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Raptors need Siakam, VanVleet to lead.  They already did


In the dramatic final quarter of a momentous run to an NBA championship, the Raptors slipped away from form.

In a team anchored by the singular talents of Kyle Lowry and Kawhi Leonard, it was unsung youth duo Fred VanVleet and Pascal Siakam that coach Nick Nurse turned to, putting them in a two-man game that had enough baffled the Golden State Warriors for the Raptors capped off a delightful season with the first title in franchise history.

VanVleet and Siakam’s roles have changed dramatically since that night in June 2019 — they’re now Toronto’s best and most important players — but they’re still the duo that could very well lead the Raptors to a series win over the Toronto 76ers. Philadelphia.

Those lessons learned back then and the first-hand knowledge they can perform under the most extreme and stressful circumstances imaginable should stand them in good stead in the first-round series that begins Saturday night in Philadelphia.

Outside of 15-year veteran Thad Young, VanVleet and Siakam have by far the most postseason experience of anyone on the roster. And of the 48 playoff games VanVleet has appeared in and the 47 Siakam has played in, their championship pedigree puts them at the top of the Raptors’ roster.

“We will try to use this experience as much as possible, but we don’t know what to expect. Like, things are going to be different,” Siakam said, “and we just have to go with a clear mind.

It’s hard to imagine two more different but effective leaders for a young team than VanVleet and Siakam, who broke into the NBA together in 2016.

VanVleet, the playmaker, is the vocal leader, a hard-hitting teammate who commands respect for his abilities and willingness to call out his teammates while taking responsibility for his own failures.

Siakam, the star striker, is more emotional outwardly but calm inwardly, and his rise this season into a major leadership role has been significant and significant. He will always be more supportive than critical, but his leadership by example cannot be denied.

“Kyle (Lowry) was such a big part of what we had in terms of leadership. There were definitely places for someone to have a bit of a voice,” Siakam said. “Obviously Fred took on that role and he’s been a super vocal leader for us, but I’m trying to find my places and find ways to put in my two cents, and hopefully they can listen.”

Siakam’s leadership-by-example role may take on added importance in a playoff series that should be, if history holds, much more physical than the regular season. He’s been willing and able to play contact all season without overreacting, and the hits are going to keep coming.

“He’s our best player, he’s our best scorer and he doesn’t get a good whistle in the regular season and… that’s a great position,” VanVleet said, “because you see the attack on the rim and physical it takes to play by contact and finishing.

“It’s something I’ve seen Pascal improve and develop, and something that has really helped his game this year. So I think that’s a great message for the other guys: if our best player doesn’t get whistles, we better not expect it either.

For VanVleet, health is an issue. He suffered knee pain just before the February All-Star break, missed the last three regular season games and hasn’t played since April 5. It suits him.

“We ended up doing what we thought we could do, which was getting a top six, taking some rest, taking some time off, having some time to train, get back in shape, get my timing back” , he said. “I had a pretty good week of work. I am preparing for this series. It can go very well or very badly. I’m optimistic about it. I feel good.”

If VanVleet and Siakam can succeed in pick-and-roll action, either getting Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid off the basket or allowing Siakam to attack a smaller defender, Toronto’s half-court offense will succeed. It’s the same kind of game they’ve been playing for years in tough games, and Siakam’s ability as a passer makes him even more dangerous.

That opens up shots and space for Gary Trent Jr., OG Anunoby and Scottie Barnes, all of whom have thrived at times this season.

“It’s just me playing the game like I always do, adjusting myself,” Siakam said. “(It’s) just me reading the game and continuing to play through the game.

“I think the coach also likes to see those things in the game and make adjustments, and Fred is also very good at that. (It’s) just a matter of communication, and keep playing and making adjustments. As things progress.

As they have done for years.

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