Raptors’ historic playoff comeback still casts shadow over dominant Bucks

Michael Grange joins Good Show to talk about how much the Toronto Raptors care about locking up the second seed in the Eastern Conference.

The Milwaukee Bucks might be the least respected great team in NBA history, and they have the Toronto Raptors to thank or blame or whatever the case may be.

Milwaukee’s finest arrive at Scotiabank Arena on a roll, which is to say doing what they’ve done all season.

Dominating.

There’s been a lot of excitement around the Raptors of late, and for good reason. They won 15 straight before the NBA All-Star break and have come out of the break playing even better, if possible, signalling their intentions with an efficient, businesslike win over the vulnerable Phoenix Suns, followed by a Raptors franchise-record beatdown of the Indiana Pacers, a victory by 46 over a plausible 50-win team and a potential first-round playoff opponent.

It’s not every day a team wins 17 of 19 in the NBA, and the Raptors’ hot streak leaves them with a 42-15 record, third-best in the NBA and on pace for 61 wins, which would be a franchise record and a heck of a way to defend a championship. It’s all very impressive.

Unless you’re the Bucks, in which case it’s Tuesday.

The Bucks arrive at Scotiabank Arena with a 49-8 record, putting them on pace for 70 wins, which would be the third-best regular-season mark in league history, trailing only the 73-win Golden State Warriors of 2015-16 and the 72-win Chicago Bulls of 1995-96.

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Milwaukee’s win-loss mark may not properly capture its dominance, as its plus-12.2 point differential is on pace to be the largest ever.

The Bucks already have an 18-game win streak this season and arrive in Toronto having won 17 of their last 19, which has been par for the course for them this season.

The Raptors have all but conceded first seed in the East given they trail the Bucks by seven games, but hanging onto the second seed would be nice – they lead the Boston Celtics by 2.5 games – and it’s likely that will require some success against Milwaukee whom the Raptors play three times in the next six weeks. The Bucks lead the season series 1-0, but the East’s best teams haven’t met since the sixth game of the regular season.

Regardless, the Raptors should have a good feel for exactly how good the Bucks are – the range of possibilities toggles between outstanding and historic.

“I watch them play and they win every game by 20 points and I don’t know what to make of it other than nobody can even come close to them, right?” said Raptors head coach Nick Nurse.

“I mean, I don’t know what their margin of (victory) is, but when I do watch them it’s boring. It’s over by halftime half the time and nobody ever really makes a threat. They’re really good. They’ve really got it going. They’ve got more depth than a year ago, more experience than a year ago, more size than a year ago, they’ve really got it going. It’ll be a challenge, but we’ll be OK.”

The Raptors have in their back pocket that they were able shut the Bucks down a year ago in the Eastern Conference Finals, and it’s a hard-won belief they won’t give up easily.

It was Toronto’s comeback from down 0-2 in the Eastern Conference Finals, as they reeled off four straight wins, that stands between the Bucks getting the credit their regular season suggests they’re due.

The narrative is plain: The Bucks are overly reliant on Giannis Antetokounmpo’s dominance and don’t have a plan B when a carefully constructed team defence – the kind the Raptors were able to unveil and execute over the course of what ended up being a six-game series – gets locked in.

The series turned when the Raptors were able to slow down Antetokounmpo by giving him a steady dose of Kawhi Leonard with Marc Gasol shadowing his every move for dessert. The Raptors clogged the paint and challenged at the rim and held the Bucks star to 43.5 per cent shooting over the last four games of the series, a steep fall from the 57.8 per cent the reigning MVP converted over the regular season last year.

The Raptors may have a difficult time repeating their tactics on Tuesday night, given Leonard plays for the Los Angeles Clippers and Gasol is out with a hamstring injury. In any case, the Raptors are unlikely to show their hand defensively now, in advance of a potential repeat of the Eastern Conference Finals.

“They’re a very good team. They’ve got a talented team,” said Raptors guard Kyle Lowry. “They have the MVP from last year, they have an all-defensive player, they have another all-star, but they’re a well-coached team and a well-oiled machine but all we can do is worry about ourselves.”

But even if the Bucks – who arrive on the second night of a back-to-back having had to go into overtime to dispatch the lowly Washington Wizards on Monday night – knock off the Raptors on Tuesday and go on to sweep the season series, it won’t matter much.

Until they prove they can help the game’s best player advance to an NBA Finals rather than get flustered when he can’t, the Bucks will have their share of doubters.

Normally when a team is mowing down opponents the way the Bucks have all year and when they have a star the calibre of Antetokounmpo – a virtual lock to win his second-straight MVP award as a 25-year-old – a title is almost conceded.

No one really believed that the 72-win Bulls and Michael Jordan weren’t going to win the title in ’96 (they dispatched a 64-win Seattle SuperSonics in six games in the Finals) and the 73-win Warriors were equally heavy favourites to defend their 2015 NBA title, something that likely would have happened had Draymond Green not been suspended for Game 5 of the Finals with the Warriors leading the Cleveland Cavaliers 3-1. That the Cavs came back and won the series has never been seen as an indictment of the Warriors – they went on to win two more championships and lost in the Finals in 2019 – but rather the peak moment for LeBron James, arguably the greatest player of all time.

But the Bucks don’t seem to get the same respect. Thanks to the Raptors, getting swept aside in the Eastern Conference Finals put their empire-building on hold, and not much will change based on what happens when the two hottest teams in the NBA meet in Toronto on Tuesday night.

The only games between these two teams that will matter will take place in May.

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