MILWAUKEE – There was a lot of hoping going on before the Eastern Conference Finals tipped off Wednesday night.
Most of it was being articulated by Raptors head coach Nick Nurse.
Maybe he was just nervous, but taken together it sounded a little bit like someone looking up at what they know is a leaky roof and crossing their fingers and toes before an advancing storm – in this case the Milwaukee Bucks.
He hoped the Raptors wouldn’t be emotionally spent after their dramatic Game 7 win over Philadelphia; he hoped they would find a way to keep Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo from turning into a human freight train in transition, scattering Raptors like bowling pins; he hoped his club would maintain the defensive effort that allowed them survive the second round in the first place.
“And man, I hope we make some more of those shots,” Nurse said. “I’ve been saying that for a while, though. I hope we make some, and I hope we create them. As long as we’re creating them, and I hope we’re getting some more people involved, I think we really need to, I think we have for most of the year, and I think we’ve shot it [well] for most of the year.
“So again, I think — I’m hoping, and I just think that the games that we do shoot it pretty well, our defence even gets better. The energy kind of feeds itself.”
So many of his wishes came true — at least in the early part of the game — and the Raptors still came out on the wrong end of a 108-100 loss. Which doesn’t do much for the optimists in the crowd. The Raptors started well, defended well and at times shot the ball well, holding a slim lead late in the fourth quarter.
But eventually the roof began to leak as the Bucks storm rolled in and the only place that stayed dry were the Raptors’ shooting totals.
As the game wore on the open looks went unused again and again. Time and time again the Raptors would get the ball into the paint, pitch it out to an open teammate on the perimeter, swing it quickly to an even more open one and then miss. The Raptors made six threes in the first quarter, four in the second and two in the third. But their percentages were falling.
In the fourth they fell off a cliff.
The exception was Kyle Lowry who scored 14 of his 2019 post-season high 30 in the final period including a three that tied the score 98-98 with 4:02 left. The Raptors didn’t score another field goal. The rest of the Raptors scored just three points in the pivotal period, all on free throws.
“Pretty frustrating,” said Lowry. “The fourth quarter killed us, they out-played us in that fourth quarter, they got a little more aggressive, they made some big shots, some big plays. It sucks when you lose like that, but we had a chance and we’ve got to learn from it.”
Late in a close game the script might have called for Leonard to bring the Raptors home, but he couldn’t do it, no one could. Leonard scored just two of his 31 points in crunch time as he was 10-of-23 from the floor. As a group, the Raptors shot 0-of-15 from the floor in the fourth while Lowry was 5-of-7. A Danny Green turnover cost Leonard one look and allowed Milwaukee to score going the other way. Brook Lopez’s fourth triple put the Bucks up four with 1:55 to play and the Raptors couldn’t score again until the game was out of reach.
“A couple of key turnovers; missed, missed some easy lay-ups, some wide open threes,” said Leonard. “And we didn’t play too well on defence … and offensive rebounds. That pretty much sums it up.”
The loss gave the Bucks a 1-0 lead in the best-of-seven series with Game 2 scheduled for Friday in Milwaukee.
Enough went right for Toronto. The fact it still lost will have to gnaw at them and possibly plant some seeds of doubt. The Raptors held Milwaukee to 39 per cent shooting and 25 per cent from deep and still lost. They avoided getting trampled by Antetokounmpo – 24 points, 14 rebounds and six assists a fairly ordinary night from him – and still lost. Toronto made 15 threes spread among six shooters and still lost.
“I thought we played tough tonight, a tough brand of basketball for the most part,” said Nurse, who started three bench players to begin the fourth quarter – a format the Raptors have struggled with all post-season – and saw the Bucks reverse a seven-point Toronto lead with an instant 8-0 run. “We gave ourselves a chance to win on the road in the Eastern Conference Final that didn’t turn out and we put in a lot of work, but you’ve got to file that one away and put in more work next time. That’s really where it starts.”
They have a day off to figure things out but the solutions don’t seem obvious against a Bucks team that will likely not be as rusty as they seemed in the first half after a nearly a full week off between series after eliminating the Celtics in five games.
The Raptors will look at the their three-point shooting – 15-of-42 for 35.7 per cent – and rightly believe there’s more water in that well. Pascal Siakam was 2-of-9 and didn’t have a defender within three feet for any of them, ditto Marc Gasol, who was 2-of-7.
But the flip side is true too. The Raptors wasted one of Lowry’s all-time best playoff performances as he combined his standard level of defence and effort plays with light’s out marksmanship as he set a career playoff mark with seven threes on nine attempts, all of them seeming to quiet a Bucks run or amplify a run by Toronto.
“It was really good, man. It was incredible. Making shots, being aggressive,” said Siakam, who had 15 points on 6-of-20 shooting. “That’s how we want Kyle to be. I think he played great tonight. Taking charges, doing the things that Kyle does. And at the same time, being aggressive offensively.”
The Raptors start was the stuff of dreams. One by one Nurse’s hopes from pre-game came true as if made to order. The Bucks weren’t able to get out and run at will; the Raptors defence carried over reasonably well from the previous series as the Buck shot just 9-of-27 and made five turnovers in the first quarter; the ball moved and people other than Leonard scored.
Coming into the game, Toronto’s top five rotation players other than Leonard had shot a miserable 27 per cent from deep, making it all the more remarkable they were able to win against the 76ers at all.
In Game 1 against the Bucks, four different Raptors had made threes before the first quarter was half over – all of them assisted — and none of them were Leonard, who made it five with his first field goal a minute later. The Raptors led by nine after 12 minutes.
But things started to turn. The Bucks went 3-of-15 from deep in the first quarter, but a deep three by Brook Lopez, the third of the quarter for Milwaukee capped off a 9-2 run that helped Milwaukee keep the Raptors in touch even though Toronto led 59-51 at the half. They eventually stretched their lead to 10 early in the third quarter.
There was little question the Raptors’s start had gone as well as Nurse or anyone else Raptors affiliated could have hoped. The ball was flying – Gasol’s second three was a thing of beauty as the ball pinged inside the paint and out before coming to the shot-ready Spaniard. Lowry, sore left thumb and all, had put his 1-of-20 from deep regular-season performance against Milwaukee aside with a 3-of-4 start and in the early going at least, they had largely contained the uncontainable force in holding Antetokounmpo to 13 points while coaxing him into three first-half turnovers. And if we’re looking for symbols, Leonard’s forceful strip under the basket that sent Antetokounmpo crumbling to the floor and the crowd into a mad frenzy is a good as any.
But they couldn’t sustain it.
They couldn’t quite keep Antetokounmpo down and they didn’t factor in 29 points, 11 rebounds and four blocked shots from Lopez, or 15 points off the bench from Malcolm Brogdon as he finds his form after a long injury lay off. The couldn’t plug the leaks as the rains came in down the stretch.
The Raptors had a chance to steal a game and couldn’t do it, and the Bucks feel like they got away with one and the best is ahead of them.
“We feel like we can get better,” said Bucks head coach Mike Budenholzer. “To get this win after pretty significant days without playing [the Bucks closed out Boston a week ago] – I think hopefully we’ll be better between now and Game 2.”
The Raptors have to hope – that word again – they can too. They have a short time to find some fixes, because there is no indication the storm is going to pass.