MILWAUKEE – Mike Budenholzer dismissed the idea that Saturday’s showdown with the Toronto Raptors meant anything more than Friday’s blowout win over the Atlanta Hawks, but the energy in the building and the intensity of competition on the floor undercut Budenholzer’s contention from the opening tip.
The Milwaukee Bucks‘ campaign to clinch the regular season series against the Raptors fell short on Saturday. The Raptors were able to hold off Giannis Antetokounmpo’s 43 points and 18 rebounds, including three 3-pointers in the fourth quarter, and pull out a 123-116 win after trailing by as many as ten points in the first half.
“We had a double digit lead,” Antetokounmpo said after the game. “We gave it away. Then, we came back in the third quarter. We didn’t play hard. We didn’t move the ball. Not rotating defensively.”
It was the first time the Bucks had lost at home to an Eastern Conference team this season, and the first time that they lost to the Raptors after winning the first two matchups.
After the game, a shirtless Antetokounmpo soaked his feet in a huge ice buck and stared at his iPhone for upwards of 20 minutes – his routine after losses. No Bucks player has had a 40-point, 15 rebound game since Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in 1975, but still the loss nagged at him. Every few minutes he would look up and mention a certain play to Thon Maker before returning to scrolling.
“This night is not going to change who we are,” Antetokounmpo said. “We still feel like we are one of the best teams in the NBA.”
The Bucks and the Fiserv Forum crowd held up their end of what could become a playoffs rivalry. Fans donning white, green and yellow Bucks jerseys stood shoulder to shoulder in Fiserv Forum’s standing room only sections, craning their necks to watch Eric Bledsoe steals and Antetokounmpo dunks over their Eastern Conference foe. They vehemently booed Toronto center Serge Ibaka after he blocked an attempted dunk from Antetokounmpo.
For the Raptors, the game hinged on an explosive performance from their starters. Kawhi Leonard, Pascal Siakam, Serge Ibaka, Danny Green and Fred VanVleet scored all but five of Toronto’s points. Leonard and Siakam led the way with 30 points each, a career-high for Siakam. All five of Toronto’s starters had a plus-minus of at least plus-16, whereas the only Milwaukee starter to escape with a positive plus-minus was shooting guard Malcolm Brogdon (plus-seven).
“I think their starters killed us,” Eric Bledsoe said. “Some games ain’t going to be pretty.”
In the first matchup between the Bucks and Raptors, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Kawhi Leonard did not play. It was a back-to-back for Toronto and Antetokounmpo was in the league’s concussion protocol. Backup power forward Ersan Ilyasova led seven Bucks in double figures with 19 points in a 124-109 October win in Milwaukee. The second time the two teams saw each other, Toronto point guard Kyle Lowry missed all five shots in a 34-minute scoreless performance that saw the Bucks escape with a 104-99 December road win.
In this third match up, the Raptors were without Lowry (back) and backup center Jonas Valanciunas (dislocated thumb). Milwaukee maintained control of the game for the first quarter but by halftime, their once double-digit lead had been whittled down to just one. Sterling Brown’s 3-pointer ignited an 8-0 run to bring the Bucks back within four, before a quick five points from Siakam pushed the Raptors lead back to nine. Toronto shot 56 percent from the field after Milwaukee took a 47-37 lead with 5:41 left in the first half.
11 of Siakam’s 12 career 20-point games have come this season, and he continues to buttress his case for the Most Improved Player award. Siakam played 1,679 minutes last season, scoring 589 points in that time. Siakam already has 605 points this season despite having played only 1,230 minutes after Saturday night’s win.
“He is commanding the ball against certain matchups and he gets the ball, takes it, scores it and gets the and-one thrown in here and there,” Nurse said of Siakam. “He is an improving daily shooter and we’re finally seeing. He hit some big ones tonight.”
Toronto had good reason to relish this signature victory after its nationally-televised blowout road loss against the San Antonio Spurs, Leonard’s original team, on Thursday. In San Antonio, the Raptors found themselves down 19 after the first quarter. Nurse pulled the starters with five minutes left in that game and the team facing a 25-point deficit. They finished shooting just 6-of-30 from three and yielded former franchise player DeMar DeRozan’s first career-triple double.
“It’s a good two-game lesson,” Nurse said. “Tonight, we executed everything in our game plan defensively and one game we didn’t execute any of it, and also played with some juice and some physicality. So that’s the way we need to play if you want to be a serious contender.”
The two East leaders will see each other for a final time in the regular season on Jan. 31 in Toronto.