Is this it? Is this the moment? The turning point, where the Toronto Raptors 2020-21 season goes from “it’s a transition year” and “maybe we should tank” to “wait, this team is good” and “no one wants to play these guys in the playoffs”?
It could be! Two games is an incredibly small sample size of course, but both of those games came against the Milwaukee Bucks and the two-time reigning MVP, and with the smaller starting lineup to boot.
It may be too early to tell, but remember this, because when this season is done, this might be the moment it all turned around.
1. No All-Star? I’ll Take All-D, Thanks
The Raptors may not have an All-Star this year, but they do have two all-defense contenders.
OG Anunoby was fantastic on defense (and pretty damn great on offense) in his second game back from injury, guarding multiple Bucks including Giannis Antetokounmpo. As for Fred VanVleet, you know what, I’d upgrade him from “contender” to “lock”, because this man is everywhere on D, flashing some of the quickest and strongest hands you’ll see:
That play led to a beautiful pass from Pascal Siakam to Norman Powell who finished at the rim on the other end. Defense to offense!
Overall the Raptors had one of their best defensive games of the season last night, holding Milwaukee to under 40% shooting and under 30% from downtown.
2. All-Star Moves Though
If any Raptor does deserve to make this year’s All-Star team (not that I want any of them to! They deserve a vacation!) it’s Fred VanVleet. He only shot 5-for-15 last night, but he ran the show in Kyle Lowry’s absence (eight assists, two turnovers).
Perhaps most impressively, he took on the MVP… and won:
What a move. The crossover, the body control, keeping it out of reach, the soft touch… we’ve debated VanVleet’s finishing ability, and it might not ever be elite because of his size, but plays like that prove he’s absolutely improving in that area.
3. Small to Big
I really dig the way Nick Nurse is used his rotation in these two games against the Bucks.
The Raptors started small for the second game, this time with DeAndre’ Bembry in place of the injured Kyle Lowry, and once again, it was fairly effective. But for the second straight game, the bench seemed to benefit from the presence of Aron Baynes!
The game was tied 13 apiece when the Raptors first went to the bench, and it remained so over the next several minutes. But a bench unit with Baynes, Chris Boucher and Matt Thomas, along with VanVleet and Powell, closed the first quarter on an 8-0 run.
Then in the second quarter, Pascal Siakam and Bembry replaced VanVleet and Powell, and that extra-big unit went on a short 7-2 run over 2.5 minutes to push the Raptors’ lead to 12.
4. Whither Middleton
Khris Middleton was a non-factor for the second straight game. The Raptors have held the Bucks All-Star to just 23 points on 9-for-22 shooting over the two matchups.
What happened to this man? Is he having flashbacks to the 2019 Eastern Conference Finals?
Obviously we have to give credit to the Raptors’ D, here; the team just didn’t give Middleton any space to operate this week. And it’s a true team effort too, as the Raptors have been liberal with their switches across the two games. (Shockingly, Mike Budeholzer has not been able to find an adjustment to free Middleton up.)
Perhaps nothing sums it up better than OG simply wiping out this Middleton three-point attempt:
5. Jukin’ Norm
We can’t let two wins against the Milwaukee Bucks pass by without mentioning Norman Powell, who continues to menace Milwaukee every time the Raptors and Bucks play.
Although he was in a spot of foul trouble for the second straight game, Powell managed to score in bunches last night, dropping 15 in a perfect first quarter (5-for-5 from the field with three 3-pointers, and 2-for-2 from the foul line) and finishing with 29.
My favourite was this little shoulder fake to absolutely freeze Donte DiVincenzo:
With Lowry out at least one more game, the Raps will need Powell to keep scoring and keep putting pressure on the D.
Not gonna lie, I didn’t foresee the Raptors winning two against the Bucks, especially after Lowry went down in the first one. So this has been a pleasant surprise! Hopefully the Raptors don’t blow it by playing down the competition tonight against the Minnesota Timberwolves, as they did on Sunday.