No one knows whether it can actually be done. Not yet, at least. The Raptors are set to begin their series against the Cleveland Cavaliers tomorrow at 8pm, and that means welcoming LeBron James to Toronto for the third time in as many years. The Raptors are 0-2 in series against the Cavaliers, and there are reasons to believe — or at least a reason to believe — that could be 0-3.
But if we consider all things, and I mean absolutely everything here — the strengths and weaknesses of LeBron James, Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan, Kevin Love, the Raptors bench, the Cavaliers bench, the coaching, plus home court, relative experience levels, etc. etc. etc. — as at least equal in part to the way things were last year (a big if, I realize), there is still one other major difference between this series and those of the past.
OG Anunoby is on the Raptors now.
Now allow me to run back my headline a bit. Toronto’s ability to beat the Cavaliers will depend, in some order, on the overall calibre of play we see from Lowry and DeRozan, the ability of Jonas Valanciunas to stay on the floor, and the collective fortitude of the Raptors’ bench. (Our guy John Gaudes covered this earlier today.) In the grand scheme of things, credibly defending LeBron plays a part in all this, but as we’ve seen over the past 15 years: no one can really defend LeBron.
Still, if you watched the Raptors’ first round series against the Wizards, there was something in the rookie Anunoby’s play that augured well for this upcoming Cavs series (and the future).
Through six games, Anunoby averaged a solid 21.8 minutes per game, 7.8 points, 2.2 rebounds, 0.5 assists, 0.8 steals, and 0.5 blocks. He also shot 59 percent from the field, and 47 percent from three on 2.5 attempts per game (which is truly a delightful set of numbers all-around). The only blip in OG’s production occurred in Game 4 when he got tangled up with Serge Ibaka and Marcin Gortat, and ended up hurting his ankle for a spell. (OG returned for the second half of that game, and played in the next two contests without incident.)
There’s no doubt Anunoby benefits from playing with the Raptors starters, and theoretically he’s the “worst” of that bunch. But his role on offense has remained consistent: hit open threes (see above; check), make smart cuts (watch the games again; check), score efficiently (OG leads the team in true shooting percentage at 65 percent). Since the bench unit doesn’t need the help, and OG appears at his best with the starters, the blueprint is there to keep the two units separate. The question becomes then, when should Toronto rely on him, and how much should he be used to stare down LeBron?
What that comes down, ultimately, is a matter of trust. For most teams, and most coaches, putting rookies in the line of fire in a playoff series is a risky move. Riskier still when they have to guard top-line players down the stretch. And absolutely riskiest when the player they’re asked to guard just happens to be the very best individual on the planet. It’s understandable then, that Dwane Casey would beg off the idea of relying on Anunoby any more than he has to. (For what it’s worth, Lowry believes in the rookie, saying today he’s “got a lot of faith in OG.”)
Casey may have something of a point here. It’s worth noting that the Raptors’ defensive rating was actually at its best when Anunoby was not on the floor, settling in at 102.8, which puts him higher than just Norman Powell, Lucas Nogueira, Lorenzo Brown, and (sadly) Jakob Poeltl. But this can be argued a different way: OG was the only Raptor outside of super genius Kyle Lowry (and, sure, Delon Wright and Pascal Siakam to a different extent) who was asked to regularly guard the two best players on the other team — John Wall and Bradley Beal. So all of the defensive data we have for Anunoby in the Wizards series came against the absolute best competition available. Again, one player isn’t going to just stop Wall or Beal, but OG definitely made things difficult for them — and could do the same to LeBron.
Which is a belief that brings us to this final piece of information.
Cavs scoring vs Raps when LeBron is guarded by …— (((Eric Koreen))) (@ekoreen) April 30, 2018
OG: 1.09 points per possession
Anyone else: 1.54
Now, there’s a lot of noise in this sample size. The Raptors and Cavaliers played each other three times this past regular season, with Toronto winning the first of those games and then frittering away the next two.
That lone win also happened to come against the pre-trade deadline Cavaliers, which was functionally and emotionally a very different team. In the second contest, LeBron put up a historically great line (35 points, 17 assists, zero turnovers) to power his team past the Raptors (and their 79-point first half scoring explosion). The third contest is memorable only because of how poorly Lowry played.
Still, that 1.09 number is instructive. LeBron James scored 1.12 points per possession throughout the entirety of the regular season (across a full 82 games). Versus a hounding Pacers team, in a seven games series that saw him play 41.2 minutes per game, that number fell to 1.03. While we don’t necessarily have to take James at his word when he said he was “tired” after the Pacers series, the guy has taken on a massive workload this season — and it’ll will only increase against an even more credible Toronto team.
What does this all mean, through the noise of small sample variation, and underneath the enormous weight of LeBron’s collective body of work?
There’s a game plan to beat LeBron James, and OG Anunoby might just be the key to unlocking its potential success.