By Arnie Leshin
Tough to follow history of the National Basketball Association, but if the “Fat Lady” sings Monday night in Toronto, only the present will count and the Raptors will celebrate their first NBA championship.
And it will have a New Mexico State player on the roster, and no doubt Pascal Siakam will be the first Aggie to win an NBA title. In his second season in Toronto after being its 26th first round pick in 2016, he has not only been a key ingredient, he has been a huge reason for the franchise in its quest to dethrone the Golden State Warriors.
The 6-foot-9, 25-year-old Siakam played two seasons at the Las Cruces school under head coach Marvin Menzies. A native of Cameroon, he performed well, often drawing the praise of Menzies, the media, and the Aggie fans. The Raptors had him penciled in as a top choice on their draft list, so they must have been aware of his potential, his move from college to the pros.
He hasn’t disappointed. Along with former San Diego State star Kawhi Leonard, he has been a popular addition for the Canadian team. He has shown his versatility throughout the season and right into the playoffs for the team that won the Atlantic Division, and had the second-best record in the Eastern Conference.
And there he was in game four Thursday night in Oakland, needing to grab a 3-1 lead in the championship series and keep Golden State from tying the series. Done, delivered, if not Monday night, Toronto could wrap it up in game six, although that would be played back in Oakland on Thursday, and game seven would be three nights later on Sunday in Toronto.
But at this time, Toronto is in the driver’s seat. It doesn’t want to return to the West Coast, and will seek to close it out Monday at home.
The Raptors were down by four points at halftime, but they made a big run in the third quarter, outscoring the Warriors, 37-21, that carried over into an 18-point advantage in the final quarter. The All-Star Leonard did his part in his bid for the NBA’s Most Valuable Player, but Siakam was right on track.
As Golden State tried to close the gap before its rowdy fans who feared this could be their final game in Oracle Arena before they move to the new arena in San Francisco, Siakam hit outside shots from different locations, used his smarts to make his way inside, grab the pass and toss it in through the nets, most of the time finishing with a ferrous dunk. He boxed out, brought down rebounds from either basket, handed out assists, and never lost his way on defense.
And each time Toronto headed to its bench on a time out, number 43 was patting teammates on the back, looking like a leader, and then returning to the court and continuing to put on a show.
He wore a white head band around his forehead, so he was easy to spot, but the Warriors had no answer for him. If they double-teamed Leonard, there was the guy out of New Mexico State loose and giving the home team and its fans fits.
Said head coach Nick Nurse, whose niece Kia Nurse played for NCAA champion UConn, “My team had the will to win. It handled the pressure, especially down the stretch, looked for each other, played with confidence, and never let Golden State get within single digits as the clock wound down. We haven’t won anything yet, but are right where we need to be, and that’s our home court.”
When asked about Siakam, he said, “Pascal was great. He helped out in every way, made big shots, blocked shots, played active defense, and contributed in every way.”
Nurse looked at the team statistics and rattled off Siakam’s to the media … ly19 points, 7-for-8 from the line, 11 boards, three blocks, and five assists. And added that his team made 23-of-24 free throws.
In these 16 playoff games, the former Aggie has scored 19 points a game, scrubbed the boards for seven rebounds, and handed out 2.6 assists.
In the regular season, he played in 80 games, had a scoring average of 16.9, was 36.5 in 3s, 78.7 in foul shots, 55 percent in field goal average, 7.1 in rebounds, and 3.1 in assists. He was best in taking down boards on the defense end, and averaged 5.3 there.
Toronto won game one at home, 118-109, but lost game two at home, 109-104. In Oakland, it downed Golden State, 123-109, and 105-92. Game 5 is Monday night in Toronto, and if another contest is need to be played, it would be back in Oakland Thursday night, with game 7, if necessary, to return to Toronto.
NOTES: Toronto became an NBA franchise in 1985 as part of the expansion into NBA Canada. It is the only foreign franchise to reach the NBA’s final round, and are new to this. Until 2019, our northern neighbor had never hosted a single NBA final. It had a 58-24 regular-season record, and play home games in Scotiabank Arena.
Leonard previously won the NBA championship while with the San Antonio Spurs. At San Diego State, he played in the Mountain West Conference that included the University of New Mexico, and was the main reason for three conference titles. He is best of friends with Siakam, and explained to him about the “fat lady singing.” to which he responded by saying, “Oh, I’d love to hear that.”