The 2019-20 Toronto Raptors season was all about Pascal Siakam.
After losing Kawhi Leonard last offseason, all eyes turned to the 26-year-old Siakam to take the next step forward in his development, going from an impressive role player to an NBA star.
It wasn't going to be easy. Becoming a star, and then taking the subsequent leap into superstar status, is harder than any other improvement, but Siakam held his own.
Then the playoffs started and the difference between an NBA star and superstar became apparent. A 13-point, 5-turnover game from Siakam in a Game 7 92-87 loss to the Boston Celtics ended an incredible season on a sour note.
"I wasn't really able to help my teammates," Siakam said. "I take a lot of the blame."
Siakam never looked right in the NBA bubble. He had averaged 23.6 points per game before the pandemic, putting him inside the top 20 for points scored, but once the NBA returned, he was always a little off. He averaged 17 points on 39.6% shooting in the playoffs and just 14.9 points per game in the Celtics series.
"It's a learning experience," Siakam said. "A lot of people go through these moments and I just feel like it's about responding. What are you going to get from it? Are you going to take it as a learning experience or are you going to feel sorry for yourself?"
On Friday, the Celtics showed that talent ultimately reigns supreme in the playoffs. For seven games the Raptors fought and clawed their way to even up an exhausting Eastern Conference semifinals, but even the champions couldn't outdo Boston's impressive trio of Kemba Walker, Jayson Tatum, and Jaylen Brown.
It came down to the wire for Toronto. Even when things looked all but over late in the fourth quarter, down by ten, the Raptors came storming back, clamping down on defence and making just enough shots to pull the game to within two.
Norman Powell had a chance to tie things up with just under a minute to go in regulation, but his layup couldn't fall. Seconds later it was Fred VanVleet who had an opportunity to tie up the game with a 3-pointer, but he couldn't shed Boston's Grant Williams, putting up a prayer that didn't hit the net.
"It's tough. It’s tough to lose a game like that," Raptors guard Kyle Lowry said. "You'd rather get blown out, I mean. But we were right there. ... The small little things, the intangible things, the minute things. You've got to continue to harp on and continue to do through a whole NBA season, and mistakes are made, but it's just tough. It's just really tough."
For the Raptors, it was an uncharacteristically sloppy evening. They turned the ball over 18 times, repeatedly leading to Celtics points on the other end. It was too many missed opportunities for a team whose offence struggles so mightily in the halfcourt.
"I thought a lot of it was just some fatigue," Raptors coach Nick Nurse said. "I thought we were getting off passes a count early just because we just wanted to be done with that possession early. ... We were standing up a little bit, rather than being down in a tough, athletic position trying to make some of those plays and that’s just fatigue."
The ugly night started early for Siakam, who missed his first three shots of the game before heading to the bench.
Through the first five games of the series, Toronto's bench had been a major weakness. But after a clutch performance from Powell in Game 6, the Raptors' bench came alive early in Game 7. It helped erase a 12-point Celtics lead, thanks to back-to-back 3-pointers from Matt Thomas and Serge Ibaka that gave Toronto a one-point lead.
The turnover troubles reared their ugly head in the second quarter, allowing the Celtics to climb out of a seven-point hole to take a six-point lead just before halftime.
"Uncharacteristic turnovers tonight were the story of the game for sure," Nurse said. "We gave them way too many cheapies, easy buckets off of steals. You can’t do that in the playoffs, you can’t do it in a game like this but it was happening."
But every time the Celtics had an opportunity to take a double-digit lead, the Raptors came back. It was a crucial stretch for the Raptors, who trimmed down Boston's lead even with Lowry on the bench. Once Lowry returned, he got right back to attacking the hoop, before VanVleet put the Raptors ahead by one just before the end of the quarter.
But Tatum wouldn't let the Raptors pull ahead before the fourth, nailing a pull-up 3-pointer to put the Celtics back up.
"He certainly has an array of ways to get shots off," Nurse said of Tatum. "Plus he's got great size, and he's got a step back and he can shoot."
The loss ended a remarkable season for the Raptors who outperformed even the most optimistic expectations for them. Had Leonard returned, they would have been among the NBA's favourites to win the Finals again, but when he departed for Los Angeles, Toronto was understandably expected to take a step back.
"I think we are going to remember how well we played considering there was really low expectations for us," Nurse said. "We never got hung up on that. I don’t think we got hung up on winning the title last year. I think we took it as this season and tried to max out what we could do and for the most part we did."
That's exactly what they did. Even without Leonard, the Raptors didn't miss a beat in the regular season. They won a higher percentage of their games than ever before in franchise history despite battling injuries to every single starter and almost every rotation player.
"I'm proud of the effort that our guys gave," VanVleet said. "Especially coming off a championship and losing what we lost, and coming into this season, and all these people that expected us to be good were the people in our locker room. I'm proud of that part."
Now the future is uncertain for Toronto. VanVleet, Ibaka, and Marc Gasol are all heading into unrestricted free agency, and there will presumably be changes this offseason. The group that led the Raptors to their first championship in franchise history will likely look different next year, but with Masai Ujiri and Bobby Webster captaining the ship, there's no reason to believe Toronto won't be right back in title contention in the very near future.