After getting drubbed by the Spurs in a highly emotional contest last Thursday, the Raptors can look forward tonight to, ah yes, another highly emotional contest, this time against an actual conference rival, the Milwaukee Bucks. The NBA schedulers do not make it easy.
For the past month, the Raptors have essentially clawed out enough victories to stay near the top of the East. There have been some high quality wins (vs. the Warriors or the Jazz, for example), but they’ve also gotten kicked in the teeth by the Magic, Spurs, and, the very same Bucks they’re visiting tonight. What’s more, Toronto has gone 5-5 over their last ten, and the absence of both Kyle Lowry (super important to everything the team does) and Jonas Valanciunas (specifically important in a couple of key ways) has really begun to show. It gives them a built-in excuse for this difficult stretch, but still: it would be nice to see them healthy, and winning.
And that’s because the Bucks now represent (to me, anyway) the most significant challenge to the Raptors in their quest to get to the Finals. Milwaukee went 12-4 in the month of December, and is now 9-1 in their last ten games. They beat the Raptors both times they’ve played — on the road, and at home. They also have the number one offense in the league, and the third-best defense. And, of course, there is also Giannis Antetokounmpo to consider.
So what do the Raptors need to do? Let’s reflect.
Where to Watch:
8:30pm on Sportsnet ONE (SN1)
Toronto - Fred VanVleet, Danny Green, Kawhi Leonard, Pascal Siakam, Serge Ibaka
Milwaukee - Eric Bledsoe, Malcolm Brogdon, Khris Middleton, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Brook Lopez
Toronto - Kyle Lowry (sore back - questionable), Jonas Valanciunas (hand - out)
Milwaukee - Sterling Brown (right ankle sprain - probable)
Long Backcourt Length
The problems for Toronto in their matchup against the Bucks begin in the backcourt. We have a lot of evidence to suggest that the length and relative strength of Eric Bledsoe, Malcolm Brogdon, and George Hill causes problems for the Raptors — Lowry in particular. In two games against the Bucks this season, Lowry shot 3-for-19; he had 22 assists, yes, but the Raptors need him to hit shots.
Now, of course, as of this writing, we don’t know if Lowry will play (though it seems doubtful), which means all eyes turn to Fred VanVleet and Delon Wright. The former is a smaller less effective version of Lowry, who did indeed have a strong performance in a tight loss the last time these two teams players. FVV had 19 points, while shooting 5-of-7 from three, which is something Toronto continues to need from him.
Wright, meanwhile, seems like a natural fit to combat all of the Bucks’ length, and yet has found himself swooning in and out of effectiveness for some time now. In the two games against Milwaukee, he’s been invisible (four points in 23 minutes across two games). And save for a spurt against the Jazz on New Year’s Day — when he and Dante Exum got into a Spider-Man meme battle — when’s the last time we’ve had cause to shout out Delon? This remains important.
Shooting vs. Hitting Shots
So here’s what’s happening with the Raptors’ three-point attempts: while they’ve stabilized at around 8th-9th place in the league in terms of attempts, they’ve sunk quite a bit in terms of makes and percentage.
In the current NBA, this is a recipe for disaster, and a concern the Bucks do not quite share. Milwaukee is ranked second in 3PAs and 3PMs, and while they’re only 19th in 3P%, it means their offense creates the high-value shots they want, in sufficient enough volume, and on any given night the law of averages can tilt in their favour in their attempt to blow a team away (see: recently dropping 144 points on the hapless Hawks).
The Raptors, on the other hand, had a solid first two months of the season (middling percentage-wise, but they were top 10 in getting 3s up), before falling off a cliff. Since December 1st, the Raptors are the second-worst three-point shooting team in the league (at 31.7 percent, just ahead of Memphis). What’s worse, they sunk to 24th in overall field goal percentage during that same stretch. So Toronto isn’t making shots from beyond the arc, or anywhere else. Against a dialled in Bucks squad, this could be a problem.
The Giannis Situation
Finally, Giannis. Now, the Raptors are well-equipped to slow down the league’s presumptive MVP favourite. In the one game in which Giannis has played against Toronto, a tight 104-99 loss, the Greek Freak had only 19 points (on 8-of-15 shooting) and six assists — to go with 19 rebounds, but whatever.
For their efforts, the Raptors continue to be able to through a bunch of different looks at Antetokounmpo. They’ve gone with Pascal Siakam for the most part, figuring that his speed and length can bother Giannis enough to make a difference. They’re also OG Anunoby, who has the right kind of power and bounce — if not the defensive discipline — to stay with him. (Toronto could even try Serge Ibaka in that spot; though that’s only useful in switches, where, unlike most other centres, Ibaka can at least stay with and challenge Giannis at the rim.)
And then, ah yes, there’s one Kawhi Leonard. As we all know, both Kawhi and Giannis sat out the first time these two teams played. And in the second contest, they did not spend very much time guarding each other. Is that a tactical choice? Is Nick Nurse waiting to deploy the most fearsome defender on the planet against one of the world’s most dominant scorers? Is there some gamesmanship happening here? Time will tell — but it’s definitely something to keep an eye on tonight.