The Toronto Raptors and Milwaukee Bucks are familiar with playing each other multiple times in short order at this point. A season ago, they met six times in a fun and stressful playoff series, and this week’s home-and-home across five days figured to be a nice update of where each team has gone since.
The Raptors are doing fine. They have the best record through 36 games in franchise history, they’ve increased their assists more than any other team in the league, and they rank in the top five at both ends of the floor. The changes they’re installing need to be tested against better competition this month, and Monday’s first leg against the Bucks wasn’t exactly a definitive statement – Toronto relied heavily on a franchise-record performance from DeMar DeRozan (which I wrote more about here) and a strong night from Kyle Lowry, while their defense was found a bit wanting. Friday will provide an opportunity for them to show additional growth, winning in a way more closely resembling their playoff ideal.
Things have gone pretty well for the Bucks, too. Giannis Antetokounmpo is ascending to superstar status and MVP candidacy, and his Bucks are fifth in the Eastern Conference at 20-16. Some maybe hoped they’d shoot even higher, and so a bottom-10 defense has Jason Kidd’s job status being questioned at times. Still, they’re 10-10 against winning teams and are always a strong threat to a team like the Raptors on paper thanks to their obscene length and ability to test Toronto’s resolve making the right plays out of traps and blitzes.
It should be another really fun one here.
The game tips off at 8 on TSN 2 and Sportsnet 590.
Blake Murphy: Mitchell, I miss ya, man. Was a lot of fun going back and forth with the Bucks crew in the playoffs last year. That said, I really, really hope we don’t have to do it again this spring. Giannis Antetkounmpo is downright terrifying. As he continues his ascent to bona fide MVP candidate, what have you seen him add to his game this year? Is it a general all-around improvement? Are there no tools in the arsenal? He looks scarier by the day.
Mitchell Maurer: Blake, my guy! We have to stop meeting like this (when the Bucks are underdogs against the Raptors). But to your point about Giannis, the Bucks may not be underdogs for long. He has become the high-usage, high-efficiency super-duper-star that we never dreamed he could be as the 15th overall pick back in 2013. This season, it isn’t so much about what he added to his game, but that he’s doing everything, everywhere, all the time. He leads the league in minutes per game (38.1 as of 12/31), but is still just as efficient and impactful as he was previously. He just doesn’t stop, it’s wonderful.
Blake Murphy: Looking to add shot-creating help around Antetokounmpo, the Bucks flipped Greg Monroe and picks for Eric Bledsoe. How has Bledsoe been fitting in on both ends?
Mitchell Maurer: Moving Monroe for Bledsoe was a near-perfect move for what the Bucks needed for the team to take the next step. Whether or not that step is far enough is a different question, but Moose’s low-post production is well-worth exchanging for Bledsoe’s frenetic energy, breathtaking athleticism, and downright clutch performance when the game is close. His shooting from deep is spotty, but his disruption on defense helps stifle the quick guards that Milwaukee struggles with so often, and his movement and ball-control on offense adds a viable safety valve for when Giannis gets walled off from the rim. Bledsoe was, and is, a great fit for the Bucks.
Blake Murphy: Jabari Parker is on track for a return sometime around the All-Star break based on recent reports. He opens up even more fun lineups offensively. Even at less than 100 percent, I like the wrinkles he adds to make Milwaukee tough to defend. How excited are you to get him back?
Mitchell Maurer: Jabari’s return is highly anticipated in the Bucks universe, but not for the reasons you might think. People love Jabari the human, but have reservations about his defense and durability on the court. Yes, he could come back to his 20+ ppg form relatively quickly, but Bucks fans are far more fixated on the team’s defensive shortcomings (which Parker would exacerbate) than their offensive firepower (which would become more considerable with Jabari in the mix). Why the cynicism? Well, Parker will have 30-40 games to state his case for a big offer in restricted free agency, and Milwaukee’s cap situation will put them in a pickle: either commit to Jabari, as is, for the dollar figure he wants (regardless of his financial worth), or risk seeing him jump ship. Jabari Parker is gonna get buckets, but Bucks fans are looking at a lot more upon his return.
Blake Murphy: I’ve seen a few people suggest that the Bucks’ bottleneck right now might be head coach Jason Kidd, who hasn’t exactly shown a ton of creativity on offense or flexibility on defense. What are your feelings on the job Kidd’s doing and the temperature of his seat if Milwaukee goes one-and-done in the playoffs?
Mitchell Maurer: I’ll tell you a secret: for a long time, I was one of the last holdouts on the Isle of Kidd. Bucks fans could not like Jason Kidd as their coach less, and it’s because he keeps doing things that are extremely easy to dislike. Foul an opponent point guard up four in a tight game? Sure, why not? Leave your best bench player (Malcolm Brogdon) out of the game for the first 20+ minutes for…reasons? Absolutely! Set expectations in the preseason and then turn around to claim that expectations are too high? #NailedIt.
I just don’t get it. I don’t get Jason Kidd. I’ve always seen him as a pragmatist, but I simply cannot understand how some of his decisions help anybody, especially himself. There was a stretch a few weeks ago where the Bucks dialed back their blitzing overload defense, and things looked much improved…and not only did Kidd deny that any changes were made, he went back and uninstalled the patch he had just installed. To no one’s surprise, the defense looked bad again! Milwaukee fans are largely fed up with Jason Kidd, so the only thing that could lower the temperature of his lava-hot seat would be a massively-unexpected playoff run.
Blake Murphy: Can Rashad Vaughn hang around a few extra days to work out with Norman Powell so Powell can get back on track?
Mitchell Maurer: I’m hearing “will you trade Rashad Vaughn for OG Anunoby straight up?” and I accept your offer.
The Raptors’ starters performed fairly well against the Bucks in the last meeting, fueled some by DeRozan’s insane game of course. They were a plus-7 in 16 minutes, and the group with Fred VanVleet in place of Jonas Valanciunas played another 12 minutes. Expect four of the starters to see heavy run again here, as OG Anunoby did a pretty admirable job trying to slow down Giannis Antetokounmpo. For the season now, the starting five owns a plus-14.5 net rating in 330 minutes, and the foursome (with or without Valanciunas) has played to a plus-13.7 in 437 minutes (so they’ve actually been slightly less dominant without Valanciunas).
In the last meeting between these sides, Dwane Casey leaned heavily on VanVleet, who continues to post some strong team-level advanced numbers despite pedestrian individual stats. It will be interesting to see how Casey handles a crunch-time lineup here if the game’s close again, as Delon Wright was tremendous Wednesday and is a better natural fit for that group thanks to his length, at least as long as he continues shooting with confidence. Obviously, Casey gets the benefit of three quarters of information before having to decide what his fourth quarter will look like here.
As a random aside, the Raptors have seven players shooting 35 percent of better on 50 or more 3-point attempts so far this year, more than any other team in the league. (Someone tweeted something like this but I couldn’t find it, so I went back and double-checked myself. Sorry to that person for not crediting the idea.) There are a handful of teams with six but most only have four or five. It doesn’t make Toronto an exceptional shooting team – they rank 22nd in team 3-point shooting percentage – but it’s important to have a lot of rotation pieces who can shoot it a little bit.
PG: Kyle Lowry, Delon Wright, Fred VanVleet
SG: DeMar DeRozan, Norman Powell
SF: OG Anunoby, C.J. Miles,
PF: Serge Ibaka, Pascal Siakam
C: Jonas Valanciunas, Jakob Poeltl, Lucas Nogueira
905: Alfonzo McKinnie, Malcolm Miller, Lorenzo Brown, Bruno Caboclo
The only real change for Milwaukee here is that D.J. Wilson is down with the Wisconsin Herd. He didn’t factor into Monday’s game, anyway, so while it does threaten their frontcourt depth, this is kind of how the Bucks operate – in Jason Kidd’s estimations, their entire roster is guards and then the two centers in John Henson and Thon Maker. That doesn’t look the case when they start with immense size all over the court, but considering their first two and four of their five primary players off the bench are natural point guards or score-first shooting guards, he’s not far off.
On Monday, Kidd used a 10-man rotation, though Jason Terry only saw a brief cameo (essentially splitting the ninth-man minutes with Sean Kilpatrick). You can pretty safely expect his top eight and some quick changes if things aren’t working. The Bucks’ starters only played 14 minutes together Monday, as they were run off the floor to the tune of -13. A Khris Middleton-and-bench lineup was their best group – take that, DeRozan, I guess? – but if the Raptors’ bench plays like it did Wednesday, that may be less of an advantage. Perhaps of note, DeAndre Liggins drew back into Kidd’s rotation Wednesday to play 22 minutes, so he could be the ninth man here. He’s a quality defender and a nice secondary playmaker from the wing, though the Raptors won’t have to pay him a ton of attention as a scoring threat.
It’s always interesting to see how a coach tweaks the rotation game-to-game with a roster as unique as Milwaukee’s, especially with extra eyes on him because his seat might be warm.
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
C: John Henson, Thon Maker
OUT: Jabari Parker, Mirza Teletovic
Wisconsin: Joel Bolomboy, D.J. Wilson
The Raptors are 1-point favorites on the road here after being 6.5-point favorites at home on Monday. That’s a pretty modest swing for a change in home court. The over-under is at 216.5, up from 214.5 for last game after the teams combined for 259 (229 in regulation) last time out.