In battle of East's best, Bucks prove Raptors are still finding their way

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TORONTO — On the night that LeBron James returned to the hardwood in Los Angeles following a blockbuster trade that shipped Kristaps Porzingis out of New York, the Milwaukee Bucks’ 105-92 trouncing of the Toronto Raptors became more than a battle for the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference. It was a tussle for the national spotlight, a chance for two perpetually anxious franchises to persuade the public that they too belonged.

The nerves were understandable — Milwaukee the league’s fourth-smallest market and the Raptors, well, in Canada — and persistent in the game’s opening. The Raptors and Bucks overthought their way to 11 combined turnovers in the game’s first twelve minutes, whipping drive-and-kicks overhead and telegraphing dribble hand-off passes.

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An hour before the game, All-Star reserves were announced. Khris Middleton, Milwaukee’s do-it-all swingman, made the cut, while Toronto’s mini-answer to Giannis Antetokounmpo, Pascal Siakam, did not. After a sloppy first, the game went the same way: the Bucks, connected and quick to pass, looked sharp while the Raptors looked like they were still finding their way.

This despite the fact that the Raptors had more cause for concern. The Bucks had a 2-1 season series lead going in, as well as the No. 1 seed. A win would have reduced Milwaukee’s cushion and eliminated the tiebreaker if the two teams finished the season with the same record.

Before the contest, Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer tried to downplay its importance. “There’s still some 30-odd games, and lot’s can change. You’re gonna have to win on the road in the playoffs.” And yet it’s the Bucks who are leaving Toronto with the tiebreaker in hand, and a 1.5-game lead that guarantees Budenholzer will coach for the East at the All-Star game in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Giannis Antetokounmpo threw it down on the Raptors on Thursday night. (Getty)
Giannis Antetokounmpo threw it down on the Raptors on Thursday night. (Getty)

The Raptors had their moments. For a few possessions in a row, Kawhi Leonard recognized he could come off pick-and-rolls and toast Brook Lopez, a 7-foot spacer who’s slow to contest mid-range jumpers. Leonard proceeded to hit a jumper, as well as a few floaters and free throws.

The problems arose when Milwaukee clogged the lane. Late in the game, Middleton tried to stay square and solid in the face of Leonard’s bruising backdowns. Leonard made traction, as any absurdly strong 230-pounder would, but Middleton bought the Bucks enough time to double-team intelligently. On another play, he led Leonard into Lopez’s arms and swiped him from behind.

“[Middleton] moved him off his spots a little bit and then when [Leonard] did get by them, they sent a lot of help and we didn’t seem to get it out there very often,” Nurse said after the game. “When we did, we didn’t shoot it well enough to make them pay.”

Leonard is a dangerous playmaker, but he often gets himself into sticky situations without assessing where his teammates are. His mentality, at heart, is to score first, and he is still figuring out how to make plays on the fly.

Both superstars had quiet scoring nights. Leonard had 16 points on 20 shots, and Giannis finished with 19 points and nine rebounds. The difference was that Milwaukee was better prepared for Antetokounmpo to get game-planned out.

“That’s how you win games,” Leonard said after the loss. “Everybody being connected and linked together, having the same mindset, the same goal and same energy.”

On the opening possession of the second quarter, the Bucks cracked Toronto’s zone defense by employing their ball-handlers to patiently look for cracks until Eric Bledsoe got trapped at the free-throw line and found Tony Snell for a three. From there, Giannis committed to push the ball, preventing the Raptors from getting set up.

It took the Raptors all of two regulation minutes to abandon the zone, at which point Antetokounmpo caught an inbounds pass, switched onto Norman Powell in a pick-and-roll, recognized the mismatch and immediately shooed teammate Malcolm Brogdon from the strongside corner to the weakside — if the Raptors wanted to double, Giannis would make it hurt. Within seconds, Giannis was pivoting away from Siakam’s double-team, surveying the floor, looking off Snell and finding Brogdon wide open in the corner for three. Giannis made a similar read during a critical juncture of the fourth quarter, when the Raptors kept switching point guards onto him, this time setting Lopez up for the world’s most awkward stop-and-pop jumper — right before setting up George Hill for another open three against the same coverage.

With Leonard smothered, Lowry faltered. He is now 7 of 30 from the field against the Bucks, the kind of combination of scheming and spooky bad luck that’s reminiscent of his bewildering postseason numbers (overblown as they might be).

It was Siakam who took the lack of attention and powered a late run, digging the Raptors out of a 24-point hole with a flurry of spinning and-1’s, including one that sent Giannis to the bench with his fourth foul right before Siakam picked Snell’s pocket, dished the ball ahead to Delon Wright and tipped in his missed lay up, showing every bit of the athleticism and IQ that nearly vaulted him to the All-Star game.

Despite the fact that the Raptors and Bucks are fairly evenly matched, with two superstars and a few promising pieces who may emerge into bona fide second options in the postseason, the lopsided outcome shouldn’t come as too much of a shock. The Bucks know who they are. They’re merely working out their wrinkles. The Raptors, with Lowry and Leonard only sharing the floor for 28 games, are still figuring it out.

“I think we had some unbelievable rhythm and I think we have lost some here with a stretch of weeks with Kyle out, Kawhi out, [Jonas Valanciunas] out, OG [Anunoby] out,” Nurse said. “Some of that rhythm that we had pretty early, maybe 20 games in, has come and gone a little bit.

“We have worked on some more things here in the practice days that I think will help us with some chemistry, some spacing, where people need to be when [Leonard] has the ball, how to get him the ball a little easier. All those things that we need to do because he is going to have the ball quite a bit.”

So it is that the Bucks walk away with a three-in-four chance of retaining home-court advantage through the Eastern Conference finals, yet to lose to the same team twice, while the Raptors reckon not only with the gulf that stands between them and the Bucks, but between who they are and who they could be.

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