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Toronto Raptors

Lessons to remember and forget from the last matchup between the Toronto Raptors and Milwaukee Bucks

115 days.

That's how much time has passed since the last time the Toronto Raptors have faced the Milwaukee Bucks.

They'll link up again on Tuesday with two more meetings in April and should they meet in the postseason we'll surely leave no stone left unturned about what went down across the four regular season meetings. Who guarded who, what were the favourable matchups, which team dictated the flow and what adjustments were made from game-to-game. Every detail will be over-analyzed to help paint the clearest picture of what to expect.

There are lessons worth remembering...

... and ones worth forgetting.

MORE: Can Raptors close the gap between them and Bucks?

Time doesn't simply stand still and allow for the same characters to once more act out the same scenes. Rotations expand and shrink, roles evolve, coaches adjust and the context shifts. While it would be outright negligence to simply ignore the past, it's vitally important to recognize that things aren't always as they seem.

And so 115 days after the defending champs first took on the powerhouse marching towards 70 wins, here is some advice in sifting through the noise reverberating from that fall affair in early November.

Remember: Giannis is that dude.

It's basketball, not rocket science, so forgive me for getting this first one out of the way.

It all starts with Giannis Antetokounmpo.

Regardless of Pascal Siakam's evolution, Kyle Lowry's mojo or what anyone else does on the floor, the reigning MVP stands front and centre. And what he did to the Raptors back in November is in the running for the best he's looked all season long.

MORE: Lowry is Giannis' biggest roadblock

The thermostat on his stat line - 36 points, 14-20 FG, 15 rebounds, eight assists, four blocks, one steal - doesn't begin to accurately measure the degree to which he turned up the heat on both ends of the floor.

Demoralizing dunks over hapless defenders, powerful drives through traffic in transition, timely swats from every direction, sequences in which he draws the attention of all five defenders ... it's not just what he did, it's how he did it.

I mean seriously, look at these four blocks:

All wildly different, each one showcasing his unique abilities to throw a monkey wrench into any action.

Lowry was terrific in this game and Siakam has certainly leveled up, but this first meeting showed what life is like when trying to defend Antetokounmpo without the services of Kawhi Leonard.

Forget: How Nick Nurse defended Giannis

In last year's regular season, Leonard didn't defend him all that much. In the three games he played, Leonard actually spent about a third of the time matched up on Antetokounmpo as did Pascal Siakam, who drew the bulk of the assignment. The amount of time Leonard spent guarding him changed drastically game-to-game as did the scheme itself.

Then, of course, came the Eastern Conference Finals in which Nurse's adjustment starting in Game 3 swung the series.

"But Micah, the Raptors no longer have Kawhi. Why are you boring me with these meaningless details that have no bearing on what happens on Tuesday?"

You're right.

What happened last year has no bearing in the same sense that what transpired back in November also has no bearing. And what happens on Tuesday ultimately won't matter in April or May, either.

MORE: The Bucks are unstoppable ... or are they?

Though it's true Nurse no longer sits on an Ace card like Leonard, he's proven time and again to be perhaps the NBA's most resourceful and innovative coaches. He's the Judd Apatow of NBA coaches, freely directing every scene while allowing, encouraging and insisting upon improvisation. No two takes are ever the same and when given a deep cast of gifted actors, he's able to extract every last ounce and play to the varying strengths of his ensemble.

There's a chance that Antetokounmpo has become such a force that it simply doesn't matter what the Raptors try and do to slow him down. There's a chance that Nurse has three or four tricks up his sleeve that he'll keep secret until a time arises far more consequential than the last week in March.

You can go ahead and let go of whatever lesson you thought you learned in that first meeting when it comes to guessing how the Raptors will ultimately try to slow down Antetokounmpo.

Remember: The Raptors will never roll over

It's become a defining characteristic of the 2019-20 Raptors.

No team in the NBA makes opponents play the full 48 quite like the Raptors, who never roll over and never quit. Time and again, they've demonstrated fight and resilience that goes beyond that of a typical squad.

It's a resilience that's required to stand up to the Bucks, who throw more heavyweight haymakers than Tyson Fury and Deontay Wilder combined.

The Bucks came out swinging in that first meeting with a steady onslaught of easy looks at the rim and wide open 3s. They led by 19 at the end of the first quarter and by as many as 26 in a game that got out of hand quickly.

That's been the story of Milwaukee's season.

MORE: What's the Raps playoff magic number?

Not only is their average lead after the first quarter the best by any team over the last two decades, they've on average built leads of over 21 points, which also happens to be the best by any team over the last two decades. They jump on teams quick and bury opponents in big holes. That's Bucks basketball in 2020.

But just as the Bucks are no ordinary team, neither are the Raptors, who in that first meeting somehow clawed back to make it a four-point game multiple times in the fourth quarter. Were it not for the fourth, final and most outrageous of Antetokounmpo's blocks, it would have been a one possession game with less than two minutes remaining.

Toronto may have lost that first meeting but it further sowed the seeds for what's become an even more mentally tough bunch than the one that battled back from down 2-0 against the Bucks in last year's Eastern Conference Finals.

Forget: Serge Ibaka's back seat

The version of Ibaka that will show up on Tuesday is not the same one that played back in November.

Yes, he had four blocks, which is vital against a team that scores at will around the rim. But offensively, Ibaka bares almost no resemblance to the player who shot 3-10, including just 0-1 from beyond the arc.

Since that first meeting, something has clicked for Ibaka and transformed him into a consistent higher volume scorer who at times can even carry the offence.

Leading Scorers Without Marc Gasol
Player PPG Games
Pascal Siakam 22.6 11
Kyle Lowry 20.6 21
Serge Ibaka 19.2 21
Fred VanVleet 16.7 19
Norman Powell 16.0 3

Through the middle of December, Ibaka put up 12.3 points per game on 44.9 percent shooting and hit 32.4 percent from the 3-point line on just over two attempts per game. Through the team's first 26 games he was Toronto's fifth-leading scorer and scored 20 points just once.

Then it happened.

25 points and 13 rebounds against the Cleveland Cavaliers on Dec. 18, followed by 23-10 two days later against the Washington Wizards. Since that awakening in Cleveland, Ibaka has poured in 18.1 points per game, topped the 20-point threshold 14 times and operated as the team's third leading scorer. He's shooting 56.1 percent overall, including a scorching 43.8 percent from downtown.

With Marc Gasol still out, Ibaka looms large on Tuesday. Not only will his shot-blocking be at a premium, his ability to drag Brook Lopez away from the basket and open up driving lanes is critical. Speaking of Lopez...

Remember: Brook Lopez's gravity

He has not shot well this season, but he garners respect and routinely pulls big bodies away from the rim. That in turn opens everything for Antetokounmpo, who especially feasts when opposing centres get drawn away from the rack.

It's exactly what happened in the first meeting. Far more important than Lopez actually hitting shots (3-7 from the 3-point line) is how his presence impacts everything else, especially as it relates to the reigning MVP.

Take for instance these two plays.

The first one involves Lopez standing on the corner in the strong side of a pick-and-roll with Antetokounmpo as the screener. Ibaka doesn't dare leave Lopez standing free. See all that open green space inside as a result? Yeah ... Toronto's got zero shot of stopping Giannis once he catches the ball. He might as well be in an empty gym.

Now take a look at what happens when Lopez is not out there. The Raptors are able to switch off the ball easier and Gasol is able to keep one foot in the paint. He recognizes the drive in time to rotate over and stop Antetokounmpo from what would have been a mostly wide open lay-up. This was Gasol's only block of the game.

Not only did Gasol's only block come with Lopez on the bench, three of Ibaka's four blocks in this game also happened with Lopez off the floor.

It's not just Antetokounmpo either, as there are examples from all throughout the game of Lopez's presence opening up the lane for drives by Khris Middleton and Eric Bledsoe. The Bucks outscored the Raptors 50-30 inside the paint with Antetokounmpo responsible for a whopping 26 of them. And that's the benefit of having bigs who can stroke it from the outside.

By the way ... Milwaukee's leader in plus-minus during that first meeting? Lopez, who was +12.

Forget: Tuesday's result

Just as much changed over the past 115 days, much more will surely change between now and the next time these teams meet.

The Bucks are playing on the second night of a back-to-back coming off an overtime game.

The Raptors will be without Gasol and Norman Powell, the latter of whom is critical for taking pressure off Lowry and VanVleet. Powell is another, like Ibaka, that has become a different player since the first meeting. Although he's had trouble staying on the floor, Powell has developed into a second reliable bench scorer and is far from the non-factor held to just four points on 1-5 shooting back in November.

MORE: Takeaways from first Raptors-Bucks meeting this season

Without Powell, the Raptors could once again lean on Lowry, who torched the Bucks for 36 points the first time around. Or perhaps it's another opportunity for Terence Davis to shine, another critical piece that has emerged over the last 115 days.

Tuesday stands without a doubt as a big game. But it's far from the end-all, be-all and while there will be lessons to be learned and stored away for future run ins, it's important not to get too carried away in drawing up any definitive grand narratives.

The views expressed here do not represent those of the NBA or its clubs.

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