Raptors focused on improvement with challenge of Bucks looming

Raptors head coach Nick Nurse discusses the challenges his club will face in trying to contain Bucks superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo, says it’s likely a 5 person job, and his defence will need to stand in there and take hits.

Two days after Kawhi Leonard became a national hero, aka “The four bounces that may have changed the Toronto Raptors franchise forever,” it’s all still a bit hard to digest.

The confetti keeps falling and video of the shot is viewed again and again and again.

The players themselves had to be a little more restrained as Sunday night’s hoopla spilled into Monday’s preparation and Tuesday’s formal practice.

Leonard himself says that he got over the iconic buzzer-beater the following day. "You don’t get too low or too high ‘til it’s all done," he told reporters at the Raptors’ practice facility in Toronto on Tuesday afternoon.

While fans deservedly bask in the afterglow, the Raptors are just one more sleep away from another high-stakes game when they open the Eastern Conference Final on the road against the Milwaukee Bucks.

"What I’m really happy about is that we’re still playing and we’re getting ready to go again," first-year head coach Nick Nurse said. "Because I expected us to be playing this time of year."

Still playing means still working, and make no mistake there is plenty of work to do.

"We had some great moments where we looked awesome. And we had some moments when we were really bad," Nurse said of his team’s performance coming out of the second round, which featured wild swings that saw the Raptors go from a championship-calibre force to flat-out underwhelming on a game-to-game basis.

"I’m hoping we learned how proportionate our effort is to how well we played," Nurse added, citing the team’s stunning opening-game loss — on the wrong side of a buzzer-beater — to the Orlando Magic at home. "I dunno. I thought we learned our lesson from that Game 1 [versus] Orlando, because we ripped off six tough-ass hard-playing games. Six in a row. And then we took a step back in Game 3 in Philly."

And again in Game 6. With nearly the lone exception of Leonard — who could still very well carry the Raptors further than they’ve ever gone based on how he’s been playing — the Raptors still left a lot to be desired.

One key area Nurse hopes to see more success with is secondary scoring and initiating a more multi-faceted offence. It’s no secret the Raptors have, justifiably, relied heavily on Leonard, who has seen his usage rate jump from 30 per cent in the regular season to just over 34 per cent in the playoffs. In Game 7, he posted a whopping 48 per cent and 39 field-goal attempts as he carried the Raptors to the narrow series-ending victory.

"100 per cent," Nurse said of the need for offensive versatility, adding that despite leaning on Leonard it was a conscious focus of the team during Game 7. "All the way leading into the fourth quarter of that game we were trying to keep more people involved offensively."

The Raptors manufactured good shot opportunities for Leonard’s teammates, Nurse continued, but failed to convert on eight of 22 open shots in the first quarter alone — not the kind of tone the team had hoped to set.

If there is a podcasting odd couple, this might be it. Donnovan Bennett and JD Bunkis don’t agree on much, but you’ll agree this is the best Toronto Raptors podcast going.

Beginning with Giannis Antetokounmpo and continuing down the Bucks roster, the Raptors are preparing for another physical series given how aggressively Milwaukee’s superstar attacks the hoop.

"Obviously, he’s an overpowering-type of player, " says Nurse, who went on to list the many attributes that make Antetokounmpo arguably the best player on the planet – size, speed, strength, versatility, malicious intent.

But the Raptors are well-equipped to offer a deterrent to the Bucks’ relentless attack.

"We take charges. I don’t have the number but we’ve gotta be close to leading the playoffs, leading the league."

Several reporters chimed in to mention that Lowry — 10 charges drawn in 12 games — has more than every team but the Warriors.

"OK, so we have some guys who can take charges," Nurse responded, "and there’ll be charges to take."

With a free-flying team like Milwaukee, who average over 38 three-point attempts per game, there’ll also be plenty of rebounds available — a major area of concern for Toronto against Philadelphia’s bigger lineup in Round 2. It’s no coincidence the Raptors found success in Game 7 when they finally won the offensive-board battle with the Sixers.

We interrupt this column for a live look at the Toronto Raptors press conference on Tuesday afternoon:

Again, things only get tougher with Milwaukee on tap.

The Bucks rank first in the playoffs rebounding, the only team averaging more than 50 per game (52 to be exact). The Raptors, at 41.8 per game, rank last among remaining teams.

But given their spread-out offence and shooters loading the three-point line, Milwaukee is less affective on the offensive boards, where they’re second-last only to Toronto at 9.6 offensive rebounds per game.

Nurse says he’ll remain flexible in terms of his lineups and will adjust as needed, citing the Ibaka-Gasol frontcourt that was effective closing out the Sixers series. A bigger lineup could help on the glass once more, but with stretch-shooters like Nikola Mirotic and Brook Lopez offering matchup problems, Nurse maintains he’ll remain fluid with his rotations and will continue to improvise as needed.

"There’s lots of variation," he said of his lineup options. "There’s some variety there and we’ve tinkered with that stuff all year long and we know we can handle those things."

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