Back in the Orlando bubble, the Toronto Raptors were on the brink of elimination at the hands of the Boston Celtics when Nick Nurse started to lean on a lineup of Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet, Norman Powell, Pascal Siakam and OG Anunoby. Though the stakes are not as high as they were in the bubble playoffs, and the situation not as dire, the Raptors were clearly in need of a spark. Although the Raptors would eventually lose that series against the Celtics, that group gave the team a fighting chance and stretched the series to seven games. With the return of Anunoby from a calf injury, Nurse would once again turn to that lineup in a time of need, and once again, the decision paid off as the Raptors defeated the sputtering Milwaukee Bucks 124-113.
This was a welcome sight for Raptors fans, who had long been clamouring to see that group in action this season. Although the excitement was dampened when Kyle Lowry went down early in the second half, his teammates stepped up big to close out the Bucks. Pascal Siakam shook off an inefficient night and stayed in attack mode to the very end, OG displayed some flash on offense, and Fred VanVleet put forth a virtuoso performance as the Raptors finally registered a signature win.
Right out of the gates, the Raptors had a different energy. On the first Milwaukee possession, Norman Powell ripped the ball out of Brook Lopez’s hands and took it the other way for two. A couple possessions later, OG Anunoby reminded us what All-Defense wing play looks like by pouncing on a sloppy Bucks pass for another early steal. Kyle Lowry finally got a continuation call, something like a shooting star for Toronto, and followed that up with a three to put the Raptors up 16-7 early.
Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks, however, would not go away. The Greek Freak attacked the rim relentlessly early, getting to his spot with ease. Toronto was only bailed out by some abysmal free throw shooting by Antetokounmpo. By the end of the first, the game was knotted up at 33.
Pat Connaughton, the latest opposing role player to have an outsized impact, led an early second quarter run which saw Milwaukee threatening to run away. Connaughton finished the half with 18 points on 7-for-10 shooting. The Bucks were up 50-38 when an prompt time-out by Nick Nurse reinvigorated the sense of purpose that the Raptors began the game with. The defense tightened back up and allowed the team to get some momentum in their transition offense.
Pascal Siakam battled through a slow start to help lead the Raptors run to get back in it, racking up 10 points in the quarter, including two three-pointers, for a balanced line of 12 points, eight boards, and three assists in the half.
The engine of the team early, as it has been so often, was the backcourt. Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet combined for 32 points on 13-22 shooting. Lowry, in particular, was a flurry of energy, getting his fingerprints all over the game on both sides of the ball. He had six rebounds and six assists to go with his 15 points in the first half.
By the end of the half, the teams were tied up yet again, as a 10-of-19 three-point shooting half for the Bucks provided some margin for error as the Raptors roared back.
As previously noted, Raptors fans had reason for panic at the end of the half as Kyle Lowry limped to the locker room moments before the end of the half, but a three-pointer out of the gates provided a brief reprieve. As the third quarter wore on, however, his sore ankle flared back up, and he left the game midway through the frame. He would not return from that point.
With the game tied at 74 at the time of Lowry’s departure, his teammates were willing to pick up the slack in his absence. Chris Boucher hit a couple big threes while playing some exceptional defense around the rim, and Fred VanVleet continued his masterful offensive game, at one point taking Giannis one-on-one and hitting a tough mid-ranger over him. VanVleet would not be denied, though his constant attacking, which bore ten points worth of fruit, left him clearly exhausted at the end on the third.
There were some other notable nuggets in this one. Nick Nurse seemed committed to fan service, following up his starting lineup with a rare Matt Thomas sighting in the third. Thomas, however, was a little skittish and could not find the room to get into a shooting rhythm. Aron Baynes also came off the bench, quite shockingly for the first time all season, and was rather effective in a more limited role. DeAndre Bembry was also solid in his minutes, continuing a positive trend for the team. But it was the starters, plus Boucher, who closed this one out.
Leading by three at the end of the third, the Raptors choked the life out of the Bucks in the final frame.
OG Anunoby nailed a tough fadeaway jumper, and displayed absurd fluidity and control on an and-one a few possessions later.
Pascal Siakam attacked a favourable matchup against Brook Lopez multiple times, looking aggressive and confident, and Fred VanVleet ultimately tucked the Milwaukee Bucks in and said goodnight. When it was all said and done, VanVleet finished with 33 points, seven assists, four rebounds, and two steals — he was truly spectacular in this one, especially after Lowry went down.
Raptors fans must be wary of overreacting to one win, but this did feel like they figured something out with the new starting lineup. They were fast and aggressive on defense, and they gave the Bucks no reprieve when they were on offense. Lowry’s injury casts a slight cloud over all the other positives from this one, but it did not appear extremely serious.
Following this one, the Raptors will stay in Milwaukee for another clash with the Bucks on Thursday.