A lot of things will have to happen to get there, but if Sunday was any indication, how good would a first round playoff series between Milwaukee and Toronto be?
Nobody would be picking the Raptors to prevail — the Bucks boast the NBA’s best record, defend better than anyone else, shoot nearly as well as any team and have some guy named Giannis Antetokounmpo — but you could bet Toronto would give them a fight.
Milwaukee had tons of rest against an opponent that played the night before, and maybe that’s a key reason why they pulled away in the fourth quarter, putting the clamps on the Raptors, but the visitors fought hard and gave them a battle. Toronto led after three quarters, even with Scottie Barnes getting hurt.
The Bucks make life tough on opponents trying to score on them. Jrue Holiday, Antetokounmpo and Brook Lopez are all viable defensive player of the year candidates. Holiday is a menace who can throw off even the best attacking guards (and even some forwards). Lopez is a monster who walls off the rim. Giannis is, well, he’s not named the Greek Freak for no reason.
They push opponents out of their comfort zone — Jakob Poeltl looked way off for the first 2.5 quarters. He either attempted shots from deeper than usual, or made unusual mistakes. Even in the final minutes Poeltl made an uncharacteristic miscue, fumbling the ball away on Toronto’s final real chance of the game. They put pressure on opponents and make everything a grind, as the Raptors found out in the fourth quarter when they could barely score at all.
Combine that with many talented outside shooters, plus Antetokounmpo, and it’s easy to see why they are a serious title contender.
Toronto has two playoff victories over the Bucks in the last seven seasons, both six-game triumphs, including the stirring comeback from down 0-2 in the conference final on the way to the title. Since then Milwaukee’s also won it all and has emerged as the class of the Eastern conference, a status Toronto took for a bit from Cleveland after LeBron James left for Los Angeles.
AROUND THE RIM
If you think it’s annoying that the Raptors have had five chances to get back to .500 this season since last being there, only to fall short, consider the plight of Atlanta Hawks fans: Atlanta blew a 22-point halftime lead on Sunday against the tanktastic San Antonio Spurs. It was one of the worst collapses in franchise history. Somehow Atlanta has been within a game of .500 in each of their last 25 games.
Former Oregon star Chris Boucher was asked Saturday if March Madness is a big topic of discussion in the Raptors locker room. Boucher said there’s a lot of smack talk, “especially after Arizona lost,” Boucher said with a smile. Fellow Raptors big man Christian Koloko went to Arizona and apparently they were watching the end of the game in the room “UCLA and all that. There’s a lot of talk going on. We have a lot of guys (that played for schools in the tournament). I’m not one of them, but when they lose, I’m laughing at everyone else,” Boucher said.
Speaking of March Madness, the biggest upset was No. 1 Purdue and Toronto-born centre Zach Edey being stunned. I felt terrible for Edey, who had to deal with an all-time bad coaching performance and teammates who couldn’t hit anything, and apparently so did Nick Nurse, who coached Edey last summer when Edey was the youngest member of the Canadian national team. “I’m disappointed for Zach, man, for sure. I really like him, he’s a great dude and had an unbelievable career (at Purdue, where he’s expected to be named national player of the year),” Nurse said. “That’s a tough way to go out. I was really pulling for him, for sure.” Canadian Ryan Nembhard, brother of standout Pacers rookie Andrew Nembhard, remains alive in the tournament with Creighton. Nembhard’s career-high 30 points propelled the Blue Jays to the upset win over Baylor and into the Sweet 16.
Toronto is 20-12 against teams below .500 .
Favourite odd stat of the weekend: Minnesota has not won at Toronto since January 2004! How long ago was that? Gary Trent’s father was playing for the Wolves, Vince Carter was in his last full season as a Raptor (but was injured for the game), Chris Bosh was a 19-year-old rookie, Kevin O’Neill was the coach and Jalen Rose and Donyell Marshall were in their second months as Raptors. Since then Minnesota has dropped 17 straight in Toronto.
THREE STARS VS. BUCKS
1 Giannis Antetokounmpo
2 Fred VanVleet
3 Brook Lopez
Honourable mention: O.G. Anunoby, Jrue Holiday, Jakob Poeltl, Gary Trent Jr., Khris Middleton
THREE STARS VS. WOLVES
1 Fred VanVleet
2 Pascal Siakam
3 Jaden McDaniels
Honourable mention: O.G. Anunoby, Gary Trent Jr., Naz Reid
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