The Toronto Raptors have not won Game 1 of an NBA playoff series in 16 years. They’ve lost as favorites and underdogs, in opening rounds and later ones, at home and on the road. With each defeat, the trend has become more and more inexplicable.
Sure enough, the ‘Game 1 Raptors’ reappeared Saturday in Toronto’s 2017 playoff opener. Even as the No. 3 seed, even as a 7.5-point favorite over the Milwaukee Bucks, the trend continued. The Raptors stumbled to a 97-83 loss and a 1-0 series deficit.
Saturday’s loss on its own, however, was far from inexplicable. It had a couple simple explanations, and one big, long one was named Giannis Antetokounmpo. The Greek Freak scored 28 points to lead the Bucks to their first series-opening win in 16 years.
The first-time All-Star and soon-to-be All-NBA selection was the undisputed best player on the court for the majority of his 38 minutes. He wowed fans with his mind-boggling combination of length, athleticism and skill, and made the statement that he’s been threatening to make all season: It’s time to stop talking about Giannis and potential; t’s time to stop talking about Giannis and the future; it’s time to start talking about Giannis and the present, and perhaps even about his ability to carry this young Bucks team to a playoff series win.
But there is no definitive explanation for the way the Raptors played. They tightened up as early as the first quarter, and never loosened. A sold-out, anticipatory crowd became agitated. Groans accompanied missed shots as the Bucks jumped out to a 32-22 lead, then as the home team shot 3-of-20 to open the second half.
Raptors fans surely knew the history; they surely knew their franchise had lost eight series openers in a row; but they surely didn’t expect such a dire offensive performance — not from a team that ranked sixth in the league in offensive efficiency during the regular season. Toronto went 7-for-34 (20.6 percent) from the field in the second half:
The emphatic stamp on the evening was a ferocious Antetokounmpo block on DeMar Derozan, whose 27 points weren’t nearly enough for the Raptors:
The Bucks star was whistled for a technical foul for his celebrations, which irritated DeRozan, but Toronto’s star was likely more irked by Antetokounmpo’s dominance.
In fact, much of the game turned into an Antetokounmpo highlight reel. The first quarter, and portions of the second, belonged to the NBA’s brightest young star. Antetokounmpo showed the national audience why he’s such a special player. He got the Bucks going by gliding down the lane and throwing in a majestic dunk:
DeMarre Carroll attempted to pick Antetokounmpo up in the backcourt. All that did was allow the Greek Freak to get downhill 40 feet away from the rim. A flailing Jonas Valanciunas had no chance.
Antetokounmpo then abused Carroll with a stop-and-go and a ridiculous left-handed jam over a grounded Serge Ibaka:
Those were two of four first-half Giannis dunks. The fourth was similarly awe-inspiring. Antetokounmpo overpowered Ibaka and punished both the Raptors’ defender and the rim:
— NBA (@NBA) April 15, 2017
Antetokounmpo and the Bucks were able to get out in transition on several occasions, both in the first half and the second. They scored 17 fastbreak points to only four for Toronto. The open floor was a perfect stage for Giannis’ freakish athleticism. Even when the Raptors tried to corral him, literally, he finished through contact:
— NBA TV (@NBATV) April 15, 2017
Ibaka and DeRozan led the Raptors back from the double-digit deficit with 14 and 18 first-half points, respectively. Toronto had 32 points in the paint over the opening 24 minutes, and took a 51-46 advantage into halftime.
The turning point in the game, however, came late in the third quarter with both teams struggling to find any offensive rhythm. And, unexpectedly, it came without Antetokounmpo on the floor.
The Bucks trailed 68-64 with four minutes to play in the third, and confronted the deficit with Antetokounmpo on the bench with four fouls. Without its star, Milwaukee’s secondary players stepped up. The ball hummed around the court on the offensive end, four different players scored, and the road team closed the quarter on an 11-2 run.
Both Malcolm Brogdon and Matthew Dellavedova played key roles in the second half for Milwaukee. Dellavedova hit a crucial three late in the third that was part of the run. Brogdon, a Rookie of the Year candidate playing in his first playoff game, was the Bucks’ second-leading scorer with 17.
The Bucks also got 14 points and 15 rebounds from Greg Monroe off the bench, and major contributions all around on the defensive end. They held the Raptors without a made field goal between the 5:05 mark of the third quarter and the 7:48 mark of the fourth. By that point, Milwaukee led by 14. It wouldn’t let the Raptors claw back to within single digits. Antetokounmpo made sure of that with a couple unfair moves late in the fourth.
The series will stay in Toronto for Game 2 on Tuesday (7 p.m. ET, NBA TV) with Toronto facing what amounts to a near-must-win. A second consecutive loss on the road would border on disastrous. Kyle Lowry, who had just four points on 2-of-11 shooting Saturday, must assert himself as a protagonist. The Raptor frontcourt must take advantage of Milwaukee’s lack of girth in the paint to a greater extent than it did in Game 1.
Toronto recovered from a Game 1 loss to the Pacers last year to win two-straight, and to eventually win the series in seven games. Its second-round bout with Miami followed an identical trajectory. A similar turnaround must begin 72 hours from now if the Raptors are to avoid more playoff disappointment.