MILWAUKEE — It’s worth keeping in mind that the Toronto Raptors have been here before. After dropping their playoff opener by three points to the Orlando Magic, they were fulfilling popular prophecy, following up a typically strong regular season by falling flat when it truly matters. After going down two games to one against the Philadelphia 76ers, they were over-matched by Philadelphia’s firepower, and without an answer for the rampaging, showboating Joel Embiid.
Now, in opening the Eastern Conference Finals by losing a game they really ought to have won against the Milwaukee Bucks, they’re offensively fractured, lacking depth, and running out of gas. Toronto’s head coach, Nick Nurse, is playing his starters too much. The Raptors’s current offensive approach is unsustainable. Everyone looks super tired.
And all those conclusions may still prove to be true. But that would be a different outcome compared to many of the conclusions the basketball world was making about the Raptors early in their previous two series. And Saturday morning, in the wake of whatever happens in Game 2, there will be all kinds of new conclusions we haven’t even considered yet.
“No two games are alike. It’s really situational. And I think it’s always right when you win and always wrong when you lose,” Nurse said Friday morning in response to a quest about his minutes distribution that led him down a contemplative path. “I really do. That’s just the way it is. When the shot goes in, I drew up a great play. And when it doesn’t, it was a bad play and the wrong guy took it. That’s just part of it. We’ll do our best to manage it the best that we can so our players do their best to win the ball game.”
But the hours between games are long, and the appetite for opinion is ravenous, so the gears of the NBA media machine churn unabated. Does Nurse give it any mind? Has he heard the many narratives spun about the presumed glory or doom of his team?
“You can’t help but hear them. I totally ignore them all — I don’t turn on my TV, I’m on no internet, whatever. But you hear them because not everyone ignores them,” Nurse said. “To ignore them, you have to say, ‘Well, in the Game 1 loss to Orlando I didn’t play everybody enough and in the Game 1 loss to Milwaukee I played everyone too much.’ So, basically, when you lose no one is ever happy and neither are we. The narratives are narratives and to me they’re just a pile of words.”
So, here’s another word pile. Nurse did allow that his minute distribution Friday will likely be different, while understandably not providing particulars. An obvious adjustment would be to play Serge Ibaka (17 minutes in Game 1) a little bit more, and Marc Gasol (40 minutes) a little bit less. But that can be a very fluid in-game situation. Ibaka’s effectiveness has fluctuated greatly in these playoffs, from a disastrous Game 2 in the Philadelphia series when he was borderline unplayable, to a forceful performance in Game 7 when his contributions were indispensable.
Nurse generally gets his back-up centre into the game sometime in the first quarter, lets him feel his way into things, and then awards him either more or less minutes in the second half depending on the quality of Ibaka’s play. It’s been a fine strategy so far. But the sheer weight of the defensive effort that the Bucks demand, particularly at the centre position, may necessitate Nurse stomaching more Ibaka minutes even if he isn’t having his best night.
Gasol said he wasn’t feeling tired in the fourth quarter Wednesday, despite often needing to be in two places at once as he defended Brook Lopez out to the three-point line while helping in the paint against the barrelling drives of Giannis Antetokounmpo. But it certainly stands to reason that the 34-year-old will experience diminishing returns at some point if he’s playing 40 minutes per game every other night, particularly when it comes to boxing Bucks out beneath the rim to prevent offensive rebounds, which Milwaukee had 15 of in Game 1.
“Maybe that had something to do with the rotations we’re talking about. Maybe some size would help that,” Nurse said of Milwaukee’s Game 1 rebounding advantage. “But you have to try and keep it in perspective a little bit. We were making them miss so much that there’s a lot of balls flying around. So, you have to be somewhat happy there’s that many available. And when there is that many available, the percentages are you’re going to give up a raw number that’s higher than normal, right? That makes sense.
“But we’ve got to do better. I thought we let them push us around a little bit. We’d block out, they’d hit us in the back, we’d end up under the basket, and they’d put it back in. We’d miss a couple. I thought we had a couple of chances where two guys could block out one and we didn’t do it. We had a couple of chances for sandwich rebounds and we didn’t do it. And there were a couple of long ricochet ones where someone needs to throw it in high gear and run them down and beat them to the ball.”
Could Nurse also lean a bit heavier on Fred VanVleet or Norman Powell in Game 2 if Danny Green’s struggles continue? It’s a possibility and how far Nurse goes with those two will likely come down to their defensive effort and success shooting the ball. The Raptors should be able to use VanVleet and Powell more in this series than the last, since Milwaukee plays so many guards. But neither player has exactly earned extra run. Like Ibaka, all they’re guaranteed is an early-game opportunity to demonstrate what they have on the night.
“We’re all trying to get out there and make an impact, you know? Earn more minutes,” Powell said. “Especially now in the playoffs, the starters are playing so many heavy minutes, we’re trying to get out there and have a game or two where it’s a good feel for the coaches and they feel they can rest the starters little more and let us play a little more.”
Whatever adjustments do or do not occur Friday, the biggest swing factor for the Raptors will simply be making more shots. Toronto wins Game 1 if it takes better advantage of the many open looks it created, particularly down the stretch. Aside from a Pascal Siakam buzzer-beater three at the end of the third quarter, no Raptor aside from Kawhi Leonard and Kyle Lowry hit a shot in the second half. That can’t happen again.
“I thought we had a tremendous effort. I thought the game plan was executed really well. That’s probably why it was a tie game with two minutes to go,” Nurse said of Game 1. “You always need to adjust — win, lose or draw. But I certainly don’t think you overreact to any narratives that are out there. We’re pretty confident in our team’s ability to play defence. We’re pretty confident in our ability to create good shots. We’re pretty confident in our ability to play really hard. And those things will take us a long way.”