Most of the talk around the Toronto Raptors this season has been about the play of Fred VanVleet, and with good reason. VanVleet hasn’t just risen out of the shadow of Kyle Lowry, he’s redefined the Raptors point guard position in his own image — shooting better than at any point in his career and showing off a true game-breaker ability, even at 5’10”.
The Raptors have needed VanVleet through a lot of turmoil this season. Injuries, COVID-19 and an inconsistent supporting cast has necessitated Fred carrying a heavy load. He leads the Raptors in minutes, and his advanced numbers leave no doubt that he should be the team’s one representative in Cleveland at the All-Star Game.
All that said, though — the last four games have been even more special because Fred hasn’t been the only headline. We’re finally getting to see an ideal version of the Raptors — healthy, with multiple players putting their stamp on a game.
That’s what happened tonight in Milwaukee, as the Raptors shook off a poor defensive first half — giving up 77 points — to hold the Bucks to just 11 in the third, on their way to a 117-111 victory. It improves Toronto to 18-17 on the season, their first time above .500 since they were 7-6.
Leading the team through their second half charge was Pascal Siakam. Scoring 33 points in 42 minutes on 13-for-23 shooting, while adding six assists and five rebounds, Siakam was calm, cool and collected on the offensive end. Amidst a crucial 14-3 Raptors run in the third quarter, Siakam led a hybrid bench unit with his scoring and passing — ably finding weak spots in the Bucks defense.
It’s remarkable, still, to see how the game has slowed down for Siakam — even more so since returning from health and safety protocols. He’s making the right reads more often than not, and by making his mid-range shot more consistent, has turned into a threat from all over the court and not just one defenses can collapse against.
Pascal had a lot of help, though; needed in a game where the Raptors found themselves in a track meet for the first 24 minutes. OG Anunoby and Gary Trent Jr. went for 22 points apiece, while Fred VanVleet — dogged in a matchup with Jrue Holiday — scoring 19, including five timely threes.
The Bucks were led by 25 points from Khris Middleton. Jordan Nwora added 17 while Jrue Holiday and DeMarcus Cousins (who was... waived post-game) had 15 each.
In the first, both teams opened sharp from the field. The Raptors started 5-for-6 and took an early 19-9 lead into the first timeout, with both Fred and OG making three-point looks.
The visitors would cool off as the half progressed though, while their opponents did nothing but heat up. The Bucks would shoot 62.8% before halftime, getting tough shots from all of Wesley Matthews, Rodney Hood and DeMarcus Cousins. Toronto simply wasn’t sharp in who they allowed to take open shots — a problem when you’re going against a Bucks team missing Giannis Antetokounmpo and a handful of role players.
Early in the second quarter, the Raptors allowed a back door layup to Cousins, followed by a four-point play for the same guy. Milwaukee would take a six-point first quarter lead into double digits before the midpoint of the second frame.
Two critical three-pointers from VanVleet late in the half did a lot to make this game manageable, though.
The Raptors shot pretty well considering, 55.6%, and only trailed by nine points at halftime. The two teams combined for 24 threes in the first half.
Then, in the third, the Raptors defense woke up. The team was much sharper getting out to shooters that had hurt them in the first half. And while Siakam was scoring and leading on the other end, a big ball bench lineup featuring Scottie Barnes, Chris Boucher and Precious Achiuwa baffled Milwaukee into giving up their lead. The Raptors would end the quarter on the aforementioned 14-3 run, taking a 92-88 lead into the fourth.
Bench minutes once again became critical to start the fourth. With VanVleet on the bench, Toronto got key three-pointers from Achiuwa and Trent Jr. to tread water against an energized Bucks lineup. Then, Siakam returned early to keep the bench rolling — scoring on a roll as part of a 15-2 run.
There were some hairy moments late. The whistle wasn’t kind to the Raptors throughout, and the Bucks kept poking with the lead around five or six. Toronto was able to finish the job, though, earning another important win with their top players intact. It’s an ever-shifting landscape, and you have to get the ones that are there.
Next up, the Raptors face the Jazz on Friday night.