Raptors’ Anunoby thriving, unfazed by bright lights of the playoffs

Bradley Beal and John Wall had 28 points apiece as the Wizards dominated the Raptors 122-103 in Game 3.

WASHINGTON — Less than three minutes into Friday night’s 122-103 Washington Wizards win over the Toronto Raptors, OG Anunoby got switched on to Markieff Morris as he chased Bradley Beal around the floor.

This is exactly what the Wizards wanted. Anunoby had done a terrific job of limiting Beal in the first two games of the series, and Washington clearly wanted to get one of its primary scorers away from the Raptors rookie as much as possible in Game 3, and onto less challenging defenders.

Then, Washington got something else it wanted. As Anunoby switched, Morris went crashing to the floor, and when he got up he gave Anunoby a shove in the back, which the Raptors small forward reciprocated with a shove of his own to Morris’s chest. Both teams converged, jerseys were grabbed, commentary was exchanged—there wasn’t much in it.

But if you watched Game 3, you know the Wizards came into the night with a clear directive to play physically and with more aggression. They wanted to confront the Raptors on their home floor. They wanted to inject more piss and vinegar into the game—they wanted to get under Toronto’s skin. Marcin Gortat, who got right in the middle of the altercation between Anunoby and Morris, admitted as much after the game.

“It sounds crazy, but sometimes we need that,” Gortat said. “It’s definitely not bad. [Morris] set a tone. We were physical from the get-go. And that helped us.”

Anunoby’s interpretation of the events supports this. Asked Saturday what transpired between him and Morris, Anunoby said he hadn’t done anything to send Morris to the floor.

“He pushed me for no reason,” Anunoby said.

Was he saying anything to you?

“I don’t know—I couldn’t hear him.”

Do you feel like the Wizards were trying to get under your skin?

“Yeah, they’re probably frustrated because we’re up right now. So, they’re trying to bring themselves energy, doing whatever they can.”

It’s hard to argue that it didn’t work. Not necessarily in rattling Anunoby—more on that later—but in getting the Raptors as a whole out of their collective rhythm.

The Wizards were simply more forceful Friday, and Morris’s early belligerence was only a precursor to a few more scuffles that transpired throughout the night. After the game, some Raptors looked like they’d been through a literal fight, as DeMar DeRozan had a bandage covering an abrasion under his right eye and Pascal Siakam was icing a badly cut lower lip, which he received three stitches in after catching a Kelly Oubre elbow.

“I think we’ve just got to be tougher, more physical. They were the more physical team last night,” Raptors head coach Dwane Casey said Saturday. “They were into us. And we didn’t respond with the proper amount of force.

“Nobody should be happy. We all should be ticked off that we got spanked the way we did last night.”

For his part, Anunoby didn’t seem to mind the hostility one bit. He was arguably more aggressive with Morris than the Wizards veteran was with him, and although Anunoby feigns not remembering exactly what was said, it’s clear from the video that there was some heated dialogue exchanged.

Of course, if you were in the Wizards’ sneakers, you’d probably want to try to rattle Anunoby as well—the 20-year-old has easily been one of Toronto’s five best players in this series, perhaps even among its top three.

He’s carrying a 7.3 net rating into Game 4 with an effective field goal percentage (79.4) and true shooting percentage (82.2) that rank second on the team to Jakob Poeltl, who’s attempted only six field goals. Among Raptors who have made 10 attempts or more in the series, Anunoby has been the most effective by far.

He’s 11-of-17 from the field, 5-of-9 from three-point range, and one of only five Raptors with a plus/minus on the right side of zero. And on a team that has turned the ball over far too much in its first three games—Toronto’s coughed the ball up 50 times, leading to 61 Washington points—Anunoby’s 4.3 per cent turnover rate is second-best on the team to C.J. Miles.

OG Anunoby battles for the ball against John Wall during Game 3. (Nick Wass/AP)

What all this tells you is that Anunoby is being extremely mindful with the ball in his hands—shooting high-percentage shots when given the opportunity, moving the ball quickly when not, and avoiding situations where the other team can force an error.

And he’s been absolutely crucial for the Raptors defensively. He’s spent more time than any Raptor opposite Beal, who was practically non-existent in the first two games of the series, and he’s been Toronto’s second-most used defender on John Wall, covering Washington’s best player on more possessions than anyone but Kyle Lowry.

That the Raptors trust a rookie with such influential matchups says a lot about not only Anunoby’s ability, but Casey’s trust in him to make sound decisions in extremely stressful situations as the youngest player on the floor. Which isn’t even to mention his mettle following encounters like Friday’s with Morris, which didn’t seem to affect Anunoby’s game negatively in the slightest.

“He’s one guy that the moment hasn’t bothered him,” Casey said. “If he makes a mistake, it’s an honest mistake. He has not been bothered by the lights. It just goes to his maturity and his growth, I think, throughout the year. He’s grown as a player. But the moment has not bothered him whatsoever.”

The moment Casey’s talking about is the playoffs, where the importance and intensity of every possession is dwarfed only by the amount it’s scrutinized. Every misstep is magnified; no mistake goes unnoticed. It’s a lot for a young man to process. But Anunoby is playing as freely as ever.

“That’s DNA—I think that’s DNA,” Casey said of Anunoby’s poise. “Because some guys will go out there and… I can’t say what I want to say.”

Fill in the blank as you please, but it’s a decent bet that what Casey wanted to describe was the filling of one’s trousers with nongaseous matter. Anunoby’s done anything but. And he’s been so effective, Casey’s been actively looking for ways to get him more minutes late in games. Anunoby’s already played the sixth-most minutes of any Raptor in the series, and if he continues performing like he has been, that will only go up.

Curious what the man himself thinks about his play thus far in these, his first NBA playoffs? Well, Saturday at Georgetown University, where the Raptors held a long, up-tempo practice, Anunoby was asked what he’s liked about his game so far.

“Just defending well,” he said, thumbs tucked in the chest sleeves of his practice pinnie. “Hitting shots, being active on both ends.”

And what do you still want to get better at?

“Being more active on both ends,” he said, not missing a beat. “Continuing to hit shots, defending well.”

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Yes, this is still Anunoby we’re talking about, and talking to. If you are at all familiar with his charmingly unaffected aesthetic, you know he’s not prone to public loquaciousness or mere elaboration. If there is any justice in this world, he will have a game worthy of a podium appearance sometime before these playoffs are through, so that the greater NBA-watching universe can witness the combination of uncomfortable awkwardness and blissful simplicity that is an Anunoby interview.

And, really, why do things have to be so complicated? Whether the Wizards play with unbridled aggression or not, the Raptors can counteract anything thrown at them by playing the way they have throughout the most successful regular season in franchise history.

Washington isn’t the first team to try to try to confront Toronto. When it’s happened in the past, the Raptors have simply met that physicality on defence, and continued to play the highly skilled, efficient brand of offensive basketball they’ve built their current brand on. Play with pace, move the ball, create good shots. That style of play can’t be intimidated, can’t be bullied.

One of Toronto’s best players in the series thus far, Anunoby seems to have that figured out. Asked how the Raptors might adjust offensively between Games 3 and 4, Anunoby was as straightforward as his play.

“Just continue to do what we do,” he said. “Not worry about what they’re doing.”

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