OG Returns With Options For Small Ball Raps

Even when you get good news in the NBA, you try to temper your expectations. 

When OG Anunoby got the all-clear from the Raptors’ medical staff on Tuesday night, Nick Nurse tried to keep things in perspective. 

His star forward and his top defender had missed the last 10 games due to a calf strain. There would be a 25-minute limit on Anunoby and even within that allotted time, you have to wonder how much of an impact a player can have in their first game back. 

Any concerns or limitations fell by the wayside as Anunoby played a key part in the Raptors’ impressive 124-113 win in Milwaukee over the Bucks. Back in the starting lineup, he had 13 points and seven rebounds, with his plus-18 the second-best on the team behind Norman Powell’s plus-19. 

“He was good,” Nurse said after the Raptors snapped a two-game slide and handed the Bucks their fourth-straight loss

“His size helps with matchups, helps with some rim protection on a night like tonight. He made a couple of great moves offensively as well and I think he made his first three (on the) first possession of the game. 

“I don't think he was totally and understandably in a super rhythm but I thought for where he was at and how long he's been out, he was excellent.” 

It was far from a perfect night -- Kyle Lowry left the game in the third quarter with a sore ankle -- but Anunoby was in a sense the lynchpin that let the Raptors go the route they did to get their first win against the Bucks this season. With Anunoby available, Nurse went with a small ball lineup, sliding Pascal Siakam over to centre, using Anunoby as the power forward and running with a three-guard rotation of Powell, Lowry and Fred VanVleet. 

“We needed him back,” VanVleet said of Anunoby, after pouring in a team-best 33 points and seven assists. 

“He's been one of our better players this year, probably one of our more consistent players this year.  

“Definitely just having him back out there is a different feel and gives more flexibility. A lot of times this year it feels like we're at the mercy of the other team. Tonight, I thought from the tip we were pretty aggressive and a lot of that has to do with OG’s versatility and how he takes some of the pressure off of Pascal. 

“Baynes went to the bench, but I thought he was great in his minutes, Chris (Boucher) was great. It just kind of put everybody in a better position, having one of our better players back on the floor. It’s not rocket science but it’s definitely good to have OG back.” 

Anunoby’s ability to pick up anyone, anywhere within the spectrum of positionless basketball is what he’s built his reputation on, but his burgeoning offensive game makes you wonder about the extent of his two-way potential. His scoring average is at 14.6 points per game, up a full four points from a year ago. He’s also found his rhythm from three-point land (he’s now at 43.1 per cent) after a shaky start to the season. 

In his first game back from injury on Tuesday, he came up with one of his best offensive highlights of the season. With the Raptors up two with 10:14 left in the game, he took a Baynes screen at the three-point line, attacked the paint and spun around Bobby Portis Jr., catching his arm in the move to draw the foul. As he fell to the court, he managed to flip an acrobatic shot over his shoulder with the perfect english on it bank it home for the three-point play. 

“You read the defence,” Anunoby said of the play. 

“I knew once he turned his hips that I could spin and then once he fouled me I tried to get a shot off. We’re always working on that kind of stuff.” 

“He looked like me out there,” VanVleet joked with Sportsnet’s Danielle Michaud after the game. 

There are no guarantees that the small ball starting lineup will be a permanent thing, but a healthy Anunoby (along with a healthy Lowry, who will be evaluated on Wednesday in Milwaukee) is the one that makes it possible. 

“I think he’s definitely a big piece and having him out there also on defence there’s a lot more switching that we can do, knowing that he can hold up some of the bigs and guard the guards on the perimeter,” said Siakam, who played decisively and aggressively with 23 points, 13 boards and six assists in the win. 

“There's just a lot that we can do as a team or at least his versatility as a defender will definitely help us and I think the more guys like that we have, the better our small lineup can work because we can do a lot of different things.” 

Given the challenge of running a smaller lineup against a big Bucks team and overcoming the loss of Lowry for the bulk of the second half, Tuesday’s win was one of the biggest that the Raptors have had this year. A rematch against the Bucks on Thursday is followed by a game in Minnesota on Friday, with a series back in Tampa against the Sixers waiting for the Raptors after that. This will be a difficult run for the Raptors as they work their way to the midpoint of the schedule. 

Having their best defensive player back in the mix makes their chances of stacking up some wins a lot better.