Giannis Antetokounmpo was in the hallway outside the visitors’ locker room, stretching and doing a few light exercises wearing training gear rather than his iconic No.34.
If you were wondering how far the Raptors have fallen in the Eastern Conference pecking order, you now know – they’re on nighttime leave.
The two-time MVP, Finals MVP and leader of defending NBA champion Milwaukee Bucks, took a day of maintenance on the second night of a game in a row (calf pain was the official reason) after scoring 40 points in 38 minutes the night before.
Could the Raptors take advantage of this?
They needed it. Prior to the game, Toronto had lost three straight, including the first two of their seven-game home game, the longest of the season and the start of a streak where they are expected to play 18 of 22 home games. . Damn that and their season is over, it’s that easy. Given that the Raptors were 2-8 at home so far? You couldn’t rule it out.
So, no, the Raptors weren’t going to complain that one of the NBA’s most dominant players pulled out just 30 minutes before the ball came up. Sure, they might have spent most of their pre-game preparation trying to figure out a way to stop it, but deep inside they were happy that they didn’t have to put it into practice.
” You do not [show it but] deep in your head you’re thanking the man upstairs and trying to get a win, ”said Raptors guard Fred VanVleet. “Me being in this league for so long, that’s something you don’t really show to young people. They need to understand that it doesn’t matter who is playing. As someone in my sixth season, you can appreciate it. I watched [the Bucks] game last night… I was in bed at 11 o’clock when it ended. I knew these guys were going to be gassed and tired tonight. It was important for us to pick up the pace and be the aggressors and see how much they had in the tank.
The Bucks had enough to test the Raptors, which probably says more about Toronto than anything else. Luckily for the Raptors, VanVleet wasn’t going to look aside for a gift.
He took matters into his own hands in the second half, exploding for 26 points and – literally – refused to let the Raptors lose in what ended in a 97-93 victory. He finished with 29 points on 9 of 17 shots and won his duel with the Bucks Jrue Holiday, who led the Bucks with 26 points and eight assists.
VanVleet was apparently able to change the game at will. In a one-minute streak early in the fourth quarter, VanVleet hit a three, beat Holiday’s backdoor for a layup, then stole a layup from Pascal Siakam at the break for spark a run when the Bucks (14-9) had reduced the Raptors’ lead to two.
VanVleet later made a crooked layup to the right in traffic to give the Raptors (10-13) a six-minute lead with three minutes to go. He motioned for the crowd to roar on their way to the next timeout. They listened.
This is not a typical display of emotion from a normally stoic goalie, but when the occasion calls for it …
“When I’m between these lines anything can happen,” VanVleet said. “It was one of those moments: playing so hard, working so hard, obviously given the circumstances, I think we really deserved this victory. I just wanted us to give ourselves some energy and some momentum for those last two or three minutes.
Once again, as the going got tough after a triple Raptors cut from Bobby Portis leading to three with 42.8 remaining, VanVleet pushed his way into the paint and suffered a foul, performing a pair of key free throws.
That he did most of his damage against Holiday – who will likely be part of his four defending teams this season – was even more impressive.
The Raptors needed every game VanVleet could make.
Mistakes were being made all around him. Gary Trent Jr. – back in the lineup after missing a pair of games with a calf bruise – finished 3 of 16 from floor and 2 of 10 from depth, including sniffing on a pair of big looks open to crunch time. At another point, he just let it go through his hands and out of bounds. He’s had eight rebounds, three assists and a pair of steals, but he won’t frame the box score.
Siakam was fouled, continuing a trend where his fouls impact his time on the pitch. Precious Achuiwa has never been an adventure, including fouling Bucks Kris Middleton on a three with 14.6 seconds left; then picking up a free ball foul when Middleton missed his last free throw, sending the Bucks to the line. As a final measure, Achiuwa missed a pair of free throws that could have frozen the game with 3.6 seconds left.
No worries, VanVleet caught the loose ball on the second miss and made his own.
With the Raptors being able to reintroduce Trent Jr. into their starting lineup should have been a good thing. With OG Anunoby (hip) and Khem Birch (knee) still missing, any infusion of talent was welcome. But Trent struggled and other than a quiet 20-point night from Siakam and Scottie Barnes’ usual 13 points, there wasn’t much help for VanVleet.
At first, the Raptors had two things going for them that they haven’t always been able to count on lately – one thing they didn’t think they could do.
While Siakam has continued to gain momentum after missing the first 10 games of the season while recovering from off-season shoulder surgery, he hasn’t often resumed games or even streaks. of matches.
But he looked sharp at first. He let a corner three pass easily on his first glance, knocked it over and showed his legs when he sprinted past the peloton after Trent Jr. lost a turnover and Scottie Barnes hit Siakam in stride with a half-fair touch pass. He spread his 15 first-half points evenly over the first two quarters, but he was pretty invisible after that, his troubles not helping.
But the Raptors sank defensively against the Bucks, limiting them to 34.7 percent of the ground in the first half, the kind of defensive effort made easier with Antetokounmpo, but who was largely absent from the Raptors game during the first half. their recent 3-9 slide. They ended up holding back the Bucks at 37.5 percent of shots for the game.
“They did a good job, very few schematic errors,” said Raptors head coach Nick Nurse.
Against this backdrop, the fact that Barnes went down from 3 out of 5 deep in the first half – continuing a recent trend and building on his 9 out of 15 rate in the previous two games – was an added bonus so as the Raptors took a 48-40 lead in the half. It also helped that when the Raptors found out Antetokounmpo was out, Barnes was ready to get up and keep Middleton, announcing his intention in the locker room before the game, and forcing him to spend an 8 for 20 night.
The Bucks ran traps at VanVleet in the first half, limiting themselves to three runs and three shots. But VanVleet and Toronto tried different tactics in the second – more screens; starting VanVleet off the ball – and he found enough room to turn on Milwaukee for 13 points in the third as Toronto led 73-68 to start the fourth quarter.
VanVleet ended up bringing them home.
1. Birch has now missed eight games and five in a row with what the club described only as “knee swelling”. There were no details on when the former starting center could return to action, but Nurse offered this pre-game nugget: “There is no update. He’s not playing anymore, I think he’s getting better. I see him doing more, he’s not in training or anything but I see him in the gym and he looks like he’s working pretty hard so I think it’s getting better, hope that he will be back soon. I don’t have any update other than that.
2. It was a busy day for the Raptors Dalano Banton, Isaac Bonga, Justin Champagnie and David Johnson, who trained in the morning with the 905 Raptors and were back at Scotiabank Arena and dressed up against the Bucks. With both 905 and the big club at home for a long time, Raptors head coach Nick Nurse has said he wants his young players to get as many reps as possible. “I think guys who don’t play a ton of minutes for us need to get minutes. It’s a bit tricky now because we’re a bit thin now with our numbers so it’s a bit trickier than I would like but I would say we’re going to try and get some guys playing there as much as we can. . It is precious.
3. Toronto Maple Leafs forward Wayne Simmonds was introduced to the crowd midway through the second quarter. It’s not unusual for Leafs players to attend Raptors games when the schedule allows, but what makes Simmonds’ case a little different is that he may be the only player. of the NHL to speak with the Harlem Globetrotters and hang in there, as his famous converting an alley-oop pass on the stick of then-Philadelphia Flyers teammate Claude Giroux proved: