Years of Shrewd Moves See Bucks, Raptors Continue to Showcase Contender Status
Regular season results are regular season results, but the Raptors fought for a welcome result in Milwaukee on Saturday night, closing out a 123–116 win over the Bucks with a convincing second-half showing, one that doubled as a small statement if you squinted at it. Milwaukee had won both previous meetings between the Eastern Conference’s top two teams and nine of its last 10, momentum that was halted by efficient performances from every member of the Raptors’ starting five, who combined to score all but five of the team’s points (with Kyle Lowry missing, no less).
Of course, it’s easy to envision the stakes between these two teams raising in May. Indiana, Philadelphia and Boston round out a more formidable Eastern Conference pack than in years past, but watching Kawhi Leonard and Giannis Antetokounmpo at the same time offers a fairly convincing case for each of their teams. There are parallels between their rosters, each a tale of successful engineering around a transcendent star. These are teams that can play into June, and even a midseason contest that was something short of playoff-caliber had its merits.
After several years of assembly, the Bucks have established synergy around a blossoming Antetokounmpo, fielding athletic, shooting-heavy lineups that sacrifice traditional position concepts for maximum effect. It’s the sort of outcome small-market teams in particular build toward, and Milwaukee has built a sustainable vessel to optimize a player who’s proven capable of doing all the lifting. Eric Bledsoe, Khris Middleton, Malcolm Brogdon and a reinvented Brook Lopez were all shrewd acquisitions by different means, and with each player capable of knocking down an open three, Antetokounmpo, in essence, has freedom to roam. The lack of secondary shot-creation can backfire when the game bogs down, but the offensive potency is serious and their versatility on the other end can inch somewhere close.
Toronto’s brash offseason gamble to acquire Leonard, and inherit a one-year timeframe to recruit the pending free agent for the future, has gone better than anyone could have expected on the floor. Losing DeMar DeRozan, a core piece of the franchise’s identity, could have backfired—instead, a new coach and a host of hard-nosed role players have been a sort of sponge for Leonard’s strengths. Even with Lowry injured, the Raptors have been able to lean on Pascal Siakam and Fred VanVleet, two players who are a credit to the front office’s eye for talent, and who never seem to stop working on the court. Leonard is one of the few players in the league who can truly enable a team to win a shootout, or choose to go ugly when the situation demands it. True to form, the Raptors got it done along both lines, shooting 51.2% from the floor as a team, then buckling down for stops in the fourth quarter as the Bucks’ potent shooting finally ran dry.
Milwaukee and Toronto play for the final time in the regular season January 31. Nobody will complain if there are seven more to follow.