There’s been disappointment and frustration along the way, but the Toronto Raptors continue to dig themselves out of a horrible start to the season.
Winners of five of their last seven games, the Raptors have earned wins against good teams despite key injuries to Kyle Lowry and Pascal Siakam, including a Sunday afternoon victory over Indiana and a trouncing of Dallas last week. Even after the latest letdown — a 129-114 loss to the Pacers on Monday — taking the last three weeks as a whole has to have you feeling good about the team’s potential, especially in a wide open Eastern Conference where nobody’s taken command.
The team that usually does that — or has the past two seasons — is the Milwaukee Bucks. Yet at 10-6, they’re right in the thick of a five-team race for first, with the Sixers, Pacers, Nets and Celtics separated by just 1.5 games.
Chalk it up to some growing pains for Giannis Antetokounmpo and company. An off-season trade for Jrue Holiday has robbed the Bucks of some of their depth, but raised their playoff upside. Right now, the result isn’t the prettiest, but shows a lot of potential. The Bucks are still the league’s best offense and a top ten defense, and even though Giannis has struggled at the free throw line and Milwaukee has yet to eke out a win against the best of their Eastern counterparts (losing by three combined points in two games against Boston and Brooklyn), you get the sense that the juggernaut will come together eventually.
Will it look that way tonight against the Raptors? Toronto is hoping they’ll get Pascal Siakam back to help their chances. After sitting out the last two games with knee soreness, Siakam is once again questionable as of Tuesday afternoon, with his status to be updated before tonight’s game.
Raptors continue to list Pascal Siakam (knee swelling) questionable for Wednesday's game against Milwaukee. Patrick McCaw remains out.— (((Eric Koreen))) (@ekoreen) January 26, 2021
While the team has played well without him, Siakam’s defense will be critical against the Middleton-Antetokounmpo frontcourt — and would take some pressure off the Raptors bench.
The more familiar faces from 2019, the better too. Something about the memories of that Eastern Conference Final brings out the best in these two teams; let’s get into the game details and talk about how this matchup is a bit different than the last.
Where to Watch
TSN, 7:30 PM ET
Toronto — Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet, Norman Powell, OG Anunoby, Aron Baynes
Milwaukee — Jrue Holiday, Donte DiVincenzo, Khris Middleton, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Brook Lopez
Toronto — Pascal Siakam (knee - questionable), Patrick McCaw (knee - out)
Milwaukee — none
After starting the season as one of the league’s best defenses, the Raptors have slipped to league average coming into tonight, tied for 15th with the Pacers at a 109.2 rating.
That slippage was on display on Monday, as Toronto gave up 129 points to Indiana in a sloppy, inconsistent effort. All the schemes in the world can’t make up for bad fouls and missed rotations, with Toronto committing both those sins on a regular basis against the Pacers. It showed up through frustration with the officials, as Kyle Lowry was ejected and Nick Nurse was lucky not to be — and while not totally unwarranted, there were key moments where the Raptors just got lazy, and that’ll need to clean up against a team like Milwaukee.
There’s also no wiggle room for turnovers against the Bucks, who are the third-best in the NBA in fast break points (16.1 per game) — not a surprise when you have the Greek Freak. This may not be the game for Terence Davis and DeAndre Bembry, who have both struggled mightily with controlling the basketball when in the game, averaging 3.9 and 5.1 turnovers per 36 minutes, respectively.
Instead, expect more of Stanley Johnson and Yuta Watanabe, who have really earned Nurse’s trust in transitional lineups. Which brings me neatly into the next point...
The Raptors are finally getting into a steady rotation thanks to the recent play of Johnson and Watanabe. Given his history, Johnson especially is the revelation here, as he’s limited his mistakes on the offensive end while playing solid defense throughout his minutes.
That kind of consistency will be key given the opportunity tonight — the Bucks aren’t nearly as deep as they have been in recent years, with Bobby Portis standing as their most important contributor at 11.1 points per game. D.J. Augustin has hurt Toronto before, but he’s yet to pop that much in a Milwaukee uniform.
Johnson, Watanabe, and Chris Boucher will be key characters then during the transition moments of the game. It would be nice especially to see Boucher get his shot back on track after a poor outing on Monday.
Though it wasn’t surprising to see Lowry get tossed against Indiana after a frustrating night of not having the whistle go his way, it’s still disappointing to see your team’s leader cuss his way into an early exit. All season, the Raptors have been demonstrative toward officials, and it clearly is reaching some sort of breaking point — post-game quotes from Fred VanVleet indicate that the team was already getting chippy with refs in the first few minutes of the game.
Full VanVleet quote on the officiating: pic.twitter.com/4aHSp2WuSq— Josh Lewenberg (@JLew1050) January 26, 2021
I don’t think it’s realistic to ask Lowry to cool off in his mid-30’s, but the Raptors in general need he and Nurse to cool it with the arguing — even though it’s based in a modicum of truth, it might be hurting Toronto’s relationship with officials more than it’s helping.