New York Daily News

Preview: Bucks Host Raptors In Home Opener

After splitting their first pair of road contests, the Bucks return home Saturday to welcome the Raptors to the BMO Harris Bradley Center.

The Bucks will look to shake their recent habit of sluggish starts, as they fell behind by 20+ points at halftime against both New York and Boston. While the bench led fierce comebacks on both occasions, more production will be needed from the starting five – particularly Larry Sanders. He picked up five fouls in 12 minutes in the opener and played just 18 minutes Friday night despite having just two fouls.

Like Milwaukee, Toronto split its first two games, knocking off Boston at home Wednesday before falling to Atlanta on Friday. The two teams entered the season with similar outlooks, expecting to compete for a playoff spot, but far from joining the upper-tier of the top-heavy East.

Newly minted Toronto GM Masai Ujiri ruffled some feathers this week, stating that he’s open to trading anyone on the team outside of intriguing young big man Jonas Valanciunas. Now, it certainly doesn’t mean he’s actively shopping players, but with names like Rudy Gay, DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry on the roster, Ujiri is sure to receive plenty of interest should the season head south.

What to look for:

-Sanders Struggling: Through two games, Larry Sanders has played a total of 30 minutes and picked up as many fouls as rebounds (seven). He was effective defensively against Boston on Friday (four blocks in 18 minutes) but he sat out much of the second half when the team stormed back to seal the win. Sanders has been thoroughly outperformed by Zaza Pachulia thus far (file that under the “things I never thought I’d write” category), and he’ll look to rebound – quite literally – versus Toronto and Valanciunas, which will be no small task (also quite literally).

-Zaza Mania: Given Sanders’ ineffectiveness, Pachulia has been asked to do more through the first two games than most expected. He was the key to both second-half comebacks, putting up 13 points and 11 rebounds against New York and 16 points with nine boards and four assists in 30 minutes Friday. It’s too early to start the MVP talk, but the spark Pachuila is providing off the bench is the story of the season thus far.

-Point Guards Banged Up: Though the team hasn’t confirmed anything, all indications are that Luke Ridnour and Brandon Knight will both be out again Saturday. Ridnour continues to nurse a sore back, while Knight is dealing with a strained hamstring suffered in the first quarter against New York. Their absences likely mean Gary Neal will start again with Nate Wolters serving as his primary backup. After looking a little jittery in the opener, Wolters settled in against Boston and finished with 14 points and six assists with just one turnover.

Plus/Minus: Two games is about as small of a sample size as it gets, but some Milwaukee starters already have some concerning +/- numbers. O.J. Mayo (-27), Larry Sanders (-26) and Ersan Ilyasova (-19) are the biggest culprits. Meanwhile, John Henson (+30), Zaza Pachuila (+22), Nate Wolters (+20) and Khris Middleton (+21) have been much more effective. Again, extremely small sample size, but the bench crew has seen extensive second half minutes in both games for a reason.

-Welcome Home: In his first NBA season, Milwaukee native Dwight Buycks will make his first trip to the BMO Harris Bradley center since his days at Marquette. Toronto was so impressed with Buycks’ play as a member of Oklahoma City’s summer league squad that they offered him a guaranteed contract prior to training camp. The game will also be a homecoming for Steve Novak, who starred at Marquette before emerging as a premier three-point shooter with the Knicks. He was sent to Toronto in the Andrea Bargnani deal but has played just seven minutes thus far.

-No New Court: Considerable hullabaloo surrounded the Bucks’ unveiling of their new count design in late-September, but some issues surfaced regarding player safety after the floor became extremely slippery in the team’s final preseason game against these same Raptors. The game was ultimately cancelled (robbing both teams of a scouting opportunity) and the floor has been sent back to the shop to be resurfaced. The process is expected to take 2-3 weeks, so the old court will be resurrected in the meantime. It’ll be a nice opportunity for the Raptors to bid farewell to the court, though it unfortunately does include the ridiculously trippy baseline graphics they’re used to.

-Raptors to Watch: Toronto is led by the wing combination of DeMar DeRozan (22.0 points, 3.0 rebounds, 2.0 assists) and Rudy Gay (16.5 points, 6.5 rebounds). They’re not the most efficient tandem, but both are superior athletes (DeRozan, especially) who could give Caron Butler and O.J. Mayo some trouble. Valanciunas and Amir Johnson anchor the interior, while Kyle Lowry mans the point guard spot. Toronto also has a few intriguing bench options. Second-year guard Terrence Ross is an intriguing prospect to say the least, but he’s still extremely raw and in need of some seasoning before contributing on a nightly basis. Offseason addition Tyler Hansbrough provides toughness/borderline-psychopathness, while Quincy Acy, who I’m convinced is Reggie Evans’ long-lost brother, has one of the strongest beards in the league.

T-Shirts? T-Shirts!: With a home opener comes great responsibility. For a team like Milwaukee, this is the holy grail of promotional opportunities. It’s a weekend night, fans are excited (I think?) and optimism is the highest it will likely be all season. Fans love basketball, but nothing gets the people going more than free stuff. So far, we’ve seen teams get ambitious with glow sticks (nice touch, Cleveland), rally towels and extensive pyrotechnic displays. The wonderful Bucks PR department (I’m serious, they’re the best) has opted to go the route of free t-shirts bearing the team’s logo for all fans in attendance. Playing it safe, yes, but a free shirt is a free shirt. Of course, mascots are the real center of attention on opening night, and it’s safe to expect former-Mascot of the Year Bango to have some major tricks up his furry sleeve. It’ll be tough to top what went down in Denver last night (nothing says “lets go Nuggets!” more than an unconscious, oversized dog ominously descending from the rafters), but I can assure you Bango will put his best hoof forward.

The action tips off at 7:30 PM central with local television coverage on Fox Sports Wisconsin.

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