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OG Anunoby’s first half vs. Mavericks offers glimpse of Raptors’ best selves

OG Anunoby, Raptor, Mavericks. Knicks

When OG Anunoby is playing to the level he’s capable, the Toronto Raptors ascend to a different stratosphere.

After a magnificent preseason in which he looked primed to sprint into a star-turning year, Anunoby has struggled to find that same consistency in regular-season play. The reasons for why this is the case, of course, have been cited many times over—this is a new role for him which entails a usage rate he’s never touched and a shot diet he’s never put into practice.

But on Saturday, on the second night of a back-to-back, Anunoby finally broke free of his mini-slump against the Dallas Mavericks to the tune of 20 first-half points that came from all over the floor.

Suddenly, it felt like preseason again.

There was OG Anunoby, knocking down a meticulous step-back jumper in the midrange off of a broken play; there he was again, putting Maxi Kleber into the basket on a jam from the dunker spot; and there he was still, taking a handoff at the perimeter, pump-faking once to get the forthcoming defender off his feet and side-stepping into a rainbow triple that splashed home.

And all of this while playing his customary lockdown defense, most notably taking turns with Scottie Barnes to make life difficult for an MVP-calibre player in Luka Doncic.

Unfortunately, the experience was a short-lived one. Anunoby found himself in foul trouble as the first half wound down, forcing head coach Nick Nurse to pull him from the game (along with Barnes, who had also picked up three fouls) and fueling the start of a Mavs comeback. From then on, Anunoby was never able to reestablish a rhythm, as he quickly picked up a fourth and fifth foul in the third quarter, derailing his first-half explosion entirely—in fact, he didn’t score again until late in the fourth quarter once the game was essentially over.

“[The fouls] definitely messed it up,” OG Anunoby told reporters post-game. “Just the knickknack fouls, the refs were, I felt like they weren’t calling it both ways. I won’t say anything else on that.”

Even still, in those ephemeral moments in which everything was finally falling into place, in which the music of his game had ceased lilting and found a mellifluous hum, Anunoby revealed just how potent Toronto can be when it has a reliable half-court creator who can bend defences and fabricate advantages to leverage the secondary playmaking of those around him.

It’s not just Anunoby scoring a midrange step-back that matters, its being prepared to utilize the threat of scoring that step-back to warp the defense into undesired movement and having a plan for when it does, whether that be firing a dime that directly leads to a bucket or simply making a pass that begets rotation.

It’s no secret that the Raptors are a poor offensive team in the half-court. There’s a reason, after all, that Nurse has placed such an emphasis on turnover generation and getting out into the open floor. Per Cleaning The Glass, Toronto ranks dead last in the league in points per 100 plays in the half-court at 68.5 (for context, last season’s Tampa team mustered 95.6 points per 100 plays, which ranked 20th).

But add a player into the mix who can help bump up those numbers, like Anunoby did in those 24 minutes against the Mavericks, and things change. Suddenly, there’s a new layer with the potential to morph the Raptors from just a pesky defensive squad into a middling-to-upper-tier playoff team.

Evidently, Anunoby hasn’t reached the level of consistency necessary to be that guy for Toronto. Not yet, anyway. But the pathway is there, and he’s begun to take his first true steps towards making the most difficult leap in his young career.

“It’s a new season, a lot of new guys,” OG Anunoby said. “We’re still getting used to it. I’m sure as the year goes on, it’ll get better. We’ll all improve.”