Monday’s game may have been a meaningless game when it comes to playoff seeding. Yet a few of the Toronto Raptors reserves used it to audition for minutes in the upcoming NBA playoffs, especially Canada’s Chris Boucher.
The Raptors beat the Milwaukee Bucks 114-106 inside the Orlando Bubble, but it was hardly a preview of what you might see if they meet this fall in the Eastern Conference Finals.
The Bucks and Raptors have already secured the first and second playoff seeds in the East respectively with a few seeding games left. So many of the stars sat out Monday, from Giannis Antetokounmpo, to Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet and Serge Ibaka.
Boucher provided a career-best 25 points and 11 rebounds while providing some of the biggest highlights of the game. Sharp-shooting first-year guard Matt Thomas added 22 points, and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson had 11. Norman Powell scored 21 points in his 24th start of the season.
Lowry took the night off to rest a sore back, while Ibaka and VanVleet both sat out to take care of some knee concerns before the postseason.
Antetokounmpo was absent from Milwaukee’s lineup after having dental surgery. The Greek superstar for the top-seeded Bucks didn’t even need to leave the bubble to have it done and will therefore not need to quarantine.
The Bucks and Raptors could meet this fall in a rematch of last year's Eastern Conference. Milwaukee already knows it will face the Orlando Magic in the opening round, while Toronto will meet the Brooklyn Nets.
The game was late tipping off due to a leak in the building’s ceiling, which was dropping water on the gym floor early in the night.
OG Anunoby (seven points), Pascal Siakam (14 points) and Marc Gasol (0 points, 8 rebounds, 3 blocks) were in their usual starting roles for Toronto on Monday. Rookie Terence Davis (10 points) started at point guard, joining Powell in the backcourt in place of Lowry and VanVleet. Davis handled most of the point guard duties and did not commit a single turnover, but he did foul out of the game. Siakam also took turns bringing the ball up the floor.
Toronto’s young reserves checked in early and jumped at their opportunities. Thomas put on display the footwork he’s worked to improve. He had an energetic 12-point first quarter and kept rolling all night, draining 4-of-8 three-pointers in the game. Toronto Coach Nick Nurse referred to Thomas’ skillset as “J.J Redick-like” after the game.
“I had no idea we were resting guys until right before the game,” said Thomas. “Whatever opportunity I get, I just do my best to take advantage of it.”
Chris Boucher blocked a shot just seconds into his stint and scored three of his seven from deep. The Montrealer finished the night with two huge blocks, and had a hard-charging dunk while posterizing Ersan Ilyasova. The slender Raptor popped right up with a smile after colliding hard with the floor.
Boucher admitted that the extra 15 pounds and added strength he added in the off-season were noticeable to him on a high-octane dunk like that.
“I probably wouldn’t have finished it last year,” said Boucher of the dunk. “That’s where I see it the most.”
Nurse said it’s a numbers game. He only used seven players predominantly in last year’s playoffs – the starters plus Ibaka and Powell. He isn’t yet sure how many he will use most post-season games this year.
“I think it’s a feel thing and we’re going to go I’d say eight is probably where we are as a team, maybe nine, but then it’s probably stops right there,” said Nurse. “There will be some nights depending on the series and who we’re playing, it could be seven.”
The Raps resting superstars sat in the team’s socially-distanced seating area cheering emphatically for their young teammates, while also decked in Black Lives Matter masks and hats. Ibaka, Lowry and VanVleet were on their feet, swaying, laughing and holding up three fingers to honour the young sharp-shooters. Lowry was even talking up the referees.
Toronto lead 67-53 at half-time and maintained the advantage throughout, even as the Bucks manufactured a few scoring bursts.
Kyle Korver made some trouble for the Raps, leading the Bucks with 19 – a reminder that he will need serious attention should the two teams meet in the post-season. Toronto Coach Nick Nurse let his reserves play out the night and weather the little storms. Khris Middleton added 17 points for Milwaukee.
The Raps have two more seeding games left -- more chances to see what their reserves have to offer before and get everyone in rhythm before the real games begin. Wednesday, they will face the Philadelphia 76ers, and Friday they will meet the Denver Nuggets.
The NBA playoffs will open on August 17.