Defensively, the Toronto Raptors did about as well as any team can against the Milwaukee Bucks in Tuesday’s 108-97 loss at Scotiabank Arena.
It’s not often that a team will hold Giannis Antetokounmpo to just 19 points and the Bucks to just 10 fast-break points. The Raptors, however, execute defensive schemes about as well as any team in the league, and they limited Antetokounmpo by guarding him primarily with stout small forward OG Anunoby and regular double-teams, while they got back quickly after missed buckets instead of crashing the offensive glass in order to limit the Bucks transition game.
It wasn’t enough, of course, as the Bucks outplayed the Raptors in spite of being on the second night of a back-to-back and on the road in a… hostile environment in Toronto.
For as good as the Raptors were defensively, the Bucks were even better. They entered Tuesday night with the league’s best defense, allowing 3.9 points per 100 possessions fewer than the second-place Raptors, which is approximately the difference between Toronto’s defense and eighth-place Orlando. The Bucks are big and they are smart, allowing poor three-point shooters to shoot while chasing hot ones off the line, defending the basket, and getting back in transition. They held the Raptors to just 22 points in the paint (+6), 15 fast-break points (-5), 21 free-throw attempts (+15), while forcing 17 turnovers (+3).
The Bucks can (and should) send a heartfelt “thank you” letter to the referees for that free-throw discrepancy, but the Raptors faced a problem they have faced against elite defenses all season, and one they will need to solve come playoff time if they want to beat a team as good as the Bucks four times out of seven: how to manufacture offense when the game slows down, especially in the paint.
The Raptors shot 52 three-pointers and made 18, good for 34.6 percent on the night. That means a whopping 57.1 percent of the Raptors shots came from behind the arc, while they scored just 22 points in the paint and struggled to get to the line. Pascal Siakam and Serge Ibaka, the Raptors’ starting bigs, combined for 19 three-point attempts and just 10 attempts inside the arc.
The Bucks defend the paint better than any team in the league, so it isn’t all that surprising that the Raptors failed to score inside, but it is discouraging. A game after beating the Indiana Pacers with dribble penetration and sleek passing to cutters, the Raptors were forced out of their comfort zone and had no choice but to rely on their outside shooting against the Bucks, and they lost because of it.
The sky isn’t falling, though, and here’s why: The Raptors proved that they could hang with the Bucks even without Norman Powell and Marc Gasol — one of their most important defenders and offensive playmakers against the Bucks.
For a team as historically dominant as the Bucks — who are now on pace to win 70 games — they didn’t look all that scary against the Raptors, despite being the healthier team. Especially Antetokounmpo, who, despite having 19 rebounds, eight assists, and three blocks, actually looked human in this one. Anunoby did a fantastic job staying in front of him, making Antetokounmpo rely on his inconsistent outside shooting for points. Anunoby also gave him the “scarf special” with this one:
Watch the 2nd half on TNT pic.twitter.com/oix7hUmpdM
— NBA (@NBA) February 26, 2020
Any time you limit Antetokounmpo and stop the Bucks from getting out in transition, you have a chance to win, which is exactly what the Raptors did on Tuesday night. They need to figure out how to manufacture more shots inside when the threes aren’t falling, sure, but it’s not often that Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka will combine to shoot 2/17 from deep in what was an uncharacteristically bad game from the both of them.
The Raptors’ bench was a bright spot on the night, outscoring the Bucks’ bench 35-28 despite missing Powell and Gasol. Boucher even gave Antetokounmpo the “french kiss” with this one:
BONJOUR FAM pic.twitter.com/ViKg18wwIY
— Toronto Raptors (@Raptors) February 26, 2020
It’s important to remember that in Ibaka and Gasol, the Raptors have two centers that can consistently hit jump-shots if left unguarded (Nurse alluded to the fact that this was Ibaka’s first bad game in “like 21”). If the Raptors do play the Bucks in the playoffs, at a certain point, the Raptors are going to hit some shots, and the Bucks — who play the same style every night, relying on a drop-scheme where their center drops into the paint defending pick-and-rolls — are going to have to adjust.
The Raptors will have to adjust to certain things, too. But they are used to changing it up whereas the Bucks are not.
That is what tight playoff series’ come down to: adjustments. And I think it’s safe to say that the Raptors have proven that any playoff series against them will be tight, regardless of opponent.
“Sometimes you’re coaching for the moment, sometimes you’re coaching for the future,” Nurse said about his lineup combinations after the game.
The future is bright, and I see a lot of adjustments coming. The Bucks had the Raptors’ name today, but how seamlessly each team manages their adjustments in the playoffs is what matters most.