The Toronto Raptors have lost only once over their past 18 games, a run that began with a franchise-best 15-game winning streak and has been bolstered by big home wins over Phoenix and Indiana this past weekend.
All that winning has brought them just a single game closer to the top of the NBA Eastern Conference standings.
The league-leading Milwaukee Bucks have essentially kept pace with the Raptors, winning 16 of their past 18 contests, and held a substantial 6.5-game lead over second-place Toronto heading into a game at Washington on Monday night.
The Bucks visit Toronto on Tuesday in a clash of the top two teams in the East, and the game will be a true test of just how good the Raptors are. Twelve of the Raptors’ past 18 wins have come against teams with losing records, and none has come against a team in the top four of either conference.
Raptors coach Nick Nurse expects a different level of opponent in Tuesday’s rematch of last season’s Eastern Conference final.
“Each game’s different, each one takes on its own life,” Nurse said. “We’ve all got to come in with physicality and a defensive mindset. ... If you don’t come out ready to go, you’re going to be battling uphill and you don’t really want to be battling uphill.”
“I watch [the Bucks] play and they win every game by 20 points and I don’t know what to make of it other than nobody can even come close to them,” he added.
The Bucks, led by hulking forward Giannis Antetokounmpo, were 48-8 as of Monday and had already clinched a playoff spot. They averaged 12.4 more points a game than they gave up heading into the game against Washington, well ahead of the Los Angeles Lakers, who had the second-best differential at 7.4. The Raptors were third at 7.2.
While Antetokounmpo is the Bucks’ undisputed superstar – he’s averaging 30 points, 13.6 rebounds and 5.8 assists a game – he’s not doing it by himself. All-star Khris Middleton is averaging 20.7 points a game this season and shooting a blistering 44 per cent from the three-point line. Point guard Eric Bledsoe is contributing averages of 15.7 points, 5.4 assists and 4.7 rebounds. Centre Brook Lopez is averaging 2.5 blocks a game and George Hill is shooting 53 per cent form three-point range off the bench.
“I mean I don’t know what their margin of error is, but when I do watch [the Bucks], it’s boring,” Nurse said. “It’s over by halftime half the time and nobody ever really makes a threat. They’re really good. They’ve really got it going. They’ve got more depth than a year ago, more experience than a year ago, more size than a year ago, they’ve really got it going. It’ll be a challenge, but we’ll be okay.”
The two teams last met Nov. 2 in Milwaukee, with the Bucks winning 115-105. Both teams were 4-2 after the game. Since then, the Raptors have surged after muddling through a mediocre stretch while decimated by injuries to key players. The Bucks have played at a consistently elite level, however, going 44-6 since that meeting.
Still, the Raptors (42-15), who upset the Bucks in six games in the 2019 East final, are heading into Tuesday’s meeting on a roll. They soundly defeated the visiting Suns 118-101 in their first game after the all-star break, then routed Indiana, a playoff-contending team, 127-81 on Sunday evening. The 46-point margin of victory is the largest in franchise history.
The win over Indiana showed how locked-in Toronto can be protecting its basket. The Raptors had 47 defensive rebounds, 10 blocks and nine steals in the game while holding the Pacers to a dismal 32.6-per-cent shooting.
In fact, the Raptors have the second-best defensive ranking in the league, trailing only the Bucks. As much as the Raptors defence will be in tough trying to contain Antetokounmpo and Middleton, the Bucks will have their hands full if Toronto can limit one or both of Milwaukee’s stars.
“We definitely expect a hard-fought match,” Raptors forward Rondae Hollis-Jefferson said. “[They’ll] come out locked in, ready to play. And they can expect the same from us.”
The Bucks and Raptors will meet twice more after Tuesday’s game in a home-and-home series to kick off April.
With files from Lori Ewing