Coming out of the All-Star break, the Toronto Raptors talked up how they’d proven nothing over the first two-thirds of the season despite their record. They talked about avoiding complacency, about not looking at the standings, and about focusing on the qualitative factors that will best prepare them for playoff success. The hope was to avoid a post-break malaise, to not require getting woken up out of the gate to find their focus for the stretch run.
It was hard to tell from Friday’s return to action, a 122-119 overtime loss to a surging Milwaukee Bucks team that appeared far hungrier for large parts of the night, particularly a decisive second quarter. Given the layoff leading into it, the team will surely choose to focus on the negative here – that they played with lethargy at times, that the star backcourt had an off night from a decision-making perspective, and that they executed poorly down the stretch, the single biggest issue of their terrific start to the season. There were positive angles to take, too – that the Raptors played poorly, that a quality opponent shot over their heads, that there was some questionable officiating, and it still came down to a single possession. The grand takeaway is a matter of perspective. The need to continue to improve over the last 24 games is not.
“We didn’t deserve to win that game,” head coach Dwane Casey said. “They out-worked us, the out-played us, they out-thought us, whatever adjective you want to use, they did it to us tonight. If you don’t come with the right mindset at the beginning of the game, you start getting comfortable, they got comfortable in the first half and when we tried to turn it on, it was too late.”
This one opened up looking more like their first matchup this season than their second, with a back-and-forth feeling out to get going. The Bucks’ length was a clear factor on defense, though the Raptors found some good looks around it, with DeMar DeRozan orchestrating the attention mostly well to create for others and also utilizing some DeRozan classics – an elbow pull-up and a baited high-key foul on Tony Snell – to lead the way. A tremendous drive-and-kick found Kyle Lowry for a corner three, setting the tone for some willing, if imprecise, ball movement early.
The defense was a little less to form, with Eric Bledsoe taking advantage of the drop-back strategy to get some high-paint looks. Still, OG Anunoby limited Giannis Antetokounmpo’s early touches outside of a tough long two, DeRozan switched capably on to John Henson, and Lowry looked to push off of stops. The Raptors looked like they might gain some separation when Serge Ibaka went on a personal 5-0 run and started trying to destroy every Bucks field-goal attempt. DeRozan hit a tough baseline floater and C.J. Miles picked up his fourth four-point play of the season in support, but the Bucks hung around, even responding to Fred VanVleet cooking Thon Maker with an Antetokounmpo-to-Jabari Parker lob to stay within six through a quarter.
— Sam Holako (@rapsfan) February 24, 2018
The bench unit sputtered some to start the second, thanks in part to some great two-way minutes from Maker and a stretch of over four minutes (across the two quarters) without a field goal. Miles broke the drought and Siakam followed it up with a bucket, and between that push and their customary defensive effort, Casey gave them a little extra leash. That proves costly, as a Bucks group propped up by Antetokounmpo tore off a stretch of strong shot-making for a quick six-point swing, taking their first lead since the opening minutes.
Casey went with almost a full line-change, leaving just Delon Wright in with the starters and shifting Antetokounmpo duty to Ibaka. It was Middleton who gave them trouble, though, scoring on three consecutive possessions to neutralize a pair of Raptor and-ones. DeRozan rediscovered his earlier aggressive mode from there, hitting a floater and a three over a screen before setting up Ibaka when the help collapsed to him and then again for a three. That was paramount, because the Raptors’ defense remained missing in action. A technical foul out of frustration for a quiet Jonas Valanciunas didn’t help, either, nor did one for DeRozan after fouling Middleton on a three, or letting Antetokounmpo get a head of steam in transition. Even when they managed stops around the Bucks’ unseasonably warm shooting, the offense amounted to just relying on Ibaka and DeRozan (they even badly botched a two-for-one situation that’s normally their bread-and-butter), and the Raptors found themselves down eight at the end of one of their shakier quarters of the season.
“They had a 42-point quarter. We didn’t play well,” Lowry said. “We just didn’t play well. It was a full game effort. We were fortunate to get it to overtime. We were lucky to get there.”
Veteran move. pic.twitter.com/rD6c6xQGwH
— Toronto Raptors (@Raptors) February 24, 2018
The stars didn’t exactly dial in on defense out of the break, though DeRozan did hit Middleton with an enziguri and Anunoby at least made things difficult for Antetokounmpo. The same couldn’t be said for the transition defense, as a Valanciunas wrap foul of Antetokounmpo off of a DeRozan turnover didn’t prevent him from finishing. Casey needed an early timeout to try to find a spark, and that included going to Valanciunas – who out-scored and out-rebounded the Bucks for an entire quarter last meeting – and he provided an immediate return. The defensive effort came up some, too, the execution level just didn’t come with it (if someone could help on the lob when a big helps on the drive, that would be a plus), and Antetokounmpo did well to find teammates out of heavy attention.
A Miles-with-starters look followed, and while it didn’t help slow down Henson, it did see Valanciunas carve out a few more opportunities with a bit more breathing room underneath. It looked like the Raptors may be able to pull back to square, but threes for Maker and Sterling Brown and a put-back for Bledsoe underscored the continued defensive lapses and dug them even further into a hole as quickly as they were nearly out of it. Casey tweaked the rotation again, opting for Lowry-and-bench instead of DeRozan-and-bench to close the third, a change that was moderately successful, closing the gap to eight entering the fourth. Dire though that situation is against a good team, it wasn’t a bad gap considering the Raptors had defended poorly and the Bucks were out-shooting their talent level from outside.
“They were 13 for 26 and they’re not necessarily a great three-point shooting team,” Casey said. “That was part of the game plan, protect the paint. We had some open looks but, again, if you’re not in the right mindset, a toughness, down and ready to shoot, being shot-ready, those shots are not going to fall.”
— Toronto Raptors (@Raptors) February 24, 2018
The bench set out to make a greater impact than they had earlier, and had a few in-and-out threes stayed down, they may have. They were able to bottle up a hybrid Bucks lineup, with Siakam providing six points and doing a terrific job on Antetokounmpo and Milwaukee temporarily regressing on open looks, there just wasn’t enough offense to get over the hump. DeRozan got the call to lead a bench group but it was Poeltl taking over for a stretch, finishing a VanVleet dump-off, blocking Antetokounmpo at the rim, and then coming up with huge rebounds at both ends of the floor to cut the lead to one.
Casey rolled with his two stars, VanVleet, Siakam, and Poeltl from there, and Poeltl came up with another great contest to set the stage for Siakam to put the Raptors ahead off of a nice VanVleet feed. DeRozan blew by Middleton for a bucket but the offense got a bit gummed up from there, forcing the issue in transition on consecutive possessions sandwiched by Antetokounmpo baskets. Casey sent to Ibaka at center, an uncommon look so far this year that Ibaka rewarded with a big defensive rebound and a great contest on a Henson cut. Siakam then hit a prayer of a long two at the end of the shot clock, only for Bledsoe to get an easy two the other way and Antetokounmpo to score a tough fade-away over strong Siakam coverage.
— BBALLBREAKDOWN (@bballbreakdown) February 24, 2018
Needing a score down three out of a timeout, Casey went with his high-offense group in Miles-and-starters. DeRozan promptly scored a tough bucket driving baseline, then missed an early-clock long two. The Raptors forced a bad Middleton shot the other way, and it looked as if the Raptors would have a good opportunity to win. Instead, Milwaukee tipped out the offensive rebound, Miles took a few seconds to realize he needed to foul, and after Middleton split a pair, the Raptors had 3.3 seconds left to get a good shot off. They…went to Valanciunas, who banged on Henson’s head at the buzzer to force overtime. Seriously.
There was some outrage that Valanciunas should have also been at the line for a game-winning free throw, to which he offered a “next question.” His coach wasn’t as coy.
“I thought he got fouled,” Casey said. “I’ve got to look at it, I thought he got fouled both times, I’ve got to back and look at it, look at the replay and see. It should have been an and-one at the end of the game. Woulda, coulda, shoulda. It wasn’t the officials, it was us. We made our bed hard, we had to sleep in it, and we get spanked.”
i’ve never seen a buzzer beater like this pic.twitter.com/8B6AfINzzd
— James Herbert (@outsidethenba) February 24, 2018
Overtime started out well with a Lowry three and an Ibaka baseline jumper. The Bucks responded with a tough Antetokounmpo long-two, a Jason Terry three, and a Middleton three, because of course. Lowry missed a decent look at a three to tie, then Ibaka did the same, and still the Raptors had life. DeRozan found Valanciunas for another dunk out of a timeout with 42 seconds to go, but they’d need a three in the same situation with 13 seconds left, as Antetokounmpo had hit another jumper in between. DeRozan missed said three, and when he managed his own offensive rebound, he erred and dunked it rather than kick it out, leaving the Raptors down one and in need of a Michael Ruffin- or Christian Laettner-type play with 0.8 on the clock. They did not get either.
Late-game execution rears its head again, though the Raptors did miss a couple of good looks down the stretch, too. It wasn’t as egregious as some earlier clutch scenarios in terms of process, nor was it anywhere near as good as it needs to be in process or results. It will continue to be a focal point here, even if they can correctly point to longer stretches that cost them more earlier in games.
Some of the Raptors conceded that, while disappointing, a loss like this right out of the break can be a nice reminder of the work still to be done. That wasn’t a universally held opinion, and the tone seemed to indicate that Sunday’s practice could be another wake-up call of sorts.
“If you want to look at it that way, that’s fine. I don’t want to live that way,” Casey said. “We’ll take our medicine. We’ve got to learn from it, regroup, and come back.”
They have seven weeks to figure it out, with a chance to take a step back in the right direction Monday.