oth first-time head coaches are wearing their relative stresses differently. For Griffin, it started in preseason, when he was willfully opaque when addressing the health of Khris Middleton’s return from knee surgery. Whether he did or didn’t go through practices in October might not seem like a big deal, but every piece of a potential championship journey is hyper-intensified. It’s easy to wonder how Bucks fans felt about the odd moments when neither Antetokounmpo nor Lillard were on the floor on Wednesday, or how the aggressive defence meshes with the talent on the floor.
Rajaković is not under quite as much pressure, although you try spending 27 years coaching to finally get a crack and see if the results matter or not to you. The Raptors want to win, but they are not a championship contender. Rajaković’s main job, other than getting his players to buy into a new system, is to lay the roster bare for Ujiri to evaluate. It is not that the Raptors lost three of their first games, but how they lost them: with the Raptors floating in and out of the preferred offensive style, and failing to close out defensive possessions, of which they’ve had many excellent ones, with rebounds. He’s showing a bit of anguish, too.
After Monday’s rough loss to Portland: “Individual problems cannot be bigger than the team. … I told the guys, ‘We’ve got to be a team. We gotta think about what I need to do for my team to win.’”
About the Raptors struggling to get Gary Trent Jr. going after practice on Tuesday: “I don’t have the ball in my hands, so I cannot pass the ball to Gary. It’s our team that needs to recognize what kind of shooter he is.”
On the rebounding issues: “There were a couple of situations when (the Trail Blazers) were shooting from the 3-point line and (the Raptors) had four guys turning around and looking at the rim. The only time you’re going to get a ball that way is if they make a shot.”
Rajaković has stayed on message more often than not, and generally exudes positivity. He’s not immune to getting caught up in the moment, though.
The season will wear on a coach. It is rare that you see this, but Griffin burned three of his seven timeouts in the first quarter — the first two to try to wake up his team, the third to challenge a call. Later in the first half, Rajaković appeared to signal to the referees that he wanted to use a timeout to review a three-shot foul on OG Anunoby. An assistant came racing up to Rajaković, presumably to say he wouldn’t win the challenge, and Rajaković changed his mind. The referees didn’t charge him with a timeout.
Griffin was nonplussed, filling referee Josh Tiven’s ear while Lillard shot his free throws. The stresses? They add up, quicker than you might think.
But when the passes found their targets, the results were impressive. The Raptors racked up 10 first-quarter assists on 12 made field goals and softened their own mistakes by forcing the Bucks into seven turnovers. Toronto hit its first four triples, one of the unassisted buckets coming when Barnes skipped into a step-back three over Antetokounmpo, the two-time MVP. He and the Raptors were feeling it.
The Bucks didn’t look particularly interested in competing and there didn’t seem to be much chemistry between Antetokounmpo and Lillard – which should be seamless on paper given Lillard’s ability to spread the floor with his shooting and Antetokounmpo’s ability to eviscerate defences in space.
The Raptors weren’t really challenge after jumping out to their quick start. They led by 27 in the second quarter and were up by 22 late in the third quarter. A 9-0 run against the Raptor bench put everyone on edge briefly, but a huge possession from Porter Jr. — limited to just eight games last season due to injury and seeing his first action this year — followed. He secured an offensive rebound in a battle with Antetokounmpo, got the ball the ball to Barnes and freed him up with a screen as Barnes hit one of his four threes on the night to close the quarter and maintain some of the momentum as Toronto headed into the fourth leading 95-79.
With the starters back in, the Raptors picked up where they had left off. Siakam capped his best game of the season with a pair of threes and a dunk to start the fourth while Schroder hit a jumper and a corner three in front of the Raptors bench as part of a 23-12 run that extended Toronto’s lead with just over seven minutes to play.
The Bucks relented at that point, and Rajakovic’s Raptors — at least for one night — looked like a team that can compete in the East every bit as convincingly as Dame Lillard and the Bucks, which may say as much about Milwaukee so far this season as it does about the Raptors.
But after a showing like that, the Raptors can at least dream.
To say the Bucks got off to a slow start in the first quarter is an understatement. The Raptors immediately jumped out to an 11-4 lead with four assists on four made shots in the early going. Jakob Poeltl had eight points and six rebounds as the Raptors took a 13-point lead heading into the second quarter.
Things went from bad to worse for the Bucks in the second quarter, as the Raptors ran out the gates with a 10-0 run to take a 40-21 lead. While the Bucks would trim it down a bit to 18, the Raptors controlled the quarter to take their largest lead of the first half at 27, 59-32 with 2:41 left in the frame. The Bucks would find a little momentum with Malik Beasley knocking down a couple of threes, as Milwaukee went to the locker room down 44-66.
Milwaukee started to make some shots from beyond the arc to begin the second half, with Beasley and Jae Crowder making three shots from downtown to trim the deficit to 15, 75-60. That’s as close as the Bucks would get, with O.G. Anunoby getting two dunks after two Milwaukee turnovers, as Toronto went back up 21. The Raptors kept the Bucks at arm’s length for the rest of the frame, going into the fourth quarter up 15, 90-75.
Despite an effort to get back into this game, the Raptors had an answer for everything the Bucks threw at them. Pascal Siakam knocked down three straight buckets from beyond the arc and pushed the Raptors’ lead back to 24 points, 115-91 with 6:42 left in the game. Toronto went into cruise control for the rest of the game and took home the 130-111 victory.
The Bucks will return to Milwaukee on Friday to take on the Knicks in their first In-Season Tournament game of the season.
The game had a very weird start — an immediate double dribble call, five turnovers in eight possessions for the Raptors… yet they made multiple three point shots and went on a run over the Bucks. Jakob Poeltl started with eight points, six rebounds and three blocks. Scottie Barnes went on a tear with a steal, a huge block and then a step-back three all right after another.
Siakam led all scorers in the first quarter with nine points, two rebounds and an assist. Dennis Schroder had some pretty assists, to Jakob especially. Gradey Dick literally took a charge against Giannis, and when it was challenged the call stuck. Truly magical hoops.
When asked post game about drawing the charge on Giannis, Coach Rajakovic said that Gradey “has some guts” and that he respected him for his commitment.
Raptors led the Bucks 31-18 after the first quarter. We will take it.
The second quarter was all the Scottie show to start as he was already well on his way to a triple double. By the midpoint of the second quarter he had 11 points, five rebounds and three assists.
The Raptors continued to take advantage in the second quarter, with both Siakam and Poeltl racing into double digit scoring as well. The bench was also more efficient tonight than in nights past.
The Raptors headed into halftime up 66-44 over the Bucks. Again, we will take it.
It wasn’t like the Raptors were going to stop shooting threes just because they were abysmal on Monday, (a 3-for-29 performance against Philadelphia on Saturday took “abysmal” to entirely different level) because no NBA team can be marginally competitive in this day and age without that threat.
“We’ve got to take open shots,” the coach was saying. “It’s part of player development; it’s part of playing in this league.
“The league is played that way. In order for you to win on the highest level, we got to be able to knock down some shots.”
And when Siakam, Barnes and Anunoby provided Toronto’s first nine points with buckets from beyond the arc, the floodgates opened.
Otto Porter Jr., supplanting Jalen McDaniels in the rotation, made a corner three the first time he touched the ball in a game this season, Gradey Dick made one; the Raptors were outstanding from beyond the arc.
And it might get lost on the dissection and glorification of the shooting and the overall offence, but Toronto’s defence was tremendous.
Anunoby fought foul trouble in the second half but Giannis Antetokounmpo had a meagre three-point first half when harangued by Anunoby’s strength and quickness. Antetokounmpo finished with 16 but at no time did he take over the proceedings.
Damian Lillard was a non-factor, really. He was limited to 10 field goal attempts in 30 minutes.
It was a typically effective defensive performance by the Raptors and that’s been a consistent trait.
“You’ve got to pick your poison, depending on the situations,” Rajakovic said. “Giannis is amazing in open court, in transition, in ISOs and post-ups. And now adding a deep-range shooter like Lillard makes life harder. But I think that we have a good game plan.”
After a disastrous three-point shooting night against Portland, Toronto’s offense was firing on all cylinders in the first half against Milwaukee. Dennis Schröder created nine of the team’s 19 first-half assists, at one point throwing an over-the-head no-look pass to Jakob Poeltl who he hit perfectly in stride for an easy layup. Not only was the offense impressive as a whole, racking up a season-high 66 points in the first half, but the much-maligned half-court offense was clicking at a well above-average rate.
It did help that Toronto’s defense was equally incredible. O.G. Anunoby held Antetokounmpo to just three points in the first half and the Bucks to 13-for-40 shooting before the break, allowing the Raptors to climb ahead by as many as 27 points.
In hindsight, maybe all the disappointment and vitriol after Monday’s loss to Portland was a little overstated. Just as the Raptors could lose a close one to one of the NBA’s worst teams, any NBA team can turn in a dud on any given night.
Milwaukee didn’t seem particularly engaged against a Toronto team the Bucks likely thought would be a pushover. Schröder, for example, blew by Antetokounmpo who slapped him with what appeared to be a lazy attempt at defense that ultimately resulted in an and-1 foul early in the third quarter to put Toronto up 25.
The Bucks mounted a bit of a comeback in the third against Toronto’s second unit, pulling within 13 late in the quarter as the Raptors missed three-point shots one after another. Gradey Dick’s three-ball wouldn’t fall and Antetokounmpo eventually got going. But Barnes stopped the bleeding with a catch-and-shoot three-pointer just before the quarter ended to put Toronto back up 16.
On this night, though, for whatever reason, the Bucks never really woke up from their malaise. Malachi Flynn stripped Bobby Portis in the opening seconds of the fourth and Gary Trent Jr. converted a transition layup at the other end. Moments later, Pascal Siakam nailed a three-pointer to put Toronto back up 20 and the Raptors never looked back.
The Raptors got off to a dream start against a team most consider a title contender. Toronto was on fire from the field, beyond the arc and in the paint and was hounding the Bucks all over the court.
Milwaukee missed 10 of 11 three-point shots early and more than two-thirds of all attempts as the Raptors stormed up by as many as 27 points.
Head coach Darko Rajakovic had said before the game that the Raptors, coming off a brutal game where they only hit four three-pointers, had to keep letting it fly. “We’ve got to take open shots. It’s part of player development. It’s part of playing in this league,” Rajakovic had said. “The league is played that way. In order for you to win on the highest level, we got to be able to knock down some shots. We’ve got to take open shots and trust those.”
Against one of the league’s worst defences so far the Raptors did just that, connecting on four straight to start the game and nine of 20 overall. Toronto assisted on 19 baskets in the first half alone and the vaunted Bucks superstar combo had just 13 points. The Bucks had a 38-14 free throw attempt advantage but still got bullied, with Barnes at one point simply moving Antetokounmpo out of the way for a layup. The Raptors out rebounded the Bucks 50-39.
Toronto dished out 35 assists, the fourth-most by a Toronto team over the last four seasons. Lillard can’t defend at all, but Milwaukee is stocked with some premier defenders up front and still looked clueless. Poeltl was found open under the hoop repeatedly in the first quarter and the Raptors shot 56% for the game.
For the fourth time in five contests this season the Raptors either faced a team run by former head coach Nick Nurse, or a member of his coaching staff (Adrian Griffin, for the Bucks, Chris Finch for Minnesota on opening nights) or a former Raptors player (Chauncey Billups). The Raptors will take on Nurse’s Sixers again on Thursday, this time in Philadelphia, before also hitting San Antonio, Dallas and Boston.
A+ — Scottie Barnes, Pascal Siakam, Dennis Schroder: We’ve never seen Barnes and Siakam both be locked in from beyond the arc in the same game (more on that later). Meanwhile, Schroder was fantastic again, mixing great passing with fearless finishing and good shooting.
A — O.G. Anunoby, Jakob Poeltl: Outstanding defence on Damian Lillard and Giannis Antetokounmpo and Anunoby didn’t even miss a shot. He only attempted one three-pointer and had five fouls, or else he’d be in the A+ category too.
Meanwhile, Poeltl shook off some rough games to start the season as he recovered from an illness to play his best game since rejoining the Raptors last season. He constantly found himself open down low, and also blocked four shots and grabbed 11 rebounds.
B+ — Chris Boucher, Otto Porter Jr.: Boucher was relentless on the glass and set a real tone. Porter played for the first time in nearly a year and hit a pair of three-pointers and made a key pass to Barnes for a dagger three to end the third quarter when Milwaukee was threatening for the only time in the game.
B — Malachi Flynn: Best game of the year for the embattled backup point guard. His numbers might not show it, but Flynn was quite good at both ends of the floor.
C — Gary Trent Jr., Gradey Dick: Arguably the team’s two best shooters, both have struggled to hit so far this season. That continued in this one (Dick was 2-10, including 1-8 from three-point range) and Trent missed all five of his three-point attempts, but they were active defensively and Dick even took a charge on Antetokounmpo.
Some are supposed to be better than others. And as erratic as the Raptors have been with the ball in their hands, they’ve been consistently stout on the defensive end. Wednesday marked their best work of the young season on that front. There was plenty of praise to go around after Toronto frustrated Antetokounmpo and Lillard with dogged coverages.
O.G. Anunoby got credit as the Greek Freak’s primary defender, helping to hold him to three points in the first half and 16 all told.
“The problem with the stat sheet is you cannot really see the effect on the game O.G. had tonight … making life on Giannis really, really hard,” Rajakovic said.
Dennis Schröder was Lillard’s most frequent shadow (“He did an outstanding job, as well,” the coach said of the Toronto point guard). But it was a team effort all around with the rim protection provided by Jakob Poeltl, who had four blocked shots, among the linchpins.
“The commitment on the defensive end was high level,” Rajakovic said.
On a night when Griffin pointed the finger at himself in his post-game press conference — “I have to do a better job,” he said — he can only hope there’ll be a day soon when he can fawn over his team’s defence. It certainly doesn’t appear imminent. And it hardly seems the stuff of luck, good or otherwise.
“We’ve got a long road in front of us, and it’s all about the process, step by step,” Griffin said. “One thing I love about this team is they’ve shown they can take a punch and get back up … Nobody’s panicking, or anything, but we do have to make our corrections.”