MILWAUKEE — The Bucks have dropped only one contest all postseason, but for much of Wednesday night’s game against Toronto, Milwaukee was falling victim to the same problems that doomed them in that defeat.
The Raptors, just like the Celtics in Game 1 a round earlier, were walling off the painted area with several stoppers, making life difficult around the rim for likely MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo. Those efforts in half-court situations often dared the Bucks’ role players to shoot from outside — something Milwaukee was ready and willing to do, but generally failing with.
But unlike in that loss to Boston, the Bucks found their stroke just in the nick of time against Toronto, and they paired that offensive breakthrough with a defensive effort that stifled the Raptors’ scorers late. The result: The Bucks earned a 108-100 victory here in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals.
Milwaukee big man Brook Lopez (29 points) was sensational, hitting three triples in the final quarter, including what turned out to be the game-sealing three with just under two minutes to play. He helped turn the tide in what up to that point had been a dismal 6-of-35 performance from deep by the Bucks, the most prolific 3-point shooting club after the Rockets during the regular season.
Even after Lopez and his Milwaukee teammates shot 5-of-10 from there in the fourth, the Bucks finished at just 25 percent (11 of 44) on the night, easily one of their worst showings all year. On many levels, that — paired with a relatively mild night from Antetokounmpo (24 points and 14 rebounds on 7-of-16 shooting) — suggested that the Raptors were in great shape to steal a game on the road. And none of that even covers the Raptors’ biggest bright spot: Guard Kyle Lowry, who’s been impactful but inefficient on offense during these playoffs, having a stellar 7-of-9 night from deep. Lowry went scoreless in Toronto’s playoff opener but was decisive on Wednesday, pouring in 30 points.
Yet it was all for naught in a game that will haunt the Raptors if they ultimately lose the series. Toronto got almost nothing after halftime from its non-All-Stars. Excluding Lowry and Kawhi Leonard, the Raptors shot 1 for 23 from the floor in the second half (and that lonely basket was a third-quarter buzzer-beating triple from Pascal Siakam). Arguably even worse: Outside of Lowry, no Toronto player even scored a basket in the fourth period, a span in which his teammates shot 0-for-15. Leonard had two free throws; Siakam had one. No one else scored.
Norm Powell missed on his lone attempt. Fred VanVleet and Danny Green misfired twice each. Leonard and Siakam tried and failed three times apiece. And Marc Gasol bricked all four times.
It’s fair to wonder if fatigue is partly to blame for the Raptors’ shooting struggles — they missed a handful of open looks down the stretch after entering the series with far less rest than Milwaukee got. But the Bucks’ No. 1 defense also deserves credit for making life tough on Toronto.
Antetokounmpo said after the game that Milwaukee, which deployed Khris Middleton and Malcolm Brogdon on Leonard, sought to push the Raptors star to his left throughout the night. The numbers bear that out: 11 of Leonard’s 15 drives were to his left on Wednesday (or 73 percent), according to data from Second Spectrum. That’s a pretty substantial shift from what he normally does: 57 percent of his drives were to his right over the course of this season. (The Bucks have made this a regular part of their defensive effort against elite scorers, most notably against lefty James Harden, whom they had success against by forcing him to his right.)
Using other wings on Toronto’s best player, a replication of what the Bucks did during the regular season, allowed Antetokounmpo the freedom and energy to roam and offer help on D. He made a pair of huge plays on that end to stop the fire-breathing Lowry in the fourth quarter, impressively forcing the guard into a double-dribble early in the period before literally swatting away the Raptors’ last-ditch effort in the closing seconds of the ballgame.
It’s worth mentioning that Toronto did plenty right in this game, too. Unlike in Game 7 against Philly, in which a handful of Raptors looked almost afraid to shoot, Lowry and others weren’t hesitant on open looks, even if their shots were off the mark in the second half. And the Raptors’ defensive plan likely would have earned them a victory had it not been for Lopez’s outburst in the last period. Early on, they swarmed Antetokounmpo whenever he entered the lane. The Bucks shot 23 percent (3 for 13) on drives during the first half, down from the 55 percent Milwaukee shot in drive situations in the first two rounds, according to data from ESPN’s Stats & Information Group. Toronto found success when it forced Giannis into half-court scenarios during that span, limiting him to just 3-of-9 shooting from the field with three turnovers. (By contrast, he shot 3 of 4 during the first half when he managed to get out in transition.)
The real difference was Lopez, a player the Bucks signed for a criminally cheap amount of cap space this past offseason, finding his touch from outside. His last triple stemmed from a play on which the Raptors, again concerned about an Antetokounmpo drive through the lane, overcommitted with one too many help defenders. Gasol helped too far down into the paint on Giannis, leaving Lopez wide open behind the left wing. Lopez’s play will be worth watching going forward. If Toronto can’t slow him down with their current lineup, the Raptors may have to go smaller in hopes of speeding up the game, which would make it more challenging for Lopez to defend and stay on the floor.
Toronto showed it can more than hang with the Bucks. But given that Milwaukee shot unusually poorly from outside and didn’t get an otherworldly performance from its superstar, the Raptors should be kicking themselves that they didn’t close the game better and find a way to steal one on the road. Opportunities like those don’t come very often against teams of Milwaukee’s caliber.
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