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It was an not possible ask. Previously two postseasons, the Toronto Raptors had cycled by means of position gamers, specialists, and all the things in between for the job. For a decade and a half, the complete NBA had filtered by means of potential answer after potential answer; within the final seven postseasons, the Jap Convention has had no reply, and the occasional Western Convention answer — a zone protection earlier than he may actually shoot, ultra-defender Kawhi Leonard, NBA Finals MVP Andre Iguodala — was fleeting or required severe reinforcement to be repeatable. It’s the league’s most unreasonable request of even essentially the most polished, gritty, or skilled.

But right here the Raptors have been, on their third consecutive try and topple the Cleveland Cavaliers, turning essentially the most troublesome defensive task in basketball over to a 20-year-old rookie chosen exterior of the lottery. OG Anunoby can be the first defender on LeBron James, and no one was batting a watch.

“I’ve acquired a whole lot of religion in OG,” Raptors level guard Kyle Lowry mentioned earlier than the sequence. “I place confidence in him to go on the market and do what he’s completed all yr: play properly. The way in which OG is, his mannerisms, the way in which he carries himself, he’s a quiet assured child. I do know he’s trying ahead to the chance.”

He was trying ahead to it, even when he was not significantly prepared to speak about it in a pre-series scrum setting. He conceded he was “fairly assured,” mentioned that James is “fairly robust however I really feel like I’m robust, too,” and downplayed the concept of the matchup being something that might get in his head and alter his strategy. (In chatting with Dime, Anunoby bristled at having been requested positively framed questions on James [like where he ranked on his list of favorite players], saying “I’m not gonna love on him whereas we play him.”)

He was prepared to confess to being excited in regards to the problem in his trademark indifferent supply, although.

“I’m, as a result of we need to beat them. That’s our subsequent opponent,” Anunoby deadpanned. “Me personally, I need to play him. He’s probably the greatest gamers to play … I’ve no purpose to be nervous.”

His Raptors teammates have come to adore that stoic a part of Anunoby’s persona, and it’s a supply of their confidence in him. His quietness off the court docket is considerably overstated, they are saying, and it constantly comes up simply how distinctive Anunoby’s antics are away from the cameras. However there’s no duck analogy right here; Anunoby will not be calm on the floor and hyperactive beneath it. His even keel is a central a part of his on-court recreation, too, and never even the specter of James was price disrupting it. The Raptors have been going to depart properly sufficient alone and let Anunoby deal with the task as enterprise as standard.

“You don’t rock the boat for no purpose,” C.J. Miles mentioned. “You simply acquired to proceed to play exhausting, and proceed to do what he’s doing. You discuss tendencies, coverages, locations you need to ship him, and making him work, however OG is aware of. He’s acquired a TV.”

And so the Raptors got down to lastly beat James and the Cavaliers with a rookie ahead getting the final word trial-by-fire.

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As everyone knows, the Cavaliers swept the Raptors. Once more. It was unkind and painful and led to Dwane Casey’s dismissal because the group’s head coach. James was super, and it appeared at occasions as if his objective was as a lot to interrupt the Raptors because it was to win the sequence. It was a sweep that left little or no room to be constructive about Toronto.

There was, nevertheless, an exception. Squint past the stat line and Anunoby did an admirable job with the weighty process laid at his ft. He was bodily, he fought James for his spots on the court docket, and for lots of the sequence, James was at the least giving the Raptors the poison that they had chosen within the Morton’s Fork that James represents. The outcomes weren’t fairly there, however the effort and course of have been sufficient to earn excessive reward from James himself.

“I believe he has a vibrant future and his future is now, truly,” James mentioned after finishing the sweep. “You take a look at the rookie class from this yr, it’s most likely one of the best since 2003.”

To be clear, Anunoby didn’t precisely play the position of LeBron Stopper, which isn’t actually a factor on this plain of existence. James averaged 34 factors, eight.Three rebounds, and 11.Three assists, shot 55.Three p.c from the sector, and was a +55 whereas on the ground. Evaluating how somebody guards James requires extra nuance than his closing stat line, and there’s solely a lot anybody defender can do, particularly in a scheme that was primarily calling for straight one-on-one protection when Anunoby was on the ground. On the lengthy listing of Raptors’ issues within the sequence, Aunoby’s particular person efficiency was towards the underside.

“I believed Anunoby had a superb sequence,” Casey mentioned. “I do know he didn’t really feel prefer it however to go towards James in powerful conditions and battle him, I assure you he discovered so much and can develop so much from the expertise.”

Issues began off pretty properly. James shot 12-for-30 within the sequence opener, and whereas he tallied a triple-double in an time beyond regulation victory, James known as it “most likely one in every of my worst video games of the yr.” Anunoby wasn’t prepared to relaxation on that, pointing errors he made on a post-entry cross that allowed James a path to the rim for a dunk and an occasion the place James acquired him to chunk with a rip-through for a comfortable taking pictures foul. He thought he may do a greater job of creating it powerful for James to get to his spots and that the group made too many easy errors typically, a typical chorus after the powerful loss. James considering he had a foul recreation and Anunoby seeing ample room for enchancment aren’t mutually unique.

“I imply, perhaps he’s simply saying stuff, you realize he says stuff,” Anunoby advised Dime. “I take pleasure in it, however I believed I may have completed higher. I did fairly properly. I contested a whole lot of his pictures, didn’t give him something simple. He made some powerful pictures. Made some errors however subsequent recreation I can be taught from it.”

Standing out was a near-impossible shot from James late within the fourth to drive time beyond regulation. Anunoby conceded some ground place as James backed him down, just for James to drill a troublesome fadeaway.

“That was a loopy shot,” Anunoby mentioned, shaking his head. “Good protection however higher offense. He made it. Robust shot. However we need to make them take pictures like that. Nothing simple.”

That may not be the final time Anunoby needed to tip his hat to good shot-making, and that 11-footer was, looking back, a harbinger. Recreation 2 of the sequence noticed James embark on a mission to make the Raptors remorse permitting the troublesome mid-range pictures they wished him to take. He’d end with 43 factors on 19-for-28 taking pictures, together with an unfathomable 17-for-26 on contested pictures (essentially the most contested makes ever in a playoff recreation, per ESPN Stats & Information). James drilled seven fadeaways within the second half alone, hitting extra non-paint twos than the now-mid-range avoidant Raptors even tried.

“Nicely, I just about know the scouting report on me goes to be to dare me to shoot leap pictures and preserve me out of the paint,” James mentioned, later including a layer of psychological warfare with the declare that “two factors ain’t two factors, that’s a lie.”

For Toronto’s protection, it was the final word check of course of towards outcomes. There was a lot to wash up towards non-James Cavaliers, and James was taking — and making — the popular pictures on the spectrum, if he’s going to take any in any respect (and once more, the Raptors have been making an attempt to keep away from overloading on him, so the amount was one thing they have been overtly accepting). An offense punishing stable protection will be exhausting, and by the top of Recreation 2, the Raptors appeared to be on the ropes, having squandered each residence video games.

“That drains you mentally and bodily,” Casey mentioned. “I actually thought OG was enjoying him as powerful as you presumably may.”

In the event that they weren’t on empty but, James’ heroics in Recreation Three completed them off. To cap a 38-point outing, James ran the size of the court docket and hit an not possible buzzer-beating recreation winner. The Raptors had meant to lure however weren’t ready for the Cavaliers to inbound below their very own basket, James was capable of preserve the ball in consequence, and Anunoby may solely run the ground with him and get a late contest as James’ physique contorted in a number of instructions, the shot launched at a ridiculous peak and angle. In response to his teammates, James known as the financial institution.

“How do you determine you need to shoot that shot?” Kyle Korver mentioned. “How do you determine with the sport on the road, drive left, go off one foot, palm the ball, shoot it off the glass? Unbelievable shot.”

Including an extra layer to the game-winner: It got here proper after Anunoby had tied the sport with a clutch three-pointer of his personal. As a substitute of getting his first spotlight on a serious NBA stage, Anunoby was on the fallacious finish of the elusive non-dunk poster.

“I noticed the photographs. I noticed it on Instagram, everybody’s tagging me in it. That’s what occurs,” Anunoby mentioned. “I didn’t even know when to contest it, as a result of he was dribbling and often he stops to take his leap shot, and I can contest. However he simply ran and simply jumped. And my contest was, like, I didn’t know tips on how to contest. I used to be working with him and he simply jumps out of bounds, so I simply did this (stretches out arm). I don’t know, I assume he had in his thoughts he was gonna try this.”

At that time, Recreation four was a formality, although James would after all flirt with a 30-point triple-double once more. Typically, the most important lesson is the restrictions of your individual endeavor.

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Anunoby completed the sequence averaging eight factors an evening with robust taking pictures numbers. His efforts have been rewarded with a plus/minus of -29. He was the first defender on James for 170 possession within the sequence, per NBA.com’s considerably noisy matchup information, greater than twice the quantity another Raptor spent on him and greater than half of James’ whole possessions within the sequence.

As you may anticipate with the sequence James had, the outcomes have been a combined bag. James scored barely much less continuously per-possession when Anunoby was his major test and shot a decrease field-goal share. Extra typically, James scored much less effectively within the 107 minutes the place Anunoby was on the ground (virtually at all times as his major defender).

The bar, after all, is extraordinarily low there — James posted a 59.Three true-shooting share on 37.6-percent utilization when Anunoby was off the ground to “simply” 57 p.c on 35.7-percent utilization when Anunoby performed. As a substitute, the Cavs’ help fee spiked from 48.Three p.c to 57.Three p.c. Regardless of the Raptors making an attempt their finest to remain at residence on James’ help and never ship assist to Anunoby, the rookie’s presence shifted extra play-making and possessions to James’ teammates (James’ particular person help fee barely moved).

James additionally opted to be extra of a leap shooter than attacker in these minutes, saving most of his forays to the rim for when he may goad switches towards the Raptors’ opposite intention.

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“Solely factor you are able to do is simply stay with the outcomes,” mentioned Jeff Inexperienced, a former postseason James defender-turned-teammate. “You go on the market and play your hardest, however you gotta understand it’s not simply a person factor, it’s at all times a group effort. You already know, you reside with the outcomes. He’s one of the best participant on this recreation for a purpose, so that you simply should go on the market and simply play exhausting. You at all times be taught. You be taught from all the things. From guarding anyone, you at all times be taught, not simply LeBron. You already know, you be taught from each expertise.”

All advised, Anunoby’s impression factors considerably nebulously in a constructive course. The Cavaliers scored 121.5 factors per-100 possessions when Anunoby was on the ground to 140.9 when he was off, and James’ internet ranking dropped from plus-31.1 to plus-7.four. There’s extra noise right here nonetheless, and Anunoby was roasted to the tune of 1.39 factors per-possession on isolations for the playoffs as an entire. (Opposite to his fame, Anunoby’s major playoff impression got here largely on the offensive finish.)

On the floor, it was nothing spectacular. The James’ nod of respect resonates, although, and Anunoby’s refusal to flinch on the very least factors to the kind of toughness the Raptors have been discovered missing in for essentially the most half.

“I want I’d have completed higher,” Anunoby advised Dime after the season ended, noting particularly that he’d have been extra aggressive trying to find steals if he had his druthers. “I don’t know. I used to be making an attempt, I used to be defending him, and he acquired to his spots fairly properly. He was making good passes, his drives, he nonetheless acquired me a couple of occasions, however he stopped posting up. He’s a great participant, a very good participant. He hit some loopy pictures.”

Anecdotally, he continued to construct on a robust rookie season that noticed the Raptors submit a 102.2 defensive ranking and 10.2 internet ranking with him on the ground. Anunoby graded out as a +zero.53 in Defensive Participant Affect Plus-Minus (per Jacob Goldstein), a robust mark for a rookie with such constantly troublesome assignments. Offensively, he erased considerations about his taking pictures (37.1 p.c on almost three makes an attempt from behind the arc per recreation) and redefined his ceiling with nascent playmaking and flashes of a capability to create his personal shot. The Raptors’ 4 different starters all had a noticeably higher internet ranking with Anunoby than with out, and Anunoby was a top-10 rookie by most superior metrics.

“I believe he’s very assured in who he’s and what he’s and his position. He understands his position and who he’s and what he can do,” Casey mentioned. “I believe that’s a whole lot of the maturity issue that you simply see is the arrogance he has in himself, which is an effective factor. I haven’t seen it shaken but, so hopefully it continues and continues to develop. I believe this yr has been nice for the younger man. He’s completed all the things we’ve requested him to, he’s grown in so many areas. That is solely the start for him.”

It really is only the start. Not solely is Anunoby nonetheless simply 20, he’s a younger 20 in expertise phrases, having misplaced the second half of his sophomore faculty season due a torn ACL that additionally restricted this previous offseason to largely set-shooting. That grew rote and annoying at occasions, even when it result in outcomes, and Anunoby is raring to have the ability to take a multi-faceted strategy into his first unhindered summer season of improvement. A day after elimination, the main target had already turned ahead.

“I assume I’m in shock the season’s over,” Anunoby mentioned. “I’m upset, however I’m actually optimistic for subsequent yr.”

A lot of the keys to elevating his ceiling will fall on the offensive finish, the place Anunoby can change his projection from elite Three-and-D prospect to one thing extra dynamic with improved ball-handling and playmaking. Defensive enchancment is harder to prescribe a plan for — pace and burst drills, lateral quickness work, timing workout routines, and so forth, can all assist — and if he’s to take one other step on that finish, a sequence making an attempt to test one of the best participant on this planet can solely be instructive.

Introduced with James’ reward of his future – Anunoby’s first time listening to the feedback – he was lastly prepared to take James’ phrases at their face. Hardly a trigger for self-satisfaction, Anunoby as a substitute desires to show James appropriate in regards to the wattage and immediacy of his future.

“That’s actually cool coming from a man like him,” Anunoby says. “It simply makes me need to work tougher. Simply seeing how good he’s, it makes me wanna be higher, you realize what I imply? I don’t assume I must be glad with being a rookie and he nonetheless had 30 factors, he was nonetheless scoring effectively. I can’t be glad with that. I’ve gotta cease him. That’s the purpose.”

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