The Milwaukee Bucks made it very clear on Tuesday night that they weren’t content with just earning a split in their playoff-opening trip north of the border, following up their impressive Game 1 victory by giving the Toronto Raptors everything they could handle in Game 2. This time around, though, Kyle Lowry came to play, and to save the day, and to send this series back to Wisconsin level.
The Raptors’ All-Star bounced back from a disappointing four-point performance in Game 1, scoring 22 points and drilling a step-back dagger jumper over in-his-jersey defense from Bucks rookie Malcolm Brogdon with 8.9 seconds remaining:
“It was a broken play,” Lowry said with a laugh during a post-game interview with NBA TV’s Jen Hale. “DeMar [DeRozan] had two guys on him, kicked back to Serge [Ibaka]. Serge got me the ball, and I just wanted to get to my spot. I got to my spot, and shot the ball and made it.”
Lowry’s super-tough bucket gave Toronto a four-point lead that it would not relinquish, as the Raptors hung on for a 106-100 win that evened their best-of-seven first-round playoff series with the sixth-seeded Bucks at 1-1. Game 3 will tip off at 8 p.m. ET on Thursday in Milwaukee.
After going 2-for-11 from the field and 0-for-6 from 3-point land in another dismal playoff opener, Lowry came out eager to change the conversation on Tuesday, looking to attack the basket early, draw Milwaukee’s defensive attention, and facilitate ball movement in a Raptors offense that too often stagnated on Saturday. It paid off, as the three-time All-Star scored 17 points on eight field-goal attempts and a 7-for-7 mark at the charity stripe in 19 first-half minutes:
Despite strong starts from Lowry and All-Star running buddy DeMar DeRozan, though, the Raptors couldn’t keep the Bucks at bay. With center Jonas Valanciunas and power forward Serge Ibaka struggling from the floor, combining to shoot just 2-for-13 through two quarters, and Milwaukee getting infusions of offense from bulldozing reserve center Greg Monroe and sweet-shooting swingmen Khris Middleton and Tony Snell, the Bucks went into half trailing by only three, 55-52, even though All-Star forward Giannis Antetokounmpo had missed 10 of his 14 shots before intermission.
The two teams traded big blows after halftime. First, Toronto ripped off a 16-2 run behind its starting five, as Valanciunas, DeMarre Carroll and Ibaka — who sprained his left ankle in Game 1 and was a game-time decision for Tuesday’s tip — came alive on both ends of the court:
Milwaukee answered right back, though, responding with a 15-4 run fueled by Raptors turnovers, wide-open transition 3s by Snell and Middleton, and a huge driving dunk by Giannis:
A strong close to the third quarter from the free-throw line sent the Bucks into the final frame down only one, 84-83, and had many in attendance at Air Canada Centre uneasy at the prospect of dropping into an 0-2 hole heading back to Milwaukee.
The Raptors made their bid to close things out with an 8-0 fourth-quarter opening run behind a shooting-and-defense heavy lineup — Ibaka and Patrick Patterson up front, P.J. Tucker on the wing, Lowry and Cory Joseph in the backcourt — that Milwaukee struggled to guard with a unit featuring Monroe and Mirza Teletovic at the four and five spots. Kidd quickly reinserted Antetokounmpo and rookie Thon Maker, and the Bucks immediately began looking like the long-armed, active, terrifying crew that stunned the Raps in Game 1:
A 14-3 Milwaukee run got the Bucks within one, at 98-97, with 2:46 remaining. After an Ibaka jumper on the next Raptors possession, Giannis — who had struggled outside the paint all game long, with Toronto defenders ducking under high screens and daring him to shoot from the perimeter — did what stars do, drilling a right-wing triple to knot the score at 100 with 2:03 left:
Had the Raptors buckled in the face of an advancing 22-year-old Greek marauder, they’d be down 0-2, having dropped two straight at home, a hole out of which they failed to climb two years back against the Washington Wizards. Instead, DeRozan drilled a tough pull-up over Brogdon to put Toronto back on top by two, and Brogdon and Matthew Dellavedova missed a pair of wide-open 3s on the other end:
These two Bucks misses tho. pic.twitter.com/vXeDtfJKJ7
— Raptors Republic (@raptorsrepublic) April 19, 2017
Toronto wasn’t out of the woods yet, though. After rebounding Dellavedova’s missed 3, Tucker was fouled and sent to the free-throw line for a pair that could have made it a two-possession game. He missed both, giving the Bucks another chance to tie or take the lead.
On the other end, the Bucks ran a 1-4 pick-and-roll with Brogdon and Antetokounmpo that forced a switch, getting Giannis a one-on-one matchup with the much, much smaller Lowry. Antetokounmpo posted up, Lowry bodied him up before sort of pulling the chair, and Giannis wound up kicking the ball back out in search of an open teammate.
The Raptors scrambled, though, with Tucker forcing Middleton into a tough fading 18-footer. He missed and Toronto rebounded, setting the stage for Lowry to ice the game, holding off a whale of a closing charge by Antetokounmpo — who finished with 24 points (9-for-24 from the field) to go with 15 rebounds, seven assists and two steals in 42 minutes of work.
“Defensive stops, communication and trying to stop Giannis,” Lowry said with a laugh after the game. “That’s, like, an impossible task. But we did a good job of talking, communicating and getting this win.”
And yet, despite shooting 48 percent from the floor as a team, hitting a franchise playoff record 14 3-pointers, and getting 45 points from their All-Star backcourt plus a heck of a second half from Ibaka, who finished with 16 points, seven rebounds, six assists and two blocks, the Raptors still needed final-minute heroics and a pair of missed open 3s just to escape.
“We had an opportunity there,” Bucks head coach Jason Kidd said during his postgame press conference. “We got some great looks, the ball goes halfway down and comes out. That’s just basketball, and it can be nice, or it can be cruel.”
The Bucks will hope the basketball gods are back on their side when the series shifts to Milwaukee for Game 3 on Thursday. The Raptors, on the other hand, will hope that after another series-opening malfunction, they’ve got their leader back and fully operational, and that he’s enough to keep the odds tilted in their favor.
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