MILWAUKEE — Having blown a golden opportunity in one game, received a thorough beating in another, and been outscored by 30 in the aggregate by the deep, talented, and absolutely zooming Milwaukee Bucks, the Toronto Raptors return home this weekend down 2-0 in the Eastern Conference Finals. It’s not what you want. And you’re surely familiar with a team’s talking points in a situation like this.
They did what they were supposed to do. They held serve. We’ve got to protect home just like they did. It’s not a series until the home team loses. Plenty of basketball still to play.
Of course, these are the things professional athletes have to say — and it’s perfectly understandable that they do. There isn’t much to be gained in coming out after a couple losses like those and telling everyone, “Wow, this is really not good. We’re in a super bad spot. Everything around me is on fire.”
The reality, though, is that the Raptors must now beat their conference’s best team in four out of five games. They have only one more night in which they can get away with step-too-late defence, shots not falling, a prodigious performance from a member of the opposition, getting outhustled, or a random bad-luck game in which the ball doesn’t bounce their way.
These are all things that happen regularly to NBA teams. It’s really tough to win at this level. And the Raptors have to get four in five against a team that has suffered back-to-back losses only once since the beginning of the season and never lost three of four. In the history of the league, 56 teams have fallen behind by two games in the conference finals. All but five of them went on to lose the series.
“I don’t really give a crap about that,” Raptors head coach Nick Nurse said. “I just want our team to come play their ass off tomorrow night, get one game, and it changes the series.”
Changes certainly appear to be afoot, as Nurse said bluntly Saturday during a conference call with reporters, “I think there could be more than one lineup change coming at us.” Certainly, Nurse has to do something. You don’t want to overreact to two bad games, but two more games may be all Nurse has to work with. If ever there is a time to take a big swing, this is it. Not that he sounds all that committed to anything himself.
“I think your question here is this: Are you going to dance with the one you [brought] to the ball?” Nurse said. “It’s not easy. You think certain series aren’t for certain guys, et cetera, et cetera. But I also think that we’ve had bad biorhythms a couple times, maybe three or four times in the playoffs, and then the next game our biorhythms were back in tact. So, I kind of trust these guys. You know who they are, and believe in them, and know they’re better than they played last night, and have shown that in bounce-back situations usually.”
Unfortunately, Nurse can’t control anyone’s biorhythms. But he can control his lineups. And here are two adjustments that could be coming in Game 3.
Starting Serge Ibaka over Marc Gasol
Friday night was one of the worst games of Marc Gasol’s career. Literally. His Game 3 performance produced a minus-3.8 game score, tied for his second-lowest ever. The only time in his 868-game career (regular season and playoffs) that Gasol’s posted a worse game score was Feb. 5, 2012. He earned a minus-7.0 that night, after going 3-for-14 from the field and committing seven turnovers. Friday’s performance was Gasol’s worst in seven years and nearly 600 games.
As a visibly fuming Gasol put it afterwards, “I played really bad.” It’s true. Giannis Antetokounmpo blocked his first attempt of the night into the shadow realm and things just spiralled from there, as Gasol wound up going 1-of-9 from the field. Even his passing, the most reliably strong aspect of Gasol’s game, was atrocious — indecisive at times, soft at others, and often off-target.
Considering the unprecedented nature of his performance, it’s not like Gasol should be punished. But there is plenty of reason to suggest Serge Ibaka would be a better fit as a starter in this series. The biggest impact would be on the offensive end, where Gasol’s been a zero thus far. Ibaka can provide the same floor spacing and three-point shooting Gasol does, while injecting some much-needed energy and activity into Toronto’s early-game run of play.
Defensively, Ibaka can bring similar rim protection to Gasol, allowing him to help stuff Antetokounmpo drives, with the added benefit of more athleticism, which should give him the ability to close out on Milwaukee shooters if and when the ball is kicked out.
And it wouldn’t be that jarring of a change, as Nurse mixed and matched with Gasol and Ibaka starting at centre down the regular season stretch, laying the groundwork to have the option available for a situation just like this one.
It’s imperative that the Raptors start with more energy in Game 3 than they did in Game 2. That should be easier to do at home, with 20,000 folks at Scotiabank Arena at their backs. And with the season very much on the line, there should be no lack of motivation. But as he’s shown on many occasions, an aggressive, engaged Ibaka can be a strong energy source as well.
Of course, Nurse still left himself room to stick with Gasol — “to dance with the one you brung.” And changing a starting lineup that was consistently performing as the best in the postseason — after taking on some water in games 1 and 2, it’s now merely the third-best lineup to play at least 50 minutes in these playoffs — doesn’t exactly project calmness and composure. As a coach, you’ve got to show trust in your best players and consider a larger, playoff-long sample over a smaller, two-game one.
But at the very least, Nurse can split his centre minutes more evenly. Game 2’s minutes distribution — 27 for Ibaka, 19 for Gasol — is a bit of an aberration as Gasol was borderline unplayable. But in game 1, Gasol was on the floor for 40 while Ibaka played only 17. Each player could benefit from being moved 5-10 minutes in the opposite direction, depending on game flow. One way to do that would be by introducing Ibaka into the game earlier in the first quarter than he has been and giving him more second-half run. Or, as may be the case, simply giving Ibaka the start.
Increase Norman Powell’s role
This adjustment essentially already happened in Game 2, when Norman Powell played 25 minutes to Danny Green’s 22. But that had a lot more to do with foul trouble and Toronto’s general lack of offensive effectiveness Friday, which resulted in Powell playing a marathon 16-minute shift that overlapped the third and fourth quarters. At halftime, Powell had played only eight minutes. But maybe that number should be higher.
There’s a convincing case to be made that Powell was Toronto’s best player on the floor in Game 2 outside of Kawhi Leonard. He went 6-of-9 from the field, hitting two of his four threes and watching another one go in-and-out.
He also played active, physical defence against a wide range of opponents, including 13 possessions on Malcom Brogdon, nine on Khris Middleton, seven on Eric Bledsoe, and five each on Ersan Ilyasova and George Hill. And, according to NBA.com’s matchup data, players Powell was guarding for the majority of a possession attempted only three field goals Friday, scoring four points.
Does that speak to Powell often guarding players who aren’t focal points of Milwaukee’s offence? Perhaps. But it also says something about the strong job he did defensively.
“I thought Norm had a good game. His athleticism was noticeable. At times, they’ve got a lot of athletes out there. And it’s nice to be able to match the speed,” Nurse said. “He was just playing hard. He was into people, up-guarding, blocking people out with some physicality. Those are the things that we also need. He should play a big role here going forward.”
That big role could come at the expense of Green, who’s yet to find his way into this series, has suffered a 10 per cent decline in his three-point shooting percentage from the regular season to the playoffs, and, although he denies being injured, appears to be operating at a diminished physical capacity than he was during the season. It’s not necessarily kind to a dependable veteran who helped get the Raptors where they are today, but if Powell’s minutes are going to increase, they have to come from somewhere.
It would be tough for Nurse to go so far as to insert Powell into the starting lineup, particularly over Green who’s started every game this season. When it comes to Ibaka and Gasol, the Raptors have at least experimented with fluidity in who starts at centre during the regular season. But Green’s defence and three-point shooting has been a lynchpin of Toronto’s opening unit, and it’s worth pointing out once again that the starters have still been the third-best lineup in the playoffs. It might make more sense to leave the starters intact, and simply bring Powell into the game earlier in the first quarter, right around the six-minute mark when Antetokounmpo generally checks out.
A more dramatic option would be to insert Powell into the starting unit in place of Gasol, shifting Siakam to centre. It would be an extreme risk-reward play. The risk is that in sacrificing size, the Raptors would leave Siakam on an island against one of the league’s most dynamic attackers, and lack a rim protector to help turn away Antetokounmpo’s barrelling drives. The reward would potentially be more energy and a faster offence, which could help the Raptors avoid another anemic start.
No matter what Nurse’s starters look like, you can bet he’ll endeavour to find a way to get both Powell and Ibaka more involved in game 3. After the way the first two games of the series played out, he has to do something — if it’s not already too late.