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Five thoughts on last night: Raptors 123, Bucks 116

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The effort missing in San Antonio reappeared in Milwaukee, as the Raptors beat the Bucks for the first time in three tries this season.

Five thoughts recap: Toronto Raptors 123, Milwaukee Bucks 116, Pascal Siakam Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

After falling behind 18-10 and giving up 34 in the first quarter to the Bucks last night, I was worried we’d be in for another long, sad stretch of basketball. Instead the Raptors dug in, played their butts off on both ends, and came away victors in Milwaukee last night. The thoughts:

“The Usual Starters for Toronto”

Since Kyle Lowry and Jonas Valanciunas have been out, Nick Nurse has rolled out the same starting lineup and run essentially the same rotation. When the starters were announced last night, with the team in a bit of a rut, I have to admit I was a bit disappointed.

Where is the experimentation we were promised?

I know the Raptors are down two key players, and that C.J. Miles has been practically unplayable, and that shortens things. But with the team struggling of late, including some slow starts, perhaps trying out some different combos might be an option? Why not start OG Anunoby, see if that gets him going? Delon Wright played well in his one start earlier in the year. Norman Powell has played well. Heck a start might even rejuvenate C.J. Miles!

(OK, maybe that’s a bridge too far.)

Obviously the starters were sensational last night, so you can’t really argue with the results on their end.

On the other hand...

Hoo Boy, The Bench Minutes...

The bench nearly dug the Raptors into a hole in the first half that they couldn’t dig out of; thankfully Kawhi Leonard carries a big shovel. Norman Powell, OG Anunoby, Greg Monroe and Delon Wright were a combined 1-for-15 and all had negative-double-digits in plus-minus. It was rough.

Monroe was useless on both ends, out of position on D, unable to get into good position or set screens on O, and unable get boards (one rebound in six minutes). OG looks like he’s rushing his shots, and his handle is still too unreliable for him to drive and create. Powell played well on the defensive end, but didn’t look comfortable on offense. Wright just looks lost.

Now, in the second half, Nick Nurse mitigated the damage by mixing up the starters and bench players a little more. Only three bench players saw the floor; Monroe stayed on the bench. That meant Fred VanVleet played all 12 minutes of the third, and Serge Ibaka and Danny Green played all 12 minutes of the fourth; Siakam and Leonard each get less than five minutes of rest in the second half.

That’s not ideal, but clearly was required if the Raptors were to win this one.

Let Giannis Cook

Something we don’t see in the NBA too much anymore is the “ignore the best player, let him get his, don’t let the rest of the guys beat you.” We saw a bit of that last night, and I liked it.

Remember when the Dallas Mavericks basically said to the Phoenix Suns in the 2005 Western Conference playoffs, “we’ll let Steve Nash score, but we’re not letting him set up his teammates for success?” Nash scored 48 in game 4, but notched only five assists and the Suns lost.

The Raptors approach against Giannis Antetokounmpo wasn’t quite as extreme as that game, but I appreciated that the Raptors didn’t send the farm at him every play. They let him attack, both in the half-court and open floor, and rarely doubled — and then usually only when he was right at the rim.

Giannis finished with 40 points and 17 boards; he managed four assists, but also six turnovers. He was 16-for-25 from the field, while the other starters were 17-for-46.

We all know Giannis is amazing. Can he beat a team himself? That remains to be seen.

Um, that DeMar-like Offense Down the Stretch...

With the game tight in the final minutes, the Raptors handed the ball to Kawhi Leonard to put the game away.

His offensive choices were, um... uninspired. And just a little too reminiscent of the Raptors of old.

Here is Kawhi’s last four minutes:

  • Missed pull-up from 19 feet, off a dribble-hand-off from VanVleet
  • Missed pull-up from 10 feet, no other Raptor touched the ball
  • Made 17-footer (and-1), no other Raptor touched the ball
  • Missed 20-foot fadeaway, off a dribble hand-off from VanVleet
  • Lost ball on a baseline drive, turnover (maybe a missed foul call), no other Raptor touched the ball.

(Of course the one time Kawhi did give the ball up, VanVleet rushed a three-pointer. So [shrug emoji].)

We’ve discussed this before. You give your best players the ball and let them work in close games. Fine. But I’m convinced you can run a little bit more of an offense to make it easier for them to get open, and to make the defense have to react. I really dislike such predictable play-calling.

Danny Green, Channelling Kawhi

Against the Spurs, Danny Green looked like he might be a San Antonio sleeper agent; he was so terrible you’d think he was trying to help the Spurs get the W.

He redeemed himself last night, particularly with two big defensive plays.

First, he had a great block on an Eric Bledsoe drive (right after Ibaka’s sensational block on Giannis), that led to two Ibaka free throws and was part of a 13-5 Raptors run.

Later down the stretch, he dug in and stripped the ball away from Bledsoe as soon as Bledsoe picked up his dribble. Siakam scored an on offensive rebound the other way to put the Raps up 10 and pretty much seal it.

Those two Kawhi-like plays, along with Green’s 12 points and nine rebounds, were huge parts of the Raptors victory.

********

And so, at the halfway mark of the season, the Raptors sit at 29-12, their pace just slightly ahead of the 56-26 record I predicted at the start of the year — and the schedule turns much easier after the All-Star break. There are still problems to solve, chief among them health of course, but it is really difficult to argue with the results in the win column thus far.