Having lost 6 of their last 7 games, the Milwaukee Bucks started a daunting 5-game stretch tonight against the Eastern Conference’s second-best squad. Some of us hoped that the Bucks would realize the impact this stretch may have on their season. But even while missing All Star starting SG DeMar DeRozan (ankle sprain), the Toronto Raptors easily took care of business against Milwaukee 102-86.
Every Milwaukee player had their own struggles this evening, even the team’s two cornerstones. Jabari Parker (21 points / 13 rebounds) made the biggest contributions, but was a -19 on the evening. Giannis Antetokounmpo (19 points / 8 assists / 6 rebounds / 3 blocks) was more steady, but battled foul trouble all game. And if it wasn’t for a hot streak from Matthew Dellavedova (11 points, 3/6 from deep), no other Buck would have broken double-digits on the scoreboard tonight.
Toronto may not have blown the Bucks out, but All Star reserve guard Kyle Lowry (32 points on 18 shots, including 3/6 3PT and 11/14 FT / 6 assists) repeatedly kept Milwaukee at arms-length, and was supported by backcourt mates Norman Powell (19 points / 6 boards) and Cory Joseph (6 points / 5 assists).
The Bucks defense, particularly the starting unit, started off looking as disjointed as ever against a vastly-superior Toronto offense. Every Buck seemed to be on their heels, responding with a significant lag as the Raptors simply moved the ball where they wanted it to go. The Milwaukee defense fell into further trouble early by going over the team foul limit with more than 6 minutes remaining in the first quarter, including a pair of early fouls from Giannis Antetokoumpo.
And for as bad as the defense was, the offense was somehow worse. The ball moved little and the players moved even less, and the first quarter saw Toronto go on a 22-2 run, largely fueled by their 5 three-pointers and a bevy of Milwaukee fouls. Jabari Parker, taking the reins as Giannis took a seat on the bench, was particularly passive (logged a -24 in 16 first half minutes).
Jason Kidd, as he often does, went weird to start the second quarter, deploying Malcolm Brogdon / Jason Terry / Rashad Vaughn / Mirza Teletovic / Thon Maker. My first thought was “Well, here’s the white flag,” but the bench unit simply wouldn’t let that abide. Specifically, Thon Maker was the most energetic Buck this evening by far. More on him in a bit, but his energy and effort helped the second unit cut the Raptors’ lead from 17 to 7 in less than six minutes! But with Thon leaving the floor, he took all of the Bucks energy with him, as Toronto’s balanced attack regenerated a 16-point lead at halftime.
The second half started off with the same sort of lackadaisical effort that we saw in the first half, but at least the Milwaukee starters were able to force enough misses to maintain the deficit rather than let it balloon further out of control. Then, out of nowhere, Matthew Dellavedova promptly lost all feeling in his face and hit back-to-back-to-back threes, cutting the differential down to 10 again.
This stretch seemed to give the Bucks a bit of a spark, not to make a huge run but at least to find better looks, and they actually cut the lead down to 7 in the third. But as it rarely does, this lead didn’t last. Toronto continued to move the ball around, and the Bucks blew box-outs, bobbled rebounds, and bricked enough shots to find themselves down by double-digits with six minutes left in the fourth quarter.
From that point, some fun things happened. Giannis came up with a block/fast break layup combo, followed by a Giannis-Jabari alley oop, followed by a Rashad Vaughn three, and the lead was suddenly down to 9 again. The fun didn’t last, but it was cool to see the team will themselves into a better game situation. Gotta stay positive, right?
In the second quarter, we saw precisely what Jason Terry was signed for: leading the team and communicating with young guys on the court. During the bench’s strong stretch, JET was constantly bringing the young guys (Thon, Vaughn, and Brogdon) in for some on-the-floor guidance whenever he could, and making mid-game calls when he couldn’t.
Miles Plumlee can dunk when he has space, but if he is in a crowd and has to go up for a lob, forget about it, because it’s not going in. Alley-oop layups aren’t easy shots, but his attempts didn’t even look like they would land.
We could be seeing the start of the rookie wall for Malcolm Brogdon. He was tagged with two uncharacteristic non-shooting fouls on Lowry in the first, including one where he got stripped near half-court and committed the foul during the scrum. Those fouls ended up with four made free throws anyway (Milwaukee was over the limit), but I noticed Brogan’s sloppiness, mostly because I rarely notice that from him.
Fellow rookie Thon Maker, however, looks like he’s got more energy than he knows what to do with. Flying around contesting shots on defense, sometimes too far for his own good, and making good cuts on offense. He also threw up a weak jumper against Bebe and committed a sloppy moving screen, so there’s still lots to learn. But Thon seems ready, which is way more than I expected from him this season.
The first half made me write down this question: is Jabari Parker really capable of serving as the primary offensive option? After Giannis left in the first with early foul trouble, Jabari was the leader on the floor for the Bucks, or at least should have been. To use some corporate-speak, is it a Skill issue (can he do the thing?) or a Will issue (he doesn’t want to or doesn’t think he can do the thing?) or a combination thereof? Parker clearly redeemed himself in the second half, but by now you would want to see a lot more consistency from him.
Jason Kidd and his coaching staff is going to catch a lot of flak for this game. That’s all well and good, but we also saw the team fall to a clearly superior team on that team’s home court. Good teams have a way of dictating their own terms and leaving their opponents scrambling to catch up, which is exactly how it felt tonight.
Part of that dynamic is due to Kyle Lowry’s consistent mastery over the Raptors’ high-efficiency offense. He is, in my view, the best guard in the Eastern Conference, and should have been voted to join Giannis as a part of the starting five in February.
The Bucks return to Milwaukee to play their first game of the season against the Boston Celtics on Saturday night.