It was a mark of last season’s Toronto Raptors that they came back after poor losses — admittedly few — with Heart of a Champion wins. Well, only two nights after the Raptors lost a humiliating game to league-worst Minnesota Timberwolves, the Raptors followed up with another statement 124-113 win over the reeling Milwaukee Bucks.
There were plenty of positives in this one, straight from jump street. Perhaps most importantly, OG Anunoby returned to the lineup after missing time with a calf strain, and he picked up where he left off before the injury. Anunoby’s switchable defense, rebounding, shooting, and quick decision making aren’t replicated anywhere else on the roster in a single player, so his presence unlocks Toronto’s best identities. He is the team’s best small-ball center, and so too is he a key member of transitional units that play lockdown defense and romp in transition. Without Anunoby, the Raptors seem to lack structural integrity — the bones that hold up their systems melt.
And with Anunoby, the Raptors got straight back to winning. They started Norman Powell to keep Starter Powell hot, which meant that the Raptors started a small ball group for the first time since Alex Len was a Raptor. It worked. Pascal Siakam and OG Anunoby were tremendous havoc-generators on the defensive end, rotating early to protect the paint, gathering steals in digs or by jumping passing lanes, and altogether mucking up Milwaukee’s best-laid plans. Siakam has always been at his best as a secondary defender, able to orbit the on-ball brilliance of Anunoby and Fred VanVleet, and the three of them were wonderful together in this one.
“From the tip we were pretty aggressive and a lot of that has to do with OG’s versatility and taking some of the pressure off Pascal,” said VanVleet, succinctly.
On the other end, Anunoby slotted comfortably into his low-usage role, hitting shots when available, and driving at times in transition and against rotations. He scored a cool 13 points on fantastic efficiency. The Raptors don’t have a player like Anunoby, and they need him. That was proved as much by his absence during the past weeks as by his presence during Toronto’s momentous win.
Another benefit of Toronto starting both Powell and Anunoby was that Aron Baynes shifted to the bench. He looked much more comfortable as a bench big, which is likely his best long-term fit with the Raptors. Baynes set solid screens for VanVleet, He finished a few layups in the paint that were created by VanVleet, which is always important from the center spot. Most importantly for Baynes, his defense was pinprick sharp. He rotated with intensity, hitting his spots early to close driving lanes before they opened. He even spent a few possessions guarding Giannis Antetokounmpo, and he did a solid job of staying big, forcing Antetokounmpo into help, while neither reaching nor fouling.
When Baynes did enter the game, it came alongside Chris Boucher. It was excellent coaching from Nick Nurse that on a night when the team had two centers (if Boucher can be called a center) available, they started a zero-center group and then turned to a two-center group afterwards. The scheme worked. Boucher is one of the league’s best at protecting the rim as a helper, and he finished with five blocks. Ideally, he would still play many of his minutes as a power forward alongside traditional bigs, but that’s not really an option for the Raptors at this junction. Having Anunoby back allows Boucher to play as nominal four alongside Anunoby. And bringing Baynes off the bench allows that as well. Nurse spoke after the game about his desire to use Boucher more as a power forward going forward.
One thing was clear: Anunoby returning to the lineup crystallized the team’s rotations in a number of ways, all for the positive.
There were, of course, negatives. There always have to be. Kyle Lowry started by pitching a wonderful outing, but he left after twice tweaking his ankle. He had been picking his spots with brilliance, playing like the best player on either team. When Toronto entered droughts, Lowry picked up the energy by driving and creating tough, contested layups out of thin air. When Toronto went on runs, Lowry capped them off with triples. He scored 18 points in only 22 minutes, and it was a worthwhile question whether the game would slip away after Lowry limped off.
Instead, like the best relief pitchers, VanVleet picked up where Lowry left off. He was immaculate in this one. VanVleet torched the Bucks and their preference for drop defense, scorching the net as he shot 5-of-12 from deep, many of those coming from pull-ups rather than off the catch. He relocated around others’ drives and ran in transition. With the ball he drove without fear and committed practically no mistakes. He shot 7-of-10 from inside the arc, and many of those came on free throw line pull-ups after snaking the pick-and-roll. To top it off, he even drew free throws when he attacked the rim.
VanVleet played one of his best games of the year, as he finished with 33 points and 7 assists.
“Fred was really good tonight, he handled it great,” said Nurse after the game. “Whoever was out there, he got us organized and we really got good shots.”
Toronto’s win over Milwaukee makes the loss to Minnesota all the more baffling. But it’s more important that the Raptors are able to beat good teams, given their high expectations for the season, despite currently sitting below .500. The fact of the matter is that his season has been woefully short of statement wins. Well, chalk another one up in that column, too.