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10 things: Raptors lose Lowry, but Fred VanVleet steps up in riveting win over Bucks

William Lou
·NBA reporter
·6-min read

Here are 10 takeaways from the Toronto Raptors’ 124-113 win over the Milwaukee Bucks.

One — Resilient: This is the story of the Raptors season to date. They lose to the Minnesota Timberwolves, then upset the Milwaukee Bucks. It makes no sense, and it must be frustrating for Nick Nurse to see so much variance in his team’s effort. He said it best before the game: You can tell right away if the Raptors are down in their stances and guarding with intensity. When they lock in, the Raptors can compete with anyone. The Bucks are still the class of the East, especially during the regular season, but the Raptors beat them from start to finish.

Two — Leader: Nothing comes close to the record 54-point night, but Fred VanVleet was every bit as good in this game. Defensive specialist Jrue Holiday was out due to health protocols, which left the Bucks weak on defense at the point of attack. VanVleet got into a rhythm early, and carried it through. He punished the Bucks at the rim, he was lights out from deep, the pull-up jumper was open every time VanVleet came around a ball screen in the middle of the floor because the Bucks sit back in the paint, and he even drained a rainbow jumper over Giannis Antetokounmpo. VanVleet can be up and down, but his highs this season have been outrageously good, like the best player on the floor-level good.

Three — Unfortunate: Kyle Lowry was roaring to go, setting the pace for the Raptors to start and scoring with ease both on the inside and from three. But he twisted his left ankle after making a lung-bursting sprint, and twisted his left ankle just before halftime. Lowry tested it out to start the third, but after just three minutes, he asked to check out. However, just as they did in four other games without Lowry this season, the Raptors rallied and won the game with several players stepping up. It’s hard to explain why Lowry’s absence seems to rally the Raptors, rather than to deflate them, but Nurse says it’s just a case of players stepping up and taking more responsibility. VanVleet is usually leading the charge, while Pascal Siakam, OG Anunoby and Norman Powell all had their moments in the fourth.

Four — Finally: Anunoby was a sight for sore eyes after missing the last three weeks with a lingering calf injury. Anunoby started off with a bang, knocking down a corner three and picking off Antetokounmpo, but was quickly relegated to the bench thanks to the generous whistle for the two-time MVP. Anunoby would not go quietly, however, as he sank a rare turnaround jumper, slashed inside for a spinning reverse layup, and was crucial down the stretch. He blocked Antetokounmpo, forced Khris Middleton into a walk, secured two key defensive rebounds, and sprinted out for a breakaway dunk to help the Raptors close. There is always a sense of security with Anunoby in the game because he can be entrusted to guard all five positions.

Five — Downsize: The Raptors finally went small in the starting five, replacing Aron Baynes with Anunoby while Norman Powell kept his spot, and it held up against one of the most physical teams in the league. Antetokounmpo is the league’s most unforgiving battering ram, and while the Raptors did struggle to avoid fouling him to start, they mostly kept him in check by matching his physicality and running double teams his way. There were no obvious mismatches for the Bucks to attack, and the Raptors also had the luxury of switching assignments against Middleton. The biggest concern was boxing out and nixing the Bucks’ post-ups, but Milwaukee played into their plans by prioritizing transition defense and mostly ignored Brook Lopez’s size advantage. And of course, grouping together the Raptors’ five best scorers was always going to work. All five starters scored in the first three minutes of the game.

Six — Insistent: Siakam rarely has an efficient outing against the Bucks just by virtue of the matchup, and with how much they pack the paint. The Bucks will allow him to take jumpers, but everything inside the paint will be difficult and contested. That approach can sometimes pacify Siakam, but this was the exception. Siakam shot 8-of-23, which is hardly efficient, but his approach was one of aggression. He took it hard to the paint in the fourth quarter, driving into the chest of Lopez and collecting the putback, and on another drive where he turned the corner and tried a two-handed poster dunk which resulted in two free throws. The burden of star player is to keep attacking, even when the shot isn’t falling, even if the matchup isn’t favourable, because the rest of the team needs to feed off his energy.

Seven — Confidence: Chris Boucher was strangely ineffective in his first shift, particularly when he tried to roll hard to the basket only to be met with a wall of Bucks defenders at the basket. He quickly shifted his approach towards popping outside for the jumper, and it turned his night around. Boucher nailed four threes, and he was flying around defensively collecting five blocks in 30 minutes. It was almost comical to see Boucher rain down on 5-foot-10 guard D.J. Augustin, who had his shot sent back anytime Boucher was on his side of the court.

Eight — Steady: Baynes looked very comfortable as a reserve and was quite solid in the third quarter, drawing a charge, finishing in the pick-and-roll, and matching the Bucks’ size in a two-center alignment with Boucher. He hampers the offense because nobody guards him, and he forces Boucher to stay more on the perimeter instead of being involved as the on-ball screener, but Nurse’s usage of Baynes was both purposeful and measured. Bringing Baynes off the bench allows him to play against weaker competition, and for Nurse to use him in specific matchups that highlight his strengths.

Nine — Pressure: The Raptors won this game largely with their defense against Khris Middleton, who shot 4-of-8 with five turnovers in 38 minutes. Part of it was the Bucks choosing to play through Antetokounmpo early on, which didn’t allow Middleton to find a rhythm, but the Raptors also played him perfectly. There was just enough physicality to deny Middleton from operating around screens, and the Raptors dug into him, pressured the dribble, and pressured him into driving rather than shooting jumpers. Middleton’s biggest weakness is his handle, and he is far less effective when a physical defender denies his space.

Ten — Slump: Milwaukee has lost four in a row, which hasn’t happened since the Raptors pulled off their backdoor sweep in 2019. The Bucks were without Holiday, which is a big loss, but they just looked off as a group. Their defensive intensity isn’t what it once was, and while they do have more shooters on the roster, most of the shooters are small, one-dimensional, and largely inconsistent. Antetokounmpo has hit a plateau in his development dating back to 2018, Middleton is maxed out on what he is, and the coaching staff is very predictable. The talent is still there to win the East, but there are still so many questions with this team.

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