They won the battle. We’ll win the war.
Mike Budenholzer was eager to see some of Nick Nurse’s much-ballyhooed odd defences — and not just for curiosity’s sake.
“Usually (the opposition using unconventional defences) is a sign that you may be winning,” Budenholzer said. “So hopefully, it’s a good thing.”
The logic of the Bucks coach is not wrong. Even Nurse, the Raptors’ head coach, has said he usually uses zones to disrupt the rhythm of the opposition’s offence. On the other hand, Nurse is one of the most aggressive coaches in the league in inviting weirdness into a game. He does not always need an on-court reason to present itself before he brings some strange to an evening.
Not surprisingly, Nurse used the first of three remaining games against the league-leading Bucks to get funky. Very early on, the Raptors used a 3-2 zone. The Raptors preferred some matchups — OG Anunoby on Giannis Antetokounmpo, Serge Ibaka on Brook Lopez — but he was not opposed to liberal switching. He even rode bench-heavy lineups, matchups be damned, when working. In other words, in Milwaukee’s 108-97 win over the Raptors, Nurse was himself, even if he confessed afterward to not finding as many opportunities to tinker as he’d like.
“I think that I would normally, I would tend to probably try a few things (in the regular season) that may go sideways or may not work, that I may not try in a playoff game,” Nurse said. “I might anyway (in the playoffs), too. Who knows? But you know what I mean? I’ve got a couple ideas tonight that I think I want to look at that I don’t have any idea if they’re good or not. So I think I’ll throw them out there and maybe if it was a playoff game, I wouldn’t. Since it’s not, hopefully I’ll give ’em a shot.”
It was interesting tuning in to TNT’s pre-game coverage and hearing Dwyane Wade and Shaquille O’Neal discuss how the Bucks ought to approach the stretch, especially if they get a shot at the 70-win mark. O’Neal spoke about the 2004-2005 season when the Miami Heat lost to the Detroit Pistons in the Eastern Conference Finals and lamented about how a deep thigh bruise hampered him down the stretch and through the playoffs. He drew comparisons to the Bucks’ Giannis Antetokounmpo, who has missed games with back and shoulder issues and, adding in Kawhi Leonard for good measure, suggested the Bucks need to win as many games as possible as soon as possible and give Antetokounmpo a decent rest. Antetokounmpo played 25 minutes Monday in a 137-134 overtime win over the Washington Wizards and played 38 Tuesday.
“Forget 70,” O’Neal said.
The last time the Bucks paid a visit to Toronto their head coach, Mike Budenholzer, left answering questions about being out coached by Nick Nurse. And there was a memorable pouting post-game news conference after Game 6 in which Antetokounmpo walked off mid-session when he was asked about the importance of experience. Middleton was left sitting by himself at the podium in the bowels of the Scotiabank Arena. Antetokounmpo had been informed as he took the podium that ESPN had published a story at the buzzer of Game 6 suggesting he had already resolved to leave Milwaukee unless the team went on a Finals run this season.
Tuesday, he admitted the Game 6 and series loss was on his mind. But he also talked about the Bucks having a “next man up” mentality, talking up recently-acquired veteran Marvin Williams — who had a nice 16 minutes with nine points on three three-balls while gobbling up four defensive rebounds – as well as Brook Lopez and Middleton.
They saw the spot on the floor where Kawhi Leonard threw down that vicious one-handed slam-dunk on Giannis Antetokounmpo, unofficially sealing their fate. They saw the rim where new papa Fred VanVleet drained three after three. They saw Drake, the Raptors’ global ambassador and resident antagonist, arrive 30 minutes early – a tell-tale sign that this was a big game – wearing not one, but two championship belts.
They were reminded of the 2-0 series lead they let slip away, their four straight losses, and the devastating feeling they had the last time they left that building.
Was that on their mind?
“Of course,” admitted Antetokounmpo, following his team’s 108-97 win over the rival and defending champion Raptors. “You always remember the last time you play here, the problems you had. It was definitely on my mind.”
Tangibly, the Bucks don’t have much to play for these days. They’ve already clinched a playoff spot – the earliest a team has done so in 15 years. Barring a spectacular late-season collapse, their seven-game lead atop the Eastern Conference – eight-game lead, after the win – should be a big enough cushion to seal first place. Mostly, they’re chasing history now – they’re on pace for 70 wins, which would be third most all-time.
But they wanted this one. The Raptors did too, to be fair.
Toronto got off to a quick start in this highly anticipated showdown between the East’s top-two teams – the first time they’ve faced off since the Raptors lost an early-November meeting in Milwaukee.
Neither team could make a shot early on, a product of the league’s two-best defences imposing their will on each other. However, with Toronto’s best players – Pascal Siakam, Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet and Serge Ibaka – all struggling to score, an unlikely duo stepped up.
Together, energy big man Chris Boucher and sparingly used sharpshooter Matt Thomas totalled 19 first-half points off the bench. At the time, that was more than Siakam, Lowry and Ibaka had combined to score. It was also more than Bucks all-stars Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleston had registered.
— Shaqtin' a Fool (@shaqtin) February 26, 2020
“You always remember the last time you played here, the feelings you had,” Antetokounmpo said. “It was definitely on my mind.”
Antetokounmpo finished with eight assists, narrowly missing a triple-double. The reigning NBA MVP said Tuesday’s game had a playoff feel to it.
“You expect that,” Antetokounmpo said.
The Bucks beat the Raptors 115-105 when the teams met in Milwaukee on Nov. 2. They’ll face each other again in consecutive games on April 1 and 3.
Pascal Siakam scored 22 points and Fred VanVleet had 14 as the defending NBA champion Raptors lost for the second time in 19 games. Toronto was beaten at home for the first time since Jan. 12 against San Antonio, ending a nine-game run.
It was a rough night for Raptors starters Serge Ibaka and Kyle Lowry. Ibaka made 2 of 15 shots and Lowry shot 2 for 12. Ibaka went 1 for 10 from 3-point range while Lowry was 1 for 7.
“Tonight it just didn’t go in,” Raptors coach Nick Nurse said. “Serga had like 21 straight great games. You’re going to have that one once in a while and tonight wasn’t his night.”
The Milwaukee Bucks took the early punch. Staggered by the suffocating defense of the Toronto Raptors and barraged by three-pointer after three-pointer, the Bucks found themselves in a 12-point hole late in the second quarter.
In the same building where their playoff run ended in the Eastern Conference finals last year, the Bucks again were struggling and looked to be at a loss for how to stem the tide.
But then, the answers came. First, their three-pointers started falling, then their defense turned up a few notches. A double-digit deficit dwindled to just two at halftime. They kept rolling out of halftime, with their offense demonstrating more crispness and composure, Khris Middleton coming alive and their defense putting the clamps on the Raptors.
From what looked like a rock bottom, the Bucks sprang to life and never looked back, beating the Raptors, 108-97, Tuesday night at Scotiabank Arena for their best road win of many this season, one that continued a four-game win streak out of the all-star break and served as some small measure of vengeance for what happened last spring.
Middleton scored 17 of his team-high 22 points after halftime, many coming off feeds from Giannis Antetokounmpo, who patiently probed Toronto’s defense and the unceasing double-teams they threw at him. Antetokounmpo, who logged 38 minutes on the second night of a back-to-back after playing just 25 minutes on Monday against the Washington Wizards, finished with a hard-earned 19 points and 19 rebounds along with eight assists.
Eric Bledsoe chipped in 17 points and Brook Lopez had 15 in the victory.
Milwaukee’s game-changing run started in the final three minutes of the second quarter when Marvin Williams connected on a corner three. To that point, the Bucks were just 1 of 11 on three-pointers in the second quarter while the Raptors had built their lead by making 5 of 10 beyond the arc in that quarter.
On the second game of a back to back, in OT no less, and yet this Milwaukee Bucks refused to relent against the squad that ended their fairytale season in 2019 with a 108-97 victory over the Toronto Raptors. The defenses predictably owned the opening of this game, as the Raptors narrowly led 27-25 following the first. Toronto looked to be dominating Milwaukee in the second, but an 11-1 sprint to close it out brought the Bucks within 50-52 at halftime. In the third, the Bucks finally wore down the Raptors defense, taking an 84-71 lead into the fourth. Toronto made several late runs with some triples, but the Bucks took care of business in the end.
Giannis Antetokounmpo may have been well-rested, but it didn’t help him against this suffocating Raptors defense, which was hounding him all night in the halfcourt. Their combined effort held Giannis down scoring-wise to 19 points, but he also tacked on 19 rebounds and eight assists. He did hit a mammoth corner three down the stretch though to quell some Raptors momentum.
Khris Middleton took some time to find his rhythm, but eventually got to his spots offensively against Toronto and finished with 22 points and eight boards. Brook Lopez was spectacular defensively, logging five blocks and adding 15 points. Eric Bledsoe was just 5-14, but he was the primary catalyst offensively in the early going and ended with 17 points, seven boards and four assists.
Milwaukee did a fantastic job defensively against all of Toronto’s top-flight players. Pascal Siakam scored 22 points on an efficient 14 shots, but Fred VanVleet/Kyle Lowry combined to shoot just 7-26 for 24 points. Serge Ibaka was a horrific 2-14 from the field as well.
In retrospect, the first six minutes of the second quarter were the highlight of the game. The Raptors played with Lowry and the bench and found an almost impossible groove against the league’s best defensive team. The pair of Matt Thomas and Chris Boucher alone appeared to keep the Bucks on their heels for much of that time. For his part, Thomas checked into the game and hit three 3s; Boucher, meanwhile, ran the lane for some dunks — including one off a brilliant read from Thomas — and hit a pair of 3s of his own. In all, it felt like Toronto wouldn’t necessarily need their starters to step up to maintain the lead; a feeling confirmed when Thomas atypically checked back in to finish the half. It was also proven naive. The Bucks instead found their range to end the half, dropping Toronto’s lead to two points in a hurry.
The Raptors’ fortunes took a turn for the worse in the third largely thanks to Ibaka’s abysmal play. The big man managed just five points on the night, on some horrid 2-of-15 shooting to go with five rebounds. What’s worse, Ibaka also had three turnovers (which seems astoundingly low). He was due for a bad game, but this one could not have come at a worse time. In those opening minutes of the third, Ibaka was giving up looks on defense and missing every shot he took. The latter problem seemed to slowly infect the whole team which eventually softened Toronto’s defense too. Only Pascal Siakam finding his touch for seven points in the frame kept the Raps within range — down 13 heading into the fourth — after a 34-19 quarter. We dared to dream another miracle comeback was in store.
We return now to the intractable problem the Raptors now face. In the fourth they did indeed get a boost — thanks largely to Terence Davis, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, and an unholy Boucher block on Giannis — but most of their offense seemed predicated on chaos. It’s fun to watch, and definitely gooses the crowd, but also wholly unreliable. This is especially the case against a team like the Bucks who, for the most part, play their game one way and make it difficult for other teams to assert an opposing will. Toronto managed to shrink Milwaukee’s lead to as low as five points, but it felt like the turn-the-tide bucket they needed kept eluding them. This is what happens when a team lacks the go-to scoring of, yes, a Kawhi.
It was a rough night for Raptors starters Serge Ibaka and Kyle Lowry. Ibaka made 2 of 15 shots and Lowry shot 2 for 12. Ibaka went 1 for 10 from 3-point range while Lowry was 1 for 7.
Lowry, Terence Davis and Chris Boucher all scored 10 points for the Raptors.
Toronto trailed 84-71 to begin the fourth, but Davis scored five points as the Raptors closed the gap with a 7-0 spurt over the first 90 seconds of the final quarter.
VanVleet’s four-point play with 2:23 left cut it to 101-94, and the Raptors forced a steal on Milwaukee’s next possession but VanVleet missed a 3. Antetokounmpo hit a 3 at the other end, restoring the double-digit advantage.
Six of Toronto’s 10 field goals in the first quarter were 3-pointers, including a pair from Siakam. The Raptors led 27-25 after one.
Toronto was up 51-39, its biggest lead of the game, after OG Anunoby dunked over Antetokounmpo with 2:58 to go in the second. Milwaukee closed the quarter with an 11-1 spurt, cutting the deficit to 52-50 at halftime.
After missing 10 of 11 attempts from 3-point range in the second, the Bucks hit three in a row from distance during their closing surge. All five of Antetokounmpo’s points in the quarter came during that stretch.
Middleton made just one of five shots in the first half but went 3 for 3 in the third and scored nine points as the Bucks outscored the Raptors 34-19 to take an 84-71 lead into the fourth.
“There’s a team you’re possibly going to see in the playoffs, certainly somebody you’ve battled with before, and it’s always good to kind of re-gauge temperature, matchups, and any differences that have happened,” Nurse said. “It’s been a long time since we’ve played, even though they are a familiar foe.”
The two teams last met on Nov. 2, a game the Bucks won 115-105 on their home court but even then the stakes weren’t what they are right now.
At this point in the season teams are locking in and making that final push to put themselves in the best possible headspace come playoff time in 24 games or so.
It’s not a secret that the post-all-star NBA is a rather large step up from what teams have put on display to before that break.
These two teams, as Nurse mentioned, are familiar with one another but there have been significant changes in both rosters since Toronto won four in a row to knock the Bucks out in six games in last year’s Eastern Conference final.
Nurse points out the Raptors start a smaller backcourt with Danny Green now in Los Angeles and Fred VanVleet joining Lowry back there.
On most nights that size loss is not an issue but Nurse thought it was enough of an issue to mention it pre-game.
“Philly’s huge, and Milwaukee’s pretty long and big,” Nurse said. “Those are the things you’re thinking about when you think, can you do this, sustain this at all times?” he said of a smaller starting backcourt. “So it’s good to get a test of that and, if it’s not figure out how we’re going to work it, or even if it is OK, look at some other things.”
Nurse doesn’t even mention the elephant of what is really different when goes down this path but then he’s only referenced Kawhi Leonard at all this season when specifically asked about him.
As for the Bucks they have changed although Nurse downplays those as well.
Both teams were very defensively stingy. The Raps held the Bucks to 38.1 percent shooting – Antetokounmpo made just 5-of-14.
“Our defence was good enough tonight,” said VanVleet. “Our offence wasn’t. Sometimes when your offence ain’t no good you give up more points. That’s what happened.”
It was the first visit by the Bucks to Toronto since the Raps ended their 2019 season in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals.
“You always remember the last time you play here, the problems you had,” said Antetokounmpo. “It was definitely on my mind.”
Tuesday’s game marked the second of four regular season meetings between them this year. The Bucks took the first one in Milwaukee in November 115-105.
The Bucks had just flown in from Washington, where they played to a late overtime victory Monday over the Wizards. The Raps were fresh off a 127-81 thrashing of the Indiana Pacers two nights earlier – the largest margin of victory in club history.
Drake was courtside seat in Toronto for the marquee matchup, trolling the Bucks with a championship belt over this shoulder. TNT was courtside too.
Antetokoumpo was a rare visiting player to get a vigorous cheer from the Raptors crowd when he was introduced. Many fans dare to dream the Greek megastar might consider Toronto when his contract with the Bucks expires in the summer of 2021.
The two beasts of the east came out shooting ice cold Tuesday night. There were just two field goals made in the opening four minutes — a three-pointer by Brook Lopez, then one by Serge Ibaka at the other end.
Both teams did their best to provide a playoff preview. The Bucks kept rolling, and ended up with the 108-97 win, handing Toronto a rare home loss while winning their 50th game before playing their 60th, and improving to 50-9 while Toronto fell to 42-16.
They also improved to 2-0 on the season series, but felt it as they were held to 38-per-cent shooting thanks to a typically swarming Raptors defence. Antetokounmpo once more failed to have his way offensively as he does as against most opponents.
The problem is the Bucks were a little better at the same game, even while playing on the second night of a back-to-back and their third game in four nights.
They were able to hold the Raptors’ big gun, Pascal Siakam, in check for the most part, which is a problem given he no longer has Leonard to pick him up. Facing a steady diet of Kris Middleton with Antetokounmpo and Brook Lopes at the rim, Siakam managed 22 points but had four turnovers and shot 6-of-14 from the floor. The Raptors got plenty of help from their bench – 35 points’ worth – but the rest of the Raptors starters had a hard time with the Bucks’ strength and length. Toronto shot just 35.2 per cent from the floor against the NBA’s best defence.
Trailing by 13 to start the fourth quarter, Toronto cut the Bucks’ lead to five midway through the period, but couldn’t answer when the Bucks surged back. A corner three by Antetokounmpo put Milwaukee up by 10 with less than two minutes to play and Toronto was stymied from there.
His key triple aside – one of two on the night by Antetokounmpo – it wasn’t a vintage performance by the Bucks star. The Raptors limited him in transition, made it difficult on him in the lane and never left him at peace.
Nick Nurse saw his Toronto Raptors turn the heat on the best team in basketball Tuesday night. But only for a time against the Milwaukee Bucks.
“We were incredible for 22 minutes. There was hardly a bad possession,” Nurse said. “They were shooting air balls all over the place. Tough shots. Defensively we were active all over the place.”
Toronto led 51-39 with some three minutes left in the second quarter. An 11-1 Milwaukee run cut the lead to 52-50 at the half and the Bucks took control in the third, outscoring Toronto 34-19 in the quarter — helped by an 18-4 run — en route to a 108-97 victory.
Khris Middleton led the Bucks with 22 points as Milwaukee notched its 50th win of the season. Giannis Antetokounmpo had 19 points, 19 rebounds and eight assists and Eric Bledsoe added 17 points for Milwaukee.
Pacal Siakam had 22 points, one of six Raptors in double figures. Toronto attempted a franchise-record 52 three-pointers, making 18 before a sellout crowd of 19,993 at Scotiabank Arena.
Serge Ibaka was 1-for-10 from distance while Kyle Lowry was 1-for-7.
“I’d say that when you play these guys or play Golden State, you’ve got to score with them,” said Nurse. “I think our lack of scoring, all of a sudden that takes a little bit of juice out of your defence. I think that was probably the case tonight. We started missing shots, we started losing a little defensive energy and then your defence isn’t as good either because your offence made it that way.”
Milwaukee’s grit in coming back was all the more impressive given it needed overtime to beat Washington the night before and was playing its third game in four days. The Bucks are 8-0 in the second game of a back-to-back set this season.
“We didn’t make enough plays, didn’t do enough,” said Toronto guard Fred VanVleet, who turned 26 on the day. “And that’s a great team. So you’ve got to play up to that level to get a win.”
“Our defence was good enough tonight,” he added “Our offence wasn’t.”
“We just started the third (quarter) off slow and didn’t make enough shots and we missed a lot of open shots tonight,” echoed Lowry, who finished with 10 points and six assists.