MILWAUKEE – Their season didn’t end on a chilly Friday night in Milwaukee.
But you could see the outline of it from here. Too early to make funeral arrangements? Maybe. Miracle cures and all of that. But the patient is struggling.
But when they do arrive at Scotiabank Arena Sunday, they will be trailing the series 2-0 and entirely on merit. There was a reasonable argument they could have stolen Game 1 but that would have had more to do with the Bucks being rusty after a week-long layoff than anything notable the Raptors did. And in the end, the Bucks won every quarter of that game other than the first one.
But there were a few strands of hope to grasp on to Friday night after Milwaukee looked every inch the No.1 seed in the NBA with their 125-103 win over Toronto in a game in which they led 9-0 after two minutes, grew their lead from there and were never threatened for the next 46.
"[It’s] very tough. Especially on the road. You get down in the hole, down 15 points in the first quarter, and you’re on the road, it’s tough to come back in that game," said Raptors forward Kawhi Leonard. "They got adrenaline running, they’re feeling confident."
The Raptors can only hope the momentum gets stopped at customs.
For now the patient is gravely ill. There is no disputing that – according to WhoWins.com, teams that jump out to 2-0 leads are 67-5 in Conference Finals. The treatments and the side-effects and the eventual reading of last rites are yet to come but how to delay the seemingly inevitable is the short-term challenge.
It won’t be easy.
The Bucks’ best player – Giannis Antetokounmpo – finished with 30 points and 17 rebounds and five assists and is playing at a higher level than the Raptors’ best player, Leonard, who was met with “future Clipper” chants whenever he got to the free-throw line. Their second second-best player — Khris Middleton — held his own compared to the Raptors’ Kyle Lowry and the Bucks seem to have a list of players giving more than any of Pascal Siakam or Marc Gasol or Danny Green can provide.
The Raptors had three players in double figures — Leonard with 31, Lowry with 15 and Norman Powell with 14 off the bench — while the Bucks had three players score in double figures off their bench alone, and all of them hit that mark before the start of the fourth quarter, a big reason the Bucks had a 17-point lead heading into the final 12 minutes.
But human nature is to look for things to be optimistic about. In the hallways of Fiserv Forum, members of the Raptors brain trust remained outwardly confident that a serving of home-cooking would allow their club to claw back into a series. It may be wishful thinking against a Bucks team that is 10-1 in the playoffs, has won eight games by double digits and six by 20 or more — which ties an NBA record.
One area Toronto might point to is a third quarter where they outscored Milwaukee 39-31 and played a fast-paced up-and-down style the Bucks seemed happy to let them play. The Raptors’ only real hope was a 13-5 run midway through the third quarter that briefly provided a spark, as Toronto cut the Bucks’ lead to 13 after trailing by 28 early in the period. A big factor was the Raptors going smaller by playing Powell ahead of a struggling Gasol, but Milwaukee effortlessly surged back and took a 95-78 lead into the fourth quarter where they weren’t threatened.
"I think we played a little bit freer that quarter," said Lowry. "That quarter we played a little bit freer and made some shots. We just played a little bit better. [But] we’ve got to play better defence. We gave up 125 points. That’s too many points in the playoffs. We’ve got to play much better defence."
That would typically mean more from Gasol, who was key in anchoring the Raptors defence against Orlando and Philadelphia, but whose offensive liabilities at this point seem to be out-weighing any other contributions. He’s 3-of-20 from the floor through two games and seemed to visibly sag as he would either get harassed into submission around the rim, watch jumpers go wayward or simply refuse to take them eventually.
"You know they’re sending [Bucks centre Brook Lopez] to the paint, to the rim all the time so Marc’s going to have his share of opportunities just because that’s the way the spacing lines up," said Nurse. "I feel bad for him. Most of [his shots] went in and out. It’s like he’s a really good player, he’s a really good scorer, taking good shots and just couldn’t buy one."
Leonard’s offence appeared to come mostly in isolation after he almost seemed to give up on using the attention the Bucks were giving him to make plays for others upon watching so many open shots get missed. Toronto was held to 43 per shooting overall, 31 per cent from deep, and managed just 19 assists on 37 field goals. The Bucks shot 47 per cent from the floor and would have won by even more if they had shot better than 13-41 from deep. They had 27 assists on 43 field goals and outscored Toronto with 28 fast-break points to 19 for the Raptors.
One of the narratives before Game 2 was what steps Nurse might take to distribute minutes a little more broadly after having six players played 92 per cent of the available court time in Game 7 against Philadelphia and Game 1 against the Bucks. It’s hard to know these things exactly, but it seemed reasonable that fatigue was becoming an issue.
Next thing you know Nurse had little-used Jodie Meeks on the floor in the first half and played Serge Ibaka, Fred VanVleet and Powell a combined 29 minutes in the first half and 27, 24 and 24 minutes respectively for the game as no starter played more than 38 minutes.
Toronto was less successful limiting the Bucks’ lethal transition game, typically sparked by Antetokounmpo’s thunderous full-court attacks on the rim. The Raptors felt like they contested the Bucks very well in possessions that were played out in the half-court but suffered in Game 1 because about 33 per cent of Milwaukee’s possessions were in transition.
But the best defence against an opponent’s running game? Don’t give them a head start – making shots helps a lot too — and from the outset, nothing went right.
The play-by-play was like a cascade of bad things adding up to not-so-slow-moving disaster. How do you get your spirit broken? One discouraging possession at a time.
A dunk by Antetokounmpo. A block on what should have been a dunk by Gasol courtesy Antetokounmpo. A Raptors turnover. Another Antetokounmpo dunk. Another Raptors turnover. A wide-open Gasol air ball, who looked completely dispirited all night as he shot 1-of-9 from the floor in 19 mostly useless minutes. A lay-up by the Bucks’ Nikola Mirotic and another Gasol miss followed by a Mirotic three. Timeout, a moment of relief and then Antetokounmpo spikes a Gasol lay-up attempt coming out of the time out to nearly mid-court.
It looked even worse than it sounded. At the end of the first quarter the Bucks were leading 35-21 and it felt like their advantage had been even bigger than the score suggested.
The deluge continued in the second quarter as the Bucks were able to dive into their never-ending bench depth to widen the gulf. Ersan Ilyasova is one of those players that has been in the NBA forever, seemingly – he’s in his 11th NBA season but was drafted in 2006 – yet has never had a significant profile. On a quality team, though, he provides meaningful depth and he punched in 12 of his 15 first-half points in the second quarter while the Bucks pushed their lead to 25 before the half, 64-39.
The game was essentially over.
As the cliché goes, a playoff series doesn’t really start until a team loses on their home court and the Raptors haven’t done that yet. They’ll get their chance Sunday in what will very much be a must-win game.
But sometimes the illness has no obvious cure and in this case all signs so far are pointing towards the Raptors’ season ending due to the most deadly sports malady of all:
Not being good enough.