There was a party in the Raptors’ locker room following the first victory of the Darko Rajakovic Era. Water was the liquid of choice being thrown everywhere — but mostly on top of the rookie head coach — and the ringleader of the dousing, O.G. Anunoby had every reason to celebrate as much as anyone.
After all, the veteran Raptors forward had just finished a sparkling season debut where he arguably was the best player on the floor. In a game that featured some of the best scorers in the entire NBA — Anthony Edwards, Pascal Siakam and Karl-Anthony Towns, plus dynamic new Raptor Dennis Schroder and returning young star Scottie Barnes, Anunoby held his own on the scoresheet, scoring 20 points, more than anyone but Edwards or Schroder, while also providing the type of stifling defence that only a handful of elite players can deliver.
Like a key steal with 24.6 seconds left and Toronto clinging to a four-point lead or a big block on Edwards a few plays earlier.
“It was pretty cool just to seal the win,” the understated Anunoby said afterwards. “It was a hard-fought game.”
And few were fighting harder than Anunoby, who held Edwards, Minnesota’s ascending top player, to just 1-10 shooting from the field when he was the primary defender, and keyed a team-wide lockdown offence on Edwards and the Wolves. Towns shot a dismal 8-25 and the team connected on only 34% of its attempts overall.
Anunoby should be celebrating not only a tone-setting win, but also that he showcased everything he brings to the table to start a year he hopes will lead to a massive payday in unrestricted free agency. Anunoby will get a big deal, Toronto can offer more than anyone else and will push hard to keep him when the time comes, but if he keeps playing like this, his demands will grow and he’ll have a case.
Anunoby was rewarded with his first All-Defence selection last season, an honour that was long overdue, and he had three blocks and two steals on Wednesday and was pretty much everywhere the Wolves didn’t want him to be.
“It does a lot,” big man Jakob Poeltl told Postmedia postgame of what having Anunoby on the team allows the Raptors to do defensively.
“I mean, guys like him like just take our defence to the next level,” Poeltl said.
“I think we have very talented defensive squad anyway. We work really well together. Everybody has a good feel for it, everybody’s bought into it. So that’s a good start already,” Poeltl told Postmedia. “But then guys like (Anunoby) who can just guard so well individually and can kind of take us to that next level on defence,” he said.
Anunoby wasn’t his normal effective self defensively in the first quarter, Edwards rang off 10 straight points for the Wolves, but he knew how to adjust.
“I was a little too loose with him. He’s a great player and I was giving him too much space,” Anunoby said. “He was pretty comfortable. That’s what great players do when they’re comfortable, they make shots. So just try to make it difficult for him (from there). Just be physical with him and force him to take tough shots.”
Anunoby has built his reputation at the other end as a marksman from the corners, he’s a knockdown corner three-point shooter, but the Raptors want more out of him this season and he does too. Anunoby actually launched nine three-pointers in the game, something he did only six times all last season, but it was interesting where he shot them from. Six were not from the corner and he nailed half of those above-the-break attempts. One was a step-back three, one a pull-up.
“Yes, that’s definitely something I’ve been working on to get more threes, not just catch-and-shoot ones. Just try to get some off-the-dribble, off screens,” Anunoby said. “They’re (defenders) going under, shoot those ones. Just definitely trying to get more than just catch-and-shoot threes.”
Anunoby may not be the biggest name, but he’s a vital part of these Raptors. He spearheaded the Rajakovic celebration in the locker room and also had his hands all over the team’s first victory.