Only hours after celebrating the announcement that Kyle Lowry will join Kawhi Leonard at the all-star game, the Toronto Raptors lost a weird and ultimately frustrating game to the Milwaukee Bucks, 105-92. There were numerous reasons for the Raptors to come out peppy. They were elated for Lowry. Siakam was out for revenge after not making the all-star game (though he actually delivered). Toronto was coming off of three rest days to iron out their tactics against Milwaukee and was at home. The Raptors wanted to split the season series against the current leader in the East. None of those reasons were apparently enough to spark a good showing.
The loss was a tale of two entirely different halves, although neither of them reflected well on the Raptors.
The first half of the game was something of the tactical battle that pundits expected between two Eastern Conference heavyweights. Coming into the game, Nick Nurse played up the importance of limiting Brook Lopez’s clean looks from behind the arc.
“We are going to have to be out there and up underneath him and challenging him and make them hard and try to limit the number. That’s the key to the game,” he said.
Even though the Raptors were ready for Lopez, they weren’t ready to bear the full brunt of the Bucks’ charge. Slowing the Bucks’ system requires absolute focus, and the Raptors’ attention was too inconsistent to offer resistance. While the first quarter was generally brilliant, with the Bucks only able to score a handful of buckets in transition, Toronto couldn’t maintain that level of attention. A 22-point first quarter for the Bucks gave way to a 34-point second quarter.
Coach Budenholzer subbed Giannis Antetokounmpo out before his usual spot so that he would get run against Toronto’s bench. Nurse responded by subbing Siakam in the same place, so that he could try to defuse the Bucks’ super-weapon.
It didn’t work. The Raptors frequently didn’t pick up Antetokounmpo early in the half-court, and he raced down the court for a few layups only moments after made Toronto baskets. Even when they did pick him up in the half-court, Milwaukee seemed to find easy shots at will, especially from deep. When Antetokounmpo was handling the ball, Toronto zoned up the weak-side, leaving small windows of passing space for Antetokounmpo. He was brilliant, hitting a variety of shooters in the corner. They shot 9-for-17 from deep in the first half, as DJ Wilson especially murdered the home squad. He finished with a career-high 16 points.
For stretches of the first half, the Raptors were excellent. Their zone, as always, was magical. It forced turnovers, missed 3s, and general confusion. No team has yet figured out how to beat the zone in small doses. When the Raptors switched point guards onto Brook Lopez behind the arc, they did well forcing him off the line. Lopez finished with 11 points while clunking his way to 1-for-8 from behind the arc; the Raptors accomplished their goal of limiting him. The Bucks committed 10 turnovers in the first half, and several of them came when switches surprised their shooters into ill-advised decisions. Still, the Bucks scored 56 points.
On offence, Toronto scored well in the pick-and-roll, as Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka relied on their solid partnership. In one particularly bright moment, Pascal Siakam set a screen for Lowry and immediately received the ball as he rolled towards the rim. In past circumstances, especially when he’s playing center, Siakam usually charges full steam ahead towards the rim. Here, however, he took his time and found Norman Powell open in the corner for a triple. His ability to alter the pace of his rolls will improve his effectiveness as a small-ball center, as I wrote about here.
The first half was a tactical battle that Toronto lost, mostly because their shots didn’t fall. They matched Milwaukee’s 17 attempted triples in the first half, but while Milwaukee canned nine, Toronto bricked their way to a pitiful two. It was a chess match in which Milwaukee started with rook odds; they just employ better shooters. The Raptors were walking a tightrope, and though they maintained their balance in the first half, they still lost the battle. Given the shooting disparity, they were perhaps fortunate that they were trailing only 56-47 going into the break.
The wheels fell off to start the third quarter.
The Raptors were no longer beaten by complex schematic issues, or suffered momentary lapses in attention, but instead it seemed like they just stopped caring. The high-level battle between two elite outfits was replaced by a drunken caveman brawl; the teams traded their high-tech weaponry of the first half for stone clubs, and they just wailed away at each other. Toronto, especially, was lifeless.
The first half of the third quarter was possibly the worst the Raptors have played this season. Lowry committed several turnovers, and it was hard to know which was worse: an entry pass to Leonard that went nowhere near a Raptor player, or an outlet pass to Siakam that hit Ibaka in the back. Leonard’s isolations went nowhere, and on one drive he practically offered the block to Lopez like a gift at the altar.
(It’s worth mentioning that Leonard showed a frightening lack of vertical lift all night. He shot 4-for-11 at the rim, and he several times had trouble even getting off the ground.) Multiple heated timeouts from Nurse failed to fix the Raptors’ malaise. Midway through the quarter, he subbed every starter who wasn’t named Kawhi Leonard or Kyle Lowry, and Leonard responded by turning the ball over in the post. Powell added to the existential angst by throwing the ball away on the next possession. Lowry missed an uncontested reverse layup. Things were rough.
And then… they weren’t. Basketball is a game of runs, sure, but the swing was dramatic and instant. The bench lineup pulled the game very much back into reach. Fred Van Vleet and Norm Powell hit consecutive pull-up triples. Siakam hit one of his own from the corner. A Delon Wright dunk brought the game back to a manageable 87-76. As a result, the Raptors only lost one of their worst quarters of the season by two points.
For those hoping for a comeback, the fourth was no redemption story. Siakam went super-saiyan for a few minutes, scoring in the post against Antetokounmpo, in transition, and on drives from the perimeter. He finished with 28 points and a pair of made 3s. The Raptors brought the game to within six points on four separate occasions, but Siakam alone couldn’t will them over the hump.
Ultimately, the game was disappointing for more reasons than the simple notch in the loss column. Lowry had more turnovers (5) than assists (3). Leonard was outscored 18-16 by newly minted all-star Khris Middleton despite attempting 11 more shots. Danny Green scored zero points, as he only played five minutes in the first half due to stomach issues. Like a runaway house-cat, Serge Ibaka’s 3-point shot has abandoned him completely. The starting unit that opened the season setting scoring records seems to have stalled out. In fact, since December 1, the starting lineup of Lowry-Green-Leonard-Siakam-Ibaka that blitzed the league over the first few months has been outscored by 22 points in 181 minutes while shooting only 30.6 percent from deep. The issue is at least acknowledged by the team.
“I certainly like those (starters) as individual pieces. Maybe it’s a group thing, I don’t know. I need to take a look at it and think about it again,” said Nurse after the game.
It seems that the Raptors have lesser chemistry on February 1 than they did on November 1. There’s a lot to fix, even if it’s important not to overreact to a pre all-star break game in the doldrums of winter. After the game, the players recited the necessary words, almost like required acts of contrition, repeating buzzwords like consistency, energy, focus. Neither Lowry or Leonard spoke with any sense of worry when addressing the media. The question is whether that’s reassuring or concerning.