VanVleet is absolutely right, and that play, should it continue, will make sure Anunoby is paid quite a bit of money in 2024 when he is a free agent. The difference between that and a near-max salary — it’s not altogether out there — is how he continues to develop offensively. Anunoby has become very adept at making a quick move off the catch, acting decisively. You can get pretty far based on that and a solid 3-point stroke. Anunoby hit four 3s to help get him to 27 points Wednesday.
He’s not quite there as an initial creator, yet. In minimal attempts, he was scoring in the 27th percentile on isolation attempts when he shot coming into the game, according to Synergy Sports. Last year, he was in the 11th percentile. If there was indeed an issue regarding his role in the offseason, this was likely the root cause — Anunoby is not a good enough finisher or passer to have him start possessions.
With Pascal Siakam out, he is going to get his chance to show a little progress. Anunoby can get to the paint; it’s knowing what to do when he gets there that is often the problem. He has more turnovers than assists so far this year.
“I think he needs the chances,” coach Nick Nurse said. “I think there’s a level up he can make for either springing up immediately for the shot or understanding how many people (are) around him and somehow getting it out of there a little more cleanly and finishing a little bit better.”
Raptors forward Scottie Barnes caught Jalen Green on a switch and immediately signaled his teammates to clear out so he could go to work. Green noticed. He also did not forget.
Barnes had muscled Green inside minutes earlier and wanted more. This time, defensive help came, Barnes gave up the ball and the Raptors turned it over.
But when Green got to the other end, with Barnes matched up against him, Green hit his friend with a lightning bolt of a first step and finished at the rim.
“It’s a friendly duel anytime we step on the court,” Green said. “He was in my draft class. Me and Scottie have been friends since eighth grade, seventh grade.
“Anytime we step on the floor, the whole friendship goes out the window. I think that goes for both of us.”
The moment, however, stood out not for its flash or as part of Green’s solid scoring night in the Rockets’ 116-109 loss to the Raptors on Wednesday.
Fun as the exchange of buckets for two members of last season’s All-Rookie team, Green’s play Wednesday was significant because he did not force things. He did not look to follow his 34 points Monday with an encore Wednesday. He forgot about his streak-busting eight points in Toronto last season. He did not spend the night playing can you top this with Barnes.
Instead, he read the Raptors’ defenses in ways he could not last season, showing his growth every bit as much as when he had his top scoring game of the season two nights earlier.
Nurse said that he had a long meeting with Achiuwa, showed him some film — not a million clips, and not all just bad clips, but examples of some things he’s seeing, and giving Achiuwa the chance to talk about “what didn’t you know, what didn’t we teach you, what didn’t we put on the game plan.” Nurse said he envisions Achiuwa’s minutes to be in the high 20s, but so far, his play — primarily his execution on the defensive end — has limited him. Some nights he’s unbelievable, some nights he’s not into the game, Nurse said.
Unfortunately, it looks like Achiuwa might be limited even more in the near-term. He landed awkwardly on a wild drive in the fourth quarter, got up in considerable pain, and had to be taken out of the game — and eventually half-carried back to the locker room, unable to put any weight on his right leg. The team is calling the injury a right ankle sprain for now and he’ll be reevaluated soon.
The second quarter didn’t start any better than the first for Toronto, as the Raps opened showing a full court press — something they should be good at, given their length — but the Rockets immediately broke it and Usman Garuba jammed home an easy deuce. Eric Gordon then dropped in two free throws to give the Rockets their largest lead at 12.
Koloko was better on the defensive end in the second, but on offense, he once again went to the rim somewhat meekly, and got his shot blocked on multiple second quarter possessions. Before the game, Nurse said he likes the different look having vertical lob threat gives the team, and they like having him in different spots, getting the ball as a roller or getting a dump off in the dunker spot — but that he wants Koloko to “dunk more of ‘em,” and get better at bringing the ball up strong when he’s at the rim. (He showed a little more strength in the third, getting an and-1 on the first possession and two more foul shots a minute later).
The coach said Achiuwa was receptive and understanding about the concerns. The video doesn’t lie.
“Precious is a great dude. When you show clips and you’re sitting there, there’s not much you can say other than, ‘I agree, Coach, I can play better than this. And I need to and I want to.’”
Nurse’s pre-game comments weren’t malicious, nor were they surprising. Achiuwa was expected to at least maintain the level of play he showed at the end of last season, but there’s been some regression.
And Nurse’s level of frustration has been created by Achiuwa not yet meeting expectations.
“He just needs to play better,” Nurse said of the promising 23-year-old, who had logged just 14 minutes in each of the previous two games. “You know I’m always talking about playing hard on [defence] and executing. He’s just having too much inconsistency. Some nights he’s unbelievable, he’s into the game and he’s doing it all, and some nights he’s not doing very much of it.”
“[Playing 14 minutes] is not what I envisioned for him this year, and I told him that. I’m envisioning mid to upper 20s-plus [minutes], but I can’t [play him more] if he’s not gonna execute our stuff defensively better.”
The storybook ending would’ve been for Achiuwa to go out and have a big game against the Houston Rockets at home that night, responding to his coach’s challenge and re-establishing himself as a key member of Toronto’s second unit. But that’s not what happened.
Instead, Achiuwa’s night ended with an injury.
Driving to the basket early in the fourth quarter of a 116-109 win, Achiuwa lost the ball mid-air and landed awkwardly on his right leg. After limping to the bench, assistant coach Jamaal Magloire and two-way player Ron Harper Jr. carried him to the locker room. He was quickly ruled out for the remainder of the game with an ankle sprain that will require further testing.
What happened in between wasn’t ideal, either. As usual, Achiuwa and Chris Boucher were the first Raptors reserves to check in, roughly seven minutes into the opening quarter.
Early on, Achiuwa ripped a loose ball away from Kevin Porter Jr. to secure the offensive rebound – OK, encouraging! But instead of resetting, he gave it right back when he drove into Alperen Sengun, who was set underneath the rim, and got called for the charge.
In an interview with TSN’s Kate Beirness, the veteran reporter asked Anunoby about a trip to see some web-footed animals at the Toronto Zoo that never happened.
“We didn’t give the fans what they wanted last year,” Beirness said. “We wanted to go to the zoo. It didn’t happen.”
“It’s not my fault, it’s your fault. Don’t blame me,” Anunoby replied.
“It’s not my fault either,” Beirness added. “It’s the [Raptors’] PR fault.”
The two then appeared to make some plans to go to the zoo, but it might’ve just been all talk.
“Are you gonna ditch? I was ready to go,” Anunoby said.
“I’ll take these heels right now and go to the zoo,” Beirness joked.
Anunoby then claimed he’d already been to the zoo.
For Anunoby it’s just another night when he’s met expectations and exceeded them. He came into the game with 34 steals — nine more than the next most prolific thief in the league — and added three more against the Rockets, showing his ability to disrupt offences either on the ball, off the ball or as a help defender. His defence has been peak all season — he’s had multiple steals in 10 of 12 games now and nine straight – but his offence is firing on all cylinders too as he ended up with four triples and four dunks.
It was also another huge night for Fred VanVleet, who led all scorers with a season-high 32 points and has now scored 89 points and made 19 threes in his first three games back after missing three with back tightness.
Toronto finished the fourth quarter on a 16-10 run that featured a pair of Otto Porter Jr. threes to give him a season-high 14 points of the bench, VanVleet’s final three and Anunoby’s final dunk on a brilliant feed from Thad Young, who was scoreless for the game, but a team-best +21 in 27 minutes, a testament to his willingness to dig in defensively and as a rebounder, and a good example for some of his younger teammates looking for lessons on how to affect the game without scoring.
“I didn’t think we had a lot of our guys… [that] had their chances and didn’t make the most of them, let’s say,” said Raptors head coach Nick Nurse diplomatically after the game. “And Thad was huge. I thought he came in and started rebounding when we desperately needed it. He really went after the ball. Otto had his most minutes , I’m sure, this year and made some big buckets. But we need those other guys to play better, right, we need them to play better or more consistently.”