There is a wonderful line within T. S. Eliot’s set of masterful poems, “Four Quartets,” that reads as follows: “At the still point, there the dance is.”
There have been a lot of still points in this second round series between the Toronto Raptors and the Cleveland Cavaliers, and almost all of them have come from fifteen-year titan LeBron James isolating himself on rookie OG Anunoby. In those moments, time seems to stand still, with LeBron sizing up OG, slowly stepping towards him as he pounds the ball, and the latter squatting into his lithe defensive stance, eyes locked on LeBron’s midsection, his legs almost twitching with the anticipation of the forthcoming movement. The rest of the game seems to fade away, and what we’re left with is perhaps the most thrilling and yet terrifying sensation: The feeling that, in that small forever, James is about to do something incredible, whatever that may be, and that if anyone is going to stop him from doing that incredible thing, Anunoby is the one.
That inkling of hope, that lux in tenebris that Anunoby provides feels more important now than ever, with the Raptors trailing the Cavs 0–2 after losing their second game in a row at home and very likely ringing the death knell for the greatest season in franchise history.
Anunoby wasn’t even supposed to be here. He wasn’t supposed to fall to 23rd in the draft to the Raptors, he wasn’t supposed to have such a quick recovery from his ACL tear, and he wasn’t supposed to start over Norman Powell, who the Raptors paid a $42 million contract this past offseason to essentially provide what OG has instead.
And now we’re here, in the second round of the NBA playoffs, and those “supposed tos” have all been thrown away. Now, Anunoby is the defensive rock of the starting unit, the player who guards the opposing team’s greatest threat and who more often than not shuts him down. He’s unshakeable in his mental approach, and unyielding in his consistency.
He is, unquestionably, the flagship piece of the future.
Still, Anunoby isn’t considered a star player (not yet anyway), and his role with the team as things stand is well defined: Defend resolutely, work within the offense, and hit open threes. In this second round (and really these playoffs as a whole), he’s been able to perform those tasks so magnificently that, through two games, the Raptors have a -21.7 net rating whenever he’s off the floor, by far the biggest impact of any single player.
Much of this comes from his defensive prowess, which is being put to the ultimate test against James. Anunoby is exceptional at one-on-one coverage, and is particularly great at taking away opponents’ drives, staying in front of them with his lockdown lateral movement.
Here, James posts up Anunoby on the weak side, catching the ball on a re-post. This is something James has been doing a lot in this series when guarded by the Raps rook, choosing to only drive downhill when he already has a head of steam, likely due to how good OG is at guarding the face up game. He proceeds to feel out Anunoby for a couple dribbles, and when it’s clear that there’s no easy way around him (Anunoby does a great job of not getting too close to allow James to spin past), he turns around into a fadeaway jumper that OG contests as well as possible, resulting in an air-ball for James.
Anunoby has already guarded James for a total of 89 possessions in this series, more than double the number of the next closest defender, Pascal Siakam (41 total possessions). James has shot 53.1 per cent from the field against Anunoby (these numbers are always a little skewed, since while a defender may not finish a possession on the player they were guarding initially, they will still be counted as the defender of that possession if they spent the most time on that player), which doesn’t sound very impressive from a defensive perspective, but when you consider that he shot 54.2 per cent during the regular season and 55.3 per cent in the series against the Pacers, it says something that OG has been able to hold him below (if only slightly) his usual standard. As an example of how difficult that is to do, Siakam has allowed James to shoot 64.3 per cent in his time guarding him.
It doesn’t help Anunoby statistically that James is punishing the Raptors with shots they have to live with, either. While Anunoby has done an excellent job keeping James from driving constantly, the latter is, for the most part, making all of his turnaround fadeaways at a ridiculous rate. James is currently shooting a blistering 61.9 per cent from the midrange.
Still, if you’re Anunoby, these are the looks you’re supposed to be forcing James to take. These are merely bow-to-greatness moments, not an indictment on Anunoby’s defense. When James is shooting this well, no one is stopping him.
One of the concerns pundits had about Anunoby headed into the playoffs was whether or not he’d be able to make the shots the defense was sure to give him. Anunoby was no slouch from distance during the regular season (37.1 per cent), but he had dry spells here and there, and the pressure and intensity of the playoffs has been known to see players’ good shooting percentages wilt away.
That hasn’t been the case for Anunoby, who is shooting 44.4 per cent in the playoffs overall. He’s found himself open often, as he knew he would, but particularly in the right corner against the Cavs, where two of his three three-point attempts are coming from. He’s shooting 50 per cent from that spot in the series, making the Cleveland pay whenever they give him enough space.
If they don’t give him that space, he’s anything but helpless. Here he shows an ever-improving aspect of his game—taking opponents off the dribble and creating for himself or others. Off of a DeMar DeRozan miss, Serge Ibaka winds up with the ball and kicks it out to Anunoby at the arc. With J.R. Smith closing fast, he takes the opportunity to blow past him, going left, and rises just as Kevin Love comes to try and take a charge in the paint. He moves the ball to his right hand as he goes up, takes the contact from Love, and finishes the tough layup overtop of him.
Even when Anunoby is off the ball, he is still a major threat. Better than perhaps any other Raptor, he’s skilled at making reads and off-ball cuts that leave the defense dizzy. Here he shows just how potent he can be, handing the ball off to DeRozan at the top of the arc and continuing towards his usual spot in the corner. With the Cavs a man down to trap DeRozan, Korver finds himself in no man’s land between Anunoby and Ibaka. Anunoby immediately takes advantage, tearing along the baseline just as Valanciunas catches the ball, and receives a pass from the big man that allows him the easy flush.
Despite the intensity of the playoffs and the fact that the Raptors are trailing the Cavaliers in the current series, Anunoby has shown up. He’s done exactly what he’s done all season long—even better, in some cases. It’s reassuring to know that his game hasn’t been hampered by the increased level of competition, and that the white hot spotlight of The Moment hasn’t gotten in his head.
That feeling of hope that he provides is a fairly new one for Raptors fans, who are used to their seasons ending in painful ways without a great amount to look forward to. So it’s worth taking pride in those moments, those instances where he matches up, alone, with an all-time great, and feeling a prick of faith in the young gun, despite his odds. He’s earned that right from fans, and along with it, the belief that even if Toronto loses this series, maybe, just maybe, the future will be okay.