Moral victories may not exist for defending champions, but if there is still such a thing then the Raptors experienced it on Sunday night.
Toronto lost 133-118 in Denver, falling to their third consecutive defeat. Concerns that they didn’t possess the requisite size to contain Nikola Jokic without either of their starting centres proved to be valid; Jokic carved mismatches as a scorer and passer to the tune of 40 first quarter points. Canadian Jamal Murray torched his hometown team early with an unconscious shooting display. Pascal Siakam struggled all night, unable to adapt against lengthy defenders. All signs pointed towards a comprehensive, deflating loss.
Enter O.G. Anunoby, the man who finished the night with more steals than words used in his post-game press conference. Anunoby had a career-high 32 points to go along with seven takeaways, three of which resulted in easy transition dunks. How did he manage to have such an impressive performance?
“Just playing hard. If I run my teammates will find me. Just being aggressive, that’s it,” said Anunoby.
Simple, right? Well… that may have been something of an understatement.
A depleted Toronto lineup couldn’t scheme their way back into the game with funky defences and presses against a top-tier opponent. Instead, Anunoby lumped the team onto his broad shoulders and single-handedly kept Toronto afloat.
The scoreline ultimately flattered Denver in an affair that could have gone either way once Anunoby flipped it on its head. Jokic spent much of the first quarter cooking Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, so Anunoby took it upon himself to guard the Serbian out of the high post. Jokic is the talismanic force that drives the Nuggets with a generational passing skill. As such, Anunoby came up with a simple solution: don’t let the ball even get into the big man’s hands.
“Just make him catch it as far out, and then deny the ball,” Anunoby said of guarding Jokic.
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— Toronto Raptors (@Raptors) March 1, 2020
That Toronto fell on Sunday short-handed means little in the long-term. More important is the glimpse of an even higher ceiling that Anunoby can unlock for the Raptors to weaponize in the playoffs.
“We’ve put him [Anunoby] on some really good players lately,” said Nick Nurse. “He starts tonight on Jokic which was a little bit unorthodox, right? I think he is just taking the challenge of being the guy that is going to be that defensive stopper that we need him to be.”
The defensive havoc that Anunoby caused while on Jokic started to grease the tires of the Raptors offence. Toronto leaked out early and often, netting 18 fast break points to trim the deficit to four by half-time. The potential of a Siakam at centre small-ball lineup has been an interesting proposition that Nurse has mainly avoided this season, however given Anunoby’s bulkier frame and Siakam’s offensive workload, it may behoove the Raptors to experiment with Anunoby on more bigs during this road trip. Nurse still seemed reluctant to embrace this notion after the game.
“He [Anunoby] goes probably two-through-four, and goes to five tonight because we are missing our fives. He’s going to get a key guy at the wing through to the four spot,” said Nurse.
Most of Anunoby’s offensive contributions this season have come as a spot-up shooter when the Raptors are fully-stocked. On Sunday his value didn’t solely depend on the outside shot — although he was 3-for-6 on this night— and instead showed a plethora of offensive moves to exploit mismatches. When smaller guards were left on Anunoby, he posted them up:
When either Jokic or Mason Plumlee matched up on Anunoby, he faced up and attacked the basket aggressively, drawing fouls and getting to the charity stripe. On other occasions with traditional bigs guarding him, Anunoby operated well as a screener. Jokic couldn’t drop into the paint when Anunoby popped for triples, and then when Denver adjusted with the occasional trap, Anunoby slipped the screens effectively.
“I’m always talking about rhythm, and he probably starts the year out of rhythm a little bit… He’s just making a lot better basketball plays. It’s almost like you’d say it was moving too fast for him earlier in the year and now it’s not,” said Nurse. “We need some scoring punch with these guys out, there’s a lot of offence out of the lineup so it’s gotta shift to somebody.”
Anunoby has become a high-level role player on a veteran-laden Raptors team that oozes depth throughout the roster. While being amongst a winning organization as a young player has its obvious benefits, it also offers less reps to really expand one’s abilities. Therefore, seeing Anunoby impress in an unusually high-usage role on Sunday can provide a silver lining during the frustratingly endless injury news. If games like these become the new norm for Anunoby, then Toronto have even more talent and versatility at their disposal this playoff season.
“He’s been excellent man,” said Siakam. “Really proud of him, the way he’s been playing, we just want him to continue that. It’s good for him having this opportunity to play more minutes and be involved a lot and guarding those guys, it’s good for him. I’m proud of him.”