TORONTO — Addressing his players in their film room Wednesday morning, Toronto Raptors head coach Dwane Casey didn’t make his team’s upcoming trip to Milwaukee sound like a very nice time.
“I told the guys: It’s not gonna be a picnic. If anybody’s looking for a picnic, they’re in for the wrong type of party,” Casey said. “It’s gonna be a battle. A war. We’ve got to go in with that mentality. The only friends you’re going to have are the guys in that film room.”
That doesn’t sound like fun at all. Alas, the Raptors still boarded a Wisconsin-bound charter around 3:00 pm Wednesday to go play the next two games of their opening round series with the Bucks on Thursday night and Saturday afternoon. After splitting a pair in front of rowdy Air Canada Centre crowds—which spill out onto Bremner Boulevard in front of the building—the Raptors will now test their mettle on enemy territory.
That’s always a challenge. But if these roads game cannot be fun, can they at least be pretty?
“The game is not going to be pretty. We don’t want a pretty game,” Casey said, demoralizingly. “You talk about execution— that’s what the playoffs are about. Playing after the execution is not there. Teams are going to take away your first options, probably your second options. And after that it’s basketball.”
The Raptors certainly learned that in the final minute of Game 2, when it took Kyle Lowry’s off-balance, hand-in-his-face, 20-foot dagger with eight seconds left to seal victory. It was a much less than ideal look at the end of a broken play in which the Raptors were trying to get the ball to DeMar DeRozan, but couldn’t.
And that shot came after the Bucks created not one but two impossibly open looks in the final minute that would have tied the game or, in the case of Matthew Dellavedova’s bricked three-pointer, given Milwaukee the lead.
“Yeah, we had some miscues on some plays down the stretch in our coverages,” Casey said. “They did a couple different things down the stretch that we got caught off guard with. And we did some things, too. That’s what the playoffs are about. Having something to go to at that time of game.
“It’s communication, understanding what our jobs are in those positions, and making sure we talk it out. At those crucial moments, the last minute of the game, those mental and communication mistakes can’t happen.”
The Raptors also learned that they’ll have to do even more if they’re going to prevent maxed-out-video-game-create-a-player Giannas Antetokounmpo from taking over this series. Even though the Raptors did a much better job of limiting Antetokounmpo in Game 2 than they did in Game 1, forcing him to miss six of his first seven shots, the absurd 22-year-old still scored 24 and grabbed 15 rebounds, including six on the offensive glass.
There’s only so much you can do to prevent an insanely athletic seven-footer with a 7’4 wingspan from getting his. But the Raptors still need to do more.
“I thought our physicality was better,” Casey said. “But we’re going to have to take it up to another level. To make it a grind-it-out type of game. That’s what it’s going to come to.”
The Raptors were at least able to better constrict Antetokounmpo’s room to breathe in Game 2. Much of that improvement can be chalked up to simply hustling back on defence, something the Raptors were sluggish to do in Game 1. You can see it on the stat sheet—the Bucks had 18 dunks or layups in Game 1, and only 11 in Game 2.
Casey says his team also made adjustments to its guarding schemes in certain situations—he doesn’t particularly want to discuss them publicly—that he feels helped keep Antetokounmpo relatively in check.
“You’re not going to stop a superstar at this time of year. We want to slow him down. It’s not one guy. It’s a team effort. We want to continue to take his numbers down as much as we can,” Casey said. “We’ll probably guard him a different way tomorrow night.”
Another note from the department of good news is that Toronto’s ball movement was much improved in Game 2, as DeRozan worked effectively through traps to find an open man, who quickly found another, which led to open looks beyond the arc for Serge Ibaka, Patrick Patterson, Cory Joseph and DeMarre Carroll.
The Raptors hit 14 of the 29 three-pointers they took, which was key to stopping a couple Milwaukee rallies and ensuring the Bucks never got to play for long with a lead. Toronto also had 24 assists on 37 made field goals, which is something you could have made a lot of money on if you bet it before the game.
And then there’s Ibaka. He had perhaps the two most varied halves you’ll ever see Tuesday night, looking absolutely lost in the first as he shot 1-of-7 including a couple air balls, before transforming into a killer in the second, shooting 5-of-8 with a trio of three-pointers and six (six!) assists. He finished a game-high plus-13, which is pretty remarkable considering how poorly he played in the first 24 minutes and how tight the final score ended up being.
Playing through a sprained left ankle certainly didn’t help Ibaka’s consistency (he practiced in full Wednesday and said his ankle was feeling better). But as Casey put it, this is nothing new for the nine-year veteran.
“He’s played more playoff games than anybody,” Casey said. “He’s been in these moments. Fortunately, or maybe unfortunately, he’s played with a sprained ankle before. It took him a little while to get going, but once he got going he carried us in the second half last night.”
Now, it’s off to Wisconsin. For non-nice, non-pretty, don’t-you-dare-bring-a-picnic-basket-in-this-gym basketball. No one’s going to have any fun. And for Casey and the Raptors, that’s alright.