efficient 6-for-9 from the field for 12 points on self-created looks, including 4-of-6 in the second half as Toronto maintained a multi-possession lead for the game’s last 22 plus minutes. I’m always loathed to succumb to simple explanations for complex outcomes, but it is probably not a coincidence that Siakam’s best creation game and Toronto’s most comfortable win coincided. Prior to Game 4, Siakam was 10-of-34 on the series. In Game 5, Siakam himself was 3-of-5 but the Raptors as a team were 13-of-33, including only 1-of-10 on 3-pointers.

His theory nets out. I broke out Siakam’s game logs in Basketball Reference and tracked wins against his efficiency. In regular season games where Siakam shot 40% or better from the field, the Raptors went 33-4, a 73 win pace. When he shot poorly, the Raptors went 13-10, barely above 0.500.

Against Boston, Siakam’s struggled in nearly every game. He hasn’t yet made his mark offensively in the series, only topping twenty points once in the Raptors’ game four win. Siakam made under 27% of his shots in the double-OT win, and shot best in the Celtics’ blowout victory in game five.

Defensively, he’s taking on some of the toughest Boston assignments each game. Per NBA.com’s tracking data, Siakam splits his time almost evenly between guarding Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, and Marcus Smart. Smart’s gotten the better of Siakam so far, shooting 60% from the field and 53% from three with Siakam as his primary defender. However, he’s managed to put some clamps down on the two Boston wings. Tatum (38.6%) and Brown (29.6%) both convert at a far lower rate than their average while guarded by Siakam.

Siakam’s defensive work rate should be commended, but he’ll need to help out his running mate offensively to win this series, especially after last game.

Does Kyle Lowry have anything left in the gas tank?

Kyle Lowry played over 53 minutes in game six, with every minute a complete and total slog. In that grind, Lowry thrived. He led the entire game with 33 hard-earned points, willing the Raptors through two overtimes. Look at the degree of difficulty for his last few shots in this clip.

Lowry turned into pint-sized Shaq down the stretch, backing down his defender into low post turnarounds and bruising drives to the rim. I love watching his anachronistic game, where a stout 6’0” point guard decides to post on the block and smash his way into buckets.

Toronto won every good Lowry game this series. In the game three nail-biter, Lowry launched a cross-court pass over gigantic 7’5” Tacko Fall to set up OG Anunoby‘s game-winner. Just look at this!

Lowry’s splits might decide the series. In victories, he averaged 28.7 points, 8.3 rebounds, and 7 assists. He put up 31/6/8 in the game three victory, 22/11/7 in game four, and those 33 vital points to force game seven. When his production dips, Toronto loses. Lowry’s averages less than 15 points in the three Toronto losses, including a 10 point stinker in the game five blowout.

At minimum, Toronto needs one of the Lowry/Siakam duo to come through tonight for a chance at beating the Celtics. If Siakam can reverse his worrisome offensive trends in the bubble, he’ll alleviate some of the strain on a sure-to-be exhausted Kyle Lowry. For Lowry, he cemented his legacy last season with a brilliant run to the NBA title. Can he produce one more night of playoff majesty, and send his squad to the Eastern Conference Finals?

Tonight at 9PM, we’ll finally find out.