There are some games so fun, some nights so wild and blurry, that it’s unclear in the moment what will stand out about it down the line. Historic nights come in many forms, and the way Monday’s meeting between the Toronto Raptors and Milwaukee Bucks played out could have gone in a number of directions.
On its face, the game was a testing ground for the changes to Toronto’s system that a playoff series against Milwaukee suggested were necessary. It was likewise a test for a young Bucks team that’s underperformed some to date and wants to begin the process of proving itself playoff-ready against the league’s top teams. It’s another game in the rapid ascension of Giannis Antetokounmpo, too. And more than anything, it was the most fun game of the young Raptors season, always a consideration on its own merit, a frenetic back-and-forth of lead changes and momentum shifts that saw too teams play something less than their best and still push the other toward a limit, culminating in overtime. That the Raptors won, 129-125 in the extra frame, would help fortify whatever highlight one chose to walk away with.
DeMar DeRozan didn’t leave that up to the selection process of our memories, though, setting a franchise record 52 points in what may be the most complete individual performance any Raptor has ever put forth in a regular-season game. This was DeRozan’s night, when all of the testing-themselves, Greek Freak, overtime thriller dressing fell away.
The Raptors started out with rookie OG Anunoby on Antetokounmpo with a clear edict to switch liberally. The Bucks’ early possessions saw numerous switches from the Raptors’ defense and a few different players see a beat on Antetokounmpo, and the results were positive – Milwaukee’s first four field-goal attempts all came inside the arc but outside of the restricted area, and it took nearly three minutes before Milwaukee got on the board. They were down nine at that point thanks almost exclusively to DeRozan, who opened the game on a personal 9-0 run, drawing a couple of fouls and nailing a corner three after Kyle Lowry threw a skip pass out of a wild-armed trap. DeRozan would continue hammering the Bucks, apparently still angry about Game 1 from last year.
Milwaukee’s offense settled in a bit from there. Their defense did not, with Lowry taking a turn running things with a pair of jumpers and a tough dump-off bounce pass for Jonas Valanciunas, who managed to corral it and draw a foul (Valanciunas had also started that possession kicking it to the corner out of a 4-on-3 after catching on the short roll, a nice development). That served to put the Bucks in the bonus with five minutes to play in the quarter, which further helped out the Raptors’ offense. Even when the Raptors turned the ball over – often death against Milwaukee – Serge Ibaka was around to chase down Eric Bledsoe for ridiculous blocks.
The DeRozan-and-bench group didn’t have as easy a time defensively as the starter-heavy groups had, and Milwaukee wound up pushing to 30 points by the end of the frame thanks to a late Antetokounmpo slam and some big Thon Maker minutes. Even still, the Raptors’ offense was good enough to take a five-point lead into the second, led by a ludicrous 21 points from DeRozan. That’s just one off the franchise record for points in a quarter, and it came with three threes and three assists to accompany all of DeRozan’s usual nifty tricks. It was truly a remarkable 12 minutes.
“You really can’t tell because you don’t pay attention to it,” DeRozan said. “You look up, you going to halftime, you may glance at it and say ‘Damn, I got X amount of points.’ You just feed off of that and understand it’s nothing but aggressiveness and going out there and wanting to win.”
The Bucks would pull even a few minutes into the second, then take their first lead of the game. Toronto’s bench really didn’t have that extra defensive gear it normally introduces to the game, and because they can struggle to score for long stretches, their issues against hybrid lineups from quality opponents (like those who employ Malcolm Brogdon) continue to pop up. Dwane Casey down-sized in response, using Delon Wright alongside the starters with no Valanciunas. That helped get the offense going again, and Ibaka in particularly looked great in that look.
Valanciunas returned, a Wright steal-and-dunk in the backcourt having pushed the lead back to five after nearly eight minutes of it staying within a possession in either direction. Ibaka and DeRozan recorded back-to-back blocks from there but couldn’t pull away as their jumpers drew cold. The Bucks briefly nudged back ahead, only for DeRozan to score back-to-back baskets, including a buzzer-beating pull-up three in transition, to send the Raptors into the break up four.
— Toronto Raptors (@Raptors) January 2, 2018
Where the first was all DeRozan, the third opened with a lot of Lowry, who spun off a defender to rise for one three and then promptly canned another, opening up the first double-digit edge of the game. DeRozan followed with a three, too – his fifth of the game – because that’s just a regular thing now. Antetokounmpo was not content to go quietly despite some impressive effort from Anunoby to stay in front of him, and an 8-0 Bucks run required a Casey timeout, likely including some words about getting the ball movement going again.
The Raptors once again shifted small – a consistent pattern here that’s open for debate for Friday – and that extra bit of speed helped in transition. Wright and Pascal Siakam had some nice defensive minutes, the latter tasked with Antetokounmpo duty and the former getting his second block of the night with a chase-down. Milwaukee would finish the quarter with 28 points, though, nine of them for Antetokounmpo, and that would keep the gap at just four entering the fourth.
Even with the tight game, Casey rolled with the all-bench group at the top of the fourth, which may have had something to do with Lowry having four fouls and Antetokounmpo being on the bench. It was a strange mix of good and bad for that group, with a back-cutting problem persisting, some good pressure in the post, and a beautiful Wright scoop-shot. Lowry returned as part of a three-guard lineup two minutes in, and when Milwaukee stretched to an 8-2 run to take a lead back, Casey wanted to talk things over. A whirling out-of-timeout play against frantic Bucks trapping stopped the drought in the form of a Fred VanVleet layup, Lowry found VanVleet for a corner three, and Lowry then drew a foul of his own to take control back as DeRozan and Antetokounmpo returned (the Raptors closed with VanVleet and the starters).
That set up a tense final seven minutes that was reminiscent of the six games between these teams a year ago. Every Antetokounmpo touch brought a palpable anxiousness at the Air Canada Centre, with Anunoby getting the call and Ibaka helping freely in front of a zoned-up weak side. The Bucks tried to take advantage, producing a Bledsoe corner three on a nice set, only for DeRozan to respond with the most 2015 long-two you’ll see in 2018. Milwaukee went to a three-guard look with Antetokounmpo at center, and he immediately dunked and set up a Matthew Dellavedova three to take the lead back as part of a 7-0 run.
“I thought OG did as good a job as you can do on Antetokoumpo,” Casey said. “That young man, when he’s coming down, it’s like a locomotive coming down the tracks. He made a couple of shots, you’re not going to take away everything from a great player like Antetokounmpo.”
The Raptors lost the plot a bit in terms of ball movement, with Ibaka taking some questionable shots and DeRozan letting off an iffy 20-footer. Still, a huge Ibaka block at the rim led to a DeRozan and-one the other way. Antetokounmpo answered with a filthy mid-range step-back, and then DeRozan found Lowry for a game-tying three with under a minute to go.
Lowry & DeRozan have combined for 10 threes for the first time ever.
— Blake Murphy (@BlakeMurphyODC) January 2, 2018
This was playoff basketball, stars ging shot for shot and moment for moment. The atmosphere was a playoff one, too, the ACC giving DeRozan the “M-V-P” treatment at the line as he tied things up again after taking Bledsoe into the post. Lowry made a great steal and let out a fist-pump, but with the game on the line and the shot clock dwindling the other way, Ibaka froze and passed a grenade to Lowry too late to get a good look off. That set up a Bucks inbound with 3.2 seconds left after both teams had called timeouts, and DeRozan smothered Brogdon on the catch to kill the clock and force overtime.
Bledsoe opening with a pull-up three seemed a bad omen at first. DeRozan answered by setting a new career-high through contact and hitting a mid-range jumper sandwiched around a VanVleet three and some excellent Raptors defense. Bledsoe responded with another three – he was heavily involved with Anunoby doing a good job on Antetokounmpo, who mostly hung in the corners on both ends here, all night – but DeRozan got right back to the line to join Terrence Ross and Vince Carter in the Raptors 50-point club. Lowry followed up with great post defense on Khris Middleton and then a layup born from a very patient sequence, and the Raptors were up five with 93 seconds to go. The Bucks threatened down to the wire and the Raptors hit their free-throws to close, including the final two from DeRozan to set a new franchise record with 52 points.
“I for sure wanted to beat T-Ross,” DeRozan said. “I’mma have to reach out to him some way. I wasn’t thinking about it, but it’s cool after the fact, to play with a guy that I seen get the record and pass a guy that I looked up to playing when I was a kid.”
It was likely the team’s most fun and spirited performance of the year, though not their best. The Raptors scored freely and shot the three well, with their two centers making nice plays to bust traps and their offense involving a lot more cutting to provide targets out of those traps. The ball moved well enough save for some brief periods and a very shot-happy Ibaka game, and the Raptors produced 120.8 points per-100 possessions. The defensive effort on Antetokounmpo was strong despite his 26 points and seven assists, and while some of it is explained by Milwaukee’s hot 3-point shooting, a 117.1 defensive rating for Toronto was in part due to them getting a little foul-happy.
It doesn’t really matter, not after they pulled out their franchise record-tying 12th consecutive victory at home, and not after DeRozan’s masterful night. The Bucks are not yet an elite team, and still this is exactly the kind of game the Raptors have been waiting to have, executing through a tight close-out with DeRozan finding a seamless balance between scorer and facilitator, Lowry doing an excellent job as a No. 2 option, and role players doing enough at either end to help out. Really, though, it’s the DeRozan game, a thorough reminder of everything he’s become and just how good he can be when every facet of his game is on at the same time.
“Them moments, I wish there was something you could take to get that adrenaline, that feeling, that atmosphere, everything we had out there for 48 minutes. It’s one of a kind,” DeRozan said. “It always takes me back to when I was a kid watching games. It’s crazy because I watched Jordan in the last three minutes of Game 6 versus Utah in the finals earlier today. Just that atmosphere they were playing in. I remember being a kid and wishing to be in moments just like that. So when you come out here and you are in those moments, you have to make the best out of it.”
That was a damn moment.