Raptors end drought in 'must-win' game over Bucks' 3-headed monster

Toronto has ended its three-game losing streak, delivering its best performance of the young season against one of the NBA's best teams.

TORONTO — The Toronto Raptors lived up to the pressure in a “must-win” game on Wednesday by beating one of the NBA's best teams in the Milwaukee Bucks, 130-111.

Pascal Siakam emphasized how important the next stretch is for the Raptors, who had lost three games in a row coming into Wednesday night. It found them at the bottom of the Eastern Conference, while holding the league’s worst offence to start the 2023-24 campaign.

“It’s easy to get alarmed … but we stay together,” Siakam said in his native French after he finished Wednesday’s matchup with a game- and season-high 26 points. “Today was an important game.”

It was a complete turn of the switch for Toronto, as it led the entire time against Milwaukee, going up by as many as 27 in the second quarter, while holding a double-digit lead the entire second half.

The effort came against the likes of Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton and the recently acquired Damian Lillard, who were all limited to fewer than 20 points. All five Raptors starters finished in double digits, while three of them had double-doubles in Scottie Barnes, Dennis Schroder and Jakob Poeltl.

TORONTO, CANADA - NOVEMBER 1: Scottie Barnes #4 of the Toronto Raptors drives to the net against Giannis Antetokounmpo #34 of the Milwaukee Bucks during the first half of their NBA game at Scotiabank Arena on November 1, 2023 in Toronto, Canada. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Cole Burston/Getty Images)
Everything seemed to click for the Raptors, as they contained Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton and Damian Lillard. (Credit: Cole Burston/Getty Images)

The Raptors were able to use their defence to their advantage to spur their offensive attacks.

As a team, Toronto compiled 35 assists, which would have been its second most for all of last season. The team thrived thanks to a mix of transition and half-court offence — a pleasant sign, considering the latter hasn’t been its forte to start the 2023-24 campaign. It also led to 3-point attempts, as the Raptors shot 9-of-20 (45%) from long distance in the first half, and 15-of-38 (39%) for the game.

It was quite the difference compared to Monday night, when they went 4-of-29 (13%) against the Portland Trail Blazers.

Against the Bucks, the Raptors took their first 20-point lead around the nine-minute mark of the second quarter. By that point, Barnes had 11 points, five rebounds and three assists. In comparison, the Bucks’ three-headed monster combined for 11 points, three rebounds and three assists.

Barnes was dominant all game, ultimately finishing with 21 points (4-of-6 from 3), 12 rebounds and five assists. The highlight of the night came against Antetokounmpo, as he bullied him in the paint.

“He had one amazing drive where he put Giannis in the rim,” said Raptors coach Darko Rajakovic. “He needs to have that mentality. Sometimes he sees the opportunity to take some midrange shots or fadeaways. Those are always going to be there. He's still learning himself, how powerful he is on those drives.”

When asked about Barnes' performance, Antetokounmpo kept it short and sweet: “Great player, strong player, plays extremely hard.”

Heading into the game, Siakam said he made an emphasis to make sure the team was playing with energy, something he relayed particularly to Barnes, considering they were “flat” against Portland, which the Raptors “can’t afford to do … with our roster.”

Siakam credited the team’s ability to attack the paint, which justified its passing, something Rajakovic emphasized following Monday’s loss to Portland. The head coach says he feels “guys are starting to get more and more comfortable.”

Rajakovic credited the team’s ability to get into actions quicker, while making different plays based on who was on the court at any given time to take advantage of their style of play and positioning. He says Schroder will continue to need to “figure out” how to take advantage of mismatches, as he climbed to a game-high 11 assists against the Bucks.

To go along with the offence, the Raptors' defence was restrictive all night, with O.G. Anunoby on Antetokounmpo, Schroder on Lillard, and Poeltl anchoring them and providing rim protection — securing a season-high four blocks.

“The problem with the stat sheet is that you cannot really see the effect that O.G. had tonight … making life on Giannis really, really hard,” said Rajakovic. “He did a hell of a job, and part of that was Jak’s presence in the paint.”

When Antetokounmpo was asked about how Anunoby limited him, especially as he was held to three points (1-of-4) in the first half, the two-time league MVP responded with “I don’t know.”

Along with shutting down Antetokounmpo (who finished with 16 points for the game), Rajakovic credited Schroder’s ability to pick up Lillard full court, fight through screens, while also working with Poeltl to provide solid pick-and-roll coverage, as they “followed the game plan.”

Lillard finished with 15 points on 4-of-9 shooting, and a game-worst minus-26 rating. As a team, the Bucks were limited to 32% from the field in the first half before finishing the game with a 46% clip.

“I thought that the guys really responded tonight,” said Rajakovic, crediting the Raptors' ability to play top-notch defence, which allowed them to go out and create in transition. In particular, he highlighted the team’s defensive rebounding, where it beat the Bucks 35-22, while also keeping Milwaukee to only seven offensive boards.

“To a certain degree, a missed shot — if you secure a rebound — is almost like a turnover,” said Rajakovic.

Another added layer for their defence was Gradey Dick taking a charge on Antetokounmpo, something Rajakovic, Siakam and Barnes applauded post-game.

“He’s got some guts, I respect the hell out of him,” said Rajakovic.

Also coming off the bench was Otto Porter Jr., who got his first bit of NBA regular-season action since November 2022 due to injury. He finished with six points and a plus-minus of 11, the highest off the bench for the Raptors, as Barnes was able to find him for a sweet 3.

“When he's ready and able to go to court and play, he’s a hell of a player to help us,” said Rajakovic, saying that the focus to start the season was to get him feeling comfortable in practice before throwing him into game action.

All in all, the Raptors win improved their record to 2-3 on the season.

Looking back, was this a perfect game for Toronto? “Not even close,” said Rajakovic.

The head coach says the Raptors have a lot to learn and improve upon, especially on the offensive end. They’ll look to do just that as they go on the road for a four-game stretch, starting with a game against Nick Nurse, Joel Embiid and the Philadelphia 76ers on Thursday.