Raptors banking on an OG Anunoby bounce-back

OG Anunoby of the Raptors attempts to prevent Clint Capela of the Houston Rockets from scoring yesterday during a preseason game in Japan on Oct. 10, 2019. (TAKASHI AOYAMA/Getty Images)

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TOKYO — Pascal Siakam might get the headlines for very valid reasons, but OG Anunoby projects to be a crucial Raptor this season as well.

Anunoby appeared to solve a decade-long black hole at small forward for Toronto as a rookie before suffering through an injury and off-court tragedy-marred second campaign that included Anunoby missing the entire playoff run.

But now he’s back and looking as good as ever defensively and more confident in what he can do on offence. That’s exciting head coach Nick Nurse, who has always been a big believer in Anunoby. In the two games here in Japan against Houston, Anunoby probably gave superstar James Harden the most trouble (Harden basically toyed with the other Raptors), something he memorably did as a rookie as well, and Anunoby also showed his passing instincts and a bit more flair on offence.

“He’s not only healthy, but he’s probably in the best condition he’s been in. He’s slimmer,” Nurse said after the second game.

“There’s no health problems. He had just a bunch of all kinds of things just an unfortunate season last year (but) first and foremost he’s got a real knack and a talent on defence,” Nurse said. “He’s big, 6-8, can move with speed, steal the ball. He stepped into a charge tonight. He had two or three deflections and things he knocked away. That’s one way he can help our team is becoming one of our primary defensive stoppers. And then I hope he gets back to shooting the ball like his rookie season,” Nurse said.

“He shot that season at 37%. That’s pretty good.”

Nurse added that while the team is always thinking about the present, there also will be steps taken to make things better in the future. To that end, they will try some things to get Anunoby to continue to expand his game. Nurse said that means giving him the ball more in the open floor, letting him post up a bit, and also face up against opponents.

LOWRY CLOSE TO PLAYING

As expected, Kyle Lowry wasn’t in the Toronto lineup for Game 2, but he was in uniform and did his full pre-game workout, looking no worse for wear following thumb surgery.

The expectation is still that Lowry will play against Chicago at home on Sunday, providing he has been cleared by his doctor after visiting him in New York.

Timing could be an issue there, given the short turnaround between the trip home and the Raptors’ next game on Sunday, but Lowry looks physically like he’s ready to go and he told us he is itching to play.

THE OLD BALL GAME

Nurse loved the crowds and atmosphere at Saitama Super Arena. “I enjoyed kind of the reactions to the play and then the respect for watching it go until something (else) happened,” Nurse said of the tendency of the Japanese fans to patiently wait for action instead of the constant buzz of anticipation you’ll find during North American games.

Nurse went to a Japanese playoff baseball game the night before Game 2 and was eager to pick up “a hat, a t-shirt and who knows what else,” said the huge baseball and Chicago Cubs fan.

Speaking of merchandise, the NBA sold all of its Japan Games gear during the first game. There was nothing left for the capper.

WORTH THE PRICE OF ADMISSION

Harden is one of the NBA’s great entertainers. He’s the whole package on offence, capable of dazzling like Magic Johnson or Steve Nash, but with the ability to average nearly 40 points a night if he felt like it. In the two games here, Harden had the crowd buzzing as much as everyone else combined with his fakes and feints, forays to the bucket and lobs to Clint Capela.

Where does imagination come from?

“Just being a creator, always wanting to get better. This is the highest level of basketball so you always have to find ways to be better,” Harden said.

“If you don’t you’ll be somewhere you don’t want to be.”

IN CASE YOU MISSED IT

You might not have noticed because super rookie Zion Williamson looked stunningly good in his first two pre-season games for New Orleans, but his teammate Nickeil Alexander-Walker also was strong. The Canadian had 13 points and seven assists and was a game-best +22. New Orleans is extremely deep, especially at guard, but Alexander-Walker looks like he’ll make a push for playing time coming off of a near MVP performance at Las Vegas Summer League.

Alexander-Walker’s cousin, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, seems primed for a huge year with rebuilding Oklahoma City. The centrepiece of the Paul George deal had 24 points against Dallas. You might also have missed Kristaps Porzingis finally returning to the court and looking like his old self for the Mavericks, his new team.

@WolstatSun

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