Here are 10 takeaways from the Toronto Raptors’ 108-97 loss to the Milwaukee Bucks.
One — Close: The Raptors confirmed that they can still compete with the Bucks, but that it will be an uphill battle. The loss of Kawhi Leonard, who averaged 30 points, 10 rebounds and four assists in last year’s Eastern Conference Finals is staggering but it is not necessarily fatal. The Raptors remain formidable, especially defensively, but what little margin for error that existed last year is now gone. The Raptors made too many mistakes — especially at the end of the second quarter and at the start of the third — that they simply cannot afford against a Bucks team that is seriously challenging for 70 wins.
Two — Encouraging: The Raptors can always take away the No. 1 option on offense, and Giannis Antetokounmpo is no exception. Last year, it was Leonard that drew the main defensive assignment, but his on-ball defense can be replicated in large degree by OG Anunoby and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, who are also strong enough to keep Antetokounmpo from barrelling to the basket. What’s also encouraging is that the infrastructure is still there in terms of help defense. The formula remains the same: when Antetokounmpo is at the top of the floor, the Raptors play him single coverage with help arriving at the basket, and a hard double team comes when he sets up in the post to force the kickout.
Three — Concern: The problem for the Raptors is on offense. The Bucks are the league’s best defense by every metric because they sticks to strict principles. One, the bigs always drop back to protect the basket, while their lanky guards fight to challenge over the top. Two, they are disciplined in transition and only bleed on the rare live-ball turnover from their perimeter players. Three, they stay at home and rarely allow corner three-point attempts. The one weakness in their defense is at the top of the floor, where a wing can find daylight off a solid screen, but the Raptors couldn’t capitalize. Fred VanVleet and Kyle Lowry were miserable on pull-up jumpers, while Serge Ibaka lost his confidence on catch-and-shoot jumpers. Those shots generally are the most inefficient looks in the league, but that’s what it takes to beat the Bucks.
Four — Hesitant: The Raptors came in with a plan to overwhelm the Bucks at the three-point line, and although 52 attempts seems absurd, they did reasonably well with 18 makes. Where the problem arose was how the Raptors got to their shots. The offense runs best when it’s inside then out — Lowry and VanVleet get downhill towards the rim, force the defense to rotate, and that’s when openings come. However, because the Bucks were so formidable on the inside, there wasn’t even a wholehearted attempt to get drives inside. Too many possessions boiled down to just chucking up rushed jumpers, and that’s not a sustainable way to beat the Bucks. There needs to be a better balance in how the offense operates.
Five — Useful: The bench was surprisingly decent against the Bucks, whereas the starters failed miserably. The second unit played with more energy, were quicker to swarm the ball, and thus they created fast-break chances. Hollis-Jefferson refused to surrender an inch to Antetokounmpo, Terence Davis shook off a sloppy start and took on all challengers in the fourth, Chris Boucher recorded a handful of sensational hustle plays, while Matt Thomas briefly stole the show with three triples in quick succession to establish an early lead. There’s even a case to be made that Nick Nurse should have rode the bench even longer, which is surprising given that none of the aforementioned players are guaranteed minutes in a potential playoff series against the Bucks.
Six — Decent: There’s always the temptation to want more from Pascal Siakam, but under the circumstances, he fared reasonably well. There needs to be more of a concerted effort to have Siakam involved on every possession, and fault falls on both sides for that, but the Bucks are an extremely tough matchup for a player of his skillset. He’s at his best when he’s going to the basket, but Siakam doesn’t have a single physical advantage in his matchup against a bigger and stronger Antetokounmpo. Toss in the added hurdle of a second help defender in the form of a 7-foot Lopez twin, and it’s just a situation where Siakam will need to play smart. For the most part, his improvements did translate, as Siakam hit five threes and recorded three assists. Expecting him to be Leonard in this matchup, however, is just silly. The rest of the team needs to step up around Siakam to provide more secondary scoring.
Seven — Shook: This was a rare off-night for Serge Ibaka, who was nothing short of a disaster. Gone was the swagger that Ibaka played with all season, and in came the old habits. A few missed jumpers early on had Ibaka second guessing, and it all went downhill from there. Ibaka was hesitant with his every move, and it not only translated to more missed shots, but also a decrease in defensive energy and uncertainty with every move. Simple passes clanged off his hands, his awareness dropped, and it resulted in his worst game of the year. It won’t ever be this bad again, hopefully.
Eight — Unhinged: Lowry also slipped into old habits, as his composure was completely gone in the second half. Sure, there were frustrations with how the game was being officiated, and it didn’t help that the Raptors kept missing shots, but Lowry cannot become distracted in his role as the leader. Lowry became erratic, was playing more to the whistle than he was to the game itself, and the Raptors never win when that happens. It’s hard to reign him in, especially since that competitive fire is what got Lowry this far, but now that Leonard’s zen isn’t there to calm the group, it’s really up to Lowry to maintain his composure.
Nine — Missing: Norman Powell and Marc Gasol were both sorely missed on a night like this. For Powell, it’s the ability to play in transition and the athleticism to attack the basket that could have served as an alternative to Lowry and VanVleet. For Gasol, it’s the defensive boxouts and the shooting and playmaking that he would have provided in place of Ibaka. Hopefully, they are ready for when the Raptors play a double-header against the Bucks in March.
Ten — Flaws: Having said all this, there are still ways for the Raptors to beat the Bucks. For one, Antetokounmpo still hasn’t mastered the jumper to a degree where it changes the calculus of how to guard him. Two, Khris Middleton remains a lights-out shooter who can’t really dribble, and there are ways to keep him in check with a pesky guard like Lowry or VanVleet. The wild card is still Eric Bledsoe, who played well tonight but is ultimately someone with a track record of capitulation in the playoffs. The Bucks are the clear favourite over every team in the East, but there are ways to get to them, and the Raptors are as equipped as anybody to deny them of the Finals.
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