Less than 24 hours after one of their most dispiriting losses of the season, these were the set of facts facing the Toronto Raptors on a frigid Saturday night in Milwaukee:
• Their starting centre, Khem Birch was back home in Toronto after getting his nose broken early in the Raptors’ Friday night loss to the lowly Detroit Pistons.
•Their starting forward, the gifted rookie Scottie Barnes, was ruled out at game time as he deals with persistent tendonitis in his knee.
•Their starting shooting guard, Gary Trent Jr., missed his third straight game with a sore ankle, but hey, when you can roll out sideline fits like this game after game, why rush back?
• Oh, and Giannis Antetokounmpo, who has muscled his into consideration for his third MVP award, was going to play for the first time against Toronto after missing them in their last two meetings, not coincidentally both Raptors wins
The Raptors’ six-game winning streak suddenly seemed like a month ago. Now here they were were, an already depth-challenged team already 0-1 on a five-game road trip with no soft spots coming and short three starters.
If you thought this was vibe the Raptors were planning to leave behind as they made the turn toward the second half of the season, well, the Raptors were hoping for the same thing. That they don’t seem to be had them getting a bit philosophical about the whole thing.
“I feel like we’ve backed into a little snow and our wheels are spinning a little bit,” Raptors head coach Nick Nurse said before the game. “Every time we make a little progress we get back in that little wheel spin. It’s a test, definitely, it just goes to show you it’s a continual, prolonged fight you end up in, in this league and as soon as you click off five or six wins in a row like we did and you got your guys healthy and you think, ‘Hey, we’re making some progress here,’ you get thumped pretty hard and you lose two or three guys and you’re back kinda scrambling to see if you can piece something together to get through the next game. …
“[It’s been] playing on my mind a lot in the last 12 hours or so and I’ve just come to the realization it’s what we’re in right now,” said Nurse. “We’re just in this and you gotta accept it as what it is and go out there and you never know what can happen and you gotta put a positive spin on it and go out there and fight when the ball goes up, see what you can do.”
What did the Raptors do?
On the heels of one of their most discouraging efforts of the season, the Raptors delivered what is likely their signature effort of the year as they dispatched the Bucks in a game they realistically had little chance of winning before it started as they served notice that they had no intention of being an easy out last night or perhaps at any point this season.
The Raptors surged past the Bucks in the fourth quarter on their way to a 103-96 win that improved their record to 21-19 thanks to some exceptional heart, exceptional grit and exceptional performances. The Bucks fell to 27-18.
“Just got to keep fighting. It’s part of the growth, the maturity of the team,” said Raptors guard Fred VanVleet. “I liked that we didn’t back down. That’s a heck of a team that’s hard to beat, especially on the second night of a back-to-back. I’m extremely proud of the fight that was given because that’s what it takes to beat championship-level takes.”
With the Raptors up three with three minutes left OG Anunuby chased his own rebound and converted a three-point play, Chris Boucher knocked down a baseline jumper assisted by Siakam before Siakam nailed a three, got the line in transition and pulled the blinds with a lovely step-through move in the mid-range.
It was Siakam at his best as he logged his second-career triple-double and a few more games like this are going to make it hard for coaches to overlook him for the NBA All-Star game next month as he is averaging 24.9 points, 10 rebounds and 6.2 assists over his past 10 games.
The Bucks were hounding Siakam in his playmaking role, and he consistently made difficult passes under pressure to open shooters.
“I just think it’s kind of like getting used to having multiple people guarding you and I think that obviously it’s an adjustment and I’m getting better at just reading the defence and making those passes,” he said. “… It’s part of my growth and just understanding the attention that you bring and making your teammates better.”
He had company. The Raptors ‘big three’ were up to the task, even against relentless defensive attention from the Bucks. Siakam led the way with 30 points, 10 assists and 10 rebounds, while Anunoby added 24 points, eight rebounds and four assists while VanVleet had 17 points and seven assists.
Toronto shot 44 per cent 34.3 per cent from three, while they held the Bucks to 34.2 per cent – a season-low for Milwaukee — while Toronto forced Antetokounmpo to go 6-of-17 from the floor on his way to 30 points, six rebounds and four assists.
The effort should be encouraging as the Raptors fly south for an off day in Miami before facing off against the Heat and Kyle Lowry on Monday night.
“I think it shows our potential,” said VanVleet. “We’re one of those teams that I feel can compete with anybody when we’re at our best. When we’re not, we’re pretty average. The challenge is to be consistent and raise the floor and let your bad nights be better than what our bad nights have been.”
For the opening 12 minutes against the defending NBA champions, the answer seemed like ‘not much.’
The Raptors trailed 16-2 after four minutes and were 1-of-10 from the field after five minutes. The Bucks were sending multiple defenders at Fred VanVleet and Pascal Siakam and daring anyone else to beat them, and why not?
After the Bucks went up 29-20 in the first quarter, Raptors other than VanVleet, Siakam and OG Anunoby were shooting just 32.8 per cent over the previous nine quarters and 1-of-27 from three.
With the Raptors all-too-regular injury problems there have been countless opportunities for someone from down the lineup to take advantage of precious NBA minutes, but no one has really stepped forward.
Saturday was an exception the Raptors would love to make the rule.
“They’re really heavy on pressuring me, OG and Fred, and then they’re helping when we drive,” said Siakam. “So we’re willing to make the right plays, and I think those guys stepped up. Chris made some big shots for us; Justin made a good shot on the other corner and Precious played hard, was guarding Giannis and gave everything. I just think that’s all we need from them, just coming in, play hard and do the little things.”
No one got the message more clearly than Justin Champagnie, the undrafted rookie on a two-way deal who simply finds ways to get the ball in his hands every chance he gets and is content to move it along to someone better equipped to do something with it.
Defensively the Raptors returned to an old formula and committed to ‘build a wall’ to prevent Antetokounmpo’s free path to the rim were rewarded when they held the Bucks to just 36 per cent shooting in the second quarter. Champagnie didn’t score but he kept worming his way into position for rebounds and the 6-foot-6 tweener ended up with 10 of his career-best 12 rebounds in the first half as the Raptors were able to go into the half trailing just 49-46.
In the third quarter, the secondary players began chipping in offensively too. Precious Achiuwa (14 points, 10 rebounds) blocked Antetokounmpo at the rim on one end and finished above the rim at the other. He even managed to get a jumper to fall. By the time Boucher (15 points, seven rebounds, three blocks) was able to get a pair of triples to drop after he was found on the weak side with some seeing-eye passes out of doubles by Siakam, the Raptors were threatening to take control of the game as they took a 73-69 lead into the fourth.
They were able to control the game from there, with their ‘big three’ getting just the help they needed elsewhere in the lineup and proving collectively that sometimes you just got to play the games.