MILWAUKEE — With a little less than two weeks to go in the regular season, the Toronto Raptors are hitting their stride.
Toronto, playing short-handed for the second consecutive night, stayed tied with Chicago for the No. 3 seed in the Eastern Conference by holding off the Milwaukee Bucks down the stretch for a 102-98 victory Saturday night at the BMO Harris Bradley Center.
Playing without guard Kyle Lowry (bruised left knee) and forward Amir Johnson (sore right ankle), guards DeMar DeRozan and Greivis Vasquez stepped up for the Raptors (45-32), combining for 48 points and coming up big late when the game was on the line.
DeRozan scored 15 of his 22 points in the fourth quarter and point guard Greivis Vasquez finished with 26 points and hit six of eight from beyond the arc, including a 26-footer with 5:24 to play which put Toronto up for good.
In all, the Raptors struggled from the field — 44 percent — but made up for it from long distance, where they connected on 12 of 27 attempts, and hit 18 of 22 from the free throw line including eleven in a row to close out the game.
“We just kept attacking the paint,” Raptors coach Dwane Casey said. “We settled for jump shots and they weren’t falling so DeMar DeRozan decided to attack, we kept running plays for him to attack and we got to the free throw line.”
Milwaukee (14-63) set a franchise record for losses in a season despite a banner night from second-year forward John Henson.
With center Epke Udoh and swingman Ersan Ilyasova sidelined due to injuries, Henson played 39 minutes and went 10-of-16 from the field to finish with a team-high 23 points.
“I got to play a little bit and I got into a rhythm,” Henson said. “I didn’t play like that in a long time, so it felt good. Once I got my second wind in the second half, things went well but unfortunately, we couldn’t win.”
He also dished out a career-best six assists for Milwaukee, which finished with 28 assists on 38 makes.
“We moved the ball really well,” Bucks coach Larry Drew said. “We did a really good job moving the basketball. There were some encouraging things on the stat sheet but we have to find a way to finish.”
As the Bucks have done with regularity during this largely-forgettable season, they played with a lot of momentum early and took a lead into halftime, only to come out flat in the third and watch the lead disappear.
Milwaukee shot just under 60 percent in the first half and was ahead, 56-47 to start the third. Toronto, though, scored the first eight points of the second half, and hit 10 of 20 shots and knock down three 3-pointers during the quarter to draw within one heading into the fourth.
The lead changed hands nine times over the first seven minutes of the quarter with the Raptors finally building some separation on Vasquez’s late 3-pointer.
“We’re a gritty team, forward Terrance Ross said. “We grind things out until the end. We play hard and don’t give up easily.”
Even with the victory and his team’s recent success, Casey wasn’t in a celebratory mood after the game.
“First half we played like crap,” he said. “There’s no nice words you can put to it. We can’t approach the game that way. It’s just not acceptable to where we want to go and how we want to do it. If we want to be average, fine. But to get to where we want to go and be a playoff-caliber team, we have to perform better than that, no matter who we play.”
Toronto knocked off the East-leading Pacers Friday night and have won seven of its last eight games. With five games remaining, the Raptors face the Knicks twice as well as the Pistons, 76ers and the Bucks again.
The Bulls, who beat Washington on Saturday, have also won seven of eight — including their last five in a row — and finish with road games against Minnesota, the Knicks and Charlotte and face Detroit and Orlando at home.
NOTES: Milwaukee signed free agent F Chris Wright to a 10-day contract Saturday. Wright was with the Bucks from March 14-23 and appeared in two games, averaging 6.0 points, 2.0 rebounds and 1.5 assists in 16.5 minutes per game. … Milwaukee’s .652 all-time winning percentage against Toronto is the Bucks’ best against any NBA opponent. … Raptors F Steve Novak grew up in nearby Brown Deer, Wis. and played collegially at Marquette, which also calls the Bradley Center home.
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