The Milwaukee Bucks woke up in the fourth quarter. They’d been sleepwalking through three quarters, yawning their way into a 20-point deficit. For their parts, the Toronto Raptors were creating ideal shots at will on offense while frustrating Milwaukee’s stars on the other side. It was the basketball equivalent of a Kimbo Slice fight, with one team showing up out of financial responsibility, but in truth only present to receive a whooping.
Toronto’s defense ate the Bucks in large, questing bites. DeAndre’ Bembry, starting in place of Kyle Lowry, frustrated Khris Middleton perhaps as much as anyone ever has.
“He can apply some heat,” said Nick Nurse, fiery himself, of Bembry after the game.
Middleton didn’t score his first field goal until a minute before the end of the first half. OG Anunoby took the challenge of Giannis Antetokounmpo, matching his strength and speed, and contesting every pass headed in his direction. In past years, the Raptors used Pascal Siakam to guard Antetokounmpo, but Anunoby is better able to match his strength. And with such a smooth alignment of defenders. the two of Middleton and Antetokounmpo combined for 11 turnovers and only 12 made field goals. On the back Toronto’s defense, the team coasted.
That changed in the fourth quarter as Thanasis Antetokounmpo brought a jolt of energy to the Bucks. His defense to end the third quarter was integral, and he opened the fourth with a dunk off a cut. The Raptors turned the ball over looking for Norman Powell. Middleton soon scored on a putback, and then Pat Connaughton hit a triple cutting the lead to 10.
Toronto responded with aplomb. Fred VanVleet and Bembry forced Middleton into a turnover and a miss on sequential possessions. On the other end, Anunoby drove and finished a reverse layup as he fell backwards behind the rim, and then he drove and decelerated hard to cerate space, finishing with a little push shot.
“He wants to be a player that can take it off the bounce from the perimeter and make plays or finish or find the open area if the help comes,” said Nurse of Anunoby.
“He works on it a lot.”
Ten was as close as the Bucks would come after the first quarter. Expecting a fight from the Bucks after losing the front of the back-to-back, the Raptors outclassed, outskilled, and outperformed their sliding opponents. The Bucks have now lost five straight games and have fallen to only two games ahead of the surging Raptors in the standings.
Meanwhile, Siakam was without a doubt the game’s best player. While Milwaukee’s stars had defenders shadowing their every move, Siakam never met his match on Milwaukee’s roster. At varying times he faced Middleton, reigning Defensive Player of the Year Antetokounmpo, and even the much larger Brook Lopez. All three of those players have given him difficulties in the past.
Not in this one.
Siakam opened the game by attacking Lopez in the paint. He was relentless in his assault on the rim, driving at ever opportunity. A number of those attacks resulted in spinning mid-rangers, but that is a mild price to pay for an aggressive Siakam. The rhythm that he established paid its dividends throughout the game. At the rim, he unfolded his length, finishing long scoop layups through contact. In the paint he finished floaters and runners with ease. Behind the arc, he hit standstill and relocation triples. He dished wonderful passes to the perimeter from the post after drawing multiple defenders. He drove with ease in isolation. He screened and handled in the pick-and-roll.
He has always projected to be a diverse scorer, but Siakam has become a player with as many options on the offensive end as any player in the league. He can initiate, connect, or finish plays, and he fits into practically any setup. He finished with 27 points and 5 assists.
That bodes extremely well for Toronto. In fact, that’s more important than even two consecutive regular season wins over the Bucks. Siakam has not just returned to his old self, but become something new. Something better. His ability to create solid shots against any individual defender, whether in the pick-and-roll, in isolation, or in the post, remains the most important indicator of Toronto’s ceiling. That he did it against three such elite — and different — defenders is an exciting omen indeed.
Siakam wasn’t alone, of course, in the plus column. Norman Powell finished with a game-high 29 points. The Buck Hunter rode again, doing his damage in only 12 shots. The box score claims that he missed a few shots, but I don’t believe it.
VanVleet was his usual immaculate self. He finished with a solid 17 points and 8 assists, and though he was inefficient from the field, he was able to lead as the Raptors were down Kyle Lowry.
“It’s a lot of ownership on Fred to be able to get us into our stuff, sustain whatever is going on on the floor, whether teams are going on runs, whatever it is to keep us even-keeled, not getting too off-kilter when teams are making shots,” explained Powell. “Keeping the guys steady. Making sure we’re still getting into the flow of our offense and defense the right way and not getting too crazy out there when teams are making their runs, whatever it is.”
Of course, VanVleet played his All-NBA defense, too. At one point early, Antetokounmpo spun into the paint with only VanVleet to contest him. The diminutive guard reached his hands into the cookie jar and ripped the prize away from the seven-footer. It was, in a way, one of the most impressive defensive plays of VanVleet’s career. With that play, VanVleet put a claim in as one of the strongest pound-for-pound players in the league.
It was impressive that the Raptors beat off the Bucks’ charge in the fourth. It was impressive, of course, that they took two off the Bucks, who are struggling, but still roster some dangerous weapons. But it’s more important that the Raptors have so many of their key players clicking at the same time. Siakam, VanVleet, Anunoby, and Powell were their best selves in both games against Milwaukee. Bembry is cementing himself as a piece Toronto cannot be without. Aron Baynes has found himself a solid role off the bench.
These Raptors are not last year’s team. That much is clear. But they’re starting to prove that whoever they are, they can be a pretty good basketball team in their own right.