Heading into tonight’s game against the Bucks in Milwaukee, it felt unlikely DeMar DeRozan would top his 52-point career night from Monday. It stands as a singular accomplishment for the Raptors as a franchise. Given the chance, how could he or the rest of the team attempt to surpass it? Could they surpass it? Numbers-wise, no, but emotionally — well, maybe.
As it turns out, the Raptors didn’t need a franchise scoring record or an overtime period this time against the Bucks. Instead, they blew the doors off Milwaukee, 129-110, with some different, but no less satisfying, performances — one from DeRozan again, the other from an unlikely source: Jonas Valanciunas.
By this point in the season we know how the Raptors roll. The first quarter is spent feeling out the other team, probing for weaknesses, and testing the limits of the squad’s effort. Often times Serge Ibaka comes out firing, as he did here with 13 points in the opening frame. He’d lead the team in scoring with 21 points (to go with five rebounds), but his play gives way to other factors.
The second quarter is usually shaped by the team’s oldest and youngest players. As per usual, the all-bench lineup got some run to see if they could maintain (or grow) a lead, or just straight shake-up the Raptors’ effort level. Against the Bucks, the bench looked woefully overmatched and the cushion Toronto had built gradually shrank. Lowry’s presence later in the frame (plus his 15 point-6 rebound-4 assist line) steadied things a bit — but silly mistakes before the break meant a modest three-point lead at half time.
Then, as has been the case for swaths of the season, we collectively braced for the third quarter.
There was no reason to believe we’d see anything different — or at least nothing particularly special — from the Raptors in the third. The Bucks were playing them tight, their usual producers (Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton, Eric Bledsoe) were doing their nightly damage; and while Toronto was making plays and hitting shots, they couldn’t seem to rebuild the 9-point lead they’d held earlier on. Other than Ibaka’s output, nothing — from DeRozan, from Lowry, and definitely not from Valanciunas — stood out.
But then DeRozan got rolling — a reverse lay-up started it — and it was clear he was done messing around. He hit another lay-up, and followed it up with a jumper, and the Bucks started to reel.
Valanciunas, meanwhile, had been sitting for most of the game due to two early fouls and a dearth of good matchups. He opened the third with a putback lay-up, and then, like DeRozan, seemed to gain strength by the second. The two longest serving Raptors (three if you want to count Lowry too, who conducted play like a maestro) then proceeded to tear the Bucks apart.
In the third alone, DeRozan had 14 points on 6-of-7 shooting, with four rebounds, and one ridiculous turn-around three in the mug of Middleton. DeMar would finish with 20 points, five rebounds, four assists, two steals, and one delightful block. And sure, why not, he was 7-of-12 from the field too.
Valanciunas, if you can believe this, was even better. He had all 20 of his points in the quarter, shot 8-of-9 from the field, added nine rebounds, and sure why not, a blocked shot. By the time he was hitting a running hook over Thon Maker, it was clear this game was in the bag. I’ve never quite seen anything like this performance from JV. He played just over five useless minutes in the first half, then went full Valhalla for the entire third.
Subverting the usual third quarter narrative, the game was settled there. The Raptors, as a team, out-rebounded the Bucks 18 to three in the third quarter. They shot 68 percent to Milwaukee’s 42 percent. They went to the line nine times (making seven), while the Bucks didn’t shoot a single FT. They eventually pushed the lead from three all the way to 27. It was some of the most breathtaking and sure-footed basketball we’ve seen from the Raptors this season. For all the things we expect from the Raps these days, the third quarter showed us how this version of the team can click.
The rest of the game was just a matter of course. At one point the Bucks’ commentators discussed Valanciunas as if describing a rare game fish (“He’s gotta be 260, 270 pounds...”); and later Marques Johnson likened Lucas Nogueira to a condor. These are the events that occur in a fourth quarter blowout. And reader, let me tell you, given all the fear I do actually and readily have for the deer: I could not have been happier with the outcome. It may not happen every night for the Raptors, but I’ll always enjoy whatever form it takes when it does.