Get down early, bench the starters, bring in the kids, let the energy and youthful exuberance bring you back. Rinse, repeat.
That's been the Bucks' fun-but-not-so-sustainable approach to the first week of the NBA season, but Saturday night reiterated that there are in fact limits to the efficacy--if not the fun--of that strategy. In the end, dominating the boards, getting to the line a ton and not missing layups are pretty important in the NBA, all of which explains why the Toronto Raptors claimed a deserved 97-90 win in Milwaukee's home opener. Rudy Gay compensated for his 4/14 shooting by scoring eight of his 18 points at the line and claiming 15 rebounds, one of eight (!) Raptors who grabbed at least five boards. For the Bucks, O.J. Mayo came off the bench to lead a balanced Bucks attack with 16 points and eight assists, Nate Wolters added 10 assists (and just one turnover) in his first NBA start, and John Henson added 13 points on 6/9 shooting.
Toronto never trailed in the game's final 39 minutes and led by a dozen heading into the fourth, but the Bucks once again rallied behind a fourth quarter lineup full of energy and short on NBA experience. Mayo, Henson, Wolters, Khris Middleton and Giannis Antetokounmpo were the comeback kids this time around, as Larry Drew had little choice but to bench his starters for the third straight game. A flurry of Henson lefty hooks gave him eight quick points in the first 4:30 of the final period, and the game took on a frantic pace as Middleton and Antetokounmpo ignited the crowd with dunks that brought the Bucks back within striking distance.
Mayo then hit back-to-back threes to tie it at 85 with 5:52 left, but the Bucks' energy wasn't enough to save them from a flurry of wasted transition opportunities down the stretch. Middleton and Antetokounmpo rewarded Raptor fast break fouls by missing four straight free throws, Middleton bricked a layup and Henson was called for a charge to throw away another chance. That allowed Toronto to pull away, as DeMar DeRozan sunk a pair of mid-range jumpers and Amir Johnson fittingly sealed the game with a tip-in in that extended Toronto's lead to 95-88 with 40 seconds remaining.
Toronto's interior dominance was a theme from the outset, all of which will do little to ease rising concerns about Larry Sanders' continued struggles. Jonas Valanciunas opened the game with a pair of finishes at the rim as he bullied Sanders down low, while an up-and-down pace helped Kyle Lowry get free for a pair of wide open triples. Sanders failed to grab a rebound in the quarter and converted just 2/8 shots on the evening, looking as nervous as ever around the hoop while failing to see the floor in the fourth quarter for the second straight game.
Trailing 25-19 after the first, the Bucks opened the second in more lively fashion, with Wolters and Ersan Ilyasova(14 pts on 6/12 shooting) looking increasingly comfortable on a pair of pick-and-pop triples by the Turk. Unfortunately, the Bucks' struggles on the glass (10 offensive rebounds allowed in the half) helped Toronto maintain a 51-46 edge going into the half.
The Raptors continued to punish the Bucks on the glass with three putbacks in the opening three minutes of the third, and they eventually opened up a double-digit lead behind back-to-back threes from DeRozan and Terrence Ross. Overall, the Raptors were probably too content to jack up jumpers all night, but their ability to clean up on the offensive boards and draw fouls whenever they needed a bucket was ultimately enough to earn them a road win in spite of their wayward shooting. That certainly wasn't the case for the Bucks, who seem to have developed a worrying inability to prevent second chances or get any consistency out of their starters.
- Make no mistake: losing to a Toronto team gunning for one of the last playoff spots won't help the Bucks in their inexorable quest for the same. But the youthful energy brought by the fourth quarter lineup nearly helped the Bucks steal a win, and in that sense this is a fairly tolerable loss. Twice in as many games Larry Drew played the guys who were performing and benched the guys who weren't, and once again it was the young guys on the court when it mattered. At some point this will pay dividends. On a related note, how many people thought Antetokounmpo, Middleton, Wolters and Henson would be earning crunch-time minutes as soon as the first week of the season?
- It's too early to get really worried about Sanders, but the first week of the season certainly hasn't made anyone feel good about his newly-minted $44 million contract. And while much will be made of his 25% shooting from the field, his offensive problems are secondary to what got him paid in the first place: his defense. He hasn't completely lost his way on that end, but the Bucks' struggles controlling the paint begin with him.
- How good can Nate Wolters really be? I'm not going to get too carried away at this point, but his baptism by fire over the first three games has certainly been encouraging. The last two games have seen sixteen assists, just two turnovers, five gorgeous floaters and an obvious knack for making everyone else play better. No one really expected him to push Brandon Knight and Luke Ridnour for playing time early in the season, but...well, let's just say Larry Drew has options.