MILWAUKEE — If Kawhi Leonard’s buzzer beater to win Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinal was the most exhilarative, inspiring, euphoric moment in Toronto Raptors history, and it was, Game 1 of the conference final was the adrenaline dump. It was the grim morning after. The come down from the trip.
The second half, especially. And the fourth quarter, particularly. That Toronto’s offence looked about as potent as it has in weeks during a rollicking first half, as they knocked down shots, pushed the pace, and moved the ball as if ankle weights they’d been wearing for the previous seven games had been suddenly shed, is a small and unsatisfying consolation to take from a 108-100 defeat at the hands of the Milwaukee Bucks.
And that’s the kind of night it was. Disappointing. Regretful. A missed opportunity. The Raptors did plenty of good, and then plenty of bad, the latter ultimately outweighing the former. For instance:
Good — Kyle Lowry
It should come as no surprise, but Lowry was the best Raptor on the floor Wednesday, scoring 30 points on 10-of-15 shooting, including 7-of-9 from beyond the arc. He hit deep, pull-up threes in transition, clutch threes at the end of the shot clock, pressure-relieving threes to halt Milwaukee runs.
“Every time he let it go tonight,” Raptors head coach Nick Nurse said, “you were like, ‘That’s going in.’”
Lowry led his team in offensive rebounds and would have led in assists had his teammates been able to knock down more of the good looks he created for them. And, most importantly, he continued doing all the little, tenacious, unrecorded Kyle Lowry things he’s done every night of these playoffs. He played hounding defence, threw himself in the lane to draw charges, and, at one point, dove out of bounds after an errant pass like Derek Jeter going into the stand, all in the name of preventing a turnover. It was a beautiful performance.
But as you flip through the pages of the stat book, it’s impossible not to notice what happened in the second half. Lowry hit seven shots, Leonard hit five. The rest of the team hit one.
It was even more glaring in the fourth, when Lowry was the only Raptor to convert a field goal. This passage is supposed to be about something good. But it’s difficult for even Lowry to feel good about the way he played considering how things ended.
“Pretty frustrating — the fourth quarter killed us,” Lowry said. “Turnovers, missed shots. We just didn’t execute as sharply as we could have. I’ve got to go back and watch the film. I think we got a couple good shots and we missed some shots, but we just didn’t finish the game well. We just didn’t play well. Just didn’t finish the game.”
Bad — Brook Lopez
After nullifying the slick, versatile Nikola Vucevic in the first round, and containing the gigantic, overpowering Joel Embiid for all but one game in the second, it was the ungraceful, lumbering game of Brook Lopez that killed the Raptors from the centre position. That really shouldn’t happen.
Lopez isn’t the best big on his team. He’s barely the best big in his family. But there he was, leading the Bucks in attempts, launching 11 times from beyond the arc, and scoring five buckets from within a foot of the basket. He won his matchup with Marc Gasol outright, after the Raptors centre had spent the previous two rounds containing two all-stars. In the fourth quarter alone, as Gasol’s legs lagged, Lopez scored 13.
Is it a good thing that the Raptors kept Giannis Antetokounmpo from having one of his dominant, productive nights? Yes, it is. But you can’t let Lopez have that night instead. You can’t let him feast in the paint and from beyond the arc. The Raptors have to take away one or the other.
“Once the ball gets out of the paint, we get into rotations and scrambling. We’ve got to do a better job of continuing to do that. It’s not just one effort, it’s not just one direction — there’s got to be multiple directions,” Gasol said. “We cannot only rely on help. We’ve got to play one-on-one. We’ve got to do a good job on that. It can’t be a straight line drive. Once the ball gets to the elbow area or below that, then you know where help is going to be coming from. And we have to do a better job of helping.”
Good — Shooting
Well, sort of. The Raptors entered this series shooting 32.7 per cent from beyond the arc in the post-season, and were below 30 per cent in four of seven games against Philadelphia. But in the first half Wednesday, it appeared that regression had hit. All five Raptors starters hit a three, as the team went 10-of-22 from distance, converting three more threes than they did in the entirely of Game 7.
But we mentioned the second half. The Raptors slumped to 5-of-20 in those 24 minutes, and without Lowry’s inspired performance — he hit four of the five — it would’ve been even worse. Pascal Siakam in particular bricked some good looks from the corners, and, somewhat maddeningly, Danny Green attempted only four three-pointers in an up-tempo, run-and-gun game that should have suited his style much better than the Sixers series.
Did Siakam like the shots he got?
“Yeah, I was wide open. I love the shots that I got,” he said. “I make a couple of those and it’s a different game. I’ve got to be better and obviously I know that. At the end of the day, I’m going to take those shots 100 times.”
Is there a reason Green’s not shooting more?
“I’ve got to be shot-ready. In the second half, fourth quarter, I wasn’t. Couldn’t get my legs under me,” Green said. “The Philly series was a slower-paced series, this one is more up and down. I think we should be able to get more looks for everybody, with the way we play, the way we move the ball, if we move the ball the way we’re supposed to. But sometimes it goes like that, sometimes it doesn’t. But you’ve got to be ready for them when they do come. And stay warm.”
Bad — Rebounding
Similar to their three-point shooting, the Raptors came into this series as the worst rebounding team still playing with a borderline unacceptable 47.8 per cent rebound rate. But in Milwaukee, Toronto was finally playing a team that didn’t appear significantly bigger than them. In Eric Bledsoe, Malcolm Brogdon, George Hill, and Pat Connaughton, the Bucks give plenty of run to unimposingly-sized guards.
By the end of the game, the Bucks had an astonishing 60 rebounds, 15 of them on the offensive glass, which led to 24 second-chance points.
“They can’t have that many offensive rebounds,” Leonard said. “Especially at home.”
If there’s one through line for all of these Raptors failings, all these areas where they needed to be better, it’s energy. The Raptors looked like a team that had just played seven tough, emotionally-draining games. A team that dug deep into the tank in the first half and didn’t have much in reserve for the stretch. A lack of ancillary scoring beyond Lowry and Leonard, Gasol’s struggles with Lopez, the cratered shooting in the second half, and the massive rebound advantage for Milwaukee — all of it comes down to effort and fatigue. And how, at this time of year, the former needs to overcome the latter.
“I think the one thing that we all know about these playoff games is you’d better have the intensity or you’re in trouble. I thought we did a good job of bringing some effort and pace and physicality at the beginning,” Nurse said. “We’re learning that each one of these games is critical.
“I thought we played tough tonight, a tough brand of basketball for the most part. We gave ourselves a chance to win on the road in an Eastern Conference final. That didn’t turn out, and we put in a lot of work. But you’ve got to file that one away and put in more work next time. That’s really where it starts.”