The Toronto Raptors capped off their second defeat of the Milwaukee Bucks over the course of five days to kick off the New Year with a blowout 129-110 win Friday that featured three starters – DeMar DeRozan, Serge Ibaka and Jonas Valanciunas – finish with 20, 21 and 20 points, respectively, while Kyle Lowry had about as dominant a 15-point, six-rebound, four-assist outing as you’ll ever see.
For the second-straight meeting between the two clubs the Raptors were able to hold Giannis Antetokounmpo (24 points, five rebounds and five assists) below his season average and, unlike their win on Monday at home, the Raptors were able to win comfortably.
Lots of help
The Raptors rang in the New Year with quite likely the greatest individual effort in franchise history: DeRozan’s 52 points in their Jan. 1 overtime win against the Bucks.
Giving him able support was Lowry who had 26 points, six rebounds and six assists on just 13 shots while hitting the three to tie in the final minute and force overtime. But unusual in that game was that the bench was in negative territory for once, it seemed, with C.J. Miles, Fred VanVleet and Pascal Siakam a combined minus-33.
In the early going on Friday, order was restored. It seemed whoever came off the bench brought their A-game.
Lucas Nogueira had five points, three rebounds, two assists and a block in seven minutes as he came in after Valanciunas picked up two quick fouls; Delon Wright picked up where he left off against Chicago with his swooping drives, all-hustle put-backs and smart finds in the half-court.
When the Raptors were in a two-for-one situation late in the first quarter they ran a quick hitter for Miles who nailed a long three as Toronto used a 14-0 run after falling behind by seven early to come out leading 33-24.
Sticking to them
Not that I have any personal experience, but I’m presuming it must feel incredibly good to go into an opposing NBA arena, the home of a presumed rival, and simply steal their will.
That’s what the Raptors did to the Bucks in the third quarter as they split open a close, competitive well-played game with a 43-19 third quarter that was effectively one team hitting another with a series of kidney shots. The Bucks finally surrendered.
In the first half Milwaukee was physical with DeRozan and switching onto him hard, leaving him no space. They weren’t going to let him get 52 or anything close to it again.
At the end of the second quarter DeRozan thought he got fouled and took his ‘I’m going to tear someone’s head off’ scowl into the dressing room. He stayed pissed off and came back to fix things in the second half, picking his spots smartly, getting to the line early and started getting his numbers.
His fading, heat-check corner three in front of the Milwaukee bench was very much a case of the big dog peeing in front of the little one’s house. Meanwhile, Valanciunas, relegated to the bench for all but five minutes of the first half after picking up two quick fouls, came out with something to prove as he dominated a smaller, thinner Bucks front line.
Valanciunas owned the glass, turned into the paint with impunity against the narrow Thon Maker and slipped into seams for an open jumper here or there, too. The Lithuanian centre scored all 20 of his points in the third, and he and DeRozan had 34 points on 14-of-15 from the field in the period, combined. Nuts.
Bench units are often expected to provide energy, hustle and a tempo change. The Raptors’ reserves certainly provide that in good measure, but what they also have are some clever, young players who can play the game with poise.
A couple of examples from the first half: With the shot clock winding down to under five seconds Wright pitched the ball to Jakob Poeltl who flashed to the high post and then faked like he was going to pitch it back to Wright, who was relocating to the corner. Instead, Poeltl spun to the paint and was able to get a shot up before the clock expired. It didn’t drop as he had to get it up quickly, but by getting it on the rim he kept the possession alive so that Wright could sprint in from the corner for the put-back. That’s a lot of poise for two young players at the end of the clock.
Then, just before halftime, Wright makes a skip pass to Siakam in the corner who penetrates past the close-out and waits until Poeltl’s man commits to defend him before slipping a quick dish to his Austrian buddy for the lay-in.
No wonder Raptors 905 won everything in sight last season. These are young players with lots of bounce and athleticism, but, more significantly, the hoops IQ to make multiple smart plays against the clock.
Scrappy Lowry games are the best form of entertainment and always a reminder that despite the big-money contract, the three all-star selections and the often-spectacular three-point shooting Lowry’s roots as a complete pain in the butt to play against remains forever intact.
Watching him swipe for a steal against six-foot-10 Khris Middleton and then pounce a slightly terrified Middleton when the ball came loose was just one example.
Take an ill-advised long three? No worries, just sprint back like a free safety on his beloved Philadelphia Eagles, jump high for the interception and then find OG Anunoby on the break going the other way.
His rebounding numbers continue to astound – he might be the best six-foot-and-under rebounder in NBA history – and there are few cheapies. He jumps as high as he can – which isn’t all that high – and throws his body into people and somehow comes down with it more often than not.
In the second half it was Lowry getting his hand in on an offensive rebound that ended led to a three-point play by Valanciunas. It’s a cliché to say Lowry plays ‘winning basketball,’ but that’s what he does.
The game was won in the third quarter, but Lowry was making plays all over the floor to keep the Raptors on point well before that.
January not so scary
The win improved the Raptors to 3-0 on the month with two roads wins and two wins against a Bucks team that was 15-9 since the acquisition of Eric Bledsoe. The wins have each been in their own way impressive and are steps towards the Raptors positioning themselves well for a very challenging week ahead: Four games in six nights beginning with a back-to-back away at Brooklyn and at home against the surging Miami Heat before hosting Cleveland and Golden State at home.
The Raptors are a franchise-best 27-10 through 37 games, tied in the loss column with the Celtics and tied with the Houston Rockets for the NBA’s third-best record behind Golden State and Boston.
Toronto is good and seemingly able to figure out different ways to beat teams on any given night. How well what it’s done so far translates over the next week will go a long way towards letting the rest of the NBA know exactly what the Raptors have cooking.