Knicks forward OG Anunoby drives to the basket defended by...

Knicks forward OG Anunoby drives to the basket defended by Philadelphia 76ers forward Tobias Harris in the first half of an NBA basketball game at Madison Square Garden on Tuesday, March 12, 2024. Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

With six days between the end of the regular season and Saturday’s playoff opener, OG Anunoby finally has had a chance to go through as close to a training camp with the Knicks as he has had — four straight days of practice.

The chance to get to refine his knowledge of the system and his teammates still pales when compared with the deep knowledge that Philadelphia 76ers coach Nick Nurse has of Anunoby, who played for Nurse during his  entire NBA career with the Raptors until this season. Nurse was dismissed by Toronto late last April and signed with Philadelphia. Anunoby was shipped to the Knicks on Dec. 30  in a teardown of a Raptors team that won the NBA title in 2019, with both men a part of it.

So if Anunoby can be a secret weapon for the Knicks — the Swiss Army knife on defense and a player who must pick up some of the offensive slack if Nurse’s plots to get the ball out of Jalen Brunson’s hands succeed — there will be no one less surprised than Nurse.

“I know he’s a great coach,” Anunoby said. “I know they’ll be very well-prepared. He’s very creative. He’s a great coach. They’ll be well-coached for sure.”

But does that long relationship give Nurse an answer, a way to stop Anunoby from being the X-factor in a series that is centered around the battle of stars Brunson and Joel Embiid? Knowing what Anunoby can do and figuring out a way to stop it  clearly are two different things.

With 23 games on the court together, Brunson is learning to love playing with Anunoby. And what was it like when Anunoby was on the opposing side defending him?
“You just wanna get away from it,” Brunson said.

Easier said than done, just like plotting for Anunoby’s impact on both ends.

Unlike Embiid, who averaged 34.7 points per game this season, or Brunson, who averaged 28.7 points — 37.8 in  the last 10 regular-season games — Anunoby averaged only 14.1 points per game with the Knicks. But while the 76ers can point to their 31-8 record with Embiid in the lineup in the regular season, the Knicks were 20-3 with Anunoby in the lineup.

Early in his Knicks tenure, Anunoby was playing on instinct, finding cutting lanes on offense and openings along the three-point line along with using his experience and feel on defense. But this week has given him a chance to fully acclimate to what the Knicks are doing, and his role varies. He's able to guard anyone from speedy point guard Tyrese Maxey to the 7-foot, 280-pound Embiid.

“To me, he’s the best defender in the league,” Knicks center Isaiah Hartenstein said. “The stuff he can do: switching one through five, it’s impressive how he steals the ball. Sometimes you think there’s no way he can get it, but somehow he does. Just the versatility he brings, how strong he is, he can really go from playing against Steph [Curry] to going to playing against a Giannis [Antetokounmpo], night in and night out. I don’t think there’s a lot of players who can do that. We’re excited. Offensively, he’s helping a lot, especially with his cutting and how he shoots the ball and driving the ball a little bit more. I think that’s gonna help us in the playoffs.”

What may have endeared Anunoby to Nurse and now certainly does to Tom Thibodeau is his approach after making a stop.

“Get ready to do it again,” Anunoby said.

“I’ll say this — certainly from his teammates, his coaches, our organization and playing here in New York, fans are very knowledgeable, so they appreciate great basketball plays, hustle plays,” Thibodeau said. “And the thing I love about OG is his staying power. When you’re guarding those guys, you can guard them perfectly and they still have the ability to make a shot. And to have the ability to keep coming back time and time again, that’s what makes him who he is. And to have the ability to do that with all five players on the floor, each position, that’s unique.”


Unlimited Digital AccessOnly 25¢for 5 months