It took the Milwaukee Bucks a little more effort than expected to knock off the Brooklyn Nets, and tonight they face a much tougher test: the division-leading and second-seeded Toronto Raptors. Toronto has won 7 of its last 10 games and clawed its way within 2.5 games of the Eastern Conference's top seed.
Giannis Antetokounmpo's latest monster line (28 points, 14 assists, 11 rebounds, four steals, two blocks) highlighted a tougher-than-anticipated 109-100 win in Brooklyn on Sunday, marking the Greek Freak's fourth triple-double in a span of just 11 games. That tied him for the Bucks' single-season record, which he seems likely to own outright sooner rather than later. And as unlikely as it might be, Kevin Pelton writes that Giannis' exploits make him the most likely current NBA player to average a triple-double over an entire season (Insider).
Best of all, Giannis' post-all-star eruption isn't simply a matter of force-fed stat stuffing. The Bucks are 9-6 since elevating Giannis to the role of lead playmaker, a span that has also seen birthday boy Jabari Parker -- he turns 21 today! -- break out of his early season doldrums (21.2 ppg, 6.7 rpg, 51.6% since the break) while Khris Middleton has continued his strong overall play as well. And as if you even had to ask, Jabari isn't worried one bit about his emergence taking a backseat to the Giannis triple-double watch.
If you ask Parker, he's more likely to critique himself than give himself even the gentlest pat the back. After a win in Brooklyn, when asked about his own play, he is thoughtful, yet reticent. But his thoughts on another Antetokounmpo triple double? "It's special," he says with a grin. "I always want to see my teammates succeed. I want to milk that cow as much as possible."
So even if it's too late for the Bucks to make a real playoff run, a losing season does not mean a lost season. Seeing Giannis, Jabari and Khris blossom into a trio of potential all-stars is something of a best-case scenario from a development perspective, though it's hardly time to sit back and celebrate either. With a month left in the season there's still plenty to of room for improvement, including proving that Giannis and Co. can keep doing this not just against teams like the Nets and Lakers, but also against contending teams like the Raptors.
Update: On the injury front, John Henson (sore lower back) will make his return to the floor after missing the past 20 games. Kidd said before tonight's game that Henson will have a minutes restriction as they work him back into the lineup off the bench.
If the Raptors could just avoid the Chicago Bulls altogether, they'd be a lot better off. Toronto has four losses since the All-Star break and two have come against the Bulls, who now own an 8-game winning streak against the Dinos.
That little matchup oddity aside, the Raptors continue to roll through the late season behind (who else?) but their backcourt dynamo of Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan. DeRozan's post-break splits show him scoring more (and more efficiently) while using nearly a third of his team's possessions. Lowry's efficiency is way up thanks to a major boost in his 2-point shooting percentage while also adding another assist to his per-game average. The end result is a sizeable increase in plus-minus for both players since they showed out at the All-Star Game.
As they chase Cleveland for the conference's top spot, it's crucial that Toronto's perimeter pair continue to produce at a high level, because the rest of the roster can be pretty hit or miss. In their two-point loss to the Bulls on Sunday, the starting backcourt accounted for 60 of the team's 107 points. Only Patrick Patterson joined them in double figures.
Still, heavy reliance on two players is far from a prohibitive burden on a high-performing NBA team, and the Raptors have cultivated the league's 5th-best offense (less than a point behind San Antonio for the #3 spot) with full acknowledgement of that design. In fact, as of Sunday Toronto was the league's best offense since the All-Star break as noted by Dan Grant. Their greatest weapon remains, arguably, the ability of DeRozan and Lowry to get to the free-throw line with ease. In Toronto's last 4 games, the pair have combined to attempt 17, 18, 21, and 20 free-throws, respectively. The Raptors are second in the NBA in free-throws made per field-goal attempt, although the Bucks have held them below their average in each of the previous three meetings this season. Only DeRozan's 12 attempts in the second meeting really reflected Milwaukee's season-long weakness for fouling.
Daily Fantasy Tip
There isn't much to say here. Lowry, DeRozan, and Giannis Antetokounmpo are terrific plays. It seems like every time I say something like that about a Bucks player he has an off night, so I apologize in advance, but I ain't about to doubt Giannis right now. True, he hasn't put up much in three previous games against the Raptors this season, but it's hard to look at the Giannis of the last few weeks and conclude he's even the same player who took the floor in those games.
Jonas Valanciunas suffered a hand injury against Chicago and will be held out. Bismack Biyombo would seem the likely beneficiary and could become a solid budget contributor, capable of putting up double-digit points and rebounds with a few blocked shots to boot.
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(Editor's Note: all the opinions expressed here are my own. FanDuel gave me some cash to play daily fantasy games)
On the Raptors: RaptorsHQ | Raptors Republic
|2015/16 NBA Season|
(44-21, 18-13 road)
|March 16, 2016|
|BMO Harris Bradley Center | Milwaukee, WI|
|FS Wisconsin | 620 WTMJ|
|Jerryd Bayless||PG||Kyle Lowry|
|Khris Middleton||SG||DeMar DeRozan|
|Jabari Parker||SF||James Johnson|
|Giannis Antetokounmpo||PF||Luis Scola|
|Greg Monroe||C||Bismack Biyombo|
|2015/16 Advanced Stats|
|94.5 (22nd)||Pace||93.1 (29th)|
|104.6 (21st)||ORtg||110.0 (5th)|
|108.2 (22nd)||DRtg||105.2 (13th)|