It was supposed to be an epic battle between two conference foes laden with all-star talent, both cocky and confident in their desire to win an NBA championship this year.
Instead, Thursday night’s game was a mistake-laden affair in which neither the Toronto Raptors nor the Milwaukee Bucks seemed prepared to prove who’s boss.
In the end, the Bucks left the Raptors reeling at Scotiabank Arena, relying heavily on a potent long-distance attack early in the game to emerge with a 105-92 victory over the home side.
Neither team’s featured performers – Giannis Antetokounmpo of the Bucks and Kawhi Leonard of the Raptors – lived up to his star-studded billing. Leonard, struggling with his shot, finished with 16 points after connecting on just seven of 20 attempts. Antetokounmpo, in foul trouble most of the way, netted 19 to lead the Bucks.
Their struggles set the tone for the entire game.
The Bucks were on the verge of running Toronto out of the arena, increasing their lead to as many as 24 in the third quarter, 78-54, before the Raptors' mostly stagnant offence showed a pulse.
The Milwaukee lead was whittled back to 87-76 heading into the final frame where Antetokounmpo absorbed his fifth foul just 20 seconds in and had to take a seat on the bench.
The Raptors pulled to within six points of the lead on four occasions through the fourth quarter, the final time at 98-92 with about two minutes to play.
But on each occasion the Raptors could not get over the hump and a Malcolm Brogdon three with just over a minute left for the Bucks lifted the score to 103-92 and signaled the fans to start an exodus from the arena.
Pascal Siakam scored 28 to lead the Raptors.
While Toronto coach Nick Nurse was happy with the fortitude in which his team battled back after falling behind by such a large deficit, the fact that his team got there in the first place was disconcerting.
The Raptors have now lost three of their last four games.
“Fight back’s great,” Nurse said. “I’m more concerned with how we’re playing. I want to go out there and play well. I don’t think we played well tonight.
“We looked a little desperate at times I thought tonight. But, again, you’re going to go through some lulls, ups and downs, like this in a season.”
The game came highly hyped, as it featured two of the top teams in the NBA in a virtual tie for first place overall in the Eastern Conference. The event was deemed important enough for TNT to broadcast it live to its U.S. television audience.
The high-flying Bucks arrived heavily armed with Antetokounmpo, the so-called Greek Freak who has developed into one of the league’s most enticing performers. Only 24 and already in his sixth NBA season, Giannis – everybody calls him Giannis – is the only player in the loop averaging at least 25 points, 10 rebounds and five assists a game.
They were facing a Raptors team built to win it all this season. Toronto entered the game with the most wins in the NBA, including a season-high 10 in a row at home.
With the loss, the Raptors fell to 37-16, only a few percentage points behind the Bucks' 37-13.
Leonard, Toronto’s main offensive threat, went into the game averaging 27.9 points and, like Antetokounmpo, was selected as one of the starters for the all-star game.
The Raptors learned just before Thursday’s tip-off that their point guard, Kyle Lowry, will join Leonard at the all-star game, Feb. 17 in Charlotte. Lowry was earmarked as one of the reserves in a vote by NBA head coaches, marking his fifth successive appearance in the contest.
Khris Middleton of the Bucks also got an all-star nod.
And Thursday’s game had more on the line than just bragging rights.
A win by the Bucks would earn them a victory in the season series against the Raptors, which is a factor in determining playoff seeding should the two teams finish tied in the standing at the end of the regular season.
It would also ensure that their coach, Mike Budenholzer, would get to attend the all-star game as one of the coaches, knocking Toronto’s Nick Nurse out of contention.
All in all, a lot on the line.
“It should be a good test, a good barometer,” Nurse said earlier in the week when asked about the challenge against the Bucks. “They’re very good. They’re very good, very well coached, obviously. They present a lot of problems.”
The Raptors did a good job of containing Antetokounmpo in the first quarter, limiting him to just four points as Toronto secured a 25-22 lead.
Milwaukee has many strengths and in the second quarter it showed its strength from long distance. Malcolm Brogdon drained a three as did D.J. Wilson as the Bucks would secure a 41-13 lead with just under eight minutes left in the half.