Milwaukee led in the first quarter, but saw the margin shrink to one at the half as Toronto started making shots and playing defence.
“I thought that we kind of took some air out of them a little bit there,” VanVleet said. “That was a huge way to close the half. We closed it (the second) with a 7-0 run and came out in the third quarter with another run. I thought that we were in control for the rest of the way.”
The Bucks clung to a 57-56 lead at the half, but the Raptors had already turned the game in their favour.
“We kind of let up the second quarter going into the half,” the Bucks Eric Bledsoe said. “They cut it to one and we kind of let up then. We never could get our rhythm back.”
Toronto opened the third with a 26-12 run, capped by Siakam’s turnaround bank hook for a 63-57 lead at the 10:05 mark.
“What helped us was the beginning of that third quarter,” Leonard said. “We came out in the first two minutes playing well, getting stops, getting some open looks. We kept moving from there.”
Raptors role players are the difference
It was a tough night for the Raptors bench, as they combined to go 1-of-15 from the field for just five points, but Toronto’s role players in the starting lineup stepped up in a major way. Pascal Siakam — who scored a career-high 30 points — combined with Serge Ibaka and Fred VanVleet for 76 points, 18 rebounds and 16 assists in an impressive performance. Whenever the Raptors needed a clutch shot, one of them provided it, and they played some strong defense as well. That trio’s strong play proved to be the difference, as they outplayed the likes of Khris Middleton, Eric Bledsoe and Malcolm Brogdon by a wide margin.
“We just played better tonight,” said Ibaka, who was 11-of-15 from the floor and charged with providing help defence at the rim on Antetokounmpo and then sprinting out to guard Bucks shooters at the three-point line. “We were moving the ball. When you move the ball on offence like that it gives you better energy on offence and on the defensive end. It’s just better when you share the ball and everyone touches the ball. That’s what we did tonight.
“Kawhi did a good job making plays for us and then Pascal. When Kawhi does it, it makes Pascal do the next. Then we are all sharing the ball.”
Maybe it was simple as making shots – but it didn’t hurt that Toronto had knocked down 11 threes on 26 tries through the first three quarters as it took a nine-point lead into the fourth and finished the game with a 14-of-31 mark from deep, a sharp contrast to its 6-of-30 night against San Antonio. They were led by VanVleet who was 5-of-8 from deep and chipped in eight assists and five rebounds while making another start in place of Kyle Lowry who missed his 10th game in 11 starts with a wonky back.
“Obviously injuries play a part in that but at some point we’re going to have to start building our championship habits. And I think that we have been, but I think we can do a much better job of going out there and being boring in the way we attack our details and be annoying with just being sticklers about every little thing that we know is going to pay off in the playoffs.”
Fast forward a few days and VanVleet’s suggestion has taken on an increased sense of urgency. All it took was an entirely pedestrian performance in San Antonio to add more voices to the chorus that sings about problems existing and the need for quick solutions to come more quickly.
“There are things that we probably need to nip in the bud soon. I’d like to get it done but I think it also happens with time and patience but also with health,” Danny Green said after a 125-107 pasting administered by DeMar DeRozan and the San Antonio Spurs. “(But) I think we’re being too patient at times and waiting. I think we need to jump on it right away and fix these problems ASAP, regardless of who’s healthy and who’s not.”
The bench was basically non-existent for the Raptors.
OG Anunoby scored three points on 1-for-6 shooting, Norman Powell scored two points on 0-for-5 shooting (his two points coming from the free throw line), Delon Wright went scoreless on 0-for-4 shooting and Greg Monroe didn’t get off a shot in his five minutes on the court.
That means the second unit scored a total of five points on 1-for-15 shooting from the field. Nick Nurse barely went to the bench in the second half, leaning heavily on VanVleet, Danny Green, Leonard, Siakam and Ibaka instead to get the job done.
They did, of course, but it could prevent Leonard from playing tomorrow, when the Raptors take on the Indiana Pacers on the second night of a back-to-back, a game he was expected to play in prior to this one.
Hold on a damn second. The Raptors just committed a back court violation and then this is played over the PA system I RECOGNIZE THAT LAUGH pic.twitter.com/lXYpOWOFDa
— Rob Perez (@WorldWideWob) January 6, 2019
The Raptors stayed close and then three consecutive defensive stops late in the first seemed to get the visiting side on track on their way to a 123-116 win over the Bucks tor reclaim the best record in the NBA.
“I just told the team: ‘That’s a good two-game lesson. One game, tonight, executed everything in our game plan defensively and one game we didn’t execute any of it,’” Nurse said referring back to that awful loss in San Antonio.
Nurse only needed the first five minutes of that game tape in San Antonio to pick out 10 different instances where the defensive game plan was basically ignored. He stressed to his team that ignoring the game plan like that was tantamount to sabotaging their own efforts.
The message got through as the defensive rotations that were a mere rumour in San Antonio were on cue all night in Milwaukee.
It was the first win in three tries against a Bucks team that has been steamrolling the opposition these days regularly.
It was hard to even fathom that the Raptors team that showed up in Milwaukee was the same one that were so thoroughly embarrassed in San Antonio.
If he does play this would mark the first time in his Raptors career he plays both nights of a back-to-back as he will be in the lineup for Toronto Saturday against the Milwaukee Bucks.
Toronto has been cautious with its star acquisition all season resting him in at least one of the back-to-back games they’ve played this season as he’s recovered from a quad injury that saw him play just nine games last season.
It now appears Leonard may be back to full strength.
This is welcoming news for a Raptors team that has found itself in a swoon after a hot start, spurred on by a back injury to starting point guard Kyle Lowry, who is once again out Saturday, the 10th game in 11 overall he’s been unavailable.
In the modern NBA, with glossy training facilities full of player amenities and high-tech equipment, no detail is too small when it comes to helping players develop and thrive. This inviting meal and social space is a central hub of daily life inside the Raptors training home, and this team puts major emphasis on fuelling up here with foods geared to optimize performance.
Gallagher’s mandate as team chef at the facility is to prepare training-day meals and snacks for some 15 players and 40 staff using the healthiest, highest-quality organic ingredients possible.
“We’re working with elite athletes, and we want to put the best in to get the best out,” says Gallagher, who was hired when the Raps’ practice facility opened in early 2016. “I know lots of great suppliers, and I’m not ordering truffles or foie gras for the team, but I need high-quality nutritious ingredients that help the players feel good and play well. Food is only one small part of their performance obviously, and they’re grown men who can choose to eat what they want. But we try to give them everything they need to make good food choices.”
The first half of the game solidified exactly where the Raptors and Bucks stand relative to each other. Giannis Antetokounmpo can do his thing, but the Raptors — with Pascal Siakam, Danny Green, Serge Ibaka, and Kawhi Leonard — are able to disrupt him. Toronto’s starters can put pressure on the sometimes overmatched Milwaukee front line, as when Siakam flies by Brook Lopez or Ibaka pops out for a smooth jumper. But the Bucks can flip it on them by powering past their backcourt, thanks to Eric Bledsoe and Malcolm Brogdon.
Watching this play out, it was clear the teams were indeed evenly matched — except without Kyle Lowry and Jonas Valanciunas it’s not quite a fair fight, which goes some of the way towards explaining why Toronto’s bench unit looked so anemic and downright rattled at times. It’s how the Bucks’ lead in the first half would yo-yo up, before being reeled back in upon the return of the starters. And it’s how the game got tight once again come the fourth.
Oladipo has carried less of the scoring load for the Blue & Gold since returning from an 11-game absence due to a sore knee on Dec. 12, but he did the heavy lifting for the Pacers in Chicago. The All-Star guard scored 36 points to match his season high while taking 28 shots overall and 13 from 3-point range, both figures his second-most attempts in a game this season.
The Pacers have won 13 of their last 15 games to surge up the Eastern Conference standings are on the verge of catching the Raptors (29-12). Toronto looked dominant at the start of the season, racing out to a 20-4 record, but has gone just 9-8 since entering Saturday’s showdown with new East leaders Milwaukee.
Injuries have played a part in the Raptors’ struggles. All-Star guard Kyle Lowry has played in just one game since Dec. 12 due to lower back pain.
Toronto won in Milwaukee on Saturday night, but it is unclear whether MVP candidate Kawhi Leonard will be in uniform against the Pacers on Sunday. Leonard leads the East in scoring in his first season with the Raptors, but has yet to play on both nights of a back-to-back this season. Toronto is taking a cautious approach with its star, who only played in nine games last season for the Spurs due to nagging issues with his quadriceps.
There’s a chance Kyle Lowry could return for Toronto; he got a lot of work in Saturday in Milwaukee and it will depend on how his sore back reacts … Kawhi Leonard could play the back end of back-to-back games for the first time this season … The Raptors have won 10 in a row at home against the Pacers, who are right there with Toronto and Milwaukee in the hunt for first in the East … Former Raptor Cory Joseph, of Pickering, is averaging 7.1 points, 3.9 assists and about 25 minutes a game for the Pacers.
– Injury Report: For the Raptors, Jonas Valanciunas is out with a dislocated left thumb. The status of Kyle Lowry (lower back pain) is to be determined. For the Pacers, Ike Anigbogu is out with a sore right knee and Myles Turner is questionable with a sore right shoulder.
– Bounce back: The Raptors will face Indiana fresh off a much-needed 123-116 road win against the Milwaukee Bucks on Saturday. The Raptors had four players score at least 20 points in the victory, led by Kawhi Leonard and Pascal Siakam who each scored 30 points. The Pacers, meanwhile, are on a roll. At 26-12, Indiana is in third place in the Eastern Conference. The Pacers come to Toronto on a six-game winning streak and are 13-2 over their last 15 games. Most recently, Indiana defeated the Chicago Bulls on the road 119-116 in overtime behind a 36-point effort from Victor Oladipo.