Something had to give for the Milwaukee Bucks in Tonronto Monday night. The Bucks were riding a three-game winning streak with two of those coming on the road, but had yet to beat the Raptors this season. With a seriously shorthanded roster missing three usual starters, a result reminiscent of the trouncing Toronto delivered earlier this year wouldn't have been surprising.
Khris Middleton, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and the Bucks' veterans made sure that wouldn't be the case.
Middleton scored 25 points on 10 of 15 shooting (3/4 3P), Antetokounmpo had a 12 point, 12 rebound double-double, and the Milwaukee Bucks won their fourth-straight game, beating the Toronto Raptors 82-75 on the road. Jerryd Bayless added 8 points, 7 rebounds, and 9 assists off the bench, including a final minute dagger from 22 feet that sealed the win against his former team.
It was a prototypical "gritty" win for Milwaukee. The Bucks had been battered on the glass in each of their previous two games against Toronto, and injuries to Ersan Ilyasova and Zaza Pachulia meant the Bucks had limited size to counter Toronto's imposing frontcourt. The rebounding trend seemed likely to continue after the first half, but Milwaukee clamped down after the break and made just enough plays to come away with the victory. Best of all, many of those plays were made by two young contributors in Middleton and Antetokounmpo. Middleton wasn't flashy, just brutally efficient, hitting nearly everything he threw toward the rim in the first half. It was especially impressive given the lack of addition weapons the Bucks had to free him for open shots. Middleton effectively used his size against smaller defenders on occasion -- the Bucks specifically targeted Lou Williams with post-ups on more than a few possessions.
Giannis was doing his thing in the first quarter, flying around the court on both ends. A blocked shot ignited a Milwaukee fast break which got John Henson a wide-open dunk (which he missed), and his perimeter defense made things difficult for DeMar DeRozan, who was visibly bothered by the length Milwaukee threw at him. On offense, Giannis wanted to dunk, so he did. And then he did again.
Ball movement and high-energy defense was the name of the game for both teams in the first half. While the Bucks didn't shoot the ball particularly well in the opening two quarters, they kept things moving. The Bucks finished the first half with 15 assists on 20 made shots (20-43 overall) and just six turnovers. Most of the misses came off heavily-covered jumpers when things stagnated or the Bucks got caught with a dwindling shot clock. O.J. Mayo heaved up a pair of those shots and got himself ejected in the second quarter after complaining to an official with some choice language. Mayo hadn't been playing particularly well, but in light of Milwaukee's current health crisis it was a big blow to their depth.
Toronto made a few runs in the middle of the game to keep it close, cutting into the Bucks' lead early in the second half before Milwaukee stabilized with a 12-3 run that included three-point baskets by Middleton and Jared Dudley. Middleton alone scored 12 points in the third, and three-point shooting was key as the Bucks expanded their lead in the quarter, helped by excellent shot contesting on the perimeter. The Raptors had a hard time shaking defenders off the dribble and were regularly met with extra defenders when they got closer to the basket. It was a testament to Milwaukee's energy and adherence to its scheme that the Bucks were able to defend so well with such a significant size disadvantage. Toronto managed to trim things down a bit with a few baskets late in the quarter, but Milwaukee held a 13-point advantage entering the fourth.
Then things went south. Milwaukee went cold and couldn't create many good shots (or make the ones they got) while Toronto started bombing threes. After a Greivis Vasquez triple extended the run that began in the third to 15-4, Milwaukee called for timeout, but even regrouping on the bench couldn't get things going. The Bucks missed 14 of their first 15 shots from the floor in the quarter as Toronto's heightened ball pressure disrupted the ball movement that had fueled their early success. Jared Dudley finally managed to break the slump, sinking a three-pointer with just over two minutes left in the game. As the intrepid Sidney Moncrief pointed out on the broadcast, Dudley was freed up because two Toronto defenders followed Antetokounmpo into the paint on a basket cut. That basket gave Milwaukee a 79-75 lead, which Giannis later extended to 80-75 at the line. Toronto committed a pair of killer turnovers, and with 29.4 second left Bayless sank a long jumper to give Milwaukee an 82-75 lead and the final margin. Curiously, Toronto starters Jonas Valanciunas, DeRozan, Amir Johnson, or Kyle Lowry were spectators in the fourth quarter, save a 97-second spell by Lowry to end the game.
With their longest winning streak of the season in tow, Milwaukee now returns home to take on the Los Angeles Lakers Wednesday night.