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Swingin’ Wings: The Raptors’ defense slipped, but don’t blame OG Anunoby

It was a down week for the Raptors. How much of that falls at the feet of their wing players?

Swingin’ Wings Toronto Raptors wing rotation: OG Anunoby shines on D Photo by Jeff Haynes/NBAE via Getty Images

The 2019-20 Toronto Raptors are not only defending their championship, they’re also replacing two starters at key positions on the wing. Each week on Swingin’ Wings, we’ll be tracking the progress of those possible replacements.

December 4-10

Not much went right for the Raptors on the court since our last column. They went 1-2, with the lone win coming in the final seconds against a not-good Bulls team. The three-point shooting dried up completely, the defense was sub-par for long stretches, and the early play-hard-for-one-another chemistry that defined the team has been lacking.

This might be the time when you think the team misses steady veterans and two-way threats like Danny Green and Kawhi Leonard. The Raptors’ identity last season, where they never got too high after wins or too low after losses, really came from those two guys. It’s possible this year that the Raptors got a little full of themselves in their hot start, and are now feeling the pressure as the losses start to come.

Who will step up in the absence of those Leonard and Green?

Who Did What?

Fred VanVleet started at shooting guard against Houston, notched a 20-6-5 in a losing effort, and then played only 12 minutes against Philadelphia and sat out in Chicago due to a knee contusion. Doesn’t sound serious, thankfully, and he could probably use the rest!

Norman Powell started in place of VanVleet against the Bulls; he averaged 13 points in 25 minutes a night last week, and often provided a spark when the offense bogged down.

OG Anunoby started all three games at the three, and was excellent on both ends. He did what he could against James Harden, spent time on both Tobias Harris and Ben Simmons, and was disrupting plays all over the court against Chicago. He averaged 12.7 points on 47% shooting over the three games.

Rondae Hollis-Jefferson only played 11 minutes against Houston, a bit surprising, since you’d think his defensive chops wouldn’ve been useful in Toronto’s schemes to stop James Harden. Maybe Nick Nurse doesn’t fully trust him yet? Hollis-Jefferson was fine the rest of the week, scoring 12 and 6, respectively, in 16.5 minutes per night against the 76ers and Bulls.

Speaking of trust, as you might expect against tough competition, rookie Terence Davis’ opportunities dried up a bit. He still averaged four shots in 14 minutes a night, but that’s a ways off the eight shots in 21 minutes a night he was averaging before Kyle Lowry came back.

Stanley Johnson, Matt Thomas and Patrick McCaw remain sidelined; Malcolm Miller played six first-half minutes against Chicago and did not score.

Wing Stat of the Week: 5.7; 0

Two stats this week! The first is how many points Norman Powell averaged in the fourth quarter last week, tied for the team lead with Pascal Siakam. Powell was 5-of-10 from the field across the three games, and 6-for-8 from the line. (And that doesn’t even include last week’s game against Miami, when Norm scored 13 points on seven shots!)

The second stat? That’s how many assists Norman Powell registered in the fourth quarter last week. A big ol’ goose egg! I’m not sure if this says more about playmaking being a weakness for Norm, or more about how desperately the Raptors needed someone to score down the stretch of these games.

Wing Highlight of the Week:

We had two stats, why not two highlights? They’re pretty much the same, too: OG Anunoby jumping into passing lanes!

This can sometimes be a contentious kind of play; you don’t want players gambling too much for steals in that situation, since if they miss the other team essentially has a power play. But in both these cases, those were lazy passes that OG easily picked off, and in neither case did it look like OG’s momentum would have carried him completely out of the play — he was contesting, but not selling out.

What are the Wings Saying?

Fred VanVleet, on re-integrating injured players back into the offense:

We got to get our rhythm and our flow back, certain rotation and play calls and decision-making that we were so tied in with the guys that were playing because everybody was hurt, you knew exactly what it was, we played as many guys as we could so that was that; now it’s a little different, trying to manage everything, kinda be similar to the start of the season for us, but it’s marathon, it’s a long season.

Also Fred, on Toronto’s game plan to defend James Harden:

I don’t think you make that gamble expecting them to shoot 40%, make 22 [threes], so give those guys credit, they knocked down shots. That’s what we came up with before the game, and you just try to go out there and execute the game plan to the best of your ability; I thought we could have flew around a bit more, chased down some rebounds, to be perfect in it, but for the most part we did a pretty good job.

Norman Powell, on consistency:

I just think consistency comes with being able to be out there, and being able to get a feel, get a flow, get a touch for the game. These past couple weeks, with the increased minutes and the increased time on the floor and the consistency that I’ve been in, and just being able to read and see the flow of the game and make plays after that. When you get that the consistency starts to creep in more and more, the more shots you get, you start to get a better feel for it, rather than coming in, not knowing when you’re gonna shoot, when you’re gonna get the ball, things like that.

(Classic chicken and egg stuff from Norm there: He needs more minutes to develop consistency, but he’s not going to get more minutes unless he produces consistently! Dr. Manhattan would be proud.)

What’s Coach Saying?

Nick Nurse on the open-mindedness of his team when trying new things (like doubling and trapping James Harden):

We’re extremely happy. I think that you got a group of guys here that are willing to take the coaching, and not without their questioning of why are we doing it, and I think that’s totally fair, I want them to understand why we’re doing it. And if they don’t know, then they need to ask, and they do. And then there’s time that they’ll say, no not that rotation, let’s do this one, and I say sure, as long as you two guys are gonna communicate it out, I don’t really care, it doesn’t really matter... I give ‘em credit for their open-mindedness, I give ‘em credit for letting that build up, and coming along with us on this riverboat, that we’re on.

Nurse on the team’s rhythm:

It feels like it’s more at the offensive end, where it’s more, just too many possessions where there’s not very good execution, just on getting to a trigger or a play call or whatever. And then within the play call, the screening needs to improve, and just the basics need to improve as well.

Finally, this was after the Heat game, but also after I wrote last week’s column; here’s Nurse on OG Anunoby’s defense against Jimmy Butler:

He was OK, right... he was OK, it’s really tough to be a primary guy on those guys. My points are that you accept the challenge, you work at it, you know you’re gonna get scored on, and you pull your socks up and go get down in a stance and you go again the next possession. He’s developing, you know, I think his role on this team starts there for us, being a lock down defender, so we’re trying to develop that as we go here... there’s guys every night [in the NBA], you gotta go to work, and it’s just like offense, you’re not gonna always have great nights.

What Are the Rest of us Saying?

I wasn’t the only one who noticed Norman Powell’s late-game contributions this week:

Wing of the Week: OG Anunoby

It was another tough decision this week! Norman Powell didn’t really do anything to lose the Wing of the Week title since last week, but, I was just really impressed by OG Anunoby’s play at both ends — especially after a quiet couple of weeks from him. Along with the 12.7 points, OG averaged 6.3 rebounds 2.7 assists and 2.3 steals across the three games, defending, as noted, some powerful offensive players in James Harden, Tobias Harris, Ben Simmons and Zach LaVine.

It wasn’t perfect — like the rest of the team, Anunoby struggled from three-point range last week. But when many of his teammates were oddly passive (hi Pascal!) OG, like Norm, was continually aggressive, trying to get to the rim and make things happen around the basket.