At the moment the starting lineups were being introduced at Scotiabank Arena the biggest single development in the game was already taking place:
Giannis Antetokounmpo was in the hallway outside the visitor’s dressing room, stretching, and going through some light exercises wearing workout gear rather than his iconic No.34.
If you were wondering how far the Raptors have fallen in the Eastern Conference pecking order, now you know: They’re a night off.
The two-time MVP, Finals MVP and leader of the defending NBA champion Milwaukee Bucks was taking a maintenance day on the second night of a back-to-back (calf soreness was the official reason) after scoring 40 points in 38 minutes the night before.
Could the Raptors take advantage?
They needed to. Entering the game Toronto had lost three straight including the first two games of their seven-game homestand, the longest of the season and the start of a stretch where they are scheduled to play 18 of 22 games at home. Screw that up and their season is over, it’s that simple. Given the Raptors were 2-8 at home to date? You couldn’t rule it out.
So, no, the Raptors weren’t going to lament that one of the NBA’s most dominant players pulled himself only 30 minutes before the ball went up. Sure they may have spent the bulk of their pre-game preparation trying to figure out how to stop him, but deep down inside they were happy they didn’t have to put it into practice.
“You don’t [show it but] in the back of your head, you thank the man upstairs and try to get a win,” said Raptors guard Fred VanVleet. “Me being in this league for so long, that’s something you don’t really show the young guys. They need to understand it doesn’t matter who is playing. As someone who is in my sixth season, you can appreciate that. I watched [the Bucks] game last night … I was in bed at 11 o’clock when that finished. I knew those guys were going to be gassed and tired tonight. It was important for us to push the pace and be the aggressors and see how much they had in the tank.”
The Bucks had enough to test the Raptors, which likely says more about Toronto than anything. Fortunately for the Raptors VanVleet wasn’t going to look sideways at a gift.
He took things into his own hands in the second half, exploding for 26 points and – quite literally – refused to let the Raptors lose in what ended up a 97-93 win. He finished with 29 points on 9-of-17 shooting and won his duel with the Bucks’ Jrue Holiday, who led the Bucks with 26 points and eight assists.
VanVleet was seemingly able to shift the game at will. In a one-minute stretch early in the fourth quarter VanVleet nailed a three, beat Holiday backdoor for a layup and then made a steal leading to a Pascal Siakam lay-up on the break to spark a run when the Bucks (14-9) had cut the Raptors lead to two.
Later VanVleet made a twisting right-hand lay-up in traffic to put the Raptors (10-13) up six with three minutes to play. He signaled to the crowd to roar on his way to subsequent timeout. They listened.
It’s not a typical show of emotion from the normally stoic guard, but when the occasion calls for it …
“When I’m in between those lines, anything can happen,” said VanVleet. “It was one of those moments: playing so hard, working so hard, obviously given the circumstances, I think we really deserved that win. I just wanted us to give us some energy and some momentum going into those last two or three minutes.”
Once more when things were getting tight after a Bobby Portis triple cut Raptors lead to three with 42.8 left, VanVleet muscled his way into the paint and got fouled, making a pair of key free throws.
That he was doing most of his damage against Holiday — who will likely make his four all-defence team this season — was even more impressive.
The Raptors needed every play VanVleet could make.
There were mistakes being made all around him. Gary Trent Jr. – back in the lineup after missing a pair of games with a calf bruise – finished 3-of-16 from the floor and 2-of-10 from deep, including whiffing on a pair of wide-open looks at crunch time. At another moment he simply let pass through his hands and out of bounds. He did have eight rebounds, three assists and a pair of steals, but he won’t be framing the box score.
Siakam fouled out, continuing a trend where his fouls impact his time on the court. Precious Achuiwa was never not an adventure, including fouling the Bucks Kris Middleton on a three with 14.6 seconds left; then picking up a loose ball foul when Middleton missed his last free throw, sending the Bucks back to the line. As a final measure, Achiuwa missed a pair of free throws that could have iced the game with 3.6 seconds left.
No worries, VanVleet grabbed the loose ball on the second miss and made both of his.
The Raptors being able to re-introduce Trent Jr. to their starting lineup should have been a good thing. With OG Anunoby (hip) and Khem Birch (knee) still out, any talent infusion was welcomed. But Trent struggled and apart from a quiet 20-point night from Siakam and the usual 13 points from Scottie Barnes, there wasn’t a lot of help for VanVleet.
In the early going the Raptors had two things going for them that they haven’t always been able to count on recently – one thing they didn’t think they would be able to.
While Siakam has been steadily scaling up after missing the first 10 games of the season recovering from off-season shoulder surgery, he hasn’t often taken over games or even stretches of games.
But he looked sharp early. He let a corner three go easily on his first look, knocking it down and showed he had his legs when he sprinted ahead of the pack after Trent Jr. jarred a turnover loose and Scottie Barnes hit Siakam in stride with a touch pass from just of half. He spread his 15 first-half points out evenly over the first two quarters, but he was fairly invisible after that, his foul trouble not helping.
But the Raptors dug in defensively against the Bucks, limiting them to 34.7 per cent from the floor in the first half, the kind of defensive effort made easier with Antetokounmpo out, but which has been largely missing entirely from the Raptors game during their recent 3-9 slide. They ended up holding the Bucks to 37.5 per cent shooting for the game.
“They did a good job, very few schematic mistakes,” said Raptors head coach Nick Nurse.
Against that backdrop having Barnes go 3-of-5 from deep in the first half – continuing a recent trend and building on his 9-of-15 rate in the previous two games – was an added bonus as the Raptors took a 48-40 lead into the half. It helped too that when the Raptors found out that Antetokounmpo was out, Barnes was willing to step up and guard Middleton, announcing his intention in the locker room before the game, and following up by forcing him into an 8-for-20 night.
The Bucks ran traps at VanVleet in the first half, limiting to three points and three shots. But VanVleet and Toronto tried some different tactics in the second – more screens; starting VanVleet off the ball – and he found enough room to light Milwaukee up for 13 points in the third as Toronto led 73-68 to start the fourth quarter.
VanVleet ended up taking them all the way home.
1. Birch has now missed eight games and five straight with what the club has only described as ‘knee swelling.’ There have been no specifics on when the erstwhile starting centre might return to action, but Nurse offered this nugget pre-game: “There isn’t an update. He’s not playing again, I think it’s getting better. I see him doing more around, he’s not in practice or anything but I see him in the gym and it seems like he’s working fairly hard so I think it’s improving, hopefully he’ll be back soon. I don’t have an update other than that.”
2. It was a busy day for Raptors Dalano Banton, Isaac Bonga, Justin Champagnie and David Johnson, who practiced in the morning with Raptors 905 and were back at Scotiabank Arena and dressed against the Bucks. With both 905 and the big club home for an extended stretch, Raptors head coach Nick Nurse said he wants his young players to get as many reps as possible. “I think guys that aren’t playing a tonne of minutes for us need to get minutes. It’s a little delicate now because we’re a little thin now with our numbers so it’s a little more delicate than I’d like it to be but I would say we’re gonna try and get some guys down there playing as much as we can. It’s valuable.”
3. Toronto Maple Leafs forward Wayne Simmonds was introduced to the crowd midway through the second quarter. It’s not unusual for Leafs players to take in Raptors games when the schedule allows, but what makes Simmonds’ case a little different is that he is perhaps the only NHLer who has taken the floor with the Harlem Globetrotters and held his own, as his famous conversion of an alley-oop pass off the stick of then Philadelphia Flyers teammate Claude Giroux proved: