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The “long list” of defensive issues the Toronto Raptors are dealing have been dealing with, as Fred VanVleet so aptly put it the other day, appears to be getting shorter.

This had not been the Raptors team anyone had expected to see this season. Coming into Thursday night, Toronto ranked 13th in offense and 24th in defense. This was a team that was supposed to be built on its defensive versatility with major offensive question marks. And yet, defensive woes had plagued the Raptors all season.

Well, things appear to be getting better, at least against an undermanned, Giannis Antetokounmpo-less Milwaukee Bucks team who couldn’t crack the Raptors’ code as Toronto clinched a 97-93 victory at Scotiabank Arena.

"Our team has been up and down defensively. We’ve really had some really good defensive performance this year and we've had some really bad ones and [we're] smoothing that out," Raptors coach Nick Nurse said. "Tonight was certainly a good one, certainly commend our guys for playing hard and playing hard at that end"

The defensive rebounding issues certainly persisted, but otherwise, the Raptors’ defense held firm. They got into Bucks’ attackers, forcing 13 turnovers, and held Khris Middleton under wraps for most of the night courtesy of some lockdown defense from Scottie Barnes who, Nurse said, requested the Middleton assignment pre-game.

"That’s really a talent of his, that’s the mindset we need him to stay in," Nurse said of Barnes.

When the Raptors needed a stop late, Precious Achiuwa came up clutch defensively, blocking a Jrue Holiday layup as the Bucks mounted a late comeback.

"He got switched out on some pretty talented guys and he did a decent job of staying in there," Nurse said.

"He's still young, he's probably gonna make some mistakes, that's for sure. But it's good to have him. It's an incredible experience for those guys to be out there late in games like that."

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After a pair of short free throws from Achiuwa that nearly opened the door for Milwaukee, Barnes snared a game-winning offensive rebound and the Raptors eked out just their third home win of the season.

Wardrobe Change Sparks VanVleet

I guess the yellow shoes weren’t working out for Fred VanVleet. After shooting 1-for-3 from the field in the first half against the Bucks’ blitzing defense, VanVleet swapped out of his yellow shoes for a fresh pair of green ones. It was a decision that paid off.

"There were not many buckets in the yellow ones," VanVleet joked. "I had to figure it out going forward. The second half shoes were an upgrade.”

The veteran guard came out in the second half firing, connecting on four threes after the break, and playing hero for the Raptors late. When the Bucks mounted a comeback, he kept Toronto poised, calling his own number and splitting a pair of Milwaukee defenders for a driving finger-roll layup. It put the Raptors up six and forced the Bucks to call a timeout.

VanVleet finished the evening with a game-high 29 points including a pair of free throws to end the night.

"Sometimes little openings will open up if you just stay patient and just stay ready and stay confident," he said. "The shots came and I was able to [score]. My teammates set great screens and found me in my spots, and I was able to get a rhythm.”

Barnes Becoming Sharpshooter

Barnes’ development as a three-point shooter has come along way faster than anyone could have expected. After starting the season shooting 15% from behind the arc through his first 15 games, the Raptors rookie is suddenly a marksman from deep. He’d shot 48% over his last five games coming into Thursday night and didn’t show any signs of slowing down against the Bucks.

"I think it just speaks to being accountable and being coachable," VanVleet said of Barnes' shooting progress. "He steps up, and he looks like he's been shooting all his life. It's being accountable, being coachable, and that's the best way to improve."

Barnes connected on three of five first-half three-pointers and didn’t attempt a two-pointer before halftime. While the progress is certainly exciting, Barnes took an ill-advised above-the-break transition three-pointer in the first half and didn’t take his first two-pointer until the eight-minute mark of the third quarter.

It’s good that he’s shooting more threes, but maybe not every shot should be from deep.

Up Next: Washington Wizards

The Raptors will have two days off to recover before returning to Scotiabank Arena to take on the Washington Wizards on Sunday night.