MILWAUKEE—Against Philadelphia, sometimes the Toronto Raptors offence looked scared. Maybe scared is the wrong word: spooked, squirrelly, vexed. The 76ers were huge. Joel Embiid was terrifying. The series concluded in Game 7 with Kawhi Leonard all but shouldering the whole thing.
Then Toronto escaped, and it was a new chance, and for a while it looked like they were free. They defended the galactic Giannis Antetokounmpo as well as you can. They held the other Bucks back from three. And for a while, they absorbed every Milwaukee run, and pushed back. Kyle Lowry, it seemed, couldn’t miss.
And they still couldn’t grab this chance, and it may come back to haunt them. After leading by as many as 13 in the first half, and by seven entering the fourth quarter, the Raptors simply stopped scoring late, and lost Game 1 of the Eastern Conference final 108-100 to Milwaukee. This was a blown chance, and they’re only allowed three more.
It was the same story: the Raptors are struggling to find enough offence. Kawhi Leonard had to work against Khris Middleton, and he had to work against a crowd. He went 10-for-26 for his 31 points, and scored just two in the fourth. You could live with that, maybe. But they couldn’t.
Marc Gasol just didn’t make the shots he got. Pascal Siakam got away from Embiid only to run into Antetokounmpo, who can make the Cameroonian look a little like a mini-me. Danny Green wasn’t getting shots again, just like he wasn’t getting shots in Game 7. The bench wasn’t terrible. But it wasn’t much.
Milwaukee crashed the offensive glass, got to the line, got 29 from centre Brook Lopez, and Giannis can’t be fully contained. Lowry didn’t look like a guy whose thumb had been wrenched out of the socket three days earlier. At times, they played free.
This is a new chance. But not an easy one.
“I mean, I think for some guys, you could even actually use those exact words: You had a clean slate,” said Raptors coach Nick Nurse before the game. “This series presents a new team, a new set of opportunities, right, a new set of issues, whatever it is. And man, I hope we make some more of those shots. I’ve been saying that for a while, though.”
He had. Internally, Toronto believed that the offence would actually do better against Milwaukee’s top-ranked D than it did against Philadelphia, because the 76ers size was simply devastating. They noted Fred VanVleet and Norman Powell had played well against the Bucks in the past, and hoped they would be playable again. Well, not in three-reserve lineups, they weren’t.
The defence was the thing they could count on, in theory. Before the game, Nurse said that the Raptors didn’t need to decide between collapsing on Giannis’s rampages to the rim and sticking with the Bucks shooters. He said, “For right now it’s not an either/or. You’ve got to do both.”
Well, Toronto’s defence collapsed well on Antetokounmpo, and usually recovered to contest shots. That it took Giannis 13 first-half shots to score 13 points while the Bucks shot 6-23 from three-point range — well, that was not quite best-case, but it was close. Milwaukee was still 6-for-34 from three going into the fourth, which was a huge — and possibly irreplicable — help. It couldn’t fully last.
The Raptors just needed to make shots. They needed to find enough offence, where they could. They couldn’t.
“I hope we make some, and I hope we create them,” said Nurse. “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 for most of the year.
“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.”
Whatever happened, this was a Milwaukee team that had been sitting around for a week after waxing Boston. This series was a collision of interlocking pieces, and if you looked at them individually you could see startling similarities. Two-way superstars? Giannis, and Kawhi. Long, limb-y scoring forwards? Middleton, Siakam. Fireplug point guards? Eric Bledsoe, and Lowry. Lopez and Gasol at centre, Nik Mirotic and Serge Ibaka as helpful power forwards, and Green and Malcolm Brogdon as sharpshooting guards.
The Bucks were stronger after that top six. So the real question was how the pieces fit together, and against one another. The Raptors won two fewer games than Milwaukee this season while mixing and matching and experimenting, while the Bucks were the college student who had everything in order more or less all year long. You could also argue the Bucks hadn’t really played anybody yet, since Detroit’s best player was on one leg, and Boston was so sick of Kyrie Irving that all Milwaukee had to do was locate the self-destruct button, and gently urge the Celtics to push it.
But the Bucks are tough, and will continue to be tough. Look, those Celtics Game 1 in Milwaukee by a lot, and four games later their backup point guard was airing after-season grievances on ESPN. The Raptors can play in this series, but they have missed their first shot. This will be hard.
Bruce Arthur is a Toronto-based sports columnist. Follow him on Twitter: @bruce_arthur