TORONTO — Billed as a matchup between the East’s best in MVP front-runners Kawhi Leonard and Giannis Antetokounmpo, Sunday’s much-anticipated Toronto Raptors and Milwaukee Bucks matchup turned into a three-point shootout between two teams — and their starting centres — as the visiting Bucks made their case as a team to be legitimately feared in the conference.
Milwaukee has feasted on the three-pointer all season long, subscribing to the “layups-and-three-pointers” mantra that has taken over the NBA in recent years. The Bucks entered the game as one of just two teams who hoist an average of more than 40 threes per game, and the only one in the East.
On Sunday the team rode the three-ball — and a fairly monstrous night from Antetokounmpo — to an exciting 104-99 victory that makes them the only team in the league now to have beaten the Raptors twice, following their blowout victory in Milwaukee earlier this season.
Their three-point barrage appeared contagious, and the Raptors were seemingly content to go shot-for-shot beyond the arc. Toronto attempted 44 threes, one shy of their season-high (which also came against the Bucks), and nearly half the shots taken in the game for both sides were three-pointers — a whopping 83 in total.
That’s not exactly a formula the Bucks are looking to repeat as the season wears on. But when a team is knocking down threes like Milwaukee was — they were 11 of 21 from deep in the first half while taking an early lead — it’s only natural their opponent would feel the need to match them lest the game get out of hand in a hurry.
So, do the Bucks aim to bait their opponents into relying more heavily on the three-point shot than they are used to — or comfortable with? “I hope not,” says Milwaukee guard Pat Connaughton,” because our goal is not to give up threes. We talk about at least preventing the other teams’ best scorers from taking those shots.”
Call it an unintended consequence then.
We should’ve known we were in for a shootout early. Ten of the game’s first 18 possessions ended in a three-point heave, and Serge Ibaka attempted five threes before halftime. He finished the game with a team-high 22 points while attempting a career-high 11 three-pointers, knocking down a season-best four of them.
Maybe he was trying to keep up with Brook Lopez.
Milwaukee’s seven-foot centre was on fire from deep, hitting five of his eight attempts, and they weren’t exactly open looks.
Brook, step-back, splash!
— NBA (@NBA) December 10, 2018
“It’s crazy,” says George Hill, the veteran point guard traded to Milwaukee on Friday afternoon, who was impressed with the early impressions of his new team, “because all of our fives can shoot it — Thon can shoot the three, Jason Smith [who the Bucks also acquired via the deal] is another stretch-five, Brook. It just opens up more options, and it lets us guards get downhill more easily because they have to respect the pick-and-pop.”
Milwuakee’s guards, namely starters Eric Bledsoe and Malcolm Brogdon, certainly were able to get to the basket and finish consistently on Sunday with players like Lopez threatening from deep.
While Milwaukee’s core roster rings similar to last year’s team, this is a decidedly different Bucks group than the Raptors are used to facing. Under new coach Mike Bundenholzer, their ability to move the ball and create long-ball opportunities is a complete change from how the Bucks manufactured points last season.
Nowhere is that evolution more evident than in the case of Brook Lopez, who, by halftime, had hit more three-pointers — four — than he had in his first eight seasons in the NBA combined.
“We’ve seen him evolve into a different Brook,” says Hill. “When I was with the Pacers and he was in Brooklyn he was a post-up player and he used to be dominant on the post. For a guy like that, to do what he’s done and change the style of his game to best suit where the NBA is at the time, I mean, that’s why he’s still here. There’s a lot of bigs not in the league anymore because they haven’t been able to evolve their game behind that three-point line.”
But just when you get set on a gameplan to guard the three-point line versus the new-look Bucks, Antetokounmpo reminds you that he’s still their biggest threat — despite being an absolute non-factor from deep (he did hit a triple on Sunday, but is shooting just 10 per cent on three-pointers this season). Antetokoumpo’s gravitational pull at the rim helps draw defenders to keep shooters open, and counteracts the three-point attack with his dominance inside.
The 24 year-old superstar had a loud double-double, posting 19 points and 19 boards in the win.
But down the stretch it was Milwaukee’s ability to make threes that made the difference. As the Raptors erased a nine-point lead in the second half to bring Sunday’s game down to the wire, the teams went back-and-forth exchanging threes in the closing minutes. Danny Green hit one. So did Ibaka. Lowry missed one, and Leonard attempted and missed a deep three that could have tied the game with seconds remaining in the fourth.
But a pair of clutch, wide-open, three-pointers from Brogdon sealed the win for the visitors.
Brogdon with back to back 3s in the clutch pic.twitter.com/JnOfhWE02E
— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) December 10, 2018
“We believe we have a bunch of guys on this team that can hit big shots — especially big threes,” says Connaughton. “[Brogdon] showed that tonight. He’s been steady this season and steady throughout his entire career. When he’s that open the whole bench is counting it as a three-pointer before the ball even falls through the mesh.”
Clutch shooters, willing passers in a potent Budenholzer system, a deep roster tailored to today’s game — Milwuakee had five players in double-digit scoring, and another, Sterling Brown, was a defensive difference-maker — all built around a generational superstar in Antetokounmpo.
Put it all together and the Bucks didn’t dissuade anyone from believing in their status as a contender.
Hill, who is expected to make his debut with Milwaukee on Monday against the team that traded him, the Cleveland Cavaliers, knows a contender when he sees it. The 32 year-old — who has experienced deep playoff runs with the Spurs, Pacers and started for the Cavaliers in the Finals last season — thinks the Bucks have the makings of a bonafide contender in the East.
“For sure,” he says. “This team has been on the verge of being one of the top teams in the East for a while now. I think they’re more mature now and it’s going to help us take that next step.”
Moreover, he knows what wins like Sunday’s can do to propel a team, even if it does come relatively early in the season.
“Sometime when you look back later, every win matters, especially down the stretch when you could be playing for home court advantage. But to be second to these guys and come out and play the way we did tonight was an eye-opening experience for me.”
Here’s betting it was eye-opening for the Raptors as well.