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Raptors hang on to defeat Bucks 97-93 as Fred VanVleet steals the show

That Fred VanVleet guy is alright, huh?

NBA: Milwaukee Bucks at Toronto Raptors John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

Even with guys out of the lineup, the Raptors have a bunch of good players; all they’ve ever needed was a little help. At long last, Fred VanVleet, Scottie Barnes and Pascal Siakam got the requisite complementary support for a win on Thursday night, as Toronto took down the Giannis Antetokounmpo-less Milwaukee Bucks to snap a three-game slide, 97-93.

As get well games go, this wasn’t exactly a soothing balm a blowout over the Kings or Rockets or some other trash can team would have been. The defending champs, even beheaded, are a tough cover, and the Raptors’ 10th win of the year wasn’t assured until just 0.7 seconds remained, as VanVleet canned a pair of big-balled free throws — a fitting end to a game that was won in large part thanks to his fourth quarter heroics.

It ended up very much being a VanVleet game, but it didn’t start out that way. During the first half, VanVleet was largely neutralized by the Bucks’ two-to-the-ball approach in any screening actions the Raptors’ lead guard initiated. To offset VanVleet’s quiet, three-point first 24, Pascal Siakam and Scottie Barnes took up the scoring burden — Siakam with 15 efficient points; Barnes with nine, all from downtown. With his recent uptick in volume, the accuracy has followed for Barnes. He’s now up to 15 makes on 40 attempts, good for 37.5 percent on the year. His finished with a stuffed 13-7-4-3-1 line on 5-of-9 from the field, though his biggest play of the night, which we’ll get to, didn’t appear in the box score at all.

Siakam, meanwhile, had an inverse game to VanVleet. After that first half in which the Bucks really didn’t have many answers, they began to swarm Siakam on his paint forays, and forced him to defer in the second half — which he did damn well.

“I thought Pascal especially made some good passes out of the paint,” said Nick Nurse afterwards, praising Siakam’s quick reads when his path forward was walled off.

When he fouled out with a couple minutes left, he was on 20 points and eight boards to go along with four assists.

“Probably would have had at least double that,” Nurse noted, pointing to a bunch of wide-open threes Siakam’s teammates missed.

Fouling out again wasn’t ideal, of course. Without OG Anunoby in the lineup, Siakam’s offense is essential for Toronto. Nurse noted after the game that it’s all part of the process of working his way back from a six-month absence.

“He seems to me that he’s getting himself just a half count late on some stuff,” Nurse said. “I think he’s probably late to the play and it’s tough to kind of pull back when you’re late.”

Even with the six fouls, Siakam was a key cog in another promising defensive performance for the the team — their fourth in the last five games dating back to the second half down in Memphis. As Nurse made note of, this was a tricky one to game plan for defensively. Antetonkounmpo’s scratch didn’t come until 30 minutes before tip, leaving the team to scramble and abandon the Giannis-centric look it had plotted out.

“It’s a lot of adjustment. For the MVP you’ve gotta do a lot of game-planning... You kind of have to readjust and focus on other guys,” said Precious Achiuwa, who continued to be just as effective defensively and on the glass as he is, uhm, not that with the ball in his hands. Nurse said after the game that the experience of playing in a hairy, close game for someone of Achiuwa’s age can only be a good thing long term.

Barnes was also a stand-out with his defensive play — something that has been a little uneven throughout his rookie season. Nurse said that once the Giannis news came down, Barnes declared his desire to be Khris Middleton’s main defensive check. Middleton scored 22 points, but on a blah 8-of-20 clip, with three turnovers to just two assists. Barnes’ length in the traps they sent towards Middleton was of particular use a few times. He also all but sealed the game with a massive tap out to VanVleet off Achiuwa’s missed free throw with just seconds to play, clearing the way for VanVleet to ice it.

So yeah, VanVleet. Holy shit. He’s been doing star stuff all season long, driving winning play like no other member of the Raptors. Tonight might have been the best we’ve seen from him yet.

He poured in 26 second half points, a product of the attention Milwaukee diverted to Siakam, along with some creative sets to get him the ball drawn up by Nurse.

“Every adjustment to get him freed up got him free, and he made ‘em,” Nurse said.

One fourth quarter stretch featured a VanVleet triple off of a gorgeous find from Barnes ( created by a heavy pin-down screen by Siakam). The next time down, Achiuwa bounced a gorgeous, leading pass to his cutting point guard for a lay-in, following by a VanVleet steal, drive, foul, and perfect trip to the line. All told, it was a 7-0 run by VanVleet to push the Raptors lead to 82-73 just as the Bucks closed in.

Milwaukee did not go away, and the final moments were the shit that gets the CEO at TUMs paid. There were missed free throws, flubbed rebounding assignments, suspect and warranted foul calls, and a missed Pat Connaughton three that would have given Milwaukee a miraculous lead.

Siakam and Barnes were essential, and VanVleet made this his win by the end. But it’s worth doling out some flowers to the supporting cast for their work on Thursday as well. That starring trio has, of course, been consistently good in the time the Raptors have been without OG Anunoby, Khem Birch and Gary Trent Jr. (who hopefully shook off all the rust from his absence with a 3-of-16 effort in his return) — they just haven’t had an ounce of help over the last couple weeks. They got some tonight. As mentioned, Achiuwa was a NET positive, and at long last the bench had a stretch that didn’t wipe away all the starters’ good work.

A second quarter spell featuring Chris Boucher, Yuta Watanabe, Svi Mykhailiuk and Dalano Banton with a mix of starters was one of the first instances in which we’ve seen Toronto’s reserves play with the fervor of past Raps bench crews. Watanabe’s defense is spectacular, and his two made threes on two attempts were those types of role player makes that turn losses into wins. Even Boucher, who duffed an open layup late in the third, chipped in some crucial fourth quarter buckets as the Raptors’ offense slowed to a bit of a halt. 21 bench points isn’t some world-beating figure, but when you factor in the defense Toronto’s second unit played, Thursday will go down as one of the best nights for Toronto’s non-stars all year.

It’s going to take more than a four-point win over a team missing its two-time MVP for the Raptors to truly get back on track. But it’s a baby step in the right direction. VanVleet, Siakam and Barnes are awesome. Give them a hand, and good things happen.