Stars missing but Raptors-Bucks showdown feels like heavyweight bout

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Toronto Raptors' Kyle Lowry drives past Milwaukee Bucks' Khris Middleton. (Morry Gash/AP)

The Toronto Raptors are on the road in Milwaukee Monday where they’ll face their biggest test of the young season in a clash of the East’s early powers.

Both the Raptors and Bucks are off to dream starts. Each boasts a perfect 6-0 record, along with a double-digit average margin of victory — the Raptors have been winning by an average of roughly 10 points, while the Bucks have been smoking the competition, winning all six games by an average margin of 16 points.

Like the Raptors, of Milwaukee’s six wins, only one has come against a team with a winning record — the Bucks topped the 4-2 Indiana Pacers in their second game of the season, while Toronto registered a statement win in its second game against the 4-2 Boston Celtics.

When it’s all said and done, the Celtics may likely still be the team to beat in the East — or at least the Raptors’ biggest obstacle in their pursuit of their first-ever Finals appearance. It’s what made that Raptors win feel substantial, despite being so early in the season and it will likely hold little water as the weeks and months wear on. With so much depth, and Brad Stevens having to re-integrate Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward into the lineup — the definition of a ‘good’ problem to have — the Celtics were, and are, still under construction. Odds are the team the Raptors faced will look and feel different in future meetings.

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Milwaukee, like any team this early in the season, is a work in progress, too, only with far fewer moving parts than a team like Boston.

Yet this is still a decidedly different Bucks team than the one Toronto beat in the playoffs two years ago, or the 44-win club that finished seventh in the East last season.

Milwaukee has thrived under new coach Mike Budenholzer thus far and has been transformed in terms of style of play, at least offensively. Perhaps the most noticeable difference has been the way the Bucks, like almost every team it seems, is utilizing the three-point shot. The team went from attempting just under 25 threes per game last season to nearly 40 per game so far.

It’s not just the volume, they’re spacing the floor smartly, moving the ball effectively, and getting clean looks from deep. The team’s best shooter, Khris Middleton, has benefited, knocking down over 57 per cent of his three-point shots thus far on a team-high seven attempts per game.

But there’s a new wrinkle to Milwaukee’s attack in the form of veteran centre Brook Lopez, who has become a reliable, upper-tier stretch-five and a three-point specialist. An under-the-radar free agent pickup, Lopez has been taking 6.5 threes per game — roughly 70 per cent of his total field-goal attempts — and has made 41 per cent of them, making him the Bucks’ third-highest scorer.

Lopez’s shooting threat will almost surely draw a matchup with Serge Ibaka, and leave Jonas Valanciunas to come off the bench against the likes of John Henson.

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Of course, when it comes to Milwaukee, Giannis Antetokounmpo, who was placed in concussion protocol and won’t play Monday, remains front and centre. He’s adapted extremely well under Budenholzer, averaging 25 points, nearly six assists, and a whopping 14 rebounds per game while shooting 50 per cent from the floor. He hasn’t made strides beyond the arc, and at a lowly 6.3 per cent from deep (1-of-16 on the season) he doesn’t need to be guarded out there, but he remains an absolute game-changer on both ends of the floor regardless. After finishing second in minutes played last season, Budenholzer has effectively limited the Greek Freak’s minutes to just 30 per game so far, a promising sign for the Bucks’ long-term hopes come playoff time and a nod to their improved depth.

It’s not like Milwaukee will be facing a familiar Raptors team, either. Like the Bucks to Budenholzer, the Raptors have taken to new head coach Nick Nurse and seem to be buying everything he is selling so far.

On the court, Toronto bolstered its roster this summer by acquiring Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green (you may have heard something about this), adding improved shooting, infinitely higher defensive potential, and the kind of big game experience only a small handful of NBAers can lay claim to.

Leonard won’t be in the Raptors lineup as he rests on the front end of a back-to-back, but those attributes will still be on display Monday in the type of matchup Masai Ujiri shook up his team for. Throw in the inspired play (and playmaking) of Kyle Lowry thus far, a potent big man rotation, and an evolving bench core that has yet to scratch the surface of its potential, and tonight’s game — likely inconsequential in the big picture — already has the air of a heavyweight bout.

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We won’t get to see the matchup Monday, but Kawhi vs. Giannis will be appointment viewing in future clashes with both players battling for the title of the conference’s best player in a post-LeBron East landscape. For Toronto, the ability to put a player with the defensive smarts and abilities of Leonard against a fellow MVP-calibre player was a major incentive to acquiring the two-time Defensive Player of the Year.

It’s a new feeling in Toronto with a trip to the NBA Finals feeling like as real a possibility as ever. Then again, just about everything feels a little different for the Raps this season. It’ll be especially true if the team overcomes Leonard’s absence and leaves Milwaukee with its undefeated record intact.

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