OG Anunoby is become death, destroyer of centers.
It’s been a full season of defensive dominance for Anunoby. His work should culminate in an All-Defensive Team nod, though it likely won’t. But it has culminated in broken and beaten corpses left behind in his path during the regular season. Traditionally, though, those vanquished foes have been wings, Anunoby’s nominal position. He’s done admirable jobs on superstars like LeBron James and James Harden throughout the season. Occasionally, though rarely for full games and generally out of necessity, Anunoby has defended centers. As is his wont, he has been successful.
Then on Monday afternoon, Nick Nurse decided to use Anunoby as the primary defender on the Miami Heat’s All-Star center, Bam Adebayo. Anunoby guarded Adebayo for the entire game on Monday night. Though Adebayo had the advantage of a few inches and 20-odd pounds, those were the only advantages he possessed. Anunoby swallowed Adebayo whole, as he has done to so many hapless victims before him.
“I mean, OG’s really a five so it wasn’t that much of a mismatch.,” said Fred VanVleet when I asked him about the matchup. “We make that joke with him all the time.”
“But he was great for us to be able to go from guarding LeBron [the game before] to Bam tonight, and whoever we play next he’s our primary defender, and I think the more he relishes that role the more successful we’re gonna be. At that size and speed and strength, he can cause your [offense] a lot of problems, so we need him to be our primary stopper and that means he’ll be guarding a long list of guys and tonight he had Bam, and I thought he did a great job of setting the tone early and it allows us to switch and fly around and keep our bigs out of foul trouble, for the most part, and keep guarding the rim. So, it just gives you that versatility that we talk about all the time and having different options.”
VanVleet was correct about a number of things, but none more so than the fact that it wasn’t much of a mismatch. When Adebayo forced the issue and tried to score on Anunoby, he failed.
Anunoby was too strong to be overpowered and too quick to be driven past. In fact, because of that speed advantage, Anunoby was able to pick up full court and flatten Miami’s offense before it even began.
And those positives were really only a side-effect of placing Anunoby on Miami’s center. The real benefit came in Toronto’s ability to disrupt Miami’s preferred actions; like the Philadelphia 76ers in last year’s playoff series with Joel Embiid, the Heat use Adebayo as a central offensive cog through screens and hand-offs. Adebayo and Duncan Robinson together are among the best in the league in those sets. But with Anunoby guarding the initiator of those sets, Toronto was able to switch its best perimeter defender onto Miami’s guards and stuff them into lockers well before the bell rang for class.
This is what VanVleet meant when he said Anunoby guarding centers “allows us to switch and fly around.”
Furthermore, at times, Anunoby did all the work himself in single-handed world-eating defensive performances. In this play, Anunoby blitzes a pick-and-roll, recovers to the roller to strip the ball, closes out on a shooter, switches a side pick-and-roll, and then goes over a screen to contest a jumper. He guards four players in the one possession, and though it resulted in points, it was a difficult, well-contested shot, and Toronto has to be happy with this process, if not the result.
As for Adebayo, he admitted that he could have been more involved in the offense.
“I think – Marc Gasol guarding Jae – so Jae was going,” said Adebayo. “We all have to sacrifice. I sacrificed my touches for Jae. And that’s what you do for a team.”
For the record, Crowder finished with 16 points on 14 shots. Better than the rest of the Heat against Toronto’s defense, but not exactly worth channeling touches away from All-Stars Bam Adebayo or Jimmy Butler. Adebayo, meanwhile, finished with 10 points, only six of which were scored with Anunoby guarding him. To make matters worse for Miami, only two of Adebayo’s points were scored with Anunoby actually contesting the shot, and that basket came out of the pick-and-roll when Anunoby had to recover to contest a short jumper. For Adebayo’s other points, he freed himself by hitting the offensive glass after Anunoby switched onto a perimeter player.
If that’s how centers loosen the iron grip of Anunoby, the Raptors have already won. Adebayo went on to dominate the Boston Celtics in the Heat’s next game, by the way, as the Celtics used small forward Jaylen Brown as his primary defender and allowed him to collect 21 points and 12 rebounds. But against Toronto, Adebayo was limited on the glass. Toronto was excellent rebounding against Miami, only losing the rebounding battle 41-39. It may seem strange to say that losing is an excellent result. But for Toronto, already a middling rebounding team, with a small forward guarding an All-Star center, almost tying is a massive win.
That’s one of the premier benefits of Anunoby guarding opposing centers; there seems to be no downside. Miami didn’t feast on the offensive glass. Adebayo did not take Anunoby into the post and force rotations. The Raptors didn’t need to double in the post. Anunoby wasn’t forced into foul trouble banging with a big. He finished with one measly foul, picked up contesting a Goran Dragic layup.
On the plus side, Toronto was able to keep its bigs out of foul trouble, switch and detonate screen actions, and plug any holes when Miami penetrated Toronto’s defense. That’s a worthwhile trade. It’s a creative move by Nick Nurse to put Anunoby on Adebayo, and it was a wonderful performance by Anunoby. Even better: Toronto can probably use this strategy against almost any team.
“I think the way the league’s going there’s not that many you can throw it down into the low block back-down bigs,” said VanVleet. “Most of the guys are on the move and they’re doing a lot of [dribble hand-offs] and rolls and slips and two-threes. So, I’m sure if there’s a big that’s maybe doing it on the low block every time it may be a different story but I wouldn’t doubt him against anybody.”
“Except for me.”
That was tongue-in-cheek coming from VanVleet on the same night that he set a career high in scoring with 36 points. But so far in the bubble, with VanVleet and Kyle Lowry rolling on offense, Anunoby dominating on the defensive end, and Pascal Siakam’s jumper falling, it’s hard to see any flaws with Toronto’s top players.
Anunoby has impressed beyond his defense. His dribble game seems much improved, and he’s broken down a variety of defenders in the bubble. He looks more creative, more confident, and more capable. His jumper is visibly better, with a higher release point. He has not missed a triple since the regular season resumed. Anunoby has been a defensive stopper all year, and the Heat win was only one more example in a season full of them. We’ve so far seen Toronto handle two exceptional basketball teams in the bubble. Anunoby, and his divine defense, is one forceful reason why.