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, and the Raptors still came out on the wrong end of a 108-100 loss. 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 even as the Raptors led after the first quarter, at half and at the start of the fourth.
As the game wore on the open looks dried up. Time and time again Toronto 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.
Meanwhile, the Bucks kept coming on in increments. A pair of Brook Lopez threes and a trip to the line by Antetokounmpo gave Milwaukee its first advantage since the opening minutes of the game. A Kris Middleton three – the Bucks co-star fairly dormant until that point – pushed the lead to three. A missed 12-footer by Gasol, set-up nicely by Kyle Lowry, went the other way for a Bucks dunk to put them up five midway through the fourth quarter.
The Raptors didn’t concede easily. Lowry, magnificent all night, tied the game with his seventh triple on eight attempts with 4:02 to play and Kawhi Leonard made two at the line shortly after to give Toronto a 100-98 lead at 3:32.
At this point the script might have called for Leonard to bring the Raptors home, but he never got a chance. Lowry scored 14 of his game-high 30 points in the fourth quarter; Leonard scored just two of his 29 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.
The loss gave the Bucks a 1-0 lead in the best-of-seven series with Game 2 scheduled for Friday in Milwaukee.
So much went right for Toronto and the fact they 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.
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 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; 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.
So Nurse wasn’t wrong.
But 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.
“It’s a blessing and curse,” said Green of the Raptors’ ability to rely on Leonard for offence. The blessing is obvious but the curse comes when his teammates struggle and Leonard takes more on to his own shoulders; as he dominates the ball more his teammates become less certain of when and where their offence is going to come from and it can spiral.
Early on against the Bucks it spiraled the other way.
At one point Serge Ibaka held the ball for a good seven seconds until the lane cleared out, then put the ball on the floor, spun into the paint and as the help came delivered an on-time, on-target pass to a waiting Norm Powell at the top of the circle who stepped into the open three like it was the fourth quarter of a blowout. It was the Raptors seventh triple on 14 attempts gave Toronto a 37-25 lead at the 10:44 mark of the second quarter, building on the six triples they made in the first quarter which was one off the franchise records for threes in the first quarter of playoff game. Another triple by Powell a moment later put the Raptors up 40-28.
But things started to turn. The Bucks went 3-of-15 from deep in the first quarter. 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.
There was little question that the two quarters had gone as well as better 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. If we’re looking for symbols Leonard’s forceful strip under the basket that sent Antetokounmpo crumbling to the floor and sent the crowd into a mad frenzy is a good as any.
They couldn’t quite keep Antetokounmpo down and they couldn’t plug the leaks as the rains game in down the stretch.
They have a short time to find some fixes, because there is no indication the storm is going to pass.
Full credit to orginal post, courtesy of: https://www.sportsnet.ca/basketball/nba/raptors-show-leaks-fail-weather-bucks-storm-game-1/