If you play video games, you’re probably familiar with a very specific sensation. Say you pick up a new game; out of the gate, you’re disoriented, still learning the controls, trying to understand the beats of how whatever world you’re in operates. Over time, you figure it things out — when to execute which button combos, and the tendencies the designers are trying to nudge you towards. Play long enough without upping the difficulty, and you’ll master it to the point that it’s no longer challenging.
The Milwaukee Bucks are the video game, and after two straight nights of learning the game’s very limited range of functions, the Toronto Raptors are the gamer browsing the E-Shop for something that isn’t made for children.
Save for a couple minutes of exhausted white-knuckling, everything about the Raptors’ second-straight double-digit win in Milwaukee came with the kind of ease that’s borne out of repetition. Against teams with less rigid coaches, the process of learning all there is to know about the opponent might take longer than two games, if a full understanding is even attainable. Mike Budenholzer doesn’t operate that way, though. Even their attempted curveballs spin into the dirt and hit the backstop.
Toronto’s grasp of the Bucks’ eminent predictability is why they won so comfortably on Thursday. Against the Bucks drop defense that has so magnificently covered up Brook Lopez’ one-dimensionality for years, Toronto hit the soft spots. Fred VanVleet and Pascal Siakam eagerly hammered the mid-range — an area of the floor this top-10 scoring edition of the Raptors is far better equipped to attack thanks to some key internal development. Understanding the Bucks’ fear of shots at the rim, Toronto’s playmakers drove and kicked to shooters with daylight, and made use of whip smart passes in close to dodge lurching arms.
Milwaukee, to their credit, is trying to adapt with the times a little this year. Switching has been a bigger part of their defensive style, and they leaned on it heavily late in the game after Lopez was more or less played off the floor by a series of wet Siakam 10-foot floaters. The thing is, the whole switching thing falls apart when Bryn Forbes, Donte DiVincenzo and Bobby Portis are key cogs in your lineups. Practice is well and good, but you don’t need reps to learn that Forbes can’t guard Siakam one-on-one. As it turns out, Khris Middleton can’t do a thing about OG Anunoby on switches, either. If they really want to lean into a more pliable style of defending, Milwaukee should consider getting more players who are not ass. What with all the draft picks they definitely have left to deal for upgrades, I’m sure they will find some...
The Bucks’ rote game plan is of course all-encompassing, reaching well past the defensive end all the way to the other side of the floor. Giannis is a hammer, and to him everything is a nail. Except when you try to drive a nail into a cinder block three dudes wide, the hammer is going to shatter after enough swings. Antetokounmpo finished with 23 points on 8-of-20 shooting, and the work Anunoby, Siakam and even Aron Baynes put in to bother him on his drives was entirely responsible for the frustration that eventually saw the defending MVP foul out.
Khris Middleton’s definitely better than he showed in two games against the Raptors, during which he scored just 24 points and turned it over 11 times. But if he doesn’t learn to maneuver through the kinds of aggressive double-teams Toronto threw his way over 96 minutes, the Bucks are surely on their way to another post-season pants-wetting. VanVleet will probably lurk deep in Middleton’s conscience for a few weeks at the very least.
On the topic of predictability, Norman Powell did the thing where he rips the Bucks’ throats out again. Taking a step up in the shot hierarchy with Kyle Lowry out, he was the beneficiary of the extra attention paid to Siakam and VanVleet on their drives. He finished the night with 29 points on 9-of-12 shooting, including 4-of-7 on his threes. Thank you once again, Greivis Vasquez.
Now, even if a lot of this game could have been foretold ahead of time, there were some pleasantly surprising elements at play, too. Baynes had perhaps his best game as a Raptor. It seems he’s found a home in the bench unit next to Chris Boucher (who is very clearly more useful as a power forward than a center), and while his defensive rebounding still leaves plenty to be desired, his rim protection — particularly in the fourth quarter — was critical to the Raptors holding off a Bucks push that never really got serious. His +19 on the night was the best on the team. Matt Thomas, hilariously, was second at +13.
And while Siakam’s 27-6-5 line on 9-of-18 shooting maybe isn’t shocking considering how well he’s played recently, it was certainly out of character for him to look so damned comfortable against a Bucks that traditionally has given him trouble. Shit, he even took Giannis in an isolation for an and-1 late in the game. There’s a balance to Siakam’s game these days; an understanding of when to engage and when to defer. It may be too late for him to make his All-Star case, but who cares. Firstly, it’s a sham All-Star Game that shouldn’t be happening. And second, the types of steps he’s taking as a creator are the exact ones everyone hoped he’d take after processing all that went wrong for him in the bubble. Maybe he’ll never be a bona fide, top eight-ish, title landscape altering superstar. That’s fine. The player he is right now is tight as hell, probably better than he was at any point last season. Even the threes are dropping again.
Toronto’s now 14-15, a Friday night win over a Wolves team they already should have beaten this week away from finally drawing back to .500; they’re inching towards full health, even with Lowry’s status a little murky at the moment; their +2.5 NET Rating paints them pretty comfortably as a top-10 team in the league. As of tonight, they sit just two games back of the Bucks for third place in the East. In short, the Raptors, through all the hysteria of a 2-8 start, are pretty damn good. Talk about predictable.