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Henson Returns As Bucks Face Raptors


When the Raptors spoiled Milwaukee’s home opener with an 97-90 victory earlier this season, Rudy Gay led the way with 18 points and 15 rebounds. Caron Butler and Gary Neal combined for 20 points and 11 rebounds, and Nate Wolters – making his second career start – handed out 10 assists in 36 minutes.

My, how things have changed.

Fast-forward a little more than two months – 72 days, to be exact – and the scene for both franchises heading into Monday’s matchup barely resembles the one from Nov. 2.

Neither Wolters nor Butler nor Neal saw the floor in Milwaukee’s loss to Oklahoma City on Saturday. It was the third straight DNP-CD for Neal and the fourth in the last six games for Wolters. Butler has played just 25 total minutes over the last three games, scoring two points on 1-of-9 shooting.

The trio were an integral part of a Bucks roster that rallied through an onslaught of early-season injuries to instill just enough hope that the team would be fine once many of its primary contributors – Sanders, Knight, Ridnour, Pachulia – returned.

Needless to say, that hasn’t been the case.

Now a league-worst 7-29, the Bucks, losers of their last five, have seen ongoing injuries, chemistry issues and generally bad basketball derail a season that was supposed to mark the beginning of the Larry Sanders era in Milwaukee. Neal is reportedly on the trade block after a postgame spat with Sanders in Phoenix on Jan. 4, Butler is shooting 36 percent from the field and Wolters’ minutes have dried up as Brandon Knight and Luke Ridnour returned to health.

And Sanders, he who signed a $44 million extension over the summer, has seen his season defined by on and off-court maturity issues, the latest of which saw him ejected from Saturday’s game in the second quarter for elbowing Oklahoma City’s Steven Adams. In 11 games this season, Sanders is averaging 5.7 points, 6.2 rebounds and 1.6 blocks – a far cry from the 9.8-9.5-2.8 line that convinced management he was worth the lucrative extension.

Milwaukee has become the laughing stock of the league, a franchise whose own fans have erected a billboard urging the team to intentionally lose in hopes of landing one of the 2014 draft’s prized prospects. Whether the team is trying to lose or not, those fans’ wishes have been granted, as the Bucks hold a 2.5 game lead on the Magic for the league’s worst record with the season’s halfway point rapidly approaching.

Toronto, on the other hand, is on the upswing since that first meeting in November.

Rudy Gay, after reeling off 18 straight games of less than 50 percent shooting to begin the season, was shipped to the Sacramento Kings on Dec. 9 in exchange for a package built around role players Greivis Vasquez and Patrick Patterson. The move was new GM Masai Ujiri’s brainchild, an effort to clear the books of Gay’s massive deal that pays him more than $17 million this season. It came nearly five months to the day after Ujiri relieved Toronto of Andrea Bargnani’s atrocity of a contract, sending his two years and $23 million to the Knicks for Marcus Camby, Steve Novak and picks.

Though Toronto faithful may beg to differ, the Raptors gave away the best player in both deals, leading to the prevailing belief that Ujiri was simply throwing away this season, clearing the books in an effort to expunge the franchise of cumbersome deals that would inhibit future moves. The Raptors, now devoid of a franchise player, were expected to kick it in the Eastern Conference basement with the likes of Orlando and Philadelphia, just waiting to play the lottery in a few short months.

What the Raptors were not expected to do is skyrocket to fourth place in the East in less than a month’s span.

Since trading Gay, Toronto is 11-5 with impressive wins against Dallas, Oklahoma City and Indiana. Four of the those five losses came against the Heat, Pacers and Spurs (twice) – teams with a combined 85-25 record. The other was a two-point defeat at the hands of the Bobcats in overtime.

DeMar Derozan and Kyle Lowry have garnered much of the praise for Toronto’s success, and rightfully so. Though he’s shooting just 42.2 percent from the field, DeRozan is averaging career-highs in points (21.3), rebounds (4.4), assists (3.6) and minutes (38.1). Lowry, the subject of trade rumors for much of the season, is averaging 17.8 points and 8.3 assists since the beginning of December.

The post-Gay era backcourt has been so effective that coach Dwane Casey openly admits he’s been pushing both players’ All-Star candidacies:

“All of the coaches, I talk to them about [getting DeRozan and Lowry into the All-Star game], text them. They did me the same way when they were trying to get their guys in last year. It’s the same thing right now. I’m pushing our guys. I don’t know if we can get two. I’m going to push two, and hope to get one. Both guys are playing at a high level. And we deserve it.”

The opportunity for Toronto to solidify its status as a playoff team in the lowly Eastern Conference is there for the taking. Including Monday’s contest, Toronto’s next five opponents – and eight of their next 10 – are sub-.500 teams. And they get both teams with winning records – the Mavericks and Clippers – at the Air Canada Centre.

Pregame notes:

- After missing seven games with a high ankle sprain, John Henson will return to action. He’s not expected to start, but he indicated during shootaround that he’ll be a “full go”

- As noted above, Larry Sanders was changed with a flagrant-2 and ejected from Saturday’s game against the Thunder. However, he’ll face no further discipline from the team and all indications are that he’ll make his 11th start of the season at center.

- Larry Drew has not been shy in shuffling lineups this season, like, at all, but he indicated that he’ll stick with the same starting lineup from Saturday, which featured Khris Middleton at small forward, pushing Luke Ridnour back to the bench. Drew had previously been going with a starting five of Knight-Ridnour-Antetokounmpo-Ilyasova-Sanders. Of course, the entrance of Middleton allows Antetkounmpo to return to the shooting guard spot, where he has played his best basketball since entering the starting lineup. The move also pits the rookie against DeRozan, the Raptors’ leading scorer, in what should be an intriguing matchup.

- Miroslav Raduljica did not see the floor in the teams’ first meeting, but he’s averaging 19 minutes over the last two games and will likely continue to play a meaningful role off the bench Monday. With Zaza Pachulia still sidelined with a foot injury, Raduljica has assumed his backup center minutes and shown he’s more than just a massive, massive man with striking tattoos.

- As a franchise, Milwaukee is 45-23 against Toronto all-time, the best record versus any opponent. Toronto’s victory earlier this season snapped a 10-game losing streak against the Bucks.

Projected starters

Milwaukee

C – Larry Sanders

PF – Ersan Ilyasova

SF – Khris Middleton

SG – Giannis Antetkounmpo

PG – Brandon Knight

Toronto

C – Jonas Valanciunas

PF – Amir Johnson

SF – Terrence Ross

SG – DeMar DeRozan

PG – Kyle Lowry

Team rankings (per game)

Milwaukee

Scoring: 29th (91.6)

Points allowed: 14th (100.0)

Rebounding: 25th (41.3)

Assists: 20th (20.4)

Toronto

Scoring: 18th (98.7)

Points allowed: 4th (96.5)

Rebounding: 19th (42.9)

Assists: 26th (19.5)

Leaders

Scoring: Knight (15.0), DeRozan (21.3)

Assists: Knight (4.4), Lowry (7.4)

Rebounds: Henson (8.0), Valanciunas (8.4)

Blocks: Henson (2.3), Johnson (1.3)

PER: Henson (20.5), Lowry (19.3)

First matchup highlights

Tags: Brandon Knight Demar Derozan Gary Neal Giannis Antetokounmpo John Henson Kyle Lowry Larry Sanders Milwaukee Bucks