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Raptors Nearly Pull off Miracle Comeback Despite Dreadful Offensive Night vs. Bucks – Sports Illustrated

The Milwaukee Bucks had pulled Giannis Antetokounmpo. It was over, they thought. Up 21 points on the Toronto Raptors with less than four minutes to go. You couldn’t even blame them. 

But with the season teetering, Toronto said not quite yet.

Fred VanVleet nailed a pair of three-pointers. Scottie Barnes came alive and suddenly the Raptors had a pulse. Then came the five-second violation on the inbound pass for Milwaukee and a four-point play for Gary Trent Jr. and the impossible was somehow possible. Trent’s three-pointer seconds later, a step-back jumper in the dying seconds after Barnes passed up a good look allowed Toronto to force overtime, breathing life into a game that deserved none.

And yet, the miracle still wasn’t enough. A hard drive to the rim by Antetokounmpo drew a crowd before a kick-out pass to Grayson Allen for three proved decisive. Toronto’s magic eventually ran dry. VanVleet’s last-chance three, a tough step-back over Bobby Portis hit the front rim and fell out as the Raptors fell 104-101 Wednesday night.

“I don’t think I’ve seen one that weird,” said Raptors coach Nick Nurse who admitted he never got particularly close to pulling his starters late in the fourth quarter. 

“It’s at the top, for sure,” VanVleet said of his weirdest all-time games. “That was an experience.”

None of it would have been possible without some lockdown defense from Toronto who decided to shake things up a little bit against Antetokounmpo. Rather than sending constant pressure at him the way the Raptors have so often against opposing superstars, Toronto tried to play more one-on-one Wednesday. The Raptors let O.G. Anunoby and Precious Achiuwa take on the two-time MVP with only some occasional help. 

Yes, Antetokounmpo did make hay against Toronto’s occasional pressure, finding A.J. Green for an open three-pointer when the Raptors doubled the Bucks star out of a pick-and-pop and later when he found Pat Connaughton when Anunoby rotated over to help VanVleet in defense. He hooked up with Brook Lopez on a crucial pick-and-pop when Barnes was slow to switch. But Toronto’s defense clearly confounded Antetokounmpo who threw more than a handful of ill-advised passes to nobody en route to a career-high nine turnovers.

“It was outstanding,” Nurse said of the defense against Antetokounmpo.

For as good as the defense was, the offense for Toronto was every bit as bad. It took the Raptors seven minutes to score a single point. A smattering of boos even rang out as VanVleet bricked his third of three three-pointers to open the game before the Bucks strangely called a timeout. At one point, Toronto’s confidence looked so shaken that Trent passed out of an open three-pointer, feeding Pascal Siakam before the Raptors eventually coughed up the ball on a miss-timed pass.

When Toronto did break through, converting a single free throw courtesy of Siakam, the Raptors faithful erupted in applause. The cheering continued moments later when VanVleet finally broke through, nailing a driving layup to end Toronto’s 0-for-15 start.

“It gets a little contagious,” Nurse said of the misses. “We tried to sneak a few other guys in there and see if they relax and vault up and knock one down and that didn’t seem to help much either.”

Despite a 2-for-23 first quarter and 13-for-50 shooting in the first half that included just two made three-pointers, the Raptors’ defense wouldn’t let Milwaukee get too far away. Trent eventually nailed a step-back three in the corner when the Bucks collapsed around the driving VanVleet who made the savvy kick-out pass to the corner to pull the Raptors even late in the second.

VanVleet did his best to keep the Raptors close. With everyone else struggling, he slowly breathed life into Toronto’s lackluster attack. He nailed a tough pull-up three in transition just ahead of a trailing Antetokounmpo and tried to keep the Raptors going with his speed in transition.

“I just play to win, to be honest with you. I don’t really care about the numbers, as you can tell. I just play to win. I compete,” said VanVleet who led Toronto with 28 points on 8-for-23 shooting. “My numbers will balance out at the end of the year. I’ve just got to keep playing with confidence. Again, trying to squeeze as much life out of this team as possible.”

For the better part of three and a half quarters Barnes showed no signs of life offensively. He had zero points through three quarters, confounded by Milwaukee’s drop coverage with Lopez and unsure of how to attack the Bucks with so much space. But something clicked in the fourth. A dunk over Lopez sparked the turnaround as he began attacking again, using the space Milwaukee was giving him as a runway to get into the paint and finish.

“He’s a talented player, he knows what to do,” VanVleet said of Barnes who finished with 19 points and a game-high nine field goals made. “It’s one of those things where you don’t want to feel like you’re shooting because that’s the shot they’re giving you. So, it’s almost like, I’m not going to shoot it because you’re making me shoot it, you know what I mean?”

Barnes had 19 points in the fourth quarter and overtime while Trent added 11 of his 22 in the final quarter. It was just too little too late. Shooting 38-for-116 just isn’t going to cut it most nights. 

“I think there’s a lot of makeable shots out there. We’ve just got to get over this hump of guys that career-wise have shot the ball a lot better,” Nurse said. “I think those shots are there. I think we’re creating them.”

Nurse on the Front Office

Prior to the game, Nurse was asked if he and the front office are on the same page when it comes to the direction and construction of the team this season.

“Yup. 100% he said.”

Up Next: New York Knicks

The Raptors will continue their homestand Friday night when the New York Knicks come to town for a 7:30 p.m. ET tipoff at Scotiabank Arena.