A night after a lacklustre, disappointing effort against the Detroit Pistons, the Toronto Raptors looked a like a completely different team — the team we’ve seen tantalizing glimpses of — against the defending champion Milwaukee Bucks.
Propelled by a tremendous effort on the defensive end, and led by a sensational all-around game from Pascal Siakam, the Raptors overcame a slow start, a short bench, foul trouble, and tired legs to beat the Bucks 103-96.
It might just be their signature win of the season thus far.
Siakam finished with 30 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists for his second career triple double. OG Anunoby also stuffed the stat sheet with 24, 8 and 4.
The Raptors held Giannis Antetokounmpo to just 6-for-17 shooting from the field, but he still finished with 30 points thanks to a 17-for-17 night from the free throw line.
Although the Raptors started slowly, they’d turned things around by the fourth, leading by four entering the frame. At that point, there were only two things that could slow the them down: The whistle, and their inability to hit the few foul shots they could get. Both Siakam and Fred VanVleet picked up their fifth fouls with more than eight minutes remaining in the game; meanwhile the Raptors had missed five of their 11 free throw attempts to that point, and would finish a meagre 11-for-20 from the line. The Bucks, meanwhile, would finish the game with 15 more free throw attempts than the Raptors.
But this was Siakam’s night, and he wouldn’t be denied. He scored 13 points in the fourth, on 4-for-5 shooting from the field (including 2-for-2 from downtown). He picked up three assists in the frame too (and grabbed the final two boards late for the triple-double). One game probably won’t be enough to wash all the haters away, especially with the three missed free throws (Siakam was 3-for-6 from the line in the final five minutes) but he hit both his clutch field goals and more importantly, continued to play excellent D down the stretch despite the five fouls. His dagger three-pointer with 1:10 to play pushed Toronto’s lead to seven, 98-91 — their largest of the night. Despite Toronto’s cold foul shooting, the Bucks couldn’t recover.
If we pretend that last night’s game in Detroit never happened — which is probably for the best — what the Raptors have shown on the defensive end the past two games against the Bucks and the Phoenix Suns is immensely promising. The team has played below expectations on that end of the floor for most of the season (and played above expectations on offense), but against two of the best teams in the league they’ve been stellar.
It wasn’t quite enough to get them the W against Phoenix, but it definitely made the difference tonight. The Raptors held the Bucks to 34% shooting on the night, and just 19-for-65 after the first five minutes.
It certainly wasn’t a pretty start for Toronto. The Raptors missed 10 of their first 12 field goals, and their first two free throws. Meanwhile, Bobby Portis and Khris Middleton drained threes, Giannis scored on an and-1, and Grayson Allen started 4-for-4 from the field. The Bucks led 16-2 after only 3:54 of play, and that led to a quick Nick Nurse timeout.
I’ll admit, coming back from the timeout, a deep feeling of exasperation. Not so much at the poor start; the Raptors were playing the champs, after all. But more just from the frustration of never getting to see this dang team healthy. I know this isn’t limited to the Raptors; the Bucks themselves were missing Jrue Holiday, and Brook Lopez has yet to even play this season. But this is three straight seasons of this lineup madness, and for God’s sake, I’m tired of it. And as the Raptors took the floor, Justin Champagnie — an undrafted rookie! — came in as the first Raptor off the bench. Nothing against Champagnie, of course, but that really speaks to just how limited their depth is.
The Raptors quickly reminded me, thankfully, that four minutes does not make a ballgame. After a Bobby Portis and-1, he gave a primal scream — and shoulder-bumped Pascal Siakam. That’s nothing new — Portis has shown absolutely no respect to Siakam in their matchups this season. But it might have woken the Raptors up a little bit! After a Fred VanVleet drive, Siakam himself dropped in and-1, and he and Portis got into it, getting face-to-face and jawing at each other. Portis got a tech out of it, and the Raptors got inspired.
VanVleet scored on another drive, then got himself a steal. Chris Boucher then got into the action, scoring on a VanVleet pass, and then on a putback, cutting the lead to nine and forcing a Bucks timeout. The Raptors got as close as four before he Bucks responded, and pushed the lead back to 29-20 as the first quarter closed.
Champagnie, by the way, responded to my disrespect by hauling in six boards in the first quarter. He finished with a game-high 12.
The Raptors looked much more poised to start the second quarter. Despite Portis opening the scoring, we were treated to a sensational OG dunk, and then another patented Fred VanVleet mini-run, this one featuring a midrange J out of a crossover sandwiched by two triples. The second long bomb cut the lead to 38-34.
The Raptors then found themselves with a perfect opportunity to cut it down to two, when Siakam stole a Middleton pass, and knocked the ball to Boucher to kick off a 2-on-1. Boucher wisely dished off to Siakam, who should have dished it right back — but un-wisely decided to challenge Portis at the rim. It did not go well.
Allen then hit a three the other way to push it back to seven.
Once again, Toronto’s lack of depth was readily apparent in the first half, as neither Champagnie nor Svi Mykhailiuk could hit a shot; they combined to miss all four of their first-half attempts. Yuta Watanabe, starting for the injured Gary Trent Jr. (looking fine in a super-deep V-cut sweater, by the way) also contributed a goose egg; Precious Achiuwa and Chris Boucher were the lone non-Anunoby, VanVleet or Siakam Raptors to score, totalling nine points between them before halftime.
That meant it was up to OG, Pascal and Freddy to carry the offensive load once again. And you know what? They were up to the challenge! Down seven, Anunoby scored seven points as part of a 9-2 Raptors run to tie the game at 46. Only a late Pat Connaughton three kept the Bucks in the lead, 49-46, at the half. (If you’re doing the math, Toronto’s “big three” scored 37 of the team’s 46 first-half points!)
Perhaps even more impressively, Toronto held Antetokounmpo to just seven points in the first half.
By the third quarter, the Raptors had shaken off whatever lingering Detroit hangover was still in their system at the start of the night, and they completely locked in on D. They were blocking shots, getting their hands on everything, and as always, sending the house at Giannis, forcing him into tough shots. The Bucks started the third 3-for-13, and as the Raptors turned defense into offense, they finally got the upper hand on the scoreboard too, taking a 53-52 lead.
Block by Boucher, dunk by Precious! pic.twitter.com/VQ0jnSgEzJ— NBA Canada (@NBACanada) January 16, 2022
A few minutes later, tied at 59, Siakam and VanVleet hit back-to-back threes to give Toronto their largest lead at that point.
Antetokounmpo looked like he’d had enough by then, and tried to throw the Bucks on his back. Over the next three possessions, he drew two blocking fouls, and knocked down a three-pointer over Champagnie as well. But you know who responded? Chris Boucher!
Boucher started the second half for the ineffective Watanabe, and that move paid off bigtime. In addition to the block seen above, Boucher nailed two straight three pointers, the second one a wild fadeaway off a cross-court pass from Siakam, which helped cushion Toronto’s lead.
Ahead 73-69 to start the fourth, the Raptors looked ready to go on a roll. Siakam picked up his eighth assist by finding a cutting OG for a layup, and although Boucher missed two heat-check threes, Champagnie picked up the slack by nailing a triple of his own (off of a Siakam pass, of course) to put the Raptors up 78-73. (They were Champagnie’s only points on the night.)
Unsurprisingly, though, the Raptors started to look a little gassed, and the Bucks crept back in it. With Siakam and VanVleet in foul trouble, the team turned to Anunoby to get them over the hump, and the silent assassin delivered. After three Khris Middleton free throws pulled the Bucks to within one, OG went to work. First, he scored on a drive to restore the three point lead, then proceeded to block an Antetokounmpo shot and collected the loose ball to go the other way.
A sloppy Raptors offensive possession then found OG hurling a long three at the rim with the shot clock winding down — but he made a heads-up play by following his own shot and taking it right to the rim, finishing with an and-1, and pushing Toronto’s lead to six, 93-87, with under three minutes to go.
Toronto is now 3-0 against the defending champs this season. The win moves them to 21-19, and they’re back in action on Monday night when they visit Kyle Lowry and the Miami Heat.