The Toronto Raptors have 48 games remaining in the 2017-18 regular season. They currently sit 24-10, which is about as good a mark as one could hope for when kicking off a season during which they chose to completely reinvent their style of play, and have asked more of their young players than ever before. They’ve already banked both of their extended west coast trips and nearly half of their total road games — of those 48 remaining contests, 28 will come in the friendly confines of the (for now) Air Canada Centre, where they currently sport a 13-1 record.
All this is to say, the Raptors are seemingly set up for success. We should be feeling good right now!
But for many, some nagging questions remain.
Is the style-change for real? What happens when the league adjusts? Can OG Anunoby really keep this up for a whole season? Will Pascal Siakam be playable in the playoffs if he's a worse shooter than Andre Roberson? What is the ultimate fate of Jonas Valanciunas? Where does Norman Powell fit, if at all? Is Fred VanVleet really going to continue playing this much? Is there a trade that can be made? Does one need to be?
Toronto has a nice litmus test coming, as it plays Milwaukee twice this week, sandwiched around a trip to Chicago. The keys to beating the Bucks, to me, are the keys to the rest of this season for Toronto.
But first, here are your details for tonight’s game.
Where to Watch
Sportsnet, Sportsnet One
Raptors - Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan, OG Anunoby, Serge Ibaka, Jonas Valanciunas
Bucks - Eric Bledsoe, Tony Snell, Khris Middleton, Giannis Antetokounmpo, John Henson
Raptors - All good!
Bucks - Jabari Parker (knee, out), Mirza Teletovic (pulmonary emboli, out)
Make Them Beat You
I'm not sure it's not totally true but in my addled Toronto sports mentality, it feels like the Raptors often change their style to suit that of their competition — they play fast with the run-and-gun teams and slow with the plodders. These Raptors aren't the fresh faced 'happy to be here' post-Rudy Gay trade Raptors anymore. It's time for them to start dictating things more regularly.
The Bucks are an excellent test case for this, as they have a very specific offensive game plan — they like to get the ball into the paint, get dunks and/or get fouled. They're third in the league in team field goal percentage (48.7%), despite ranking 28th in three point field goal percentage (34.9%). They're also tied with Toronto for 9th in free throw attempts per game (22.9).
This is a curious style employed by Coach Jason Kidd, given that the Bucks seemingly have a decent amount of long-distance shooters on the team — Tony Snell and Khris Middleton are both known to be sharpshooters, Malcolm Brogdon and Matthew Dellevedova are solid and before his injury, Mirza Teletovic was enjoying one of the best long distance seasons of his career.
The issue lies with the Bucks two primary ball-handlers. Giannis Antetokounmpo (28.7%) and Eric Bledsoe (30.0%) are absolute bricklayers from distance. Bledsoe in particular, is still attempting five three's per game, despite his inaccuracy. Toronto would be well-advised to pack the paint with the length of Serge Ibaka, Pascal Siakam and OG Anunoby, forcing the Bucks stars into taking shots they clearly detest.
Slay the Giant
No matter what playoff draw Toronto winds up with, if they make the second round, they're going to play a team that has a truly elite star that is 'better' than their own DeMar DeRozan/Kyle Lowry combination. Cleveland has LeBron James, Boston has Kyrie Irving, Washington has John Wall (yes, that one is debatable), and Milwaukee has Giannis Antetokounmpo.
That's why these regular season tests can be so valuable — Toronto can throw a variety of different looks at Antetokounmpo, who has truly taken the leap to superstar level this season, and see just what sticks and what doesn't. With no PJ Tucker-like defender likely to parachute in later this season, the Raptors need to figure out how to slow down the Eastern Conference's singular talents if they're going to return to the Conference Finals.
Let the Past Die; Kill It If You Have To
A lot has been made of Toronto's adapted style so far this season, but it should be noted that in two of the biggest moments of the early season — losses to both Boston and Golden State — they reverted to their old iso-ball tactics. It's a habit that's hard to break. It'll be very interesting to see if either of these games against the Bucks comes down to the nitty-gritty, and if so, whether Toronto can finally push past their old flawed identity and become something greater.