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MILWAUKEE — First, there was a grunt behind the walls of the Toronto Raptors’ locker room.
Then, three loud bangs of a frustrated fist.
It’s far too early for regrets, but the Raptors knew Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals — a 108-100 loss to the Milwaukee Bucks on Wednesday night — was the one to steal. Instead, rested legs prevailed against a team playing in the rhythm of high-intensity playoff basketball.
Or, more pointedly, Kawhi Leonard and Kyle Lowry couldn’t beat a deep Bucks squad alone, as their Raptors teammates combined to hit one field goal in the second half.
That’s right, one, thanks to a Pascal Siakam bucket in the third quarter.
Coming in off the emotionally draining series victory against the Philadelphia 76ers, the Raptors seemed to play a near-perfect three quarters. The much-maligned Lowry hit 7 of 9 triples for 30 points and made critical plays to keep the momentum from fading quicker than it did.
“He was great,” Raptors coach Nick Nurse said of Lowry. “It’s been awhile since he had one of those nights where every time he pulled up you thought he was going to make it. He was fighting like heck out there.”
Leonard, who could be a tired man a week from now due to his workload and heavy usage, cobbled together a 31-point performance on 26 shots. A little more from the fringes and the Raptors could’ve snatched home-court advantage from the conference final novices with the NBA’s best record.
But a 32-17 fourth-quarter surge from the Bucks was the difference, with Brook Lopez emerging from his playoff slumber to score 13 of his team-high 29 points to push his team to a 1-0 series lead.
"No, we had a couple days off, we were good,” Raptors swingman Danny Green told Yahoo Sports, dismissing the notion of tired legs. “This is a young team, a professional team. It’s the Eastern Conference finals, we were supposed to come in with energy, regardless of the last series. It’s irrelevant now.”
You expect an onslaught of 3-point shooting from the Bucks, but they hoisted brick after brick from long range, hitting just 25 percent. Or you expect Giannis Antetokounmpo to have an MVP showing, playing at a dizzying pace that overwhelms, but his 24 points, 14 rebounds and six assists were more workmanlike than devastating.
You don’t expect a player who hit a total of three 3-pointers in his first eight years in the league to spark a team searching for something extra to propel them to an ugly-ish win.
But a seven-point lead dissipated with the unlikely Lopez — who did make 187 regular-season 3-pointers this season — hitting two triples to start the fourth quarter. Lowry tried to keep the Raptors afloat, but no one except the headstrong point guard could muster a field goal in the period — 15 shots, 15 misses. At times they looked passive, as they did in Game 7 against the 76ers. Luckily, they had Leonard to bail them out that night with a boundless reservoir of energy down the stretch and a once-in-a-lifetime shot.
But even he appeared worn down by the defense of Khris Middleton and Malcolm Brogdon, who took turns guarding Leonard to varying degrees of success. After carefully being managed throughout the season by the Raptors’ staff, Leonard hasn’t missed a game since March 30, playing 18 straight contests.
His longest stretch before now was a nine-game streak in early December before taking two straight games off to rest.
In this series, the games will be every other day and 40-minute nights will be the norm. It’s clear the Bucks want to have him fatigued late in the game.
“He’s the focal point of their offense,” Antetokounmpo said. “Kawhi is Kawhi, he’s going to hit shots. In the fourth quarter, it was tough for him. I think we made him feel us the whole game. That’s what we were trying to do as a team, trying to make him play one against five.”
Green shot 1 of 5 in 35 minutes and believes officials missed a critical call in which he felt he was tripped by Middleton, leading to a Bucks basket that helped push them to a decisive advantage.
“We were playing well for three quarters,” Green told Yahoo Sports. “In the fourth, we had some mental lapses. It starts with me. I gotta do a better job of taking care of the ball, getting open, finding people, running the floor and rebounding. Being active. Things aren’t finding me.”
Leonard admitted in the postgame news conference that tired legs could’ve affected the Raptors but didn’t present that as an excuse. Besides, it would dismiss the relentless nature the Bucks have relied upon all season — even if Antetokounmpo is the obvious ringleader.
“Bud [Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer) has preached it since training camp. In the fourth quarter, he doesn’t want us to stop to slow the ball down,” Middleton told Yahoo Sports. “He wants us to continue to shoot early shots, drive the ball and try to get fast breaks for early points.”
The Bucks seemed to push the action, forcing the Raptors to retreat and attempt to methodically maximize possessions — a formula the Boston Celtics couldn’t sustain for more than a couple of minutes at a time.
The Bucks’ patience feels like maturity wrapped inside a champion’s poise, knowing they don’t need their best game to muster a win because they’ve realized how to manage a 48-minute game. “Kawhi had a great game, Kyle Lowry had a great game, also,” Middleton said. “We were able to withstand their runs, stay within striking distance and make our final push in the fourth quarter.”
The Bucks’ formula seems simple enough: Play harder than their opponent and longer than it, too. And it’s worked for the better part of eight months.
“We don’t quit as a unit,” Lopez said. “We keep hounding, keep hounding and grinding, then we finally got there.”
Still, though, the Raptors felt like this is the one that got away.
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