TORONTO, ON - DECEMBER 18: OG Anunoby #3 of the Toronto Raptors goes up for a dunk during the second half of their NBA game against the Golden State Warriors at Scotiabank Arena on December 18, 2021 in Toronto, Canada. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Cole Burston/Getty Images)

Ironing Out or Ironing In

His hair was longer, his strides were certainly shorter. The NBA is hardly forgiving when it comes to reminding what game shape and game speed at the highest level means, but the sight of No. 3 for the Raptors moving as best he could from one end of the Scotiabank Arena court to the other for 28 minutes was a sight for sore eyes.

In the middle of the second quarter against Golden State Saturday night, Anunoby received the ball on the left elbow with the Warriors playing a zone defence. He had a mismatch against the smaller Chris Chiozza and swiftly proceeded to back him down into the middle of the paint before spinning away from the basket for a turnaround fadeaway. It was his first made basket in four attempts.

On the very next offensive possession, Anunoby received the ball matched up against Damion Lee above the break. He attacked with a strong right dribble, leaned into Lee as he came back left and knocked him into the camera crew. Anunoby finished with the left but it mattered little as he was called for the offensive foul.

This was much the pattern for Anunoby in his first game back for the Raptors in over a month: some ups, some downs, but the significance of the ebbs and flows was miniscule relative to the headline: time back on an NBA court. This was the perfect night for him, too, where he could work away at the wrinkles with little worry of the consequences. The Warriors have held the best record in the league for the majority of the season but they were far from that version with Steph Curry, Draymond Green, Andrew Wiggins and Jordan Poole all absent.

“It gets boring sitting around, but I knew I had to be patient,” Anunoby said of his time off. “Our staff told me I had to be patient so I just listened.”

Anunoby suffered the injury on Nov. 17 during practice when he bumped into Precious Achiuwa, who also returned to the lineup with 17 points and five rebounds after coping with shoulder tendinitis and self-isolation due to health and safety protocols. Hip pointers can be frustrating since the only option is to give it the necessary time to heal, there’s no accelerating the process. Anunoby didn’t just feel pain in his hip, but around his abs and back as well. Recovery times can vary and although he had been trying to do his best to practice, there was no figuring out a shortcut around the natural course of time it would need.

Patience, or some ironing in and ironing out as head coach Nick Nurse has called it, has been a necessary theme for the Raptors this season whether it be with younger players having to learn the ropes, veteran players having to manage expectations, or injuries as well as covid related absences forcing the team to reset and relearn several times through this young season. There was the 1-3 start followed by five straight wins, then the 3-10 stretch followed by what is now five wins in seven games. During that time the defence has fluctuated from one of the best in the league to dead-last and now fourth-best thus far for the month of December.

With a flurry of crucial Eastern conference standings battles to wrap up 2021 against Chicago, Cleveland, and Philadelphia, the acclimatization period can’t take as long as it did the first couple times. What does that mean for accommodating the returns of Anunoby, Achiuwa, possibly Khem Birch as soon as Monday against the Orlando Magic and Pascal Siakam as well as Dalano Banton when they are allowed to return from health and safety protocols?

“There’s still an easing-in process,” Nurse explained. “Guys aren’t going to be able to handle long stretches, there’s conditioning, there’s rhythm, there’s lots of things that affect that and then it’s handling the guys who were getting the big rotations, that gets shortened. Can they still produce? Can they still hang in there, things were going (up) for them and now minutes-wise they are going the other way. There’s so much going on with that stuff, but hopefully.

“We’ll address it, we’ll hit [on] it, throw it out there on the table before [the game] and just cross our fingers and hope it turns out [well]. We’ll address it, talk about it, and try to get everybody to play their role the best they can and play really hard. That usually takes care of a lot of things.”

Anunoby’s role will be among the most interesting to monitor. He was adorned with the title of No. 1 scoring option when Siakam was absent to start the season and, after a slow start, flourished and became the team’s leading scorer. Fred VanVleet is the top scorer now and so with him flourishing, Scottie Barnes hitting his stride and Siakam appearing on the cusp of it before going into covid protocols, the question of how all of them — and let’s not forget Gary Trent Jr. — share the wealth will be one of those good problems Nurse and his coaching staff face.

Among the bad offensive problems the Raptors currently face is offensive efficiency when it matters most. In the final three minutes of games within five points or fewer, Toronto has shot 15-of-53 (28.3%) as a team and been outscored by 13 points over a 26-minute sample. Within that shot chart, the team has shot an abysmal 4-for-25 (16%) inside the 3-point line. If it weren’t for the 17 offensive rebounds that lead the league by a significant margin in those scenarios, things would look even worse.

VanVleet and Trent Jr. have provided a microcosm of the Raptors’ problems with a combined 9-of-17 shooting from 3-point range in those clutch scenarios but 1-of-10 inside the arc. Siakam has only taken three shots, having participated in 16 of the 26 minutes thus far. Does Anunoby offer hope? It remains to be seen. Before he succumbed to the hip pointer, Anunoby was 1-for-11 from the field in these scenarios but eight of those shots came within the first two weeks of the season when the team was still finding itself, and he, himself.

In that turnaround mid-range fadeaway and dribble move to the rim that Anunoby looked to work on against the Warriors, there was the glimmer of options that have been lacking for the Raptors not just in crunch time, but in the halfcourt offence as a whole.

Ironing out or ironing in could well be the theme of the season with player availability being an increasingly fluid situation and creative solutions needed for the problems that present themselves. Of what there is no doubt, is that Anunoby presents a vital option in how the Raptors look to problem-solve going forward.