The Toronto Raptors paid a steep price for their rough start Wednesday night.
Damian Lillard scored 37 points with a season-high 13 assists as the Milwaukee Bucks held off a late comeback effort to top the Raptors 128-112.
Toronto opened the game on an 8-2 run before getting outscored 34-12 the remainder of the first quarter.
“We did not have any pop to start the game,” Raptors head coach Darko Rajakovic said. “I don’t know the reasons, but we just didn’t bring it. A lot of times I felt that it was poor communication in execution of the coverage.
“We allowed Damian Lillard to have amazing game, amazing first half. He just picked us apart and we tried multiple coverages. It just did not work tonight for us. And I thought that everything started with energy and force that we did not bring to start the game.”
The Raptors entered Wednesday’s contest coming off a comeback victory over lowly Washington. Toronto has made early deficits a habit this season.
“Trust me, we are thinking about it a lot, trying to figure that out,” Rajakovic said.
“I thought that in the first half that we overdribbled the ball, that we didn’t have enough body movement and ball movement and that was something that we (are) constantly preaching and talking about. We got it better in the second half but not enough tonight.”
The Bucks were minus superstar forward Giannis Antetokounmpo with a right calf strain.
Malik Beasley added 30 points Wednesday on 11-of-14 shooting and going 8-of-11 from three-point range for Milwaukee (7-4).
“He made a lot of timely shots,” Bucks head coach Adrian Griffin. “That’s what he’s here for. He’s an unbelievable shooter.”
Griffin also said Lillard took control of the game early.
“He’s a master at picking his spots and navigating through screens,” Griffin said.
Scottie Barnes had 29 points, nine rebounds and seven assists for Toronto (5-6). Jakob Poeltl contributed 13 points and 11 rebounds.
The Raptors were without defensive stalwart O.G. Anunoby (right finger cut) for a second straight game and guard Gary Trent Jr. (right foot, plantar fasciitis) for a third straight.
Without them, Toronto shot 39.6 per cent overall and a meagre 27.3 per cent from three.
“Gary and O.G. are a couple of our best shooters, but we have to find a way to play the same way,” Poeltl said. “I think we still got to go out there and take the same shots.
“We have other guys that can knock those shots down.”
The Raptors dominated the Bucks 130-111 in their previous meeting Nov. 1 at Scotiabank Arena.
Rookie guard-forward Gradey Dick had 11 points in his first career start Wednesday to join Tracy McGrady and Chris Bosh as one of three teenagers to start for the Raptors at 19 years 360 days old.
In the second quarter, Dick hit a 19-foot jumper to trim the deficit to 50-40 with 4:48 left, the closest Toronto had been since 4:37 remained in the opening frame.
But the momentum was short-lived as Beasley closed the half with a buzzer-beating three to give the Bucks their largest lead at 70-47.
Lillard carried the rhythm of his 24-point first half into the third quarter. He scored eight of Milwaukee’s first 10 points, as the Bucks pushed their lead to 30 early in the frame.
The Raptors struggled on both ends to the dismay of the crowd, until an 8-0 run late in the quarter made it 98-78. Milwaukee took a 100-79 edge into the final frame.
A Malachi Flynn floater brought Toronto within 15 points with 9:19 left in the fourth quarter, which prompted a Bucks timeout. A contested layup by Poeltl just over two minutes later cut it to 107-94.
But Milwaukee later went on an 11-2 run capped by two consecutive three-pointers by Cameron Payne to make it 126-103 with 3:20 left when Toronto sat its starters.
Toronto has dealt with its share of injuries so far, and were without forward O.G. Anunoby (right finger cut) and guard Gary Trent Jr. (right foot, plantar fasciitis) on Wednesday for a second straight game.
Missing some of his best shooters and floor spacers, head coach Darko Rajakovic said the team just needs to keep developing under his system.
“There is no alternative,” Rajakovic said pre-game. “We’ve got to be the team that is going to move the ball. We’re building not just for one game or a stretch of games. We’re building for the future.
“We’re building our habits that [are] going to last with this team and be with this group for many years to come. I never expected it was going to be easy. I never expected to be on the road without any bumps.”
The Raptors open In-Season Tournament action at home against the Boston Celtics on Friday.
The Bucks visit the Charlotte Hornets for In-Season Tournament action on Friday.