The Milwaukee Bucks have the best record in the league, and they showed us why tonight, by dispatching the Toronto Raptors behind a barrage of three-pointers and a monster fourth-quarter effort.
The Bucks won the final quarter 29-16, led by Brook Lopez, who scored 17(!) in the frame. The Raptors, trying to coax something out of their bench, started the period 1-for-11 from the floor as the Bucks quickly erased a 6-point deficit and rolled the rest of the way. The Raptors got the score within two points on two occasions, but never seriously threatened.
With the 118-111 loss, the Raptors lost yet another chance to move to .500 — and more importantly, lost a chance to move a half-game up on the Atlanta Hawks for the 8th seed in the Eastern Conference.
Fred VanVleet led the Raptors with 23 points and 11 assists; O.G. Anunoby added 22, shooting 4-for-5 from downtown. Jakob Poeltl dropped in 20, and Pascal Siakam added 13 points, 12 boards and 7 assists.
Scottie Barnes left the game just before halftime with a wrist injury; x-rays were negative, but he’ll be re-evaluated tomorrow in Toronto.
Giannis Antentokoumpo had a 22/13/10 triple double for the Bucks, and — get this — didn’t miss a single field goal, going 9-for-9 from the floor. He missed four free throws, and had three turnovers, but otherwise, pitched a perfect game. Lopez led all scorers with 26 points, and Khris Middleton added 20 points and five three-pointers.
Leading 95-89, the Raptors opened the fourth with yet another questionable starter+bench lineup, this time Siakam with Gary Trent Jr., Precious Achiuwa, Chris Boucher and Will Barton. The offense with Barton running the show looked atrocious, and without Poeltl in the lineup, Lopez went wild, scoring the first eight points of the frame as the Bucks re-took the lead, 97-95.
I’m sure I wasn’t the only one surprised that Nick Nurse didn’t match Poeltl’s minutes with Lopez’s, especially since Poeltl had only played 20 minutes at that point, with just one personal foul. It was a costly decision! Poeltl then came back, and quickly hit a short J, but only after another Middleton bucket. Ultimately it was a 14-2 Bucks run over 5:12 to start the frame — all with Antetokounmpo and Holiday on the bench.
As for Barton, although the team was shorthanded with Barnes out, there’s really no excuse for letting Barton try and run the offense for that long. He clearly doesn’t know the plays, and should be a floor-spacer only; Siakam can handle the ball for those spurts if both VanVleet and Barnes are out.
Will Barton in 9 games with Toronto: 7-27 FG, 4-16 3P. The Raptors are -46 with him on the court. Nobody else is worse than -29 over that span and, overall, the team is +22.— Josh Lewenberg (@JLew1050) March 20, 2023
The Barton minutes really are bizarre, especially considering how well Jeff Dowtin played for that all-too-brief stretch. If it’s true that the team won’t play Dowtin because they don’t want to convert his two-way contract to a guaranteed contract, that’s disgraceful. Especially considering this game may well cost the Raptors the 8th seed, and thus, a homecourt postseason game — and, since we’re talking money, all the revenue that comes with that home game. That’s a shortsighted decision that… well, that’s perfectly in keep with Rogers’ business practices. Sigh.
(Here’s where I’ll once again slag the front office for failing to acquire a backup point guard last offseason.)
In any event, by the time VanVleet came back in, the Bucks had all the momentum and the Raptors were completely out of sorts on offense. At that point, as well as the Raptors had played through three quarters, the outcome wasn’t really in doubt.
Speaking of out of sorts, it wasn’t a good start for the Raptors, who missed their first three shots, and gave up open threes to Middleton and Lopez to find themselves quickly down 6-0. Antetokounmpo and Bobby Portis added threes of their own, before Middleton dropped another, as the Bucks raced out to a 17-8 lead.
Precious Achiuwa made a surprising first quarter appearance, as Nick Nurse looked to add some athleticism on the perimeter. And it seemed to work — the Raptors scored five straight to cut the lead to four.
But the Bucks kept coming, and kept hitting from downtown. Portis hit another, Joe Ingles got in on the action as the Bucks pushed the lead back to 9, 31-22. All told the Bucks hit 7 of their first 11 three-point attempts in the first quarter. The Raptors closed on a 6-2 run, with the capper a VanVleet-to-Achiuwa alley-oop that Precious flipped in at the rim, to trail 33-29 heading into the second.
O.G. Anunoby — scoreless in the first — opened the second with a short J, and Trent followed it up with a three after an all-hustle offensive rebound from Chris Boucher to give the Raptors their first lead, 34-33.
Anunoby then hit a three of his own, and another short J — and then Trent hit another three! I’ll admit I was leery about this second quarter lineup — Anunoby, Trent, Boucher, Achiuwa and Barton — as I thought the Raptors were gonna stick with the “two starters at all times” rotation they used on their recent homestead.
But hey — it worked! Truthfully, it made sense for Nurse to reach deeper into his bench on the second night of a back-to-back, so putting Achiuwa back into the rotation was a necessary gamble.
The Bucks, though, responded with an 8-0 run to retake the lead — you’ll be shocked to hear they drained two more threes in the sequence — forcing a Nick Nurse timeout. But the Raptors responded, taking the lead back a minute later on a Poeltl baby hook, and then matched the Bucks punch-for-punch the rest of the half — until a mental mistake from Siakam in the final seconds of the second quarter, where instead of chasing down an offensive rebound that was headed right for him, he chose to bark at the officials for a missed call on a Poeltl layup attempt, let the Bucks enter halftime with a 58-56 lead.
Trent started the second half in Barnes’ place, but Giannis scored four quick points to push Milwaukee’s lead to six. Anunoby cut it in half with a three; VanVleet then hit a ridiculous layup high off the rim over the outstretched arm of Lopez, and and added the and-1 to tie the score. An Anunoby dunk gave the Raptors a 64-62 lead, and a Trent three two minutes later gave the Raptors their largest lead, 73-67.
The Raptors had a chance to push the lead to 8, but Jrue Holiday made a sensational play to chase down O.G. Anunoby and swat away a layup attempt. Middleton then hit a three the other way, making it an unfortunate five-point swing in the wrong direction. After Portis and Poeltl traded buckets, Joe Ingles hit a three to tie it at 75.
But again the Raptors didn’t hang their heads. Siakam scored at the rim, then Anunoby and Trent hit back-to-back threes — the latter after Achiuwa blocked Holiday at the rim — to push the Raptors lead to 83-76.
After an Antetokounmpo offensive foul was overturned on a dubious review, the momentum looked like it might again shift away from the Raptors. But VanVleet drained a three and followed it up with a another high-arcer off the glass, this time over Antetokounmpo himself.
This Fred VanVleet floater is TOUGH.— NBA (@NBA) March 20, 2023
He's got 20 PTS entering the fourth.
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: https://t.co/1pomQZMAZK pic.twitter.com/lU2uaUhmeZ
A Boucher three-point play a minute later gave the Raptors their largest lead, 95-87, before a Middleton J cut it to six heading into the fourth.
This is a tough one. Although I can’t be too disappointed — it’s the Bucks, after all, and they’re really freakin’ good — this one does sting. It feels like a real wasted opportunity to make up some ground in the playoff race.
The Raptors will try and get back to the win column at home against the Indiana Pacers on Wendesday night.