The 2022-23 Toronto Raptors truly are a Jekyll-and-Hyde team, it seems. After what felt like a disastrous five-game road trip — where they went 1-4 — the Raptors have reeled off three straight home wins, are just one game below .500, and now have a chance — if the Atlanta Hawks lose today, and the Raptors win — to move into 8th place in the Eastern Conference.
To do that, though, they Raptors will have to beat the best team in the league, the Milwaukee Bucks, in Milwaukee. That’s a tall task, but if the Raptors stick to what’s been working the past week, they have a chance.
Where to watch
Sportsnet, 8:00PM ET
Toronto Raptors — Fred VanVleet, OG Anunoby, Scottie Barnes, Pascal Siakam, Jakob Poeltl
Milwaukee Bucks — Khris Middleton, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Bobby Portis, Pat Connaughton, Jrue Holiday
Toronto Raptors — Otto Porter Jr. (foot – out), Dalano Banton (thumb – out)
Milwaukee Bucks — Grayson Allen (foot – probably), Thanasis Antetokounmpo (NWT – out), Jae Crowder (calf – out), Goran Dragic (knee – out), Brook Lopez (ankle – probable)
The Raptors’ bench was a huge problem during that 1-4 road stretch; they didn’t just fail to hold pace with their opponents, they were pretty much dominated and run off the floor.
The past three games, though, Nick Nurse has tried something a little different: Leaving two starters in his transitional lineups. Instead of Barnes and four subs, or Siakam and four subs, it’s been Siakam+Anunoby and three subs, or VanVleet+Barnes and two subs. And when one of those subs is Gary Trent, as it almost always is, that’s three starter-level players on the floor at all times. And instead of dropping two out of every four quarters, the Raptors won 11 of the 12 quarters played on the three-game homestead.
Now, one could ask why it took the Raptors so long to figure this out. My best guess is the Raptors wanted to do everything they could to give their bench chances to show their stuff. And I’d guess Precious Achiuwa’s inconsistent (that's being generous) recent play finally made the coaching staff realize the bench just isn’t good enough to do it on their own.
Better late than never, one supposes!
Slow down Jrue
Jrue Holiday exploded for 37 points the last time the Raptors played the Bucks, including nine in the fourth quarter of what was a close game. Fred VanVleet himself had quite a game on that January night — 39 of his own! — but Holiday consistently beat him to the point of attack on the other end, with his team walking away with the win.
Fred has been much, much better on defense lately, and his offense has been sensational the past three games. His extended break after All-Star for the birth of his third child seems to have been well-timed, in terms of giving him a chance for his body to heal after playing so many extended minutes. And we all know how Fred plays after his wife gives birth... and so do the Bucks!. So I wouldn’t be surprised to see VanVleet win this matchup tonight.
Of course, maybe this blurb should be “slow down Allen.” Noted cheap shot artist Allen (and I don’t forget his knocking Gary Trent Jr. in the nuts the last time these two teams played) is averaging 20.5 mpg against the Raptors, almost double his season average. Hopefully, this time out, the Raptors defensive rotations are sharper — and they should be, given their new starting centre!
With Jakob Poeltl starting, tonight will be the first time the Raptors have played the Bucks and Antetokounmpo with a true centre in the lineup since The Bubble, when Marc Gasol started (and the Raptors won). (And no, I don’t count any games the Raptors played in Tampa with Aron Baynes!)
We all know how well the Gasol-Ibaka Raptors did against the Bucks (four straight to close out the 2019 Eastern Conference Finals, and yes, I do take great pleasure in bringing that up as often as I can!) so it’ll be interesting to see how Nick Nurse employs Poeltl to slow down the former MVP and the Lopez-Antetokounmpo frontline. Giannis didn’t play the last time these two teams met, but he had 30 points and 21 boards in the Bucks’ OT win on January 4.
Can the Raptors bring back the old “build a wall” strategy and slow down Giannis, perhaps forcing him into a multiple-turnover night, one that ignites the Raptors fast break and helps them come away with a victory? Let’s find out!