Cover Photo by David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images
Six — Details: Anunoby had another quietly strong effort with 10 points, three blocks and two threes in 20 minutes. He continues to show more confidence in his handle, and even shot a stepback from the midrange at one point. The key is for OG to get into the paint off the dribble, because that’s when the defense is at his mercy. Anunoby has the size and strength to finish through contact inside, while also having the awareness to find the open wing players on the kickout. Hopefully, this isn’t just a scrimmage mirage.
OG Anunoby’s off-dribble package
I realize we’ve written a lot about Anunoby the past week or so. It’s with good reason. There isn’t a more interesting Raptor in the relaunch, and there may not be a player whose short-term development could so fundamentally change the Raptors’ outlook.
This isn’t just a case of his immense defensive value, either, though he will likely be the Raptors’ wing stopper in the playoffs. Raptors fans know well — from being on both sides — just how limiting a factor a lesser offensive threat can be in a series. If a defence can pay you less attention and you can’t punish them for it, it can be hard to find your way into a large role and closing minutes. Playoffs are about the star-level ceiling to some degree, but they are also about having the fewest number of exploitable weaknesses your opponent matches up with.
Anunoby was not a bad offensive player before the hiatus. He’d played essentially the same role as the two years prior and gotten better at it, improving his efficiency and playmaking over a larger share of minutes. That alone was an important development. What he’s shown in these three scrimmages is a continuation of a somewhat underrated story of his early 2020: He appears to have continued expanding his offensive package.
No, Anunoby’s numbers in the three games didn’t jump off the page. Qualitatively, he looked like a much more refined offensive player, one who can not only execute advantages created by others but also create advantages of his own, or even advantages for teammates. His handle looks tighter, which has resulted in more confidence attacking seams on the catch or even one-on-one. He has the strength to finish through bodies in the paint and a nose for getting his own offensive rebound if he doesn’t. Although he’s also flashed some encouraging mid-range work, it’s that ability to find his way to the rim that can elevate certain Raptors units. If that’s resulting in kick-outs or dump-offs, all the better.
It feels a bit strange to focus so narrowly on the player who will be the Raptors’ fifth offensive option in almost any non-Patrick McCaw playoff lineup. There is immense marginal value in a unit’s least-threatening player growing his skill set, though. There are not diminishing returns to the value of extra attacking or playmaking; the perceived weak spot in a lineup being a more dangerous player to leave open or close out too late makes every help, trap and blitz decision elsewhere on the floor tougher. With the amount of passing and shooting Toronto’s presumed starters have, a little Anunoby improvement could go a long way.
If I’m being honest, he’s getting there.
Despite the result against the youthful Suns – the longest of longshots to even qualify for the playoffs out of the seeding games –- the Raptors couldn’t be better positioned.
Goal number one was to get through the exhibition games healthy and goal two was to get all of the key pieces ramped up for more intense competition to come.
It was success on both counts as Nurse was able to get all of what would project to be the top seven players in his rotation at least 20 minutes of playing time, topped by Pascal Siakam, who used his 26 minutes to lead the Raptors in scoring with 17 points, including 4-of-5 from three.
Only depth wing defender Patrick McCaw’s status is in doubt as he deals with an undisclosed injury.
And even in what was a mess of a game, from the Raptors point of view – they made 28 turnovers, or more than double their season average – there were plenty of encouraging bigger picture signs.
Marc Gasol has been a bit of a mystery all year given hamstring problems that limited him to 36 of the Raptors’ first 64 games. He didn’t play in the first exhibition game and clocked an inconsequential 10 minutes in the second, but on Tuesday afternoon Gasol looked assertive and as ready to contribute as his leaned out physique would suggest.
He squared up for a three, blocked Suns big man Deandre Ayton at the rim and fired an elbow jumper all within the first couple of minutes.
He took four shots in his first five minutes – a positive indicator of his level of offensive engagement, even if he only knocked down the one jumper in the first half. He banged a three in the second half and finished with five points, nine rebounds and a pair of assists.
Oh, and defensively Gasol still has it. He held Ayton — a 20-and-10 machine in the regular season — to seven points and six rebounds on 3-of-8 shooting. Just a warm-up for another potential playoff matchup against Philadelphia 76ers big man Joel Embiid?
Still, the most encouraging takeaway for Toronto was the continued evolution of Anunoby’s offensive repertoire.
“We just want to make him really dangerous,” Nurse said following Sunday’s 110-104 win over Portland. “He’s a pretty good catch-and-shoot guy but we want to make him a guy that can really make teams pay for having to send help to some of our other [players]. And eventually I [would] just like him to be a bigger part of the offense and just a tough matchup to guard with his shooting, his size, his driving and his posting.”
“I think he’s showing some progress here of becoming a much better offensive option for us.”
So much of his improvement on that side of the floor has come off the dribble – a part of his game that he rarely got to explore during his first two seasons in the NBA.
Early in his career, most of his touches came beyond the arc, where he would spot up and be ready to shoot. With plenty of offensive threats on the court – Lowry and DeMar DeRozan in his first year, Kawhi Leonard, Siakam and company last season – Anunoby was the beneficiary of many good looks from three-point range. He hit 37 per cent of them as a rookie.
When he did put the ball on the floor, the results were mixed, and a tad awkward. His handle wasn’t reliable and he would lose his balance easily.
“I have been working on it relentlessly all three years I have been in the league,” the 23-year-old said. “So, I guess it was the build-up of all the hard work that’s showed [recently].”
Putting the ball on the floor and attacking off the dribble is something that’s been a focus for Anunoby. Early in the COVID-19 pandemic, when Anunoby was away from the court, he watched film and tried to identify opportunities where he could have gotten to the rim. Once he was able to get back in the gym, he worked with assistant coach Patrick Mutombo to tighten his handle and improve his balance by staying low and making quick, precise moves.
“It’s dramatic,” said Gasol. “You can see it every day that it’s something he works at relentlessly. If you work on it, you have to use it in the games. I think OG, we need him to do that. He has to be someone that is aggressive, that plays on the catch. He’s not gonna get plays called a lot for him but whenever he catches it, somebody’s going to be closing out, he has to make a quick decision, either shoot it or drive it, and he’s doing a great job.”
OG Anunoby: The forward came off the bench again with the Raptors starting Ibaka and Gasol together, and once again he looked like one of the better Raptors on the floor. He showed some playmaking wherewithal, driving into the middle of the defence and then throwing a difficult pass along the baseline before he fell out of bounds. The decision started some nice ball movement and ended with a Norman Powell slam dunk. Anunoby later dribbled the ball off his foot in a one-on-one transition opportunity, so he has not yet perfected things. If the Raptors are going to start big, Anunoby shouldn’t be the player who goes to the bench. He makes sense alongside the Raptors’ highest-usage players.
Despite a few runs, the Raptors couldn’t string anything together consistently, while the Suns’ hot shooting didn’t let up all game; they finished 15-for-33 from downtown through three quarters (i.e., non-garbage time), while shooting 46% overall. Even defensively, normally the champs’ hallmark, the Raptors were a step slow; the Suns had 24 fast break points, 38 points in the paint and assisted on 28 of 39 made field goals. The Raptors, sloppy all night, finished with 28(!) turnovers.
The third quarter was the real difference maker. Trailing by six at halftime, the Raptors came out inspired by — who else? — Kyle Lowry, who had one of his signature “Eff this, we’re not losing this game” looks. Trailing 72-63, Toronto went on a 10-0 run, with Lowry scoring a layup, a triple, and then assisting on a Marc Gasol three. The Champs had arrived!
Alas, it wasn’t meant to be. The Suns proceeded to unleash a 25-8 run, that included three-pointers from Devin Booker, Ricky Rubio and two from Mikal Bridges, along with four Raptors turnovers. It also featured Booker posterizing Pascal Siakam, a highlight we refuse to show (but you should look it up, ‘cause it was pretty sick).
The Raptors did manage to cut the lead back down to 11 by the end of the third, but Nick Nurse went to the bench in the fourth; Norman Powell did what he could to provide the spark, but the Raptors couldn’t cut into the lead. When Stanley Johnson came in with 7:50 to go and the Suns up by 12 — essentially, the exact opposite of the victory cigar — this one was over.
What went well
The Suns were on fire from 3 and launching them at will. This is after shooting so poorly on 3s in their previous two scrimmages.
Not sure they can live by the 3, but it was working Tuesday.
More importantly, Phoenix answered Toronto’s early run in the third quarter. After basically holding onto a third-quarter lead against Utah and losing one to Boston, the Suns took better shots overall and played very solid defense to frustrate Toronto.
The 4th quarter unleashed the ultimate small-ball lineup of Carter-Jerome-Okobo-Payne-Kaminsky. 4 point guards and one big is certainly… something, though it’s not like Monty Williams exactly had a ton of options to work with since Kelly Oubre Jr. and Dario Saric are both out.
The miniscule bench crew actually held their own, as Jevon Carter made a few nice defensive plays and was his usual pestering self, Jerome hit some shots, and even Okobo made a couple nice moves with all that rust he’s almost certainly dealing with right now.
Kaminsky played well leading the bench mob with 11 points and 6 rebounds and was asked about that small-ball lineup after the game he said, “It was an interesting lineup… but it’s what we got out here.”
Kaminsky was also asked if he was surprised by Mikal Bridges performance so far and he said, “You’re not super surprised because you see the work he puts in and how he plays in practice.”
If it were humanly possible to only play six or seven players for 82 games, this Phoenix Suns team would sail to a record above .500.
When this team is on point, they are a very solid basketball squad, and in their third scrimmage game against the defending NBA Champion Toronto Raptors (sans Kawhi Leonard of course), they showed they can play with anyone in the league.
And to think, they played this well with two starters sidelined as Oubre is still rehabbing form knee injury and Dario Saric sat out for precautionary reasons after stepping on Frank Kaminsky’s foot Sunday against the Celtics.
It is amazing to watch the rust melt away from this team. It is like slowing pouring phosphoric acid over a cruddy old nail and admiring the original metal’s shine come through.
I know. I know. This is only a scrimmage game and the Raptors didn’t exactly play with the same motivation they did against the Warriors in the Finals last season, but there were so many positive signs displayed, Suns fans can’t help but get a little excited going into the games that actually count.
The Raptors wrapped up their exhibition schedule on Tuesday with a loss against the Suns to finish 2-1 in their tune-ups. With regular season basketball games just days away, NBA analyst Jack Armstrong joins Matt Devlin to discuss what his takeaways are from Toronto’s scrimmages.
But the Suns were allowed to do just about whatever they wanted and scored more than 30 points a quarter in the three quarters the starters were still in the game, a claim very few opponents can make against a Raptors team that hangs its hat on its defence.
All in all, it was a very un-Raptors-like performance.
“Well, we certainly didn’t do anything very well,” head coach Nick Nurse said. “It’s a combination of us not being super engaged or energetic and them playing very well. Give them a lot of credit, I thought they had us back on our heels all night. We turned it over — geez, we must have had eight turnovers in the backcourt, which is just strange; you have one or two of those every two months, you know what I mean, normally. So just, not very engaged and that’s it.”
Perhaps the best thing about the night from a Toronto perspective was that it marked the end of the meaningless scrimmages.
Nurse seemed to be in complete agreement with that.
“I think I’m glad there isn’t any more of these, right?,” he said. “I think we’ve gone one too far with these you know what I mean? Certainly (based on) our mindset or the way we played tonight.
“But it’s OK,” he continued. “Listen, we again didn’t have a lot of great, engaged play tonight, and it showed up in transition defence and contesting shots and missed assignments and things like that. But it’s so meaningless that you can kind of wash it away pretty quick and hopefully we’ll have (the players’) attention here for a few days of practice which I’m sure we will and we’ll get some things ironed out and then we get to see come Saturday night what the deal is.”
It goes without saying that if Anunoby is better, the team will be better as a whole, and expanding his repertoire was among the top priorities for the staff.
“We want to make him a guy that can really make teams pay for having to send help to some of our other guys, and eventually I (would) just like him to be a bigger part of the offence and just a tough matchup to guard — with his shooting, his size, his driving, his posting,” coach Nick Nurse said. “Just more actions and more things you can do.”
Of all the things to come out of pretend games for the Raptors, the consistently above-average play of Anunoby was by far the most significant. He has been assertive on offence, equally adept at driving or shooting, and his defence remains excellent.
If he maintains any sense of consistency — and consistent good health — it will be huge boost. Those two things have escaped him over his first three seasons, but in these three games at the Disney complex near Orlando — a small sample size, to be sure — he’s been as good as he’s ever been.
“The biggest thing with OG, I think, is just maturing as a man, first and foremost,” teammate Fred VanVleet said of Anunoby earlier this week. “He came in pretty young, pretty green, not knowing what to expect, or what he wanted to be, and he’s just kind of finding his groove and finding his spots. And I see him putting in a lot more work than I did early on, and smart work … He works every day. He just continues to get better.
“Obviously we all know how special he is and how special he can be, so our job as point guards is (to) just try to help him as much as we can. But I see him just being more patient, and I think that comes with maturing and just being more cerebral and understanding the game a little bit better.”
Despite a final scrimmage game in which head coach Nick Nurse said his team wasn’t fully engaged, the Raptors showed a lot of positives in their tune-ups. Josh Lewenberg joins SportsCentre to explain why Toronto is in a good position heading into the NBA’s restart.
The weary-looking Raptors dropped a 117-106 decision to the Phoenix Suns — who have the worst record of the 22 teams at Walt Disney World — on Tuesday, suffering their only loss in three scrimmages in the NBA’s restart.
“I think I’m glad there isn’t any more of these, right?” coach Nick Nurse said afterward. “I think we’ve gone one too far with these . . . Certainly [based on] our mindset or the way we played tonight.
“But it’s OK. Listen, we didn’t have a lot of great, engaged play tonight, and it showed up in transition defence and contesting shots and missed assignments and things like that, but it’s so meaningless that you can kind of wash it away pretty quick.”
“Right after the game ended,” said Norman Powell, who had 14 points off the bench. “We’ll obviously talk about it and about how we can improve and get better, but we take it for what it is and move on to the next one. It’s real come Saturday so we can’t focus too much on this one.
“We’ll take the learning and see how we can get better for the actual seeding games and get ready for the real deal.”
FRED VANVLEET TRUDGED from the lobby of the Ritz-Carlton Naples, out the double doors and into the stifling Florida humidity. The Toronto Raptors guard squinted, his eyes adjusting to the sunlight as the words came into focus.
He saw “Black Lives Matter” in large, white letters across each side of two buses that had arrived to take the Raptors to the NBA’s campus at Walt Disney World Resort.
“It was dope,” VanVleet said. “They didn’t even tell us they were doing that.”
The defending NBA champions were sending a message as they entered the bubble on July 9.
Along the three-hour trek north, VanVleet said, the buses passed through neighborhoods with manicured lawns featuring signs endorsing President Donald Trump, who called the Black Lives Matter movement a “symbol of hate” earlier this month.
“I was looking out the window like, ‘Oh s—,'” VanVleet said. “That was the first time I really thought about it. They probably weren’t going to be too happy with this bus. I thought that was a big, big gesture for sure by the team.”
For the 2006-07 season, Parker, at 31 years old, returned to the NBA. But in some ways, we could say that he had signed for the Toronto Raptors on October 16, 2005. Maccabi, as EuroLeague champion, was on a North American tour. It’s true that the Raptors were in the middle of the preseason, but nobody in Toronto expected such a tough game and such a tough loss. With 11 seconds to go and the score tied at 103-103, the 17,281 fans in the Raptors’ arena saw the best of Anthony Parker. The ball was in his hands on the right side of the court and it was clear that he would take it one-on-one. Morris Peterson’s defense looked good, but Parker used a side-step move to pull up for a favorite, high-arced shot of his. It was an impeccable shot, as if taken from a manual, one that youngsters should study to see perfection on an individual play. And, of course, it was good. Parker finished the game with 24 points and said after, “It was really fun, it’s fun to be part of history.”
It was the first loss by an NBA team at home against a team from Europe and the first such defeat, home or away, in more than 20 years since Maccabi itself had beaten Phoenix and New Jersey two nights apart in Tel Aviv during the 1984 preseason. Previously, Maccabi had also beaten the NBA defending champion Washington Bullets 98-97 in Tel Aviv in September of 1978. The big Jewish community in Toronto celebrated the magnificent win for Maccabi and was even happier when they learned that Parker would play with the Raptors in 2006.
At Maccabi, he wore number 8 and in Toronto, he wore 18, the Hebrew number symbolizing life. Soon, he was in Toronto’s starting five, earning the respect of his teammates, the media and opponents. He averaged 12.4 points, 3.9 rebounds and 1.3 assists. He was the team leader in three-point accuracy (44.1%) and ranked fourth in the league. Call it a coincidence or not, but that season Toronto was a division champion for the first time and was back in the playoffs after a four-year absence.
“It’s like the light is on,” Toronto Raptors guard Fred VanVleet said. “You’re seeing the actions, and I think, at least in the NBA, it’s going to be hard for one of these coaches to hide racist feelings now. … Now they’re just being put on the spot to say: ‘Okay, what are you doing? How do you really feel? Do you stand with us?’ If you do, you have to show it and prove it every day. And I think that’s what we’re getting to now.
“A lot of people don’t like to speak because they have to stand on that every single day and they don’t want that type of attention and I understand that,” VanVleet continued. “But I think that’s what makes it powerful when somebody does. They’re not afraid of the accountability and the backlash, or whatever the case may be, of alienating a fan base. I love it when they do that.”
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