Regression to the mean is inevitable. You knew the Raptors weren’t going to go undefeated. You knew Kyle Lowry wouldn’t shoot 53% from downtown all year. You knew some other team was gonna catch fire. All that and more happened last night as the Milwaukee Bucks (sans Giannis Antetokounmpo) blitzed Toronto (sans Kawhi Leonard, Fred VanVleet and OG Anunoby) to drop the Raptors to 6-1—and remain undefeated at 7-0 themselves. Let’s see what we saw:
The Raptors’ Defense was Far From Locked In
So this is a pretty ridiculous shot chart from Milwaukee last night:
It’s notable not just because of the Moreyball-esque balance of paint shots and three pointers to non-paint twos, but because of the giant blob of red at the rim—and because all of the non-paint twos were misses.
In other words, the Raptors defended like crap at the rim and at the three-point line. And since it was known going in that this is exactly how the Bucks are playing this year, it’s a bit disconcerting to see Raptors defend so poorly.
Then again, they were missing their two best perimeter defenders, and another plus-defender in Fred VanVleet, and Delon Wright is clearly still not himself. So I’m willing to cut the Raptors some slack. But it’s worth keeping an eye on to see if it persists.
The Serge Ibaka Showcase Game!
Serge Ibaka would probably win the vote among fans for “Player you’d most like to see traded” (although I suspect C.J. Miles would get a few votes right now) so anytime a big name/big contract player gets leaked in trade talks—like, say, Jimmy Butler, or Kevin Love—we start speculating on Ibaka-centric deals.
Unfortunately Ibaka’s subpar play (for his contract size) last year didn’t make him an attractive trade target. That’s why a guy needs a showcase game! To show those other GMs he’s still got it! Serge’s 30 points and nine boards were exactly that. Trade incoming!
I kid, of course; overall through seven games Ibaka looks much, much better than he did last year and he seems an ideal fit for Nick Nurse’s system, to the point where nights like last night needn’t be an outlier. (Well, OK, 30 is an outlier. But more consistent contributions shouldn’t be.)
Valanciunas Had a Rough Night
Ibaka’s frontcourt counterpart had been playing extremely well in reduced minutes of late, but that trend sure did break last night—3-for-10 shooting, just three boards in 13 minutes for Jonas Valanciunas. Part of it just seemed like bad luck; he ran at least three successful pick-and-rolls with Kyle Lowry that generated great looks that simply didn’t drop.
The other part, though, has as much (or more!) to do with the players around him than JV himself. Valanciunas played 9.5 minutes in bench units with guys like Lorenzo Brown and C.J. Miles but no Lowry, and there just isn’t enough playmaking for that to work out; Valanciunas needs other players to help him get the ball in position to succeed. Even the eight minutes he played with Wright on the floor weren’t effective, as Wright isn’t himself yet.
I understand the matchups that Nurse is going for with platooning Ibaka and Valanciunas, but you can’t deny how effective Lowry and Valanciunas are as a pair. I hope VanVleet and JV can develop similar chemistry, but for now, especially with VanVleet hurt, it might be worth it to find a few more Lowry-Valanciunas minutes.
Khris Middleton Knows his Lane
There was a fiery debate on Raptors Twitter over the summer about who was better, DeMar DeRozan or Khris Middleton. Plenty of numbers, especially defense, favoured Middleton; the eye test and the wins favoured DeRozan. I thought it was an apples-to-oranges comparison, because DeRozan’s role was so much bigger than Middleton’s; he was asked to do so much more on the offensive end, it didn’t seem like a one-to-one comparison.
Last night backed up what I thought. With Antetokounmpo out, Middleton is arguably Milwaukee’s best player. But he didn’t try to do too much. He stuck to the perimeter, draining three-pointers as they presented themselves (he was 0-for-2 inside the line) and making the extra pass when the shots weren’t there (eight assists). He helped hold Danny Green in check (only six shots for Green), and he finished with a +18.
Which is exactly what you want from Khris Middleton! He’s a good shooter and a good defender and he doesn’t try to do anything he’s not asked to do. And Mike Budenholzer is putting those particular skills to great use this year.
The Curious Signing of Greg Monroe
Greg Monroe has yet to play a meaningful minute for Toronto, as most of us expected; he doesn’t have a role on the roster as constructed, and besides, they certainly haven’t needed him in getting out to a 6-1 start. But this game against his former team made me think about why he’s here.
Now, I know why the Raptors signed Greg Monroe; he’s big man insurance in case Serge Ibaka and Jonas Valanciunas get in foul trouble or get hurt (knock on wood).
But I do wonder why Monroe chose to sign here. Obviously I don’t know if there were any other suitors, but I’d be surprised if there were none. And I understand why Toronto might be attractive, in terms of winning culture and being set up for a deep playoff run.
Still, a one-year contract, knowing you won’t play? Surely that’s going to make it tougher to sign another contract next year? It was a curious choice on Monroe’s part. I’m glad to have him—I’m a fan of his game, and I’m sure the Raptors will need him at some point—but it’s still curious.
So, 6-1. Are Raptors fans hitting the panic button? I sure hope not. Good news for anyone who is: there’s another game tonight to take your minds off the loss! Kawhi Leonard will be back in action against the Philadelphia 76ers, and hopefully Fred VanVleet and OG Anunoby will be as well.