The very end of Game 6 was like holding in a sneeze. At the end of the NBA Finals you might expect a satisfying, full release of tension, but that moment never really came. Instead the refs puttered and dithered over what to do with that ersatz timeout and then a foul on Kawhi Leonard and then how much time to put back on the clock, all with the NBA season’s result almost completely known. So the game lurched along uneasily, with the thrill of what came before tamped down by vibe-killing deliberation and meaningless free throws, until the Warriors inbounded the ball and the Raptors could finally shift into celebration mode. Happily none of this seemed to faze Fred VanVleet and Pascal Siakam, who supplied the night’s purest moment of elation: dapping each other up, hugging as Siakam let out a whoop, then peeling apart to stare at each other in disbelief.
The last time these two 25-year-old celebrated a championship, there weren’t nearly this many eyeballs on them.
Back in the 2016-2017 season, a rookie Siakam flitted between the NBA and the D-League, where he led Raptors 905 to a title and earned Finals MVP. Two years and one virtually guaranteed Most Improved Player award later, he’s become a crucial component of an NBA championship team.
VanVleet went undrafted in 2016, joined the Raptors for Summer League, found his way onto a training camp roster that already had 14 guaranteed contracts, then squeaked into the very last slot. He too would do his tours of duty in the D-League. Now VanVleet is down one tooth, up one ring and one delirious and adorable NBA Finals MVP vote courtesy of Hubie Brown.
Both players ended their best-ever seasons in stride: Siakam finished Game 6 with an efficient 26 points and 10 rebounds, while VanVleet added 22. They’ll enter their offseason with no shortage of fond Finals memories. Siakam had perhaps the best individual game of the series when he toasted Draymond Green for 32 on 14-of-17 shooting. Green, who has solved so many players, often struggled with the Raptor forward’s shifty bursts off the dribble and endless length. Surely no Eurostep of Siakam’s career has ever felt as sweet as this one that swung right over Green’s clutches to help secure the title:
If Siakam keeps developing that burgeoning 3-point-shot, he’ll continue to present matchup nightmares for even the league’s savviest defenses.
VanVleet, meanwhile, proved himself as one of the postseason’s most credible Steph Curry lockdown options. History’s greatest shooter managed just 33 percent from the floor and 28 percent from three with VanVleet on him. The Raptors guard dogged Curry through the never-ending gauntlet of screens and cuts, then somehow retained enough gas to dine out on some highly difficult attempts late in the clock. Every time the Raptors sputtered out in the half-court and scrambled to produce a respectable look, Fred seemed to bail them out with some madness above the break.
These two are both a little old to be wrapping up their third NBA season, and it was never clear they’d find roles this prominent anywhere in the league. VanVleet is 6-foot-nothing; Siakam started playing basketball late in his teens. On Thursday night they both closed out an NBA Finals game, as two-fifths of a pulverizing Raptors defense that cedes no obvious points of attack. Today, to their palpable delight, they have a big-ass gold trophy to show for all that work.
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