Player Breakdown: Anunoby vs. Celtics Game 1, Aug. 30

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Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, and the Boston Celtics are a certified problem.

The Christmas blowout may have had the perfectly valid reasoning of a roster missing Pascal Siakam, Marc Gasol, and Norman Powell, the seeding game blowout was served with the reminder that the Raptors hid a lot of their strategy, but the Game 1 blowout was a Celtics team that was flat out better from start to finish and leaves the Raptors searching for answers.

Why is Boston a problem? They are designed to make life difficult for Toronto. The Raptors were a Top 10 team in transition offensive efficiency and got out in transition more frequently than anyone not named the Milwaukee Bucks this season — finishing just a tenth of a percent behind them, per Cleaning the Glass. On the other hand, the Celtics not only finished top five in transition opportunities allowed, but first in the league in transition defensive efficiency. One might look the Celtics’ stats in this game and think 19 turnovers is a job well done by the Raptors, but nine of them came in the fourth quarter with the game well in favour of Boston.

Toronto had problems executing their half-court offence this season, but received the benefit of the doubt because of the extended absences of Gasol and Powell in big games. Notably, Lowry and Ibaka were also absent in road losses to the Clippers and Mavericks. In this game, the Raptors finished with an offensive efficiency of 77.0 in the half-court after averaging 106.0 against the Nets, and were actually as low as 59.4 at one point in the third quarter. For context, Boston managed a half-court offensive efficiency rating of 104.1 after averaging 100.0 in four games against a Philadelphia 76ers squad missing one of the best defenders in the league in Ben Simmons.

Pascal Siakam absolutely has to be better, as do Fred VanVleet, Gasol, and Powell. But how do the Raptors ramp up quality opportunities for their offence from here on out? A big part of that will be their defence finding a way to spark it. This team’s identity is on the defensive end and they know they are at the top of their game when their defence is stifling their opponent.

To me, that starts with putting OG Anunoby in the best position to succeed.

MORE DEFENSIVE INVOLVEMENT

We often talk of players needing to get more involved on the offensive end, but the Raptors in fact need to find a way to get Anunoby involved more on the defensive end. Specifically, they need to have him involved as a primary defender in Boston’s actions. There were frankly far too many plays where he was on the weakside or too far to offer any real assistance as a help defender.

He spent most of Game 1 defending either Jaylen Brown or Marcus Smart, but Boston’s two main on-ball threats are Tatum and Kemba Walker. In the regular season, the two combined for over 15 possessions per game as a pick-and-roll ball handler, while Brown and Smart combined for just a shade over six. This is not to be critical of the job Kyle Lowry did on Tatum, rather, just to understand how the Raptors can best maximize their defensive strengths.

In the reel below, you’ll see just how often he was on the weakside when defending Brown:

Anunoby has many defensive strengths, but his greatest attribute on that end of the floor lies in his ability to guard players on-ball, and the more opportunities he gets to do so will be a boon to the Raptors defence, and possibly help trigger opportunities — especially in transition — for the offence.

At first watch, I was thinking out loud, ‘Is this Brad Stevens taking the peak-Kawhi Leonard in San Antonio approach and keeping Anunoby away from the play as much as possible?’ But bearing in mind the lower frequency with which Brown and Smart are used as primary ball handlers, I think it’s safe to say there are gains to be made here. At the very least, just as the Celtics have found a way to push the Raptors away from their identity, getting Anunoby more involved in pick-and-roll action may force the Celtics to operate a bit differently and put some of their secondary in tertiary options in uncomfortable positions.

For reference, here’s a chunk of plays when Anunoby was matched up with Smart:

So, what’s the solution?

Fred VanVleet is terrific on-ball and makes the most sense for Walker, that shouldn’t change. Perhaps there is a gain to be made in Lowry defending Brown and Anunoby guarding Tatum. The other option, that causes a host of changes and may be too early to turn at this point in the series, is putting Anunoby on Daniel Theis. This way, any Theis screen is an opportunity for Anunoby to switch onto a Walker or Tatum when they’re the ball handler, and gives the Raptors a possible advantage.

The question then becomes, ‘Can Gasol really be put on Smart?’ I have my doubts considering just how out of place he looked in this game. Serge Ibaka seems more suited to defending Smart and the switches that may come of it, and so now you’re entertaining the idea of a change to the starting lineup. I struggle to believe that Nurse will give up on Gasol as a starter after just one game, though a tighter leash heading into Game 2 seems entirely plausible.

GUARDING KEMBA

I’ve highlighted a few plays below where Anunoby did match up with Walker just to get an idea of what it looks like. If you can take away Walker’s scoring threat and give up an above the break semi-contested look for Brown, you live with that as the Raptors did in the first play below. In the second play, there’s not much more Toronto can do defensively. Walker passes off in the face of Anunoby, the pick-and-roll action between Smart and Theis is denied, Gasol is then there to deter Tatum on a roll and VanVleet is there to contest Brown’s three-point attempt. The final play is one I don’t imagine we’ll see much of going forward, as Anunoby’s block off the screen should play on Walker’s mind from here on out.

CONTINUE TO SEEK OFFENSIVE OPPORTUNITIES

On the other end of the floor, Anunoby did a nice job of attacking defenders when they weren’t respecting him as a scoring threat. In the first play above, you see Smart shade over to Anunoby’s right after he receives the ball to help prevent the pass, and with Robert Williams having to respect Gasol’s outside shooting, Anunoby recognizes there’s no one at the rim and attacks off the dribble for a dunk unimpeded. The second play highlights Anunoby’s confidence in his dribble when going up against a big man, breaking Williams down and getting into his body for free throws.

What happens from here is the beauty of the post-season and why people have become enamoured with Nurse as a head coach. The Celtics have forced the Raptors into making some adjustments, and now they’ll have to do so.

The Nets are long-gone and Boston is clearly more than capable of winning this series. It’s important to remember, though, that the Raptors trailed in every series they played on their championship run except the Finals. They trailed 0-1 to the Orlando Magic, 1-2 to the Philadelphia 76ers, and 0-2 to the Milwaukee Bucks. It’s a veteran group and they will recognize it’s the first to four.

On to Tuesday.

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