On January 11th, 2018, the Raptors beat the snot out of the Cleveland Cavaliers. It was not an indication of how the teams will match up in the playoffs, or even how the Raptors will play in the future, but it was a nationally televised homage to the Raptors’ greatness. And much of the Raptors’ success was due to how Anunoby defended LeBron James. This piece will show, through use of film, exactly how Anunoby affects the game of basketball. He is one of the only players in the league with the quickness to mirror LeBron’s moves, the strength to stay in front of him, the length to contest his shots, and the intelligence to actually be there in the first place. Anunoby defended James brilliantly. Let’s go through every. single. possession. it. happened.
Perhaps the most according-to-plan defensive stop Anunoby recorded last night came in the third quarter on a stop in the pick and roll.
Anunoby fights over a Tristan Thompson pick and roll while Jakob Poeltl stays low, denying LeBron James an easy pass to the roller or an easy lane to the rim. Poeltl must simply delay, while Anunoby fights back into the play, makes himself felt from behind LeBron James, and contests without fouling. This is a perfectly executed rearview contest, and it seemed to be the Raptors’ ideal pick and roll coverage for James last night. Fred VanVleet also stunted into the lane first to tag the rolling Thompson, then to lunge at a LeBron floater. He could do this, as his mark – Dwayne Wade – was not a threatening 3-point shooter.
There are several concepts to take away from this play. First, the Raptors were not comfortable with anyone other than Anunoby (or Pascal Siakam, for a brief stretch in the second quarter) guarding LeBron James. They did not allow their players to switch any screen in which LeBron was involved. However, the Raps were more than willing to allow other defenders to lunge at LeBron, impede his path to the hoop, and generally muck up the play. The result was a difficult James floater.
Another set of situations revealed the same defensive gameplan: don’t let Anunoby away from James! When LeBron James is used as the screener in the pick and roll, he is one of the deadliest weapons in the league, scoring an insane 1.33 points per possession.
The Raptors were far more afraid of James in the pick and roll than his ballhandling counterpart, Isaiah Thomas. In the first clip, Anunoby performs perfectly: stay low on the play, equal to James. He uses his length to threaten Thomas on the drive while keeping his body glued to James. This action bides time for Delon Wright, an expert at the rearview contest, to return to the play. Thomas must pass the ball to the other side. The second play is identical, but Thomas forces the shot. Wright blocks it. In the third play, Valanciunas makes a mistake and is not close enough to the main action to contest a Thomas drive. VanVleet is also late on the rearview contest. Anunoby sticks to Lebron James after an initial stunt to delay Thomas’ drive, and it does enough: Thomas passes when Valanciunas finally rotates over to deter a layup. Each of these three plays resulted in missed jumpers taken by Cavs players other than LeBron James.
Occasionally, switches or semi-switches did occur. These can’t be helped; James will, at times, beat his defenders. It is on the defender’s teammates to step up, and when they don’t, James will have easy baskets. Those are covered later, in the ‘failures’ section. When switches or semi-switches did happen, the Raptors were able to take away James’ drives, but they often gave up a positive offensive advantage in return (either an open jumpshot or easy offensive rebounds). This is still difficult offence, and it requires people not named LeBron James to win the game.
More of the Raptors’ gameplan was revealed through Cavs’ semi-transition and transition opportunities. In situations in which the Raptors missed a shot – but the Cavs didn’t have transition opportunities – Anunoby fought hard to find James instead of lazily allowing cross-matching. Other than Siakam, no other Raptor stood a chance on LeBron, who scored at will in the few occasions in which he wasn’t guarded by Anunoby or Siakam. After one particularly egregious situation in which Delon Wright checked LeBron (and allowed an easy layup) despite Anunoby standing behind Wright, ready to pick up James, Casey angrily called a timeout to remind his players of the defensive gameplan. These important outbursts of effort before the plays even began disallowed James from snatching too many easy buckets.
Here are two examples where Anunoby fought to find LeBron in transition and take away any opportunities that otherwise would have existed. In the first play, Anunoby denied any productive shot attempt and forced a pass to Dwayne Wade; no advantage was gained, and DeRozan even tipped the ball out of bounds the ensuing pass. In the second play, Anunoby picked up James in transition and kicked the ball out of bounds on a pass.
If Kirk Goldsberry is to be believed (and trust me, he is), basketball offence is about gaining and maintaining any small advantage you can during a possession. Whenever LeBron James touches the ball on offence, his team gains an advantage. If he is forced to pass the ball to a teammate without having drawn help, forced a switch or rotation, or opened a teammate for a shot, then the defence has been successful. This is important: a defender doesn’t need to force a missed shot or turnover to have recorded a success. Just making the numbers on the shot clock tick down without yielding an advantage is a success.
Anunoby had several more plays on the defensive end in which he forced a miss or a pass leading to no advantage. The following plays were isolation plays (more or less), a play in which James scores 1.04 points per possession. I’m sure that number was higher before he faced Anunoby.
In the first play, Anunoby kept his body ahead of a James drive. LeBron turned to a euro step, which in general assures players with his size and speed (which would only be just him, I imagine) of an open lane to the hoop, especially when under single coverage. Anunoby somehow mirrored LeBron’s movement and finagled his ripping-claw-hands on the ball. James survived the play by kicking the ball out to Isaiah Thomas: advantage reset. This play, more than any other, showed the singular athletic ability of Anunoby; it’s reminiscent of Kawhi Leonard.
In the second play, Anunoby again survived a patented James move: the spin towards the baseline. Instead of finding himself open at the rim, James found an Anunoby arm denying any simple path for the ball to the rim, so James had to loft the ball in an awkward lefty floater at the hoop. Miss. In the third play, Anunoby forced a ridiculously tough step-back (James’ only real jumper in the game), and in the fourth, Anunoby fought over a Kevin Love screen (remember: no switching!) and recovered to contest (block?) James’ shot at the rim. Insane.
At this point, you might be thinking to yourself, ‘Lebron scored an efficient 26 points on only 16 shots! The hell is this guy talking about!’ Fair enough. Anunoby did make some mistakes that gave James some easy baskets. Primarily, he several times failed to hustle back in transition.
Allowing James a basket in transition is easy. He is the one of the greatest and most effective transition players in basketball history. He is so fast, strong, and skilled that even Love pass into double coverage will be caught and turned into an easy basket. Anunoby made the same mistake in each of these five plays: he didn’t recognize the fastbreak opportunity as quickly as did LeBron. Whether Anunoby crashed for an offensive rebound (plays 1, 2), hesitated to return on defence (play 3), didn’t pick his man up early enough (play 4), or was just awkwardly and unluckily out of position (play 5), LeBron recognized the opportunity before Anunoby. That’s eleven easy points (one play was an and-1) right there.
Anunoby also failed to contain LeBron James after a screen or a handoff a few times.
On the first play, Anunoby died on the screen (and DeMar DeRozan came way too high on the hedge – what was he doing?). On the second play, Anunoby didn’t get around Thompson fast enough on the handoff. The help, in Valanciunas, was also not high enough or committed to stopping the drive. Those were Anunoby’s only mistakes in these plays, but they were enough. Keeping LeBron James from scoring requires multiple efforts, incredible intelligence, and team-wide awareness. Allowing him to score requires one mental or physical lapse for less than a second. That’s what makes a hall of famer.
Finally, completely denying LeBron James in isolation is impossible. He will score some.
In the first play, Anunoby wasn’t strong enough. In the second, he wasn’t fast enough. In both plays, the help failed to materialize. As before, small mistakes mean death against LeBron James. Anunoby also failed to recognize a James cut in the halfcourt.
Guarding LeBron James is a team effort. This is what people mean when they say, ‘throwing bodies at him’. It’s not just the bodies of LeBron’s primary defenders (only Anunoby and Siakam in this game) that deter LeDomination, but it is also the bodies of secondary and tertiary defenders: Delon Wright and Jakob Poeltl especially in this game. They must offer help, stunt to deter drives, challenge shots, and occasionally switch. They did a fairly good job in this one. Give props to Dwane Casey most of all, perhaps, for his team executed his vision on almost every defensive possession in the game. He trusted Anunoby with the entire game, and the rookie delivered.
LeBron James still scored 26 points. It seemed easy: he only took 16 shots. But the Cleveland offence never succeeded, especially when James was playing. James finished with only one assist and a team-low -22 in the game. He had an offensive rating of 92.6, and it wasn’t just because teammates were missing shots. James had 73 touches in the game, and few of those touches in the half-court actually turned into productive offence for his team.
Perhaps the most metaphorically significant play in the game occurred at the end of the second half. LeBron James was dribbling the ball, eyeing Anunoby guarding him. Fans of every team have seen this movie before: James is about to score, and no one can stop him. But then a twist took us all by surprise: LeBron lackadaisically passed to Tristan Thompson, who was in no position to score or make a play.
LeBron James didn’t want it. O.G. Anunoby was too good, too smart (barring a few lapses). His defence deterred LeBron James. Fred VanVleet won’t hit every shot he takes in the playoffs, and Isaiah Thomas won’t miss all of his. But you can be sure that Anunoby is up for the challenge of guarding anyone. You wanted a LeBron stopper? You got one.