LeBron James has grown accustomed to laying waste to any defenders the Raptors have thrown his way.
P.J. Tucker, DeMarre Carroll, Norman Powell, Patrick Patterson and DeMar DeRozan have all been left to pick up the pieces in the past, while OG Anunoby — in his one brief opportunity — was given a King’s welcome with an assortment of fadeaways in his face during Game 2 of the 2018 Eastern Conference Semifinals before a one-legged banker at the Game 3 buzzer left Anunoby and the Raptors staring at a sweep.
You’re excused if you started to fear the worst when James looked up to his old tricks on Saturday night against Toronto with back-to-back 3-pointers early in the fourth quarter that gave the Los Angeles Lakers the lead. The PTSD is real. But the gumption the Raptors showed to take those body blows and strike back with just as much vigour was a sign that times have changed, that the swagger of winning a championship shines through even in the face of its darkest enemy.
That it was Anunoby himself who responded with his own pair of 3-pointers only added to the belief in Toronto’s resolve, a player tasked with the enormity of defending James making clear that LeBron’s old way of breaking spirits wasn’t enough.
“OG was unbelievable,” Kyle Lowry said after the game. “I said to him, those two big threes: after ‘Bron hit his threes and OG came back and hit two big threes, his growth and his maturity just continues to get better and I’m proud of him.
“The one thing about OG, man, guys understand him as much as they want to but he’s going to be really good in this league for a long time.”
Toronto ran away 107-92 winners, making believers of even those who still continue to doubt the team’s contending credentials. Anunoby finished with 23 points on 8-of-9 shooting, four rebounds and two steals to suggest the work he put in between mid-March and mid-June is for real and that there is a more varied offensive arsenal to complement his all-world defence.
So, let’s start there with Anunoby. Over the remainder of the Raptors’ stay in Orlando, I will be picking one player’s performance each game to zero in on and break down. Lowry’s scintillating 33 point, 14 rebound, six assist night was a tough one to pass up on, but there will surely be another time for him.
MAKE LEBRON THINK TWICE ABOUT THE PAINT
Right from the early going, the Raptors made clear that James was going to find it very difficult to get into the paint. The first two plays in the video below highlight how Toronto packed the paint, beginning with Fred VanVleet showing his body at the free-throw line to force James into a pass. A key part of this plan is initiated by Anunoby dictating that James use his right hand by shading towards his preferred left side. James is most comfortable from his left side where he prefers to pull-up from for a jumper, and forcing him right forces him to operate in a less preferred manner, a staple of the Raptors’ defence.
Over the course of the season, James has averaged 8.6 shots per game within five feet of the basket and made 68 percent of those attempts. In two games against the Raptors, sure he has attempted 17 shots within five feet which is par for the course, but he has only shot 52.9 percent.
In plays 3-5, you see the value of Anunoby’s strength, agility, and length, first making life difficult for James despite deep post position before a tough contest, then forcing James into a pass by not allowing him to gain much ground after catching in a deeper position (VanVleet once again wreaks havoc by perfectly getting in James’ line of sight while also maintaining a path to his man in the corner), and finally busting his tail through two screens and then combining with Pascal Siakam for a truly special defensive stand against James and Anthony Davis.
TEMPT LEBRON TO SETTLE FOR THE OUTSIDE
When the Golden State Warriors played the Raptors in the NBA Finals last year, a key term that they referred to on the biggest stage was “appropriate fear.” It was about having a healthy respect for the opponent but never compromising confidence or self-belief because of it. To defend James, you have to show appropriate fear.
Right from tip-off, Anunoby did a great job of striking the right balance between being far enough to goad James into settling for a jumper, but also being close enough to get up a decent contest. In Play #3, James is able to use the spacing to get to the basket, but Anunoby’s lateral quicks and length along with the presence of his teammates dissuade James from going up strong and instead he ends up taking a mid-range fadeaway that falls short.
MAKE LEBRON WORK ON THE DEFENSIVE END
James has to be made to pay for any shortcomings on the defensive end. The Lakers, or James himself, had clearly decided that cheating off Anunoby was a worthwhile gamble, but the 23-year-old made them pay every single time. It also showed how easily Anunoby can pick up points, as the 15 points in the video below are either from outhustling his opponent or making a wide open look.
In the first play, James is caught napping and Anunoby sneaks through the backdoor. Then, Anunoby just races James down the court for the easy jam off the nice feed from Lowry, the third bucket is courtesy of beating Davis but I decided to include it anyway, sue me. While Play #4 is courtesy some excellent ball movement that challenged the Lakers’ rotations to be perfect, the fifth and six clips show James leaving Anunoby to help protect the paint and being made to pay. This is the type of offensive performance that forces a team to re-think their defensive strategy, and Frank Vogel will certainly do so if these two teams meet again. For Anunoby’s own coach, Nick Nurse, it just opens up more options and raises expectations going forward.
“He was very good,” Nurse said after the game. “He shows us, every now and again he shows us these glimpses of where he can go, and as we all talk about all the time, it’s doing those kind of games a little more consistently, right, and again, you don’t go for a game like that every night but, you know, I always like to pack ‘em in five, ‘If you played five games, how many out of (those) five can you play that way?’ Well, it’s probably two or one, and then you gotta take that number from two to three and then, you know, four to five, and then you’re there.
“You’re not gonna do it five out of five, hardly anybody does that, so that’s it, we just wanna keep it positive, he did great, he did a little bit of everything, cut, shot, guarded, he was good.”
BONUS CONTENT: OG’S SPIN MOVES ON AD
We saw Anunoby bust out the tight handle against the Portland Trail Blazers, but to pull off attacking Defensive Player of the Year candidate Anthony Davis hard to the right on a closeout, spin to the left and finish with the weaker hand can only validate the time and effort Anunoby has put in to develop that area of his game. It wasn’t a fluke, either, as you’ll see in the second play of the video that Anunoby was able to go to the spin move in transition against Davis and draw the foul.
“It helps my confidence knowing I can do it against anyone,” Anunoby said after the game. “It’s just about getting the reps and staying with it and just being confident in my moves and being patient…
“I know to help the team by getting to the rim, kickout, finish. Just being aggressive and putting pressure on the rim and just make the next play, make the right play.”
The Raptors are proving with every player at their disposal and the roster as a whole that ceilings are for the weak. “How good can OG be?” is a question that has been discussed ad nauseam by the masses, the 23rd overall pick in the 2017 NBA Draft showcasing his defensive potential and surprisingly impressive 3-point proficiency in his rookie season before tailing off in Year 2 due to injury and personal loss. Now, having reaffirmed his place as the Raptors starting small forward, Anunoby is thriving.
What does that mean for Toronto going forward? Perhaps a team whose limit is as sky high as last year’s.