The Toronto Raptors start off their 2018 calendar year on Monday with a visit from an opponent that defined a big part of their 2017 in the Milwaukee Bucks. Armed with Giannis Antetokounmpo, a fleet of incredibly long, agile defenders, and an aggressive trapping scheme, the Bucks proved a difficult matchup for the Raptors in round one of the 2016-17 playoffs. The Raptors essentially punted a Game 1 (shocker) but slowly figured things out from there, wrapping up a series in fewer than the maximum number of games for the first time in franchise history.
The memory of that series and what Milwaukee tried to do to Toronto’s stars was fresh in mind as the front office tried to retool the roster and the strategy this summer.
“The style of play we want to play, moving the basketball,” head coach Dwane Casey said Sunday of Game 5 of that series. “I though our cuts, the speed of play was very high. The ball was moving, skipping around, they couldn’t set on a set play and that’s the way we’re trying to play now and we have to continue to do that.”
The stars have taken to the new system for the most part. DeMar DeRozan is having maybe the best season of his career and Kyle Lowry has accepted a more muted role and more modest numbers in the hopes of making the Raptors harder to beat in April. The Bucks represent a nice test for those two, in particular, as the memory of the difficulty of that series hasn’t dissipated.
“I think the series that we had last year, the two series we had, you learn from your mistakes, you learn and figure out how you can be better and more effective,” DeRozan said. “I think that’s what we took from it, even though we won that series. There are things we could have done a lot better and we’re putting that into the style of play we’re playing now, to make them situations easier. We did win that game, but between me and Kyle, we had to put in so much effort offensively and everything. I remember them games just being exhausting from the standpoint of you have to battle defensively and offensively.”
It’s just one game – or two, rather, since the teams rematch in Milwaukee on Friday – but it should be a good testing ground for the effectiveness of the new system against the type of defense it was designed to help beat. The Bucks have underperformed relative to expectations, especially on the defensive end, and they’ll probably be wanting to show they can beat another quality opponent on the road here.
The game tips off at 7:30 on Sportsnet One and TSN 1050. You can check out the full game preview here.
The tone of Raptors practice on Sunday was that this team is not where they want to be yet, despite their record and early net rating. They know the schedule’s been easier and are looking forward to the challenge January promises – DeRozan sounded eager to show the team’s success can hold up against better competition, and Casey is already reminding the team that the mid-point of the season can’t mean a shift in gears (not that the opponents coming in will allow for that).
“No question. I don’t know if taking the foot off the gas,” Casey said of the team’s penchant for January malaise. “I don’t think our guys didn’t try or wasn’t playing hard, just fighting some human nature things. I think the rest and rust thing is a mental aspect of the game. I think we’ve got to learn how to continue to play a high level and keep that in mind, whether it’s taking games off or whatever it is, we’ve got to do in a way where we don’t lose anything and there’s a way to do it….Whether it’s cutting minutes back for certain players, but that doesn’t mean it’s relax time. You get those minutes, they still have to be at a high level.”
The minutes comment is interesting and could suggest the team intends to keep a deeper rotation in a month with 15 games and a pair of back-to-backs. With everyone healthy – and back on good behavior – there are 12 names Casey trusts to use in the regular course of the game. This will be a window into the team’s plans that hasn’t really been there the last few weeks, as someone has been unavailable for almost every game since late November.
PG: Kyle Lowry, Delon Wright, Fred VanVleet, Lorenzo Brown
SG: DeMar DeRozan, Norman Powell
SF: OG Anunoby, C.J. Miles
PF: Serge Ibaka, Pascal Siakam, Bruno Caboclo
C: Jonas Valanciunas, Jakob Poeltl, Lucas Nogueira
905: Alfonzo McKinnie, Malcolm Miller
Everything in Milwaukee starts and ends with Antetokounmpo, and even if the team is underperforming relative to expectations, Antetokounmpo absolutely is not. He’s quickly becoming one of the most difficult checks in basketball, and the Raptors will probably throw a couple of different looks at him to try to prevent a comfort zone from developing. Rookie OG Anunoby will probably draw that assignment out of the gate, which could be a lot of fun and a good learning experience. Whoever shares that job, Antetokounmpo has fans in the Raptors’ organization.
“His pureness of heart, his intensity,” Casey said of the burgeoning megastar. “I think he plays with a pure heart, he’s trying to win, I don’t think there’s a selfish bone in his body. He practices, from my understanding, the way he plays and you love that. His teammates love that because now he can go to another player and say, ‘hey, you’re not going hard enough because I do it.’ And just his pureness of heart.”
How the help around him steps up will be interesting. The Bucks start exceptionally big and their bench is essentially three guards and Thon Maker, and while Jason Kidd staggers the units to keep some balance, he’s not immune to curious decision making. One of the big changes with the Raptors this year, at least on paper, is their matchup versatility, and the chess match tonight and Friday should be telling as to how Casey will leverage that (if he shows his full hand; he could also just stick to rotation form and see how it plays out).
PG: Eric Bledsoe, Matthew Dellavedova, Malcolm Brogdon
SG: Tony Snell, Jason Terry, Sean Kilpatrick, Sterling Brown, Rashad Vaughn
SF: Khris Middleton, DeAndre Liggins
PF: Giannis Antetokounmpo, D.J. Wilson
C: John Henson, Thon Maker
OUT: Jabari Parker, Mirza Teletovic
Wisconsin: Joel Bolomboy
- Voting for the NBA All-Star Game is now open. You can refresh yourself on the voting procedures here. Make sure to hit that hashtag #NBAVote for DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry (separately – double-player tweets don’t count).
- This has included a push from The Rock.
They did excellent! Bad ass and performed the stunts fearlessly on #Jumanji. Toronto should be proud. Their faces were a bit off though but maybe its me.. admittedly I’ve been tequila tweeting. https://t.co/OqpGBaf84n
— Dwayne Johnson (@TheRock) December 31, 2017
- This has included a push from The Rock.
- DeMar DeRozan finished the 2017 calendar year seventh in total NBA points, per John Schuhmann. Serge Ibaka finished eighth in blocks.
- The Milwaukee Bucks have been in Toronto since Saturday. I was at a WWE house show at Ricoh Coliseum on Saturday night and saw Giannis Antetokounmpo, John Henson, D.J. Wilson, Rashad Vaughn, and Tony Snell there. There was also some Bucks-branded party at whatever club “Uniun” is. They may have gotten their Toronto Flu day out of the way one day early, is my point.
- Raptors 905 will play their third home game in four days tomorrow. They’re on a six-game winning streak, and the four assignees have been a big part of that. Lorenzo Brown and Bruno Caboclo have been recalled to see time at the end of the bench for this one, while Malcolm Miller and Alfonzo McKinnie remain on assignment. Caboclo and/or Brown could be assigned back down after the game, as the Raptors have 12 healthy bodies to take out on the three-game trip they leave for tomorrow afternoon.
The Raptors are 6-point favorites with a 214.5 over-under. The line hasn’t moved much since opening at Raptors -6.5.