The playoffs are supposed to belong to the veterans. That’s why so much of the media is talking about Donovan Mitchell’s explosive outbursts against the Oklahoma City Thunder, why Ben Simmons controlling the floor against a veteran Miami Heat team is so remarkable. The young guys struggle, that’s how it is just supposed to work, as they learn the ropes of a tougher brand of basketball once the postseason starts, and they’re supposed to look nervous and a little out of place. Of course, if there’s one thing that has been the mark of OG Anunoby’s first year in the league, it’s that he seems to always find a way to look like he belongs.
It’s not exactly a secret that the Raptors have struggled to find solutions for their starting lineup over the years, and that the position of small forward has been often seen as the source of the problem. Coming into the year it was a question of whether it was going to be Norman Powell finally settling his game into a comfortable place and fitting in beside DeMar DeRozan, or CJ Miles providing a shooting touch that allowed space for the others to score. Neither of those really seemed destined to work out though, with Miles not being a strong enough defender to take the task of the opposition’s best wing on every night, and Powell remaining an inconsistent, if sometimes still strong, contributor.
It’s also easy to forget that Anunoby wasn’t supposed to be ready this quickly. He missed most of his sophomore season at Indiana, which was part of what saw him drop in the draft, didn’t participate in summer league due to his recovery, and he didn’t have much of a training camp at all. For that matter, he wasn’t even supposed to be playing the start of the season, initial expectations were that he wouldn’t be playing at all until January. Instead, when Powell got hurt early in the season, and with the Raptors starters having struggled with him out there, Anunoby got the call to join the starting lineup after showing some strong play for the bench.
His impact was immediate, as the starting lineup became a strength for the Raptors with him out there. He embraced the challenge defensively, with James harden being his task on his first NBA start, and his defense being one of the catalysts towards a Raptors victory in Houston, one of the toughest places to play in the league this season. He showed signs of outside shooting throughout the season, despite some colder stretches where his shot wasn’t there, as well.
In the first two games of this playoff series, OG has been critical to the Raptors success, again. The Wizards came in with the defensive focus on taking away DeRozan and Kyle Lowry, making sure that those two didn’t win the series for Toronto with their scoring prowess. This was a weapon opponents used in past playoff series to slow down the Raptors offense and made for long series against weaker opponents, and cost them chances to compete with the Cleveland Cavaliers. If you were to try to gameplan based on playoffs past, this would’ve been the best strategy, as it put the emphasis on Jonas Valanciunas, who has also been great in the series, Serge Ibaka, who was inconsistent during the season but has been solid with rest, and Anunoby to make their impact in scoring, and become threats that the Wizards couldn’t cheat off of to protect against the Raptors All-Stars.
Going into game three, the Wizards will have to re-evaluate that plan. They’ve managed to hold their own against the potent Toronto bench, partially aided by the absence of Fred Van Vleet, but the starting lineup has been lighting the Wizards up to the tune of a 124.9 offensive rating, and each member has established themselves. OG is shooting 3/6 from behind the arc, where he’s frequently been open as either Bradley Beal or Otto Porter, whoever has the assignment at that moment, tends to slip over to assist on a driving attack, and he’s also shown prowess at recognizing those moments when he’s not being watched to cut towards the basket, being rewarded with either a pass for an easy bucket inside or an offensive board, of which he’s grabbed 4 in his 41 minutes in the series.
Perhaps more importantly though, once again, has been his defense. Beal and Wall are tough assignments, and with the Raptors giving DeMar DeRozan the relatively easier assignment of chasing Porter around the floor and trying to prevent him from getting easy looks for catch and shoot opportunities, Anunoby has spent all of his minutes guarding one of the Wizards stars, and has acquitted himself well, making life difficult for Wall in the second half of game 1 as the Raptors shut the Wizards down in the second half, and following that up by setting the tone on Beal in the second game, helping to ensure that the Wizards shooting guard had a bad night.
OG is a man of few words, often opting for the shortest path to the answer to any question he’s presented with, but his game has been awfully loud so far in the playoffs. At just twenty years old, it’s unusual for a player to be this important for a team that looks the part of a contender, but that’s both who Anunoby is and who the Raptors are as a team this year. They trust in their young players to get the job done, and OG has rewarded that trust. In turn, his ability to demand the attention of opponents has paid dividends, as the defense accounting for his presence helped to create the room for DeRozan to score 37 in the second game. Now the question for the Wizards is how do you stop a Raptors team when you can’t stop DeMar in single coverage, but you also can’t ignore the rookie, who certainly isn’t playing like one, to trap him.