MILWAUKEE — It was the best bench performance the Toronto Raptors have gotten since the Orlando Magic series. A 6-of-9 shooting breakout from Norman Powell; a near double-double for Serge Ibaka, who had eight and 10; Fred VanVleet hit his first three-pointer in a week-and-a-half. Toronto’s three primary reserves hadn’t scored over 21 since the start of the second round, and had contributed a dozen points or fewer in five of Toronto’s last eight games. Friday, in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference Final against the Milwaukee Bucks, they combined for 27. What a triumph.
And the Bucks bench still outscored them by 20. Three of Milwaukee’s four primary reserves finished with double figures. Two of them matched or surpassed the best scoring night Powell’s had since April 21. And all of them got to the line multiple times, contributed at least one offensive rebound, and dished out at least two assists, as the Bucks starched the Raptors, 125-103, on their way to snatching a two-game lead in this series.
There was 14 points and five assists from Malcolm Brogdon over 25 minutes. George Hill chipped in 13 points on 5-of-8 shooting over his 24. Reminding everyone of his bust in a crowded wing of the Raptors museum honouring bench players who kill them, Ersan Ilyasova went off for 17 points and finished plus-22 in 21 minutes.
“I thought [Ilyasova] was very good. He stepped up and made a bunch of shots. He took a couple charges. But he wasn’t the only one off the bench,” Raptors head coach Nick Nurse said. “Those guys came in and really took off. Yeah, 17, 13, 14 — that’s 44 off the bench. That’s pretty good.”
It’s the biggest difference between these two teams — depth. While Mike Budenholzer’s Bucks roll a smooth rotation of nine reliable players, Nurse’s Raptors roster falls off a cliff at eight. And with the way Toronto’s reserves have been performing, you can make a convincing argument that the cliff actually lies at five or six.
“The whole bench — you look at George and Malcolm and just the production we’re getting from our bench,” Budenholzer said. “I think Pat [Connaughton] does a lot of things that help us win, too. So I think the bench continues to be a real strength for us. Ersan just was off the charts tonight.”
On one side, Budenholzer has been mixing and matching fluidly, using seven different lineups for four minutes or more over the first two games of this series, and asking his starters to give him only 25 minutes total. On the other, Nurse has been beholden to his top-heavy roster, using only four different lineups for four minutes or more, and running his starting group up to 46 minutes.
Milwaukee’s four most-used lineups that include bench players now all have net ratings of 50 or higher for the series. Meanwhile, only one of Toronto’s four most-used has a positive net rating. And in the 29 minutes that VanVleet, Ibaka and Powell have shared the floor so far in the series, they’ve averaged only 90.2 points per 100 possessions, while allowing 107.9.
Nurse, who pushed back against criticism of his Vanvleet-Ibaka-Powell units in recent days, made a slight adjustment to the trio’s deployment Friday, playing them for 10 minutes with Kyle Lowry and Kawhi Leonard, Toronto’s two best players. It makes sense in theory. Leonard’s a high-tide beast who raises all boats. And Lowry’s a skilled facilitator who creates offence for others better than any other Raptor.
But the returns were more of the same. The unit posted a minus-21.6 net rating, went 6-of-15 from the field, turned the ball over four times, and was outscored by seven. And it’s unclear where Nurse can go with those three from here. On nights when certain starters don’t have it, nights when players get into foul trouble, nights when shots aren’t falling, nights when Toronto desperately needs a spark, or nights like Friday when it was all of the above, Nurse has no one to turn to.
“They were more physical than us. We were kind of sluggish coming out to start. It took a while for us to get our offence going. That’s the game right there,” Powell said. “They’re doing their job, you know? They did what they needed to do. We’ve just got to come out and match their energy, match their toughness. A lot of its off second-chance opportunities, rebounds, kick-outs. We’ve got to close out to them. We’ve got to be more urgent to get to their shooters.”
That Jodie Meeks received first-half run Friday, playing his first non-garbage time minutes this month, speaks to how desperately Nurse is searching for answers. Somehow, Meeks was the lone Raptor to finish on the right side of plus/minus in the first half, carrying a plus-one over his three minutes into the dressing room as the Raptors trailed by 25. But he missed both his shots, as anyone might when they’re seeing their first high-leverage minutes in weeks.
Of course, Toronto’s lack of options is the result of February’s Marc Gasol trade, in which Raptors President Masai Ujiri exchanged depth — Delon Wright and CJ Miles, namely — in order to make an upgrade at centre over Jonas Valanciunas.
You have to give up something to get something, of course. Every trade has its cost. And, to be clear, the Raptors don’t make it this deep into the playoffs without the job Gasol did defensively on a pair of all-stars — Orlando’s Nikola Vucevic and Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid — over the first two rounds.
But on a night like Friday, when Gasol is tail spinning a nightmare start into an all-around brutal game, Pascal Siakam is picking up his fifth foul two-and-a-half minutes into the third quarter, and Toronto’s starters are shooting 5-for-21 from distance, the Raptors’ lack of depth looks less like a manageable roster flaw and more like a fatal one. Nurse has no one to go to.
OG Anunoby’s appendix bursting on the eve of the playoffs certainly didn’t help. That robbed the Raptors of a key rotation piece who played 20 minutes a night this season and provides the kind of size, versatility, and defensive acumen the Raptors have sorely missed through the first two rounds.
But it’s at least worth noting that many have forgotten how ineffective Anunoby was at times this season, an extremely challenging one for him personally. There’s no guaranteeing he would have played well. As Siakam’s shown, the playoffs can be a very different animal than the regular season. But there’s no denying an active Anunoby would’ve been more ideal than what the Raptors are operating with currently.
Meanwhile, if one of Budenholzer’s starters doesn’t have it on any given night, he has a litany of avenues to take as he navigates his way through the game. Wednesday, Brook Lopez was dominant, scoring 29 points on 12-of-21 shooting, so Budenholzer gave him plenty of run. Friday, the rangy centre was anything but, missing six of his seven shots, so Budenholzer backed off of him and went more often to Ilyasova.
The result was Ilyasova going off for 17 points on a plus-22 night, earning a podium appearance in the process. A dozen of those points came during a seven-minute second-quarter stint when the Raptors had no answer for him. If Toronto is eliminated from the playoffs due to the transcendent play of likely MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo, it’s one thing. But when it’s Lopez and Ilyasova killing them, it’s a lot harder to stomach.
“It’s tough,” said Toronto’s Danny Green, who’s yet to find his way into this series. “It’s not a team that we’re going to go beat with each guy trying to put it on their back and take over. We have to trust each other. The way to beat this team is together.”
This is why losing Game 1 hurt so much. This is why Wednesday’s game was such a massive missed opportunity. This is why, when you run into a rusty, out-of-rhythm Bucks team on the road in the first game of a series, and you yourselves play one of your best first halves in some time, you need to bear down and finish that win.
Because the Raptors are not the most talented team in this series. And the first two games have certainly proven they aren’t the deepest. They need to be the most effortful, the most cunning. The most together, like Green said. And they need to be that starting Sunday. Otherwise, they’ll be in too deep.