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Raptors vs. Bucks Preview: Boxing Day matinee in Milwaukee

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Peter Llewellyn-USA TODAY Sports

The line goes that the NBA season doesn't really start until Christmas. Count the Bucks among the teams wishing that were true.

Though they enter Saturday's matinee against the Toronto Raptors carrying a modest two-game winning streak, the first two months of the season have of course been anything but memorable in Milwaukee. At 12-18, the Bucks remain five games adrift of a playoff spot and (more problematically) just 13th in the newly competitive East. All of which is precisely why their Boxing Day matchup with the Raptors is so important -- if you're going to start catching up on all the teams ahead of you, you'll eventually have to start beating them, right?

Bucks Update

Interim coach Joe Prunty harped on the importance of carryover both before and after Wednesday's win over the Sixers, and with good reason. The Bucks' intensity/focus/energy/sharpness/mojo/whatever has waxed and waned with frustrating regularity this season but we've seen at least some progress over the past week. Via Matt Velasquez of the Journal-Sentinel:

"The biggest thing was trying to get carry-over," Prunty said. "A game like tonight is all the things we've been working on; all the things Coach (Jason) Kidd has instilled in this team. Just playing the right way and staying focused because now we have to do it again."

A strong performance in a losing effort in Oakland was a building block for a comeback win in Phoenix, and there was no letdown when the Bucks returned home with a proper throttling of the awful Sixers. Giannis Antetokounmpo (returning from knee soreness) and Jabari Parker combined to hit 19/23 shots en route to 38 combined points, while Khris Middleton and Michael Carter-Williams also packed the box score.

And now comes the hard part: an eight-game stretch featuring five road games and just one opponent with a losing record (@Minnesota). It's very possible that the Bucks could lose eight straight before they return home to take on the Knicks on January 10, which makes Saturday's game against a banged-up Raptor team all the more crucial. With road games in Dallas, Oklahoma City and Indiana to follow, a loss on Saturday could condemn the Bucks to being 10 games under .500 by the end of 2015. That would put the Bucks in clear lottery mode by the time 2016 begins, which is both disappointing and potentially the best thing that could happen to a young roster still looking for elite talent.

It's perhaps no coincidence then that Jason Kidd picked now to undergo a hip replacement, which depending on who you talk to could mean two weeks or two months on the sidelines. In his latest podcast, Yahoo's Adrian Wojnarowski didn't pull any punches in suggesting Kidd's absence could be the next phase in a long-running plan to exit his coaching responsibilities and transition officially into a management role, a can of worms that Bucks management has been desperate to keep a lid on since even before Kidd officially became head coach. Not surprisingly, Woj didn't paint a pretty picture of Kidd's involvement in the Bucks' personnel decision-making over the past year, a period that has seen the Bucks get the business end of their last four trades and raise eyebrows with their selection of Rashad Vaughn on draft night. It's not to say the Bucks' roster has been irreparably harmed, but this feels like the last year where they can afford to take a step back without major consequences.

Raptors Scouting Report

Glass half full: the Raps enter today's game just 2.5 games behind the Cavs for the top spot in the East. Glass half empty: the Raps also enter today's game just 1.5 games out of missing the playoffs entirely.

Welcome to the weirdness of the Eastern Conference, which has 10 teams sporting winning records and two more (the Wiz and Knicks) lurking just below .500. Some good teams are going to be stuck chair-less when the music stops in mid-April, and outside of Cleveland there probably isn't any team that can feel 100% certain it won't be them.

That also applies to the Raps, who land in Milwaukee having lost three of five while dealing with a rash of injuries against a fairly difficult schedule. The good news is that big man Jonas Valanciunas (fractured hand) and DeMarre Carroll (knee contusion) could both return as soon as Saturday after extended absences, which would allow Bismack Biyombo and Terrence Ross to slide back into their more customary bench roles. Reserve forwards Patrick Patterson (flu) and James Johnson (ankle) are similarly question marks against the Bucks.

Still, Toronto is an encouraging 6-3 overall without Valanciunas and Carroll, in large part thanks to DeMar DeRozan's scoring, Kyle Lowry's all-around wizardry and Bismack Biyombo's recent mastery of the boards. DeRozan is putting up career-best scoring figures and has averaged 27.5 points over the last four games, while Lowry is the East's best point guard and posting career numbers across a host of categories including scoring (20.9 ppg), true shooting percentage (56.6%) and PER (23.2). After flaming out as a lottery pick in Charlotte, Biyombo is also averaging an eye-popping 15.8 rebounds and 2.6 blocks over the past five games -- not bad for a guy earning just $2.8 million this season. Of course he has also shot just 32% from the field in that span, but that's a trade Dwane Casey is likely happy to make with Biyombo.

Making Lowry and DeRozan work for their shots will obviously be job one for the Bucks, though containing the rest of the Raptors isn't easy either. Jabari Parker can't afford to let Luis Scola embarrass him with his old man game, while guys like Ross, Cory Joseph and Patterson can similarly make major impacts on any given night. Still, the combination of Lowry, DeRozan, Ross, Scola and Biyombo has really struggled defensively (111.7 points/100 possessions) while the opening night starting five featuring Carroll and Valanciunas has also been outscored overall this season. I'd be surprised if there's another winning team whose two most frequently used lineups have had such clear negative margins (-7.6 and -4.3 pts/100 respectively), but it's not like the Bucks have figured things out either. You'd love to see Milwaukee's hot starting five get off to another strong start, though life figures to get more difficult if Toronto gets some much-needed reinforcements.

Required Listening

On the RaptorsRaptors HQ | Raptors RepublicToronto Star

2015/16 NBA Season
Toronto raptors.v69a9079
(18-12, 9-7 road)
vs.
Milwaukee bucks.vc6d60d4
(12-18, 9-5 home)
December 26, 2015
BMO Harris Bradley Center | Milwaukee
4:00 CT
Fox Sports Wisconsin | 620 WTMJ
Probable Starters
Kyle Lowry PG Michael Carter-Williams
DeMar DeRozan SG Khris Middleton
Terrence Ross SF Giannis Antetokounmpo
Luis Scola PF Jabari Parker
Bismack Biyombo C Greg Monroe
2014/15 Advanced Stats
93.6 (27th) Pace 93.7 (25th)
106.2 (5th) ORtg 102.4 (25th)
102.8 (12th) DRtg 108.1 (28th)