Raps Adjust And Roll In Milwaukee

by Chris O'Leary

When the news came out on Thursday afternoon, Malachi Flynn was putting the finishing touches on a Raptors 905 win in the bubble in Florida. 

Kyle Lowry’s sore ankle had become a secondary concern, as the Raptors announced that their point guard/leader/six-time all-star/heartbeat etc. was questionable with a sprained left thumb. Flynn barely had time to check his line of 16 points, five assists and four rebounds before he was on his way to the airport. He walked into the Raptors’ locker room about 30 minutes before tipoff, into what you could easily think might feel like a dire situation. 

Of course, it wasn’t that at all. 

Without their top player -- Lowry will miss at least one more game with his thumb injury -- up against the reigning two-time MVP and trying to sweep their two-game stay in Milwaukee, the Raptors won comfortably, 110-96. 

At the end of a long day that had a surprise three-hour flight sandwiched between two games, Flynn wasn’t surprised by any of it. 

“I definitely wouldn’t say it surprises me. I think just the whole team has the next-man-up mentality,” the rookie said. “Whenever you're called on, be ready to play. I think the guys did that tonight.”  

There was a passing moment in the first quarter where Chris Boucher got bounced around under the basket and complained to the ref for a foul. On the other side of the paint, Fred VanVleet yelled to his centre and admonished him to get big, puffing up his entire six-foot-one frame to prove his point.

It was some very specific direction from one player to another, but it was that mentality that got the Raptors a win that on paper may have seemed like an uphill battle at the outset. 

Norman Powell took that on with a game-high 29 points on 9-12 shooting. Pascal Siakam came up with 27 points -- he’s scored at least 23 in six of the last seven games -- and VanVleet had 17 points and eight assists. It was the team’s defensive effort though, that made the difference. They held the Bucks to 15 second-quarter points, throwing a frustrated team that’s now on a five-game losing streak into disarray. 

OG Anunoby played his part in creating that confusion and frustration. It felt like he was everywhere defensively, blocking Kris Middleton on the perimeter to close out the first half, then scoring on tough drives in the second half. His defensive work on Giannis Antetokounmpo led to him throwing an elbow at Anunoby on a drive late in the fourth quarter, earning him a Flagrant 1 foul. 

“My favourite play is when he drove in there and flipped it kind of off his side to Deandre’ (Bembry) cutting,” Raptors coach Nick Nurse said of Anunoby’s no-look dish and dunk that helped keep the game out of reach. 

“He played good and he worked all night on Giannis and that's what you’ve got to do.”

You could say that the pair of wins over the Bucks are big ones that the Raptors could build on, but there have been a lot of wins like that lately. That 2-8 start to the season that they suffered through feels like a lifetime ago, as they’ve gone 12-7 since. 

They’ve struggled with the second games of back-to-backs this year (0-4 thus far) but if they can go into Minnesota on Friday night and win, they’ll be 15-15 and would hit .500 for the first time this season. 

“We’re not looking at it every single game, our record and where we’re at,” Powell said. 

“We’re just trying to play the best basketball that we can and rack up some wins and continue to get better throughout the whole season. Continue to build our chemistry, continue to build our foundation offensively and defensively.

“When we do that, we're going to give ourselves our best opportunity to win night-in and night-out.”

“I think we’ve just got to continue to better,” said Siakam, 

“It feels like there's a lot of games that we could have won that we didn’t and we felt like we played pretty good but didn’t get the win. 

“We’ve got to continue to get better, continue to work on things that we have to work on, our timing on defense, communication and do all those things and I think that every single night we’ll have a good chance to win.” 

As long as Lowry is out the challenge will be greater for the Raptors, but they have a history of winning despite star players' absences. 

Nurse said he was worried about the defensive impact that Lowry’s absence might have against the Bucks, but the team compensated as a whole.  

“That’s the first thing that somebody’s got to pick up the slack on,” Nurse said of that defensive void. 

“And then I would only say that similar...like when Kawhi used to go out, there's a number of shots that need to get distributed. It's not like...they go to whoever replaced them. They kind of get distributed around and that’s been successful for us no matter who's out, especially if it's one of our primary scores. Kawhi, Pascal, Kyle, Fred, whatever.”

Powell, the primary scorer on a somewhat surprising night in Milwaukee, did acknowledge what a win in Minnesota could be like. 

“It would be nice to get back to .500 and start racking up wins and not having to fight below .500,” he said. 

They seem to be trending back to that winning team that fans have been spoiled by. On Friday in Minneapolis, they’ll get their shot at even ground. 

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