The do-everything forward, as of Tuesday afternoon, leads the league in steals at 2.4 a game. Racking up takeaways doesn’t automatically make someone a good defender—thoughtless gambling can kill a defense—but Anunoby’s not just about the steals, not just solid on ball. He’s ravenous off it, keeps hunting for possession. Anunoby is brutal and multidimensional. Has been for years. His versatility is the Raptors’ luxury. Makes offenses miserable whether he’s the primary defender or in help. Can be the tip of the spear or nix shots at the rim. Can hang with guards on the perimeter or bang with bigs in the post. Anunoby hustles, hounds guys. He’ll chase shooters off picks and get in passing lanes. Sometimes he looks like a safety baiting a quarterback, basketball’s Polamalu. Sometimes he’ll just sort of appear, as if from the mist. Sometimes he’ll manhandle you and look bored out of his mind.
Anunoby’s a master of disruption and a certified nuisance. The footwork’s nuts, the hands are too. He’s long been a nightmare for opposing teams because he makes himself felt whether he’s involved offensively or not. Lately, he’s been very involved. Lately he’s been scorching. Injuries to Pascal Siakam, Precious Achiuwa, and Otto Porter Jr. bumped his usage up and he has responded in kind. In his last five games he’s averaged 20 points, 4.6 rebounds, and 3.2 assists on over 17 shots a game. He’s hitting 47% from the field, 85% from the free throw line, and putting people in the rim.
He’s smart, he’s long, he’s strong. He has upper-middle-class, prime-Dwight shoulders and his bird can sing. Gets in a stance and into his man’s skin. Corrals scorers into Anunoby’s Traveling Torture Dungeon, takes the thing they love most. OG Swole G surely this will get deleted. You’ll find him on the wing constructing caves of steel. You’ll find him palming space rocks out of the mesosphere. You’ll find him haunting offenses—an undead, super nice shadow who will say something when he feels like it.
On Halloween he had a steal against De’Andre Hunter that made Alvin Williams say, “Look at him get busy!” and Matt Devlin growl, “The power game.” He finished the evening with six steals and two blocks, stuffed Atlanta into his own personal boo box. Contents included various scorpions, cacti, five bone mamas, and two Skeletrexes. Anunoby terrorized the Hawks all game. They received no mercy, no comfort, no hope. He bodied them, tricked them, and took their treats.
That’s good bone crushin’.
Anunoby’s surprised by exactly none of this. He knows how good he is.
“I mean defensively, I’ve always wanted to be Defensive Player of the Year. I’ve always thought I was the best defender in the league. I’ve thought [that] for the last, I don’t know how many years.”
O.G. Anunoby is well on his way to being recognized as an all-NBA defender and Williamson beat him on the baseline like he was a pylon.
It’s mind-boggling. At halftime, Williamson had 17 points, four assists and two steals while taking just eight shots. He finished with 33 points, 10 rebounds, five assists, four steals and two blocks on 12-of-15 shooting.
Now, once upon a time the Raptors slowed down Giannis Antetokounmpo in the playoffs and also shut down Joel Embiid. Everyone can be stopped. Maybe someone will figure out how to make Williamson go right one day?
But at his best, Williamson will be really, really, really hard to stop for anyone.
Oh, and when the game was in the balance as the Raptors had cut a 31-point Pelicans lead to 11 with five minutes to play? Williamson jumped off two feet and somehow blocked a Pascal Siakam floater in the paint and then beat a trap at the other end for a dunk. He then made a steal and scored on the fastbreak to put the lead back to 15.
Just an amazing player. For basketball’s sake, hopefully he can stay healthy.
One sensed a special game could be in store for Williamson after he started a perfect 5 for 5 start from the field and tallied four assists in the first quarter. He was directly responsible for 22 points in the Pelicans’ 40-29 advantage after 12 minutes.
Williamson wound up dismantling the Raptors with a line of 33 points, 10 rebounds, five assists, four steals and two blocks. That’s awfully reminiscent of his college averages of 30.1 points, 11.8 rebounds, 2.7 assists, 2.8 steals and 2.4 blocks, no?
“I told him tonight in the locker room that he was a monster,” Green said. “He carried us. He continued to make the right plays over and over again. When we needed a bucket, we put the ball in his hands. He got to the basket, he got to the free throw line. He was flying around on both ends of the floor, four steals and two blocks. Defensively, he’s in the right spots. Just impressive to see.”
Williamson looked every bit of the superstar who rose to prominence at Duke through sheer effort and ability. He nearly leapt out of the gym for certain rebounds, climbed the ladder multiple times in contesting shot attempts, and utilized his talents to emphatically put an end to Toronto possessions with six combined steals and blocks.
“That guy’s crazy,” Dyson Daniels told WRNO listeners afterwards. “I’ve never seen anyone like him. It’s great to be able to play with him because he can change the game just like that. He does his thing out there and he’s the one who turned that game around for us.”
Zion was everywhere.
But it is also fair to say that he received a lot of help.
Trey Murphy III was the ideal floor spacer for when the Raptors collapsed excessively on Williamson. The second-year man connected on six of his 12 3-point attempts, but as close followers have known since the first day of this season, Murphy is so much more than just a perimeter shooter.
In attempting a season-best 17 field goals, Murphy’s 26 points marked his third consecutive 20+ point game. He had another loud hammer at the rim and made all four of his free throw attempts, but he also did work elsewhere, coming up with five rebounds, one steal and one block.
Contributing in multiple areas was certainly a theme on the night, something that multiple Raptors pride themselves on accomplishing every time out, but the Pelicans were collectively much stronger from start to finish.
WHAT DIDN’T WORK
Usually, O.G. Anunoby is the Raptors most solid defender. He was expected to do well on Zion but two early fouls had him sitting on the bench.
Zion is probably the one player in the NBA that is as strong as O.G. Anunoby, and that was apparent as Zion flew past him, shot over him, and got the foul easily while Anunoby defended him.
The only players to score in double digits were Pascal Siakam, Gary Trent Jr., and O.G. Anunoby. Scottie Barnes had four points. Thad Young and Fred VanVleet had two each. If you take Gary Trent Jr.’s points away from the bench, they scored 30 points (spoiler alert: Gary outscored the ENTIRE rest of the bench put together).
WHAT DID WORK
Gary Trent Jr.
Trent Jr. had himself a NIGHT despite the loss. He scored a season high 35 points, and looked like the GTJ we know and love. He was aggressive in the paint, getting multiple and-one opportunities.
It seems like (hopefully) the slump he saw himself in earlier seems to be easing up.
He came off the bench tonight, outscored the rest of the bench put together, and was the most consistent player of the night. Will he continue to play off the bench now? Or will this performance lead him to be rewarded with the start in Friday’s game.
Pascal Siakam is back
P Skills scored 23 points tonight, coming second for the team behind Gary Trent Jr. After spending nearly a month out with injury, he seems to be back to where he was before.
He started the game with nine straight points. He ended it with those 23 points, four assists, and six rebounds. While it didn’t result in a win, the hope is that Pascal Siakam can stay healthy enough to help the Raptors to more wins down the line.
Coach Nick Nurse lauded the new starting lineup he used in Monday’s win over Cleveland for an excellent defensive start that got the team off to a win. There was a subtle change Wednesday, and a major change of fortune.
Scottie Barnes rejoined the starting unit in place of Juancho Hernangomez but Thad Young started over Gary Trent Jr. and Toronto had a terrible start.
The Pelicans shot 73 per cent from the floor in the first quarter to assume a 40-29 lead. Those were the most points the Raptors have given up in a first quarter this season. It didn’t get any better as the Pelicans finished the half with 74 points, another season high for a Toronto opponent.
Outside of a seven-minute stretch at the start of the fourth quarter when the Raptors held the Pelicans to 11 points, the defence was a mess all night.
6th Man Gary
Scottie Barnes was back in the starting lineup Wednesday night, but Gary Trent Jr.’s move to the bench seems to be more of a long-term change. Ironically, Trent has played much better over the past two games while coming off the bench, only further solidifying him in that spot.
Trent opened the Wednesday night by finding Christian Koloko rolling to the rim, flashing the kind of passing skills that have been so lacking from his game this year. He followed it up by taking an aggressive drive to the hoop, finishing the layup through contact, exactly as the Raptors would like to see. He then added a catch-and-shoot three from Juancho Hernangomez, again, nailing the kind of bucket Toronto has been looking for from the 23-year-old guard.
He fully broke out of his shooting funk in the second half, nailing four three-pointers after the break and finishing the night with a season-high 35 points on 12-for-20 shooting. In doing so, he set a franchise record for the most points scored off the bench by a Raptor.
Otto Porter Jr. could move into the starting lineup to add a little more three-point shooting to the unit when he’s back healthy in a few weeks, but for now it appears to be Thad Young’s spot to lose.
Any chance of a comeback ended about 40 seconds into the third quarter when Fred VanVleet was whistled for his second technical as he clapped facetiously in the face of an official who had awarded the Raptors the ball on a turnover.
His first technical, in the first half, was actually arguing an out of bounds call he thought should have resulted in a Toronto possession.
Raptors head coach Nick Nurse was not impressed with either call.
“Did I have an issue with his two technicals” Nurse asked back when the legitimacy of the two techs was raised. “Yeah, I had issues with both. They were ridiculous.”
Down 31 at one point in the third quarter, the Raptors got the deficit down to 11 with five minutes to go.
That was as close as the comeback would get, however.
Gary Trent Jr., who came off the bench for the second consecutive game, had his biggest scoring night of the season. He finished with 35 points on 12-of-20 shooting. He was 6-for-11 from three.
It tied for the third-most in team history for a player coming off the bench, behind only Donyell Marshall and Lou Wiliams.
Siakam was next most dangerous on the night with 23, the only starter outside of Anunoby, who had 12 to even get into double digits.
The Pelicans were led by Williamson’s 33 and eight rebounds although the more surprising stat line was probably the 26 they got from Trey Murphy, who had 26, including a 6-for-12 night from behind the arc in a rare start.
Former Raptor Jonas Valanciunas did his work too with a 16-point, 13-rebound double-double.
Nurse said before the game that his starting lineup remained in flux. He brought Scottie Barnes back into that starting five but kept Trent Jr. coming off the bench.
Barnes responded with just four points and five assists in 21 minutes in one of his least effective nights as a Raptor.
So with that in mind, what does the team need most right now? —Benson F.
Good question, and one I’m sure we’ll assess and reassess as we get closer to February.
I think the answer is still rim protection. The Raptors have improved from the start of the season, ranking in the middle of the pack in shots allowed within five feet of the rim per game. However, they are still allowing opponents to shoot 66.4 percent on those shots, the sixth-worst mark on those attempts. On 78 shots, opponents are shooting 61.4 percent when Koloko is defending, an average number, worse than Scottie Barnes and O.G. Anunoby. Koloko is also up to 6.5 fouls per 36 minutes, meaning you cannot count on him for an extended run. He might soon need some time with Raptors 905.
I believe a healthy Precious Achiuwa is a part of an answer here, as his rim protection numbers were some of the best on the team last year and before he got hurt this year. Adding a real menace down there, someone capable of eating up 25 to 30 minutes while allowing the Raptors’ perimeter defenders to take a few more chances at steals, could make a real difference.
Are the Raptors a sleeping giant? Eric Koreen (1:01:08) of The Athletic answers that and more.
12. Toronto Raptors
2022-23 record: 11-9
Previous ranking: 16
With Pascal Siakam back on the court, Toronto can push ahead after surviving the last few weeks without their all-NBA forward. It has to be considered a success that the Raptors still sit within 1.5 games of third place despite a series of injuries a quarter of the way through the season. — Bontemps