TORONTO — Things have changed but much remains the same since the last time the two best teams in the Eastern Conference faced off in Toronto.
There was Drake trolling the Milwaukee Bucks and the entire state of Wisconsin, strolling to his courtside seat with not one but two championship belts over his shoulder, a reminder – as if the Bucks needed one – that Drake’s Toronto Raptors won not only the Eastern Conference championship over Milwaukee last May, but that they went on to win the whole thing.
The intensity was there too.
There were bodies hitting the floor, charges being drawn and the Raptors throwing their whole roster, seemingly, in the path of Giannis Antetokounmpo.
There were a number of Raptors — though not enough in the end — making key contributions from the perimeter as the Bucks remained committed to camping their huge bodies in the paint, daring anyone to finish over them at the rim.
There were differences, though, and they might be concerning if the second-seeded Raptors do end up having to go through the No.1-seeded Bucks to defend their NBA title.
Missing was Kawhi Leonard from the Raptors’ lineup, and also Marc Gasol – the two Toronto players most responsible for holding down Antetokounmpo and enabling the Raptors to come back from 0-2 and win four straight on their way to the NBA Finals.
Would the Raptors be able to contain Antetokounmpo, who seems poised to run away with his second-straight MVP award? Does that remain the formula to upend a Bucks team that has run roughshod over the NBA for nearly two seasons, save for a four-game losing streak to the Raptors at precisely the wrong time – Games 3 through 6 of the Eastern Conference Finals?
The returns were mixed but, from the Raptors’ point of view, concerning. The Bucks won 108-97, dominating most of the second half after the Raptors were the better team early. The Bucks improved to 50-9 while playing on the second night of a back-to-back and their third game in four nights. The Raptors dropped to 42-16 and lost for just the third time in their past 20 games.
Antetokounmpo was unruffled by Drake, first of all.
“That’s good. He cares about me,” he said when asked about the on-going troll job by the Raptors’ global ambassador. “I really don’t (care about him). I’m just here to win games and help my team win. That’s all.”
And for the most part, he showed signs of becoming increasingly comfortable with the all-hands-on-deck defensive approach that the Raptors used against him in the playoffs and saw him struggle mightily over the Bucks final four-game swoon.
He finished with a relatively modest – for him – 19 points on 5-of-14 shooting. But he did have eight assists (along with 19 rebounds), a total that could have been much higher had his Bucks teammates shot better than 12-of-38 from the three.
Still just 25 years old, Antetokounmpo is gaining confidence dealing with multi-layered defensive approaches like the Raptors executed so well in the playoffs and were showing him again Tuesday night.
“So I started the game getting the ball on the block, seeing immediately a guy coming off the catch double teaming me. ‘OK, cool. Tonight is not going to be the night,’” said Antetokounmpo. “So I’ve got to find guys … and guys can knock down shots. If guys don’t shoot the ball, it can find me back and I can attack. That’s my mindset.”
It’s been a process. Antetokounmpo is both driven and hugely talented. Going around a problem rather than straight through it doesn’t come naturally.
“Coach Bud says I’m stubborn,” Antetokounmpo said. “One of my best qualities is that I’m stubborn. One of my worst qualities is that I’m stubborn. So when you start the game I want to come out aggressive. … They were sending second guys, they were defending really well. But there’s sometimes you’ve got to mature, and say, ‘OK, tonight is not the night.’ You’ve got to find your open guy and coach Bud has helped me with that a lot. So I’ve tried to be mature and not force stuff as much as possible.”
And this is where the Raptors – and the rest of the NBA – could have a problem come May or June.
Antetokounmpo, who worked himself into a lather two hours before the game while working on his shooting and ball-handling, is improving in all aspects of his game.
And defensively, the Bucks remain a formidable machine, relying on Antetokounmpo and Brook and Robin Lopez to deter any and all attacks at the rim. The three of them combined for 10 blocked shots, including five by Brook Lopez and three by Antetokounmpo.
With the paint shut down, the Raptors needed to punish the Bucks from beyond the arc, and they didn’t. Toronto shot 35.2 per cent from the floor and 18-of-52 from three. Raptors star Pascal Siakam was 5-of-9 from deep, but just 1-of-5 from everywhere else.
“They’re good. They’re a good defensive team. They clog the paint,” said Raptors guard Fred VanVleet, who was 5-of-14 from the floor and 3-of-9 from three, while Kyle Lowry was 1-of-7. Serge Ibaka was 1-of-10. “They give us those shots. Those are our shots. Sometimes you make them and sometimes you don’t.
“All in all, we know that they’re a great defensive team. At the same time, I don’t think like anybody is thinking we didn’t get the shots we needed to get to beat them. Didn’t make enough plays, didn’t do enough. And that’s a great team, so you’ve got to play up to their level in order to get a win like that.”
Trailing by 13 to start the fourth quarter, Toronto cut the Bucks’ lead to five midway through the period, but couldn’t answer when the Bucks surged back. A corner three by Antetokounmpo put Milwaukee up by 10 with less than two minutes to play, and Toronto was stymied from there.
The Raptors’ first goal was not to get blown out. The Bucks came into Scotiabank Arena with a point differential of 12.2 per game – on pace for an NBA record.
The Bucks specialize in blowing teams out early, which is why they can afford to play Antetokounmpo 30.7 minutes night. That makes his 29.9 points, 8.8 rebounds and 4.3 assists per game all the more remarkable.
Forcing Antetokounmpo to play 38 minutes on the second night of a back-to-back was a small victory in itself.
And Toronto controlled big chunks of the game, holding Milwaukee without a field goal for the first two minutes and Antetokounmpo off the board for the first four minutes. Of course, the only team in the NBA with better defensive metrics than the Raptors are the Bucks. Midway through the first quarter, the score was tied 10-10.
Toronto led 27–25 at the end of the first quarter, holding the Bucks to 40 per cent shooting and Antetokounmpo to five points on 1-of-3 shooting as they built a wall at the free-throw line to block his path to the rim and then swarmed him with a variety of double teams once his momentum was stalled.
Same old, same old.
And the Raptors had some new elements begin to come into play as their emerging bench looked determined to prove their worth in the Eastern Conference showdown. Their plans were signalled loudly when spindly Chris Boucher flew through the lane for a spectacular put-back dunk over Antetokounmpo in the first quarter and then drew a charge on the Bucks star a few plays later. Boucher was feeling it, and added a pair of triples to put up a quick 10 points in just over nine minutes of action.
He was just setting the tone.
Little-used sharpshooter Matt Thomas got some run in the second quarter, with Nurse finding suitable matchups with the Bucks’ crew of smaller wings. Just one game removed from scoring an NBA career-high 17 points in mop-up duty against the Indiana Pacers, Thomas knocked down three triples on three chances in his seven minutes of floor time in the first half and added a couple of clever assists as the Bucks’ defence began to overreact to him outside the line.
The Raptors went up nine early in the second quarter and were up 12 with just under three minutes to play in the half after Ibaka found a cutting OG Anunoby for a dunk that Giannis couldn’t get to the rim in time to defend.
The Bucks pushed back, finishing the second quarter on an 11-2 run, but the Raptors still had a 52-50 lead to start the third quarter. Things threatened to get out of hand at that point as the Bucks’ top-rated defence began to tighten and Toronto had a hard time scoring in the third. They shot 7-of-20 from the floor and made five turnovers as Milwaukee won the period 34-19 and entered the final frame leading 84-71.
The Raptors couldn’t close the gap. For now, it doesn’t matter. They have until May to see if their rivalry with Milwaukee will have a different ending.
But if Antetokounmpo is beginning to feel like he might be on the verge of figuring out how to manage his own stubborn nature and the kind of defences with which Toronto has had so much success, the Raptors – and the rest of the NBA – could be in a lot of trouble.