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Raptors play for top spot in East, take on Bucks: Preview, start time, and more

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The Raptors are on the road for a big early-season test against the Bucks. Both undefeated winners of six straight, this game will determine the Eastern Conference leader.

NBA: Toronto Raptors at Milwaukee Bucks Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

This game has some extra juice, doesn’t it? Both teams are undefeated with 6-0 records and playing great basketball. The Bucks are firing away from three and blowing teams out, including the Timberwolves and Magic last week. Meanwhile, the Raptors are cruising along with two ultra-efficient stars, Kawhi Leonard, and Kyle Lowry.

The Bucks and Raptors are both considerably different teams — at least in style — than the ones that faced off in the 2016-17 playoffs. Both teams tweaked their rosters to suit the brand of basketball they want to play. The Bucks signed Brook Lopez and Ersan Ilyasova to spread out around Giannis Antetokounmpo. The Raptors acquired Leonard and Danny Green, who have fit in seamlessly with the team’s versatile, pesky nature.

Tonight is Leonard’s first game against a superstar (depending on how you feel about Kyrie Irving and Jimmy Butler). It presents a timely challenge for Leonard, who has looked increasingly comfortable with each passing game.

The opponent, in Antetokounmpo, has been great as well. He is averaging 14.2 rebounds per game, and pushing it in those opportunities. He will put a lot of pressure on the Raptors’ transition defense. Leonard might be better equipped than anyone to corral Antetokounmpo — but even that might not mean much. Both players are beasts, and this game could certainly be decided by which superstar plays best.

Here are the details for tonight’s game.

Where to Watch:

TSN2, 8:00 pm EST

Lineups:

Toronto — Kyle Lowry, Danny Green, Kawhi Leonard, Pascal Siakam, Serge Ibaka

Milwaukee — Eric Bledsoe, Malcolm Brogdon, Khris Middleton, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Brook Lopez

Injuries:

Toronto — Delon Wright (thigh - probable), Fred VanVleet (toe - day-to-day)

Milwaukee — D.J. Wilson (hamstring - out), Giannis (concussion - questionable?)

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Milwaukee’s Offensive Attack

The Bucks have revamped their offense to cater to Giannis Antetokounmpo. After Jason Kidd’s firing last year, the Bucks started giving him opportunities as the offensive focal point, running him through more transition drag screens and pick-and-rolls. That offense has continued to evolve this season, as Antetokounmpo’s usage stands at 35.1 percent, the highest mark in the league.

The Bucks style is pretty jarring. They are committed to letting it fly from deep. They have attempted 39.8 threes per game, the second most in the league. Their big men have been a key part of that change. Brook Lopez and Ersan Ilyasova have launched 6.5 and 2.7 threes per game, respectively. Even John Henson, who was never considered much of a shooter, has hit 5-of-12 from three. The spread attack has opened up more room for Antetokounmpo and secondary creators like Malcolm Brogdon.

A lot of the offensive success should be credited to Mike Budenholzer, their new head coach. Installing a new offensive system in such a short time is difficult, but his players look empowered.

Raptors’ Efficient Duo

Is there any one-two punch in the NBA more efficient than Kyle Lowry and Kawhi Leonard? Their shooting splits are ridiculous. Lowry is shooting 53/45/89 and Leonard is shooting 50/45/92.

Lowry is quite possibly playing the best basketball of his career. His passing has gone up a level, and he is attacking the rim with the ferocity of his younger years. Leonard is downright surgical with his attack. His mere presence has brought a calmness to the offense.

But for all their great play, they haven’t faced much pressure down the stretch. The Wizards game was close, but everything was pretty free flowing and Leonard didn’t play. The crunch-time offense just hasn’t bogged down much. It will be interesting to see what Nick Nurse runs in the final two minutes of a close game. A Lowry-Leonard pick-and-roll seems like a good bet. The Raptors have run that play a lot so far this season and it has produced good results. It sets up driving lanes for Lowry and post-ups for Leonard on switched off defenders — both good outcomes.

Road Test

The Raptors have enjoyed a balanced schedule so far this season. They’ve faced some quality opponents (Celtics, Timberwolves, and Wizards) but none of them were at their peak form. The Celtics were finding their offensive rhythm, the Timberwolves looked a tiny bit sad, and the Wizards were missing Dwight Howard (for what that’s worth).

Tonight’s game is likely the Raptors’ biggest test of the season. The Bucks just don’t have many weaknesses right now. Although, one exploitable advantage for the Raptors could be to turn the Bucks over. The Bucks are currently 27th in turnovers per game. They play fast and find shooters. The Raptors’ swath of lengthy wing defenders, led by Leonard, should have opportunities to jump some passing lanes.

Other key contributions have come from Khris Middleton, who is bombing from three (seven attempts per game), and the rookie, Donte DiVincenzo, who is averaging 19.7 minutes per game. The early returns for the rookie are very positive: he can attack off the bounce and create for others. His shooting hasn’t yet translated to the NBA three-point line, but Bucks fans seem very happy with his play so far.