Damien Cox: The post-Kawhi Raptors weren’t supposed to be this good. The Bucks should be worried — again

Damien Cox: The post-Kawhi Raptors weren’t supposed to be this good. The Bucks should be worried — again
To those who saw this coming, who imagined the resilient Raps leading a pack of five teams fighting for the No. 2 seed in the East in the first week of February, we salute you. Last fall, it certainly seemed that few in the basketball industry predicted the NBA’s defending champions would be faring this well.

Unlike last year — when the regular season was viewed as a long 82-game warmup for the truly meaningful competition, the playoffs — this season has been an important gauge of how this Toronto squad would survive , not to mention Danny Green. It’s been that, and also a measurement of how many key players out of the lineup at any one time it would take before the Raptors became an also-ran.

As it turns out, the post-Kawhi era has been quite successful, and there appears to be no limit to the number of injuries this team can withstand while still being one of the better teams in the conference. Having seen Kyle Lowry, Pascal Siakam, Norm Powell, Serge Ibaka, Marc Gasol and Fred VanVleet all miss chunks of time, it’s an open question as to what would actually slow this team down.

As it stands, only OG Anunoby, Terence Davis and Chris Boucher have appeared in more than 40 of the team’s 50 games, and only Anunoby has started in more than 40. Yet the Raps still sport a spiffy 36-14 record and a fifth straight 50-win season seems in the cards.

The Raps will take their 11-game winning streak into a pair of tough games against Indiana, one of the teams trying to catch Toronto for second in the East. But in terms of significant challenges still to be met by the champs, none loom larger than the three games still remaining against the Milwaukee Bucks, runaway leaders of the Eastern Conference.

The teams haven’t met since Nov. 2, a 115-105 Bucks victory, and they’ll next collide in three weeks at Scotiabank Arena. By then, we’ll know if either team made a substantial move before this Thursday’s NBA trade deadline, and the buildup toward that Feb. 25 contest has already started.

So far this season, the Bucks have set the standard for the entire league with a spectacular 42-7 record. They’re 49 years removed from their last NBA championship, and the Super Bowl triumph by the Kansas City Chiefs on Sunday might have given the Bucks organization some timely inspiration.

With a 2-0 lead over Toronto in the 2019 Eastern Conference final, the Bucks had reason to believe last year would be their year. But the Raptors stormed back with four straight wins, then took out Golden State in the Finals, leaving Milwaukee to dream about the championship that got away.

Like the Raps and Kawhi, the Bucks lost a key player in the off-season with Malcolm Brogdon signing an $85-million (U.S.) free-agent deal to join the Pacers. Brogdon isn’t Leonard, but he was a good defender for Milwaukee and a rare 50/40/90 player (field-goal/three-point/free-throw percentage), one of only eight players to do that in NBA history.

They haven’t had the injuries the Raptors have had, and seem headed for a second consecutive first-place finish in the East. But are they actually a more formidable opponent than they were last year? Interesting question. Giannis Antetokounmpo is producing even more offence in fewer minutes, as is Khris Middleton. NBA advanced stats gives the Bucks the No. 1 defensive rating in the league, as was the case last year.

The Raps, No. 2 in team defence this season, demonstrated once more on Sunday that on any given day they might be led in scoring by any one of a half-dozen players. This time, against the Chicago Bulls, it was Davis going off for 31 points, and that varied attack combined with a stifling defence will be an interesting matchup for the league-leading Bucks.

After their meeting later this month, the Raps and Bucks will meet twice in three days in the first week of April. By then, we’ll have a much better idea of how the clubs stack up against each other heading into the post-season.

That we can even have this discussion would have been a surprise to most people forecasting the NBA season last fall. The Bucks were going to be good as long as Giannis was healthy, but the status of the Raptors to most NBA observers was a great deal more fluid.

As of today, however, they own the best and third-best records in the league, and are the hottest teams at this moment. Milwaukee has won nine of 10, and the Raps are gunning for a 12th straight win Wednesday against Indiana.

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The Celtics, Heat, Pacers and 76ers are still very much in the picture. But those teams still have to demonstrate they’re better than the Bucks or Raps, or we might again be looking at a Milwaukee-Toronto conference final.
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