It brings me no pleasure to report this, but it must be said: the Milwaukee Bucks really are that good.
I think that has to be the main takeaway from the Bucks’ 108-97 victory over the Toronto Raptors last night. They used superior defense, solid shot-making, strong transition play and contributions from the entire roster to take the Raptors off of their game.
Would Marc Gasol and Norman Powell have made a difference? Perhaps. And hopefully we’ll get see that in April (and May too...?). But for last night, the Bucks were exactly as advertised: the best team in the NBA.
Not a Bad Night on D
The Raptors and Bucks are the two best defensive teams in the NBA, so if you are a fan of great defenses going at it, last night was a game for you! I definitely enjoyed it — although as a Raptors fan, obviously, I enjoyed it on one end of the floor more than the other!
So let’s talk about Toronto’s D. With the exception of the 16-1 run that bridged the second and third quarters (more on this to come), I was pretty impressed with Toronto’s defense last night. I thought the Raptors collapsed on Giannis Antetokounmpo exceptionally well, sending timely doubles in the half court and preventing him from getting too much space in transition.
Mostly, I really liked the OG Anunoby matchup for Giannis; OG gives up height but his strength and quickness is definitely Toronto’s best bet at slowing him down. I think we probably won’t see as much of that matchup in April when these two teams meet again; I think this was Nick Nurse trying it out, to see if OG could hang, and now that Nurse knows Anunoby is up for it, he might stash that one away for the postseason.
The Raptors probably miss some size on the wing to guard Khris Middleton, though. I thought Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet did a solid enough job in the first half, particularly digging down at the ball to take space away from Middleton. But Middleton was able to shoot over the smaller guards in the second half. Perhaps the slight size bump of a Norman Powell can help here.
No Margin for Error
Without Gasol and Powell (and maybe even with them — the Bucks are that good) the Raptors pretty much have to pay 48 minutes with no let-ups. For about five minutes bridging the half, they let up.
For the first time all night, it looked like the Bucks had room to breath in the halfcourt, and they made the Raptors pay by generating quality looks. That allowed the Bucks to properly set their own defense on the other end, and the Raptors looked like they didn’t know where to go. And before you know it, Toronto’s 51-39-point lead turned into a 55-52 deficit.
Couple that with Toronto’s 16 turnovers and an absolute no-show from Serge Ibaka, and that’s just too many mistakes to overcome against the best team in the league.
It’s hard enough to play a perfect game, period. To do it four times in May? That’s gonna be a tall order. For any team.
I think both the Raptors and Bucks did a great job neutralizing the other team’s best player — at least, as much as anyone does. Antetokounmpo and Siakam were a combined 11-for-28.
But Antetokounmpo got more from his teammates than Siakam did. Khris Middleton led the Bucks with 22, and hit several big shots in the second half. Eric Bledsoe carried some of the scoring in the first half. Brook Lopez scored inside and outside. All told, they combined for 54 points.
The Raptors? They got virtually nothing from Serge Ibaka, Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet, who finished a combined 9-for-41 for 29 points.
Lowry, in particular, was disappointing. When Middleton was picking up Giannis slack’ (such as it was — the Greek Freak still had 19-19-8), Lowry was a virtual no-show, outside of his usual (highly entertaining!) theatrics (we’ll get to this). All game long I was just waiting for a typical Lowry-esque takeover stretch. It seemed like the perfect night: he’s embarrassed Eric Bledsoe plenty of times before, and there were more than a few “poke the bear” moments between Kyle and the officials. But it never came.
The Raptors will need Kyle to be KLOE Kyle in a playoff series against Milwaukee. He was a long, long way from that last night.
Boosted by Boucher
Chris Boucher’s energy was a welcome sight in the first quarter last night. He opened with a triple, had a monster putback dunk, then took a charge from Giannis. And he was flying around on the boards as he usually does, knocking as many out of bounds as he actually catches. He added another three in the second quarter and blocked a Giannis running hook in the fourth.
This should have been a perfect complement to Serge Ibaka. Serge has been excellent as a starter, while Boucher has had a rough go of it lately. So for Boucher to come and give that lift off the bench? Perfect timing right?
Not so much. Ibaka had what was probably his worst game of the season, going 2-for-15, turning the ball over three times and finding himself out of position on D and on the glass multiple times. And it was pretty clear the struggles got in his head too — he passed up a couple of open looks and was clearly trying to will his last few shots in. He also bobbled a ball out of bounds during a mini-Raptors run late that — while probably too little too late — really could have used his help.
Stonehands Serge back— Raptors HQ (@RaptorsHQ) February 26, 2020
I’m confident Serge will bounce back; what I’m really hoping is that this was a turnaround game of sorts for Boucher. It would be fantastic if the Raptors could count on him a little more with Gasol on the shelf.
The Human Nutmeg
It’s the return of my favourite segment: The “Never Seen That One Before” Dept.!
Look, I have no idea what Kyle Lowry was trying to do here, tunnelling under George Hill.
Kyle Lowry what are you doing lmao pic.twitter.com/bJFR0VgxB1— SB Nation (@SBNation) February 26, 2020
I don’t think the officials did either. They charged him with an offensive foul.
George Hill just drew the first teabag charge— Jay Rosales (@Rosalesaurus) February 26, 2020
Kyle Lowry cannot be under anything, it is written.— Vivek Jacob (@VivekMJacob) February 26, 2020
Was I amused? Absolutely! Was it something I wanted to see in an 8-point game halfway through the fourth quarter? Uh, no.
One last thought here: I am firmly on the pro side of the “buyout guys rarely make a difference, let’s not make a big deal out of who signs where” argument, but Marvin Williams might be joining Rasheed Wallace, PJ Brown, and the Belinelli/Ilyasova combo as one of the rare exceptions.
They picked him up off the buyout market two weeks ago, and here he is playing 16 minutes for the best team in the league, hitting three threes, guarding Toronto’s best player (which means Giannis doesn’t have to, for 16 minutes) and freeing Brook Lopez up to roam around and protect the paint.
Williams appears to be a difference maker. And it truly sucks for Toronto that Milwaukee got him.
Anywho: Let’s not get too down about a tough loss to a great team when the Raps were missing two key players. As long as the Raptors continue to win the winnable games, things will shake out in the playoffs where, as we saw last year, anything can happen.