Welcome back! Everyone excited for the final 25 games? The Toronto Raptors kicked off their race to the playoffs as a hopeful top seed with a potential playoff preview against the Milwaukee Bucks and unfortunately, it didn’t go so well.
It Started Off so Nicely...
OK, so the opening minutes were sloppy. The Raptors committed two early fouls, the Bucks committed two early turnovers, balls were ricocheting all over the place. Serge Ibaka even banked in a three! (And did I see a little MJ shrug after?)
But once things settled, the Raptors looked pretty good—Ibaka in particular. He went 4-of-5 in the quarter, with a layup, a dunk, and a midrange J added to his bank-is-open triple.
DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry combined for 11 points in the frame; DeRozan looked to be pushing a little bit—intimidated by Giannis Antetokounmpo, no doubt—but both Raptors all-stars looked fresh and rested.
And when the subs started filtering in, they made a little 9-4 run to give the Raptors a 6-point lead going in to the second, and things were looked good for Toronto.
...But that Second Quarter was, um, Underwhelming
Things switched pretty quickly though. The Bucks tied it about two minutes in the second, and although a C.J. Miles 3-pointer plus a Pascal Siakam drive-miss-rebound-putback put the Raptors up five again, the Bucks soon took a 1-point lead and Dwane Casey opted to bring his starters back in a couple minutes earlier than he normally would (about the 6:30 mark).
I’m not sure that was the right move, to be honest. Yes, they’d given up the lead, and they were struggling to generate good looks out of the halfcourt. But I really like the bench against Milwaukee, with their length and athleticism; I felt they might have gotten the lead back with a couple stops and runouts. (Casey also let the starters run a little longer in the third, but we finally saw what the bench could do in the fourth! More on that in a minute.)
With a starters + Delon Wright (for OG Anunoby) lineup, the Raptors played the Bucks even for four minutes or so, but things got away from them in the final 3 minutes. Ibaka hit a corner three to give the Raps a 2-point lead, and then blocked a Giannis drive at the other end. But then Giannis hauled the loose ball in, went back up, and got an and-1 on Jonas Valanciunas. JV protested (very mildly, it seemed), got T’d up, and with the three-point play plus technical free throw the Bucks went up 4; Giannis added a dunk on the next possession.
Meanwhile the Raps offense couldn’t get anything going—DeRozan threw up a sad airball runner, Lowry a wild right-handed layup attempt, DeRozan a rushed 3-point attempt in a 2-for-1 situation—and then a Khris Middleton 5-point play (3-pointer, foul on DeRozan, tech on DeRozan for arguing) gave the Bucks an 8-point halftime lead. The Bucks scored 42 in the frame.
I want to dig in to those final 3 minutes a little more, because it’s kind of insane—and proved to be the turning point of the game in my mind. The Bucks finished the quarter on an 11-1 run, on, essentially, three plays:
- Giannis’ and-1, plus a tech
- Giannis’ dunk
- Middelton’s 3-pointer and-1, plus a tech
During that run the Raptors forced two turnovers and a shot-clock violation, and John Henson missed a bunny hook shot. Sounds like a good defensive stretch!
But the Raptors’ offense sputtered, only managing one DeRozan free throw.
Ultimately, the Raptors did it to themselves, with those two technical fouls and sloppy play. And although there were other individual plays that contributed to the loss (and yeah, maybe a couple calls too) that stretch really changed the momentum and forced the Raptors to play from behind for most of the second half.
The Defense Finally Showed up in the Fourth
I mentioned above I wanted to see more of what the bench could do in the first half, and they finally showed me something in the fourth.
It took a while—the Milwaukee lead was still 7 when DeRozan came in for C.J. Miles with 8 minutes to go—but then the D locked in and the ball started moving on offense. VanVleet drove baseline and found Poeltl for a layup; DeMar drove and scored with his left; Jakob Poeltl hit two free throws off an offensive rebound and then Fred VanVleet found Siakam for a layup that finally gave the Raptors a lead. DeRozan blew by Middleton on the next possession to make it a 10-0 run.
Meanwhile, where it seemed like every Milwaukee bucket was a dunk in the third, the Raptors kept them out of the lane in the fourth, forcing long Js and contesting everything at the rim when the Bucks did penetrate. Poeltl even blocked two Giannis drives!
Guess We’ve Gotta Talk About Clutch Minutes Again
You’re not gonna believe it, but in the closing minutes of a close game, the Raptors couldn’t execute. You may be familiar with some of these issues.
Problem 1: No ball movement, poor shot selection.
Down one with 40 seconds to go, DeRozan grabbed a rebound, dribbled downcourt and forced a horribly awkward 19-footer with Middleton right in his grill. You could argue—successfully, I suppose—that DeMar was going 2-for-1 there, but I also feel like maybe you work to set up a better shot and then trust your defense to hold the lead?
Which is kinda what happened; up 1 with 30 to go, the Bucks tried going inside to Giannis; Lowry was switched on him, and JV came to help, and Giannis kicked it out. The Bucks swung it around, and Middleton tried a step-back J over Ibaka that rimmed out. Great defensive possession! But that brings us to...
Problem 2: Inability to secure important rebounds.
Off the Middleton miss, the Raptors barely contested the board and John Henson tapped it out to Jason Terry; the Raptors fell asleep, allowing 10 seconds to go by without fouling, and since they still had a foul to give they had to let another second burn on the ensuring inbounds. After Middleton hit 1-of-2, the Raptors had 3.3 to score. Which leads us to...
Problem 3: Poor inbounds execution.
The Raptors struggled to get the ball in, and as time wound down, Miles threw it to Valanciunas; they then failed to execute a handoff to get the shot they wanted. Of course, it worked out thanks to Valanciunas recognizing the breakdown and being aware of the clock (he simply kept it himself, drove and dunked at the buzzer to tie it)—but with 3.3 you want that ball going in to a guard, or to a big closer to the hoop, or to execute the handoff and JV setting a screen to generate a clean look.
The Raps had their chances down the stretch but just didn’t execute. Same old story.
Math Matters (And Sometimes the Shots Just Go In)
In overtime the Raptors went 1-of-6 from downtown. The Bucks, 2-of-4.
The Bucks won by three.
Both teams shot 43-90 from the floor tonight. The Raptors made 24-of-26 free throws, the Bucks, 23-of-27.
But look at the 3-pointers. 9-of-34 for Toronto. 13-of-26 for Milwaukee.
Again, there’s your three-point difference.
Make or miss league, right?
It’s not the way you want to come back from the break. Especially on a 7-game winning streak. Especially at home. Especially against another Eastern Conference playoff team and potential second (or even first round opponent).
They’ve got a couple days to think about it and clean things up before Detroit comes to town on Monday.