TORONTO — When Fred VanVleet muscled his way through two defenders to score with about three minutes to play, and with a rare win at Scotiabank Arena within sight, the guard raised both hands in the air encouraging the fans to cheer.
"It was one of those moments: playing so hard, working so hard, obviously given the circumstances, I think we really deserved that win," VanVleet said. "I just wanted us to give us some energy and some momentum going into those last two or three minutes."
VanVleet finished with 29 points to lead the short-handed Raptors to a 97-93 victory over Milwaukee on Thursday, snapping the Bucks' eight game winning streak.
In just their third victory at home this season, the Raptors (10-13) ended a four-game losing skid with just their second win in their last six games.
The absence of Bucks star and NBA MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo didn't hurt. The Raptors learned of his absence about 30 minutes before tipoff.
"In the back of your head, you thank the man upstairs and try to get a win," VanVleet laughed. "Me being in this league for so long, that’s something you don’t really show the young guys. They need to understand it doesn’t matter who is playing."
Milwaukee was coming off a win the previous night in Charlotte.
"I watched their game (Wednesday night)," VanVleet said. "I knew those guys were going to be gassed and tired tonight. It was important for us to push the pace and be the aggressors and see how much they had in the tank. That championship pedigree, they fought to the last point-seven (on the clock), for sure."
In a game that came down the dying seconds, Pascal Siakam had 20 points and eight rebounds, while rookie Scottie Barnes had 13. Back after missing two games with a deep calf bruise, Gary Trent Jr. had eight points and eight rebounds.
Jrue Holiday scored 26 points to lead a Bucks team (14-9).
The Raptors were coming off an ugly 98-91 loss to Memphis, dropping five straight at home for the first time since January 2011. Siakam said after the loss to the Grizzlies that "the fans deserve better."
They were solid out of the gate Thursday, holding the Bucks to a three-point lead then assembling an 11-point lead of their own. They led 73-68 to start the fourth.
The Bucks pulled to within two early in the final frame, but VanVleet led the Raptors on a 7-0 run to put them up by nine.
The guard's gesture to the crowd, said Precious Achiuwa, was "Just intensity, get everybody in the game, stay locked in and trying to get the crowd involved. We need that energy and you can play off that and feel good."
Bobby Portis Jr., connected on a three-pointer with 33 seconds to play to slice the difference to just three points. The final seconds saw a parade to the free-throw line by both teams, VanVleet draining a pair to give the Raptors five points of breathing room. Back-to-back fouls with 14 seconds to play sent the Bucks to the line for five shots. They missed two.
Achiuwa missed a pair of free throws with 3.6 seconds to play, but Barnes grabbed the offensive rebound that all but sealed the victory.
Barnes did an excellent job of guarding veteran Khris Middleton, who finished with 22 points.
"When we found out Giannis was not playing, we were deciding what our game plan on Middleton would be, and Scottie stepped up and said 'I'm gonna guard him, I'm gonna guard him hard,' so let's start with that," said Raptors coach Nick Nurse. "So he did and I thought he did a good job on him, made him work.":
Toronto has been hit hard by injuries. OG Anunoby sat out his eighth straight game with a hip injury, and there's no timeline for his return, while Khem Birch remains out with knee swelling.
The Bucks were also short-handed, also missing Brook Lopez and DeMarcus Cousins.
Trent Jr., who wore one white shoe and one black, made his presence felt immediately, connecting on a three-pointer for the first points of the game. Toronto made six of the 10 shots from long-distance in a solid first quarter, and led 26-23 to start the second.
The Raptors kept up the momentum and when Achiuwa scored on a running dunk, swinging from the rim like a gymnast on the high bar, Toronto went up by eight. The home team went into the locker-room at halftime with a 48-40 lead.
While Anunoby still isn't practising after his recovery recently stalled, Nurse sounded more hopeful about Birch.
"I think it’s getting better," Nurse said. "He’s not in practice or anything but I see him in the gym and it seems like he’s working fairly hard so I think it’s improving, hopefully he’ll be back soon."
The Raptors' season-long seven-game homestand continues on Sunday against Washington. Toronto is at home for 10 of its 13 games in December.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 2, 2021.