In what’s becoming a trend this season, the Toronto Raptors came out flat against the Milwaukee Bucks on Wednesday, ultimately losing 128-112 behind a signature performance from Damian Lillard.
The seven-time all-star had 37 points and a season-high 13 assists, as he led a motivated Bucks team that was looking for “revenge.” This time, both squads were without key pieces. For the Bucks, they were sans two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo, while the Raptors were without Gary Trent Jr. and O.G. Anunoby for the second straight game.
“This is the NBA, guys are always ready to step up. [The Raptors] can go out and beat a team by 20 as they were tonight. We didn’t have our best player either,” said Lillard post-game, noting he had to be “aggressive” given Antetokounmpo wasn’t in the lineup.
“Last time, they blitzed us. We had to come out here and set the tone and be aggressive, be physical and stand our ground and try to win the game. And we did that."
Malik Beasley, who had another stellar showing against Toronto with 30 points on 8-of-11 three-point shooting, had similar thoughts, saying “we wanted that revenge because they came out and smacked us the last time.”
It was expected the Bucks were going to come in with a bit of extra juice after decisively losing the last matchup between these two squads. But the Raptors should have boasted some motivation of their own after having to pull off an improbable comeback to avoid losing to the lowly Washington Wizards on Monday — a game in which head coach Darko Rajakovic called out the team’s character following their first-half effort.
For the Raptors, it was much of the same on Wednesday as it was on Monday: low energy contributing to some lacklustre defence as their offence proved stagnant for long stretches.
After starting the game up 8-2, they watched the Bucks storm back with a 17-0 run, while ultimately finishing the first frame on a 34-13 run to grab a 16-point lead.
“Trust me, we’re thinking about it a lot, trying to figure that out,” said Rajakovic. “The guys that are starting the game, they got to bring it more, you know. I thought that we just did not have pop for whatever reason, I'm trying to detect it myself: ‘What was the reason for a slow start, the slow reaction?’”
Routinely, it was behind Lillard carving up the Raptors' pick-n-roll defence, as he split their double coverages to ultimately get easy lanes to the rim, where he either finished, drew fouls to get to the line, or dished out to teammates. He said post-game he was looking to come off screens hard, to make the bigs try to cut him off — giving him a chance to cut the corner.
It proved successful, as Rajakovic said: “[Lillard] just picked us apart,” finishing the first half with 24 points (12-of-13 from the charity stripe) and 8 assists, to put the Bucks up 23 at the half (70-47).
To start the third, Lillard continued where he left off, but now pulling up from the logo. About three minutes later, the Bucks were up by 30, and soon held their biggest lead at 33.
— NBA (@NBA) November 16, 2023
“I think the situation was right for it, with Giannis not playing I knew I would have more responsibility, to be more aggressive,” said Lillard, noting it's naturally “more simple” playing without his new co-star, as they adjust to each other's games after recently joining forces.
“I was able to get it going. I didn’t even feel I was hot tonight, I just felt I was in a good rhythm.”
To start the second half, Rajakovic decided to go with Precious Achiuwa in the starting lineup over Jacob Poeltl as the starting centre, because he liked the former’s ability to switch. That didn’t prove successful either.
The first half’s energy left an impression on Poeltl, who says as a team they need “to find a way to be better, it’s as simple as that.” He also made no excuse for Trent and Anunoby being out, instead saying that “other guys need to step up and play even more aggressive.”
In terms of going against Lillard:
“Me personally, I was slow to react to what he was trying to do out there,” said Poeltl. “I got to do a better job reacting to that and being able to read that and maybe cover some ground there.”
After falling behind by 30, the Raptors weren’t able to get it back to single-digits again, despite making a 21-4 run across the late third and early fourth quarter. They’d eventually get to within 13 with about seven minutes left in the game, but unlike against the Wizards and their improbable comeback, it was a little too late against a team with championship aspirations.
Aside from Scottie Barnes scoring 29 points, there was little to be happy about for the team as a whole. The Raptors shot 39% from the field and 29% from 3-point range, compared to the Bucks' 51% clips from both distances. Out of the starters, Poeltl held the best plus-minus as a minus-17.
“In the first half, we over-dribbled the ball and we didn't have enough body movement, ball movement, and that’s something that we’re constantly preaching and talking about," said Rajakovic. "We got better in the second half, but not enough tonight.”
The loss now drops the Raptors to 5-6 on the season, as they're now halfway through a four-game home stretch at Scotiabank Arena. Next up, they’ll host the Boston Celtics on Friday Nov. 17, in what will mark their first game as part of the NBA’s new in-season tournament.