MILWAUKEE – Success in professional sports is in large part due to confidence. The power of belief. In a contest between near equals, the absence of doubt, the ability to perform at near-peak levels in adverse situations is usually the difference.
And so the only question that really matters after the Toronto Raptors were eviscerated by the Milwaukee Bucks in Game 3 of their first-round playoffs series – the 104-77 final flatters Toronto – is what do the Raptors really believe, deep down?
They trail 2-1 but the series doesn’t seem that close anymore, now that Toronto’s Game 2 win wasn’t a jumping off point but just a breather between Bucks dominance that varied only by degrees.
At least no one tried to makes excuses after the No. 3 seed Raptors — who boast 208 career playoff starts to their opponents’ 28 — were steamrolled by the No. 6 Bucks,
The collective ownership of their face plant was the only thing they got right.
“We got our ass bust,” was Kyle Lowry’s assessment.
It was a theme.
“They kicked our ass,” said P.J. Tucker. “They kicked our ass. Period. They came out and played harder, more aggressive, did everything they wanted to do. They kicked our ass.”
Raptors head coach Dwane Casey depends on being able to make sense of things that don’t often make sense, but he couldn’t decipher why his team struggled so badly with so much at stake.
“There’s none,” Casey said for a logical explanation for falling behind 32-12 after 12 minutes and then 48-17 in the first five minutes of the second quarter with Bucks superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo resting on the bench. “It starts with us, myself as a coach as far as having them ready to play in a hostile environment. They ambushed us and there’s no aspect of our game that we executed whatsoever.”
It was the Bratwurst Beatdown. Dead Men (Mil)waukin’. The Wisconsin Whooping – those were just a few of the Twitter-curated nicknames that fans in my timeline offered to describe what happened in Game 3. Milwaukee Massacre just seemed too obvious. Before the game, Casey felt the Raptors’ experience would serve them well in front of an amped up crowd at the BMO Bradley Center, starved for playoff basketball.
“On the road, that’s where [experience] shows up,” Casey said. “You don’t get rattled, you keep your composure, you play to your identity. You don’t come out and try to do something you don’t normally do. That’s where experience shows up. Every experienced team I’ve been around, on the road is where it shows up.”
Well, throw that out the window. Throw it all out.
Because the Raptors didn’t show up. That’s indisputable. Or worse, they came and they cowered, unable to solve the riddle the Bucks presented.
The Raptors shot just 34 per cent from the floor, made just six threes and turned the ball over 16 times. Their leading scorer, DeMar DeRozan didn’t make a field goal, finishing with eight points while Lowry, the spark plug in Game 2, had just 13 points on 10 shots, just two assists and three turnovers and generally seemed as overwhelmed as the rest of his teammates against the force the Bucks delivered in the first half.
The Bucks swarmed and clawed defensively and moved the ball without prejudice offensively, as they had 29 assists on 39 made field goals, and continued to shoot like the Golden State Warriors from deep; converting 12 of 23 threes and shooting 52.7 per cent from the floor overall. They had six players in double figures, including 11 from rookie centre Thon Maker, while rookie point guard Malcolm Brogdon had nine assists. Antetokounmpo took just 10 shots but dominated.
That’s not how it’s supposed to work.
The Raptors have barely 36 hours to figure all of this out before Game 4 tips off Saturday afternoon.
“Everything that happened tonight, that’s going to come with the next 24 hours, use it as motivation,” said DeRozan. “And as competitors, be back ready for Saturday.”
That’s all the Raptors can do.
But the most significant problem that may be facing them is that they’ve ceded belief to the Bucks.
Twice now in a series that’s only three games old, the Raptors have been held to just seven field goals in a half of NBA basketball – the second half of Game 1 and the first half on Thursday.
That doesn’t happen when teams are evenly matched. The reasonable conclusion is that the Bucks are ascending, a young talented team figuring it out as they move along at a pace faster than they could have expected.
“We’re starting to deal with our defence more, we’re learning to play smart basketball, learning how to use our length and trying to play to our advantage more,” said Middleton, who scored 11 of his game-high 20 points in the first quarter, primarily while taking advantage of DeRozan as a primary defender. “[We’re] letting Giannis push it, and then following behind him, letting him make plays and if we don’t have it, just come out and be patient.”
The Raptors, meanwhile, sound like a team that’s exasperated, at a loss for what happened and what comes next.
“They just kicked our ass. There’s nothing else,” said Tucker. “They came out and did what they wanted. They came out and blitzed Deebo [DeRozan], blitzed Kyle, got it out of their hands. We didn’t make quick decisions off the ball. We didn’t cut. We didn’t get to open spots. We just sat them back and let them do what they wanted to do. They just kicked our ass. There’s not a lot to talk about in this game. They kicked our ass.”
The Raptors still presented a brave face. They are correct when they point out the series is first to four and whether you lose by one or by 30 (27 to be precise) they all count the same.
Saturday will be a new day.
“I still think we can win the series,” said Lowry. “It ain’t over. It just sucks right now, it’s a terrible night right now, it’s a terrible feeling the way we just got our ass beat. Terrible feeling. So we’d better pick it up. If not, it’s going to be a terrible feeling again. But our confidence has not changed. We’ll be fine. We’ve got to come out there and do what we gotta do Saturday.”
That’s what you would expect him to say. What else is there to speak of anyway?
But more than being down 2-1 in a series which they had home-court advantange, the edge in experience and were favoured to win, the Raptors have provided the Bucks the most precious commodity of all: belief they can win; maybe even the belief that they are the better team.
And the Raptors? They might say the right things. It might even sound good. But after a night like this, it’s hard to imagine they’ll actually believe it, or why anyone else should either.