MILWAUKEE – When Nick Nurse went through the video of his team’s last game against the Milwaukee Bucks, he saw something familiar: a Raptors team playing with energy defensively, moving the ball and generally keeping a quality opponent on its heels.
It should be noted they lost that game as they did their first meeting this season against Milwaukee who took the NBA’s best record (by winning percentage) into Game 3 of their four-game regular-season series Saturday night.
But in looking back Nurse could at least take comfort in knowing his team could follow through on a game plan and rise to the occasion, something missing of late, particularly in Toronto’s ugly loss at San Antonio on Thursday.
He’ll be even happier when he looks back at this one as Toronto gutted out a 123-115 win over the Bucks at the Fiserv Forum in a game that it easily could have squandered or had snatched away by a Milwaukee team (27-11) that came in having won nine of its last 10 – the opposite trajectory of the middling Raptors of late, in other words.
“That’s a good two-game lesson,” said Nurse. “One game – tonight –we executed everything in our game plan defensively and one game [in the Raptors’ 18-point loss to the Spurs] we didn’t execute any of it.
“We also played with some juice and physicality and that’s the way we need to play if you want to be a serious contender.”
Toronto (29-12) played with an impressive defensive energy all night, moved the ball well from the first touch – as 28 assists on 42 field goals would attest – and got not only an MVP-calibre outing from Kawhi Leonard (30 points, six rebounds and six assists on 16 shots) but also a career-high 30-point game from Pascal Siakam, 25 points from Serge Ibaka and 21 points from Fred VanVleet, while Toronto’s fourth starter, Danny Green, had 12 points on just seven shots and grabbed nine rebounds from his guard spot.
Toronto needed most of that as the Bucks’ Giannis Antetokounmpo had an MVP-worthy night of his own with 43 points and 18 rebounds, but the Raptors held firm in face of the onslaught.
“We just played better tonight,” said Ibaka, who was 11-of-15 from the floor and charged with providing help defence at the rim on Antetokounmpo and then sprinting out to guard Bucks shooters at the three-point line. “We were moving the ball. When you move the ball on offence like that it gives you better energy on offence and on the defensive end. It’s just better when you share the ball and everyone touches the ball. That’s what we did tonight.
“Kawhi did a good job making plays for us and then Pascal. When Kawhi does it, it makes Pascal do the next. Then we are all sharing the ball.”
Maybe it was simple as making shots – but it didn’t hurt that Toronto had knocked down 11 threes on 26 tries through the first three quarters as it took a nine-point lead into the fourth and finished the game with a 14-of-31 mark from deep, a sharp contrast to its 6-of-30 night against San Antonio. They were led by VanVleet who was 5-of-8 from deep and chipped in eight assists and five rebounds while making another start in place of Kyle Lowry who missed his 10th game in 11 starts with a wonky back.
Every make was vital as the Bucks – remade in the image of new head coach Mike Budenholzer who had interviewed for the Raptors job that Nurse got – are one of the most prolific three-point shooting teams in the league, surrounding the nearly unguardable Antetokounmpo with threats to spread the floor at all times.
Every time the Raptors surged the Bucks reeled them in but Toronto found a way to hold firm.
“[I liked] the way we were playing and staying in the game,” said Leonard. “Win or lose, we got to play the same way every night so we can just be consistent and get better as a unit.”
A 14-4 run to start the fourth – which included a pair of rare, crowd-pleasing threes from Antetokounmpo – gave the Bucks the lead four minutes into the period, which could have been the signal to crumble. Instead the Raptors came back with a three from Green and a jumper from Leonard to immediately take back the lead.
Leading by four with six minutes to play, VanVleet made another three. Green knocked down a jumper and then Siakam – who teams routinely leave open from deep, content to take their chances – hit his third three of the night on a crisp pass from Leonard and the Raptors were up 12 with five minutes to play. They hung on.
In the small ironies department, the win improved the Raptors – after a tumultuous off-season that saw them fire head coach Dwane Casey and trade DeMar DeRozan – to precisely where they were at the same stage last season. This version of the Raptors have had a harder road to get to the same place given their run of injuries and a compressed schedule – last season the Toronto didn’t play its 41st game until Jan. 14.
Not that the regular season counts for much: “For us, where we are is playoff success, really,” Nurse said before the season tipped off. “Fifty-nine or 54 or 52 or 49 wins isn’t going to mean a whole lot. What’s going to mean a whole lot to me, our organization and our fans is how we perform in the playoffs and how deep a run we can make and that’s what we’re setting our sights on.”
But there is an urgency to create an identity, to develop habits that can be relied on – ball movement, defence, all of that. You don’t have to read too carefully into comments made by the likes VanVleet, Green and Leonard after the debacle against San Antonio that there is a concern about how the Raptors are progessing on that front.
“My concerns come with just not executing the things we talked about executing,” Nurse said before the game in reference to the Raptors’ laydown against San Antonio. “Like I can roll the tape from the start of the game and about five minutes and cover about 15 topics and saying this is none of the stuff we talked about doing. That’s unacceptable. You can’t do it. It happens once in a while but you have to address it so when the ball goes up tonight you have to be a little bit more in tune with what we are doing.
“[So] we have their attention. It wasn’t like we didn’t have their attention going in. It’s just the speed and the way things were moving we just weren’t ourselves and we got to flush that one away and get back to being ourselves. We roll the tape this morning of the last time we played Milwaukee and we were ourselves. Executing everything we talked about executing. We’ll be ready to go tonight.”
Whether it was the sting of the events Thursday or merely this being another game and another day, the Raptors did seem to be locked in in a way they weren’t against the Spurs.
In the early going against the Bucks the Raptors showed signs of reaching the point of enough being enough – although there were some nerves when Toronto fell behind 21-14. But they stayed steady. You could see it when VanVleet stepped into an early three-pointer that came after the ball was driven into the paint, pitched out to Siakam and then passed to get VanVleet a great shot compared to the good shot Siakam had. You could see it in a stretch of defensive possessions late in the quarter when the Raptors got multiple stops for the first time in a week, it felt like. A steal by Leonard led to a fast break that ended a pair of free throws by VanVleet that tied the score 23-23 and the Raptors took the lead after they forced the Bucks into a shot-clock violation after making several switches and providing all the requisite help before Ibaka knocked down a jump hook.
The Raptors signalled their intentions again with a 10-2 run to close the half as Toronto began the third quarter trailing 57-56. The Raptors kept their foot down in the early going after halftime too, scoring seven points unanswered to take a 63-57 edge, their largest of the game to that point. They kept pushing.
Sometimes it’s not the event, it’s the response. Almost all teams go through bad stretches and turn in stinkers, but at some stage – as a group – they have to say enough is enough.
“Just flush it. Just flush it,” VanVleet said of the Raptors’ collective choice after the Spurs game. “There were no fights or altercations, no teams meetings like you usually have. It’s a long season. There are ups and downs to it. You’ve got to continue to look at the film. With the schedule coming up, I think we’ll have days where we can really sit down and reflect and break things down. We had a great film session this morning before shootaround, putting some things in, too, to get better, and we had great carryover tonight.”