Raptors best Bucks with guile and guts

Toronto dug in with their wiles and other assets to disrupt Milwaukee's physicality and speed.

Kawhi Leonard’s first time as a Raptor in Milwaukee started with a straightforward enough goal—shots needed to fall. While both simple enough of an aim and absolutely the point of any basketball game, the order felt a little towering after Toronto’s showing in San Antonio and frankly getting their lights shot out.

For one, everyone on the floor needed to show up. Mental presence was a problem against the Spurs and they quickly outplayed a Toronto team that appeared at-odds and practically despondent with its unfamiliar lineups for the duration of the game. For a team with the pace and physicality of the Milwaukee Bucks—currently rated offensively first in the league—coming in cold would lose Toronto more than just mental edge.

The Raptors started loose. Unless a team has got a wingspan to match most of Milwaukee’s roster, loose doesn’t lend to casual turnovers and easily picking off shots, and needs consistent communication to direct that kind of flowing energy. Toronto went with the same starting lineup seen in San Antonio which, basically, is the best option the team has right now, but communication did not initially seem improved.

A big takeaway from the Spurs loss was that Fred VanVleet is struggling with playmaking. In the position of starting point guard he needs to dole out the ball as much as plays, and he seemed reluctant to move it around, often dribbling himself into a corner as screen after screen went cold in front of him. Utilized this way, Fred loses the ability to make a lot of the crucial shots that keep momentum and confidence on the Raptors side, and doesn’t have near enough chances for a quick Fred-style steal. VanVleet is best when he’s moving and with his clear and methodical playing style, doesn’t tend to get tangled up even when he’s playing fast. Especially facing a team like Milwaukee, which is a bad physical match for VanVleet given their wingspan, his speed and general craftiness are what he can reliably fall back on. His reluctance was back to start the game in Milwaukee and while I don’t doubt he’s handling the starting role with the gravity it needs, I do wonder what lightening up, a little, could do for his decision making.

Other than making shots, beating the Bucks means keeping Giannis Antetokounmpo out of the paint. This was happening, with early all-hands Raptor pile-ons when Antetokounmpo so much as set a toe in the paint, but the focus on the Greek Freak was initially leaving the just as sniper-ish Malcolm Brogdon and physically forward Khris Middleton with clear looks and wide open lanes.

The Raptors defence began to balance itself toward the end of the first quarter, spreading evenly to better handle Eric Bledsoe and an extremely fired up Brook Lopez. But moving into the second quarter, with an increasingly ineffectual bench rotation, Toronto quickly lost the edge they’d struggled to establish.

This bench unit is an unbalanced bummer and it’s not really a mystery as to why. Take out Siakam and VanVleet, and there is no one left who can reliably shoot right now. Save for a few hot games, and one extremely scalding showing against the Cavs, OG Anunoby has been streaky since November. Delon Wright’s game is lacking confidence, an element that playing alongside VanVleet and Siakam typically lends to, and Norman Powell is still not someone I would trust with the dagger to go Deer Hunter on this Milwaukee team, even with a clear shot. And Greg Monroe, ah Moose, it really does seem like he’s behind five years in terms of what a center should look and play like. It’s not that there isn’t potential versatility within Monroe, or even this bench unit as a whole, but there isn’t someone among them who can readily activate it. Speaking of, should we start seriously considering a missing persons report for C.J. Miles?

Coming back from the half the starters were tasked with closing the deficit the bench had dug Toronto into, and it suddenly didn’t seem all that difficult. In a franchise first—I’m maybe half-kidding—Toronto came out strong, focused and fired-up in the 3rd quarter. The communication that looked wayward at best throughout the first half of the game was suddenly locked in and humming, and even if the the Raptors can’t match the Bucks on physicality with every play, they did make sure to pull out some big ones that effectively messed with Milwaukee’s momentum enough to disrupt their defence.

The Poseidon among these tide-turners was Ibaka’s gigantic chasedown block on what Antetokounmpo went into thinking was a walk-in-the-park dunk. Flying up from behind him, Ibaka neatly swatted the ball out without much fanfare into the ready hands of VanVleet, who quickly flipped it inbounds to Siakam to run up the court and lob over and out to Ibaka for the transition three.

It was the kind of easy, flowing play and movement the Raptors were really getting good at before Lowry went out, and it was as reassuring as it was a promising glimpse at the team getting back to that for as long as they need to be without him.

It was smart ball but more than that, it was the kind of game the Raptors excel at, one where they might be outmatched in one sense—physically, the three-point game—or another, but dig in and use their wiles and other assets to disrupt. There was a moment when Danny Green reached in on Bledsoe for a late steal in a move that seemed lifted from one of his snakes, and VanVleet showed right back up when he was left free and unencumbered to take his outside shots.

Riding this wave, the Raptors kept up the pace while continuing to play with the precision that comes with strong communication. The field goal percentage popped up and at about the 8-minute mark of the 4th it was clear that the bench wasn’t coming back in. The starters carried this game, with all five players ending up in the double-digits. Ibaka, Siakam and Kawhi had huge games, with 25, 30 and 30 points between them, respectively, and showed that even in this potentially less than ideal lineup, in an away game against a team like the Bucks, they can lock in and take control. Because while it was close, once the Raptors turned it, this wasn’t a game that felt like it. There was no anxiety. The Raptors hung on and stayed dogged even when Milwaukee made multiple attempts to agitate and burn up the pace to close the game. Gone were the frantic, ramped-up and unspooling Raptors that once came alive in the final few minutes of a close game, replaced instead by a considered, slowed down and cohesive unit short a few key pieces but playing like there was nothing to worry about.