Four and a half minutes into Friday night’s game against the Central division cellar-dwelling Milwaukee Bucks, it appeared as though the Toronto Raptors (15-9) still hadn’t gotten the message about raising their game for more than just marquee opponents. Two days after never trailing against the San Antonio Spurs, they quickly found themselves down 11-4 to Milwaukee. But heeding the words of Dwane Casey, they responded with a 20-6 run to close out the quarter en route to a defensively sound 90-83 victory.
All told, it wasn’t the prettiest or most consistent way to earn a W. Casey probably wasn’t particularly pleased when an 19-point third quarter cushion dwindled all the way down to four in the waning moments of the fourth. However, the Raptors used their defensive calling card to full affect, as the fourth-stingiest defense in the NBA held the second-worst offense to 31 first half points and 41.2% (33-80) shooting on the night. After a Giannis Antetokounmpo layup narrowed the Raps’ lead to four points with 5:12 remaining, Toronto kept the Bucks from inflicting any further damage by forcing four Milwaukee turnovers the rest of the way and holding them to just six points the rest of the way.
While it wasn’t quite the Kyle Lowry / Steph Curry showdown from last Saturday, DeMar DeRozan and Khris Middleton engaged in a little game of one-upmanship on Friday night. While Middleton owned the edge from behind the arc (3-4 from three-point range), DeRozan earned a slight edge in points (27 to 26) by taking advantage of the free throw line, going 11-12 from the stripe to Middleton’s 7-8 mark.
DeMar’s free throw prowess
If DeRozan flies the coop this summer – and the writing seems to be on the wall for that to happen – I will certainly miss the free points he has afforded Toronto through his knack for getting to the line. He is presently getting to the line 8.2 times per game, better than any NBA player this side of James Harden and DeMarcus Cousins, while also making the most of his attempts by shooting them at a respectable 83.8% clip. Without the production of the team’s longest-serving member on Friday, the Raps would have gone 4-11 from the free throw line.
A second unit advantage for the Raptors was borne less out of their own stellar production and more from an inept showing by their opponents. Both clubs had injury issues that cut into their depth, with DeMarre Carroll and Jonas Valanciunas forcing two plug-ins into the starting five for Toronto and Greivis Vasquez and Jerryd Bayless leaving Milwaukee without two key reserve guards. However, it was the Raps who handled the adjustments considerably better, getting 25 points from a three-man unit of Cory Joseph, Patrick Patterson and James Johnson. Comparatively, the Bucks got just 10 points out of a quartet of underwhelming backups in Michael Carter-Williams, Johnny O’Bryant, John Henson and Rashad Vaughan, who shot a combined 21.1% (4-19) from the floor.
Eye off the ball
The message that Casey has been trying to impart to his charges in light of home losses to the Phoenix Suns and Denver Nuggets is that there are no easy nights in the NBA. Milwaukee may have come in 8-14, but they were a playoff team a year ago and could easily turn it around again once Jabari Parker gets his legs back fully. So why, then, is it so difficult to put together a full, 48-minute game? It appeared that the complete effort would be there, but then the Bucks nearly matched their first half scoring production in the third quarter alone along the way to rallying and making the game interesting. After winning six of their first 14 games by 10 points or more, they have finished with a double digit cushion just once in their past 10 games.
Cool moment courtside before the game, as a group of Syrian refugees, at the game as guests of the Raptors, took in warm-ups from courtside seats less than 24 hours after being officially welcomed to the country at Pearson Airport. The experience, one that included visits by Joseph and Jamal Magloire, seemed pretty overwhelming, most notably the flashbulbs of a litany of media outlets covering the proceedings.
Parker is the key to much of what the Bucks will be this season. It’s probably unfair to say that the second-year forward has struggled thus far, given that he is still bouncing back from an ACL tear last December, but Milwaukee needs him to provide more than the 10 points and four rebounds he’s averaged through 18 games. If everything comes together and Parker can fully condition himself for the NBA grind (he seemed to look a tad on the heavy-set side in Toronto), he carries great potential as part of a sneakily dangerous core four alongside Middleton, the Greek Freak and Greg Monroe, provided they can all complement one another.
The D-Leaguers got (for some, anyway) their first taste of the big time on Friday morning, playing one of a handful of games they have scheduled for the ACC this season. Sure, the crowd was rather sparse and made up of primarily disinterested school kids, but it represented an NBA goal that many of the players aspire to. Although the Maine Red Claws spoiled the script by scoring the go-ahead, game-winning basket with a second left on the clock, 905’ers Bruno Caboclo and Delon Wright made the most of their future home. The Raptors’ past two first-round picks combined for 42 points, 13 rebounds and five assists in the 96-95 loss, two days after beating up on the Erie Bayhawks 101-80 at Hershey Centre.
Speaking of the D-League, the Sixers are in town on Sunday (6:00pm, TSN2) amid reports that new chairman of basketball operations Jerry Colangelo was a forced hire by the NBA, who felt that Philadelphia wasn’t making a genuine attempt to win games.
Prediction: Raps 112, Sixers 102 (record this season: 10-13)