The Raptors are hoping the third time’s the charm against LeBron James. LeBron knocked them out of the playoffs the past two seasons, and they’ve spent the past year reinventing themselves for this moment. Toronto is younger, deeper, and more versatile than ever before, and now its youth movement will face the ultimate test. They are counting on a rookie (OG Anunoby) and a second-year player (Pascal Siakam) to guard the best player in the world. LeBron just beat the Pacers almost single-handedly. If Anunoby and Siakam can slow him down at all, the Raptors will advance. Toronto’s window to win the Eastern Conference won’t be open forever. They need those two to grow up fast.
Anunoby, the no. 23 pick in this year’s draft, was supposed to be a project. He slipped in the draft because he was coming off a torn ACL, but not only was he ready for opening night, he quickly earned a place in Toronto’s starting lineup. At 6-foot-8 and 235 pounds with a 7-foot-2.5 wingspan, the 20-year-old has a freakish combination of size and athleticism that allows him to match up with almost any player in the league. He has been a prototype 3-and-D player as a rookie, shooting 37.1 percent from 3 on 2.7 attempts a game and defending the primary perimeter scorer on the opposing team.
Siakam, the no. 27 pick in the 2016 draft, started 38 games as a rookie, but he fell out of the rotation in the playoffs, playing only 10 minutes against the Cavs. At 6-foot-9 and 230 pounds with a 7-foot-3 wingspan, he’s bigger than Anunoby and just as athletic. He’s not a 3-point shooter, but he’s a smart and instinctive player who’s figured out ways to be productive on offense. Siakam averaged 2.0 assists on 0.8 turnovers a game this season, an impressive ratio for a defensive-minded big man. He’s the best passer in Toronto’s frontcourt, and his ability to read the floor and make plays on the move has been a key factor in the team’s transformation to a less isolation-heavy style of offense.
The Raptors couldn’t contain LeBron in the regular season. He averaged 29.3 points, 6.7 rebounds, and eight assists a game on 57.1 percent shooting in three meetings between the teams. Anunoby and Siakam were the two primary defenders on LeBron, guarding him on 163 of his 215 possessions (75.8 percent) against Toronto. LeBron shot only 4-of-16 from the field with Siakam on him, compared with 13-of-21 against Anunoby, but both youngsters struggled to guard him without fouling. He averaged 11.7 free throw attempts per game against the Raptors, almost twice as much as his regular-season average of 6.5.
Anunoby and Siakam won’t have nearly as much help against LeBron as they did against John Wall in their first-round win over Washington. One of the two was the primary defender on only 157 of Wall’s 465 (33.8 percent) possessions in that series. LeBron’s sheer size means there are far fewer players who can match up with him. Even though the King is 33, perimeter players without elite size and athleticism bounce off of him like they aren’t even there. Double-teams don’t work either, because the Cavs play so many 3-point shooters around LeBron that something is always open when the defense collapses.
The Pacers found that out the hard way. They went with a three-headed monster of Bojan Bogdanovic, Thaddeus Young, and Lance Stephenson on LeBron in the last round. Bogdanovic and Young are average NBA athletes, while Lance is too short to prevent LeBron from scoring over the top of him. The only real success Indiana had against LeBron came when Lance got under his skin by talking trash and taking cheap shots on him. And even then, LeBron finished with one of the most dominant offensive performances in his playoff career, averaging 34.4 points, 10.1 rebounds, and 7.7 assists a game on 55.3 percent shooting.
Toronto was in a similar boat in its past two playoff meetings with LeBron. DeMarre Carroll got the assignment in the 2016 Eastern Conference finals; P.J. Tucker was acquired during last season’s trade deadline for the express purpose of defending LeBron. Their solutions never worked; none had the size to bother him. LeBron is a force of nature, but there are degrees of dominance that he’s capable of. He’s been significantly more efficient against the Raptors over the past two postseasons than his career playoff averages of 28.6 points a game on 48.8 percent shooting:
LeBron’s Postseason Per-Game Averages vs. the Raptors
It hasn’t just been LeBron, either. One of the recurring themes of Toronto’s playoff struggles has been its inability to guard elite perimeter scorers. Joe Johnson knocked the Raptors out of the playoffs with a throwback performance in 2014, and Paul George nearly did the same in 2016. Kyle Lowry is a tough-nosed defender, but he’s only 6 feet tall, while DeMar DeRozan is average at best on that side of the ball. The only player they’ve had with the same physical tools as Anunoby and Siakam is James Johnson, who never earned the trust of head coach Dwane Casey.
NBA athletes with the size and mobility to hold their ground against LeBron are rarely capable of doing much on offense. That was the knock on Anunoby and Siakam in the draft. Anunoby shot only 31.1 percent from 3 and 56.3 percent from the free throw line in his final season at Indiana, while Siakam shot 20 percent from 3 and 67.8 percent from the free throw line in his final season at New Mexico State. They were bigger and faster than everyone they faced at the college level, and it was unclear how their games would translate to the NBA, especially in smaller offensive roles where they’d have to spend a lot of time spotting up off the ball. Anunoby and Siakam have done just enough to force defenses to guard them in Toronto, but repeating that success as they go deeper into the playoffs won’t be easy.
Cleveland will force the two to shoot and make plays. The team’s defensive philosophy under head coach Tyronn Lue is to take away what offenses do best. It was the key to its victory over Indiana. After Victor Oladipo exploded for 32 points on 11-of-19 shooting in Game 1 of their first-round series, the Cavs began double-teaming him whenever he came off screens, forcing the ball out of his hands. Oladipo wound up averaging only 22.7 points a game on 41.7 percent shooting in the series, and no one else in his supporting cast was able to make up the difference. Cleveland has used that strategy against Lowry and DeRozan before, and will try it at some point in this series.
The idea is to punish Casey no matter what rotation decisions he makes. The players in his reserve unit (Delon Wright, Fred VanVleet, C.J. Miles) most capable of beating traps can’t guard LeBron. Toronto went super small in the first round to counter a similar strategy from Washington, closing its pivotal Game 5 win with Wright and Miles at the forward positions. That lineup won’t work against Cleveland, which means Anunoby and Siakam have to perform. The former has to knock down 3s, cut effectively, and move without the ball, while the latter has to roll hard after setting screens, finish at the rim, and make the correct reads in four-on-three situations.
Anunoby and Siakam might have to play together in the series, a pairing Casey has rarely used this season. There’s nowhere to hide Toronto’s traditional big men against Cleveland. The Cavs will likely start Kevin Love at the 5 and LeBron at the 4, with J.R. Smith, Kyle Korver, and George Hill on the perimeter. Put any of Serge Ibaka, Jonas Valanciunas, or Jakob Poeltl on Love, and LeBron will attack them in the pick-and-roll. Indiana put Young and Bogdanovic on Love and LeBron, respectively, to switch the play and keep their big men away from LeBron. Anunoby and Siakam are the only players on Toronto’s roster who could handle that assignment.
This is the moment of truth for both. LeBron is one of the smartest players in NBA history, and he will relentlessly test their defensive IQ. Just having size and speed isn’t enough to guard him. He will punish them every time they don’t position themselves correctly, reach for a ball they can’t get, or don’t make the correct rotation. On the other end of the floor, he’s going to try to ration his energy as much as possible, which means Anunoby and Siakam have to make him work. The best version of those two, which we saw at times in the regular season, will tire him out with their perpetual motion. However, if they go through a shooting slump or a crisis of confidence, LeBron will rest on defense and come at them with guns blazing on offense.
Anunoby and Siakam aren’t the only ones on trial. Toronto’s philosophy is as well. People like my Ringer colleague Kevin O’Connor have been saying they need to blow this team up for years, and a loss against an undermanned Cleveland team would only make those calls louder. Lowry and DeRozan each have one All-NBA third-team appearance in their careers, and there may be a playoff ceiling for a team whose stars are not top-10 players. Raptors president Masai Ujiri has operated under the idea that it’s possible to retool through the middle of the draft and build a great team without a superstar. It worked in the regular season, but only a deep run in the playoffs will convince the skeptics.
Toronto has been a playoff underachiever the past four seasons, but it’s never had a better supporting cast around DeRozan and Lowry. While the names at the top of the marquee are the same, everything else has changed around them. When the Lowry-Derozan-era Raptors made the playoffs for the first time in 2014, Anunoby was a high school junior and Siakam was a college freshman. After being overlooked on draft night, they landed in the perfect NBA situation. Toronto has shown a lot of faith in its young forwards. It’s time for them to reward it.