The Toronto Raptors appear to be back.
Boy, it's been a weird start to the season. First, it was the 2-8 start that threw the NBA off the scent. Then it seemed as though every time the Raptors took two steps forward, stringing together a couple of wins, they'd take a big step back, dropping games to the Sacramento Kings, Atlanta Hawks, and Minnesota Timberwolves.
It's true, the Milwaukee Bucks are in a bit of a funk right now. They're losers of their last five straight, but the Raptors who showed up Thursday night, knocking off Milwaukee 110-96, can contend with anyone in the league.
"It was really important for us to bounce back and get this win," Norman Powell said. "We didn't want any splits, that's our motto going into back-to-back games when we're facing the same team. ... So it's definitely two big wins for us."
What's particularly strange is how well the Raptors have played without Kyle Lowry. The 34-year-old missed half of Tuesday night's game and all of Thursday's game and Toronto didn't miss a beat. Instead, Raptors coach Nick Nurse shifted the load onto Fred VanVleet and the 26-year-old point guard showed why Toronto can be optimistic about the organization's future.
VanVleet has followed in Lowry's footsteps. He gets the most out of the guys around him without pushing them too far.
In the first quarter, he fed Chris Boucher for an easy look at the rim. When Boucher missed at the layup, VanVleet turned and yelled at him.
"Get big," the 6-foot guard yelled, lifting his shoulders to try and enlarge his body.
Three possessions later, he went right back to the Canadian big, finding Boucher on a pick-and-roll for a slam dunk finish.
"Freddie’s a great leader," Pascal Siakam said. "He's always shown that from our G-League days and even when Kyle was there he’s always been one of the voices on the team and obviously with Kyle not out there he’s kind of taken that role, being that vocal guy. He's a point guard so I'm kind of follow his lead in terms of just getting guys where they're supposed to be. He’s always done that his whole career, I just feel like you know it's natural for him."
In the third quarter, Toronto pulled ahead as far as 23 points, but Milwaukee wouldn't go away. A 7-0 run from the Bucks put some scare into the Raptors. But not VanVleet. Instead of wilting in the third for the countless time this season, VanVleet stepped up and nailed a 3-pointer to quell the run. On the very next offensive possession, he went right at Giannis Antetokounmpo in isolation, blowing past the 6-foot-11 reigning MVP for a layup at the rim.
"I think with Kyle being out, it's a lot of ownership on Fred to be able to get us into our stuff, sustain whatever is going on on the floor, whether teams are going on runs, whatever it is to keep us even-keeled, not getting too off-kilter when teams are making shots," Powell said.
With VanVleet leading the way scoring 17 points and eight assists, Powell and Siakam thrived by his side. They scored 29 and 27 points, respectively, with VanVleet recording assists on three of their buckets each.
While the offence may have been impressive, it was the defence that really looked like Toronto Raptors defence. They held the Bucks to a season's worst 41 points in the first half, swarming Antetokounmpo and holding him and Khris Middleton to just 16 points before the break. Antetokounmpo found some success in the third quarter, but the Raptors clamped down on Middleton and held the Bucks to just 96 points, their lowest of the season.
Malachi Flynn Completes The Double Header
Raptors rookie Malachi Flynn arrived at Fiserv Forum in Milwaukee just 40 minutes prior to the game. He had spent the morning in the G League Bubble leading the Raptors 905 to a 117-92 victory over the Salt Lake Stars. After playing 33 minutes in Orlando, he jumped on a chartered flight, joined the Raptors, and logged 4:39 minutes against the Bucks.
"I woke up just ready to play in G League game at 11:00, we got the win, and then as soon as we got on the bus Chad [Saunders] – the GM of the Raptors 905 – let me know that Kyle was injured and I was going to go straight to Minnesota and meet the team. And then like 10 minutes later he just asked if I wanted to go straight Milwaukee and I said ‘yes, of course,’" Flynn recalled. "I had about 30 minutes to pack my bag and then got on a jet and came right here, and got here with 30 minutes left. So crazy, just non-stop, didn’t even get a real meal so that’s what I’m looking forward to right now. Just a crazy day, for sure."
When he checks in on Friday night he will have played four games in three days.
Up Next: Minnesota Timberwolves
The Raptors will head to Minnesota for the second half of their back-to-back on Friday night at 9 p.m. ET. Kyle Lowry will miss the game due to a left thumb sprain, according to Raptors coach Nick Nurse.