There is something to be said about playoff experience. Players, coaches, and analysts say it all the time: It takes a taste of the postseason to know exactly what it takes to win down the line. Wayne Gretzky famously tells a story about looking into the New York Islanders locker room after his Edmonton Oilers were defeated, seeing the bumps and bruises and exhaustion, and clueing in as to what a championship run took. With a few exceptions here and there, titles require a progression of success, even if progress is not always linear.
The Toronto Raptors, then, put themselves in a great position on Saturday, because they managed to get Fred VanVleet, Jakob Poeltl, and Delon Wright some garbage-time run at the end of a playoff game. That experience will be valuable as soon as next year, after the Raptors blow up the current core.
I kid, of course, although that very much seemed to be the energy of the fan base after the Raptors dropped yet another Game 1 at the Air Canada Centre on Saturday. It was about as frustrating as losses come, a lackluster effort in a 97-83 defeat against a quality, plucky Milwaukee Bucks team that the Raptors are quite heavily favored against. It was a misstep, one that once again has the team behind the eight-ball in a playoff series, stuck in an 0-1 hole without the benefit of home-court advantage any longer.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Three years ago, the Raptors shook off years of futility to make the playoffs, essentially playing the role of the Bucks, the surprising and inexperienced team on the upswing just looking to amass experience and make a dent. A terrible postseason followed, but the Raptors spent all of last year answering questions new and old, exorcising demons, and establishing the core as worth pushing forward with. Their run to the Eastern Conference and the quality season that followed – one in which they were nearly as successful despite far more adversity and upheaval – were supposed to give the franchise a sense of stability and a sense of having outgrown the spectre of inadequacy that hung over them for two decades.
Saturday, then, was supposed to go according to a plan. The only thing left for them to knock off their “can’t do” list was a seemingly random, meaningless inability to win Game 1s, an issue that extends throughout the history of the team. Vince Carter and Chris Bosh have nothing to do with the current roster, of course, and those earlier teams just weren’t all that great, a reasonable explanation for losing games. Again, this was supposed to be different – this Raptors team is supposed to be good, they’re a favorite, and as much as there remain doubts about just how high they can rise, they’re supposed to be past the point of dreading each and every game as a referendum on their legitimacy.
Here they were, though, playing what felt like every type of typical Raptors game that has stressed and frustrated throughout the year.
It started early, with the Raptors getting out to their customary slow start thanks in part to a starting lineup that still hasn’t figured things out. Toronto was clearly wary of going to Jonas Valanciunas for fear of turnovers in Milwaukee’s trademark post double-teams, and so the Bucks paid him less mind in turn, making life as difficult on Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan as anticipated. DeRozan responded well early on, but Lowry continued his career Game 1 struggles, starting out timid and ultimately finishing 2-of-11 with four points, six assists, and little for the trademark force that have made him a major plus in the playoffs even when he’s struggled shooting in the past.
“It happens,” a somewhat solemn but unshaken Lowry said after the game. “I have to make the adjustments what they’re doing and figure it out and watch the film and go from there. Can’t leave myself in the hole, I’ve got to dig my way out, I’ve got to keep getting out, somehow, some way.”
Watching film will probably only help so much. The Bucks defended the way the Raptors should have anticipated, because it’s the way they’ve operated their base defense for the bulk of the year. The Raptors knew these blitzes and traps were coming, but they failed to execute well out of them. Their 15 assists perhaps undersold the ball movement thanks to the team’s 5-of-23 mark from outside, but it’s telling that no non-point guard had more than a single assist.
Head coach Dwane Casey was quick to point out that the Raptors have long succeeded as a low-assist offense and was steadfast that film review will show missed opportunities. That might be true – Milwaukee’s defense seems like the type that can be learned and exploited more and more over a seven-game series as an offense gets better at making the reads and poking holes in the aggression, but this was an inauspicious start, especially since the Raptors punted the biggest advantage they have in this series, grabbing just eight offensive rebounds.
“Not really. There were assist opportunities there,” he said. “The roller was open, the swing pass to the next pass, at the end of the day, those guys gotta make a play, make a shot. I don’t know if you’re gonna change your playing personality at this time of year. We had the low assists and we were top three or whatever early in the season, but again, we were making shots.”
The lack of shot-making wasn’t an issue coming out of the first quarter in an eight-point hole, because the Raptors locked in defensively. Valanciunas held Greg Monroe in check temporarily in the Lowry-and-bench lineup was able to go on a mini-run with only Jason Kidd staggering Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton (the Lowry-Cory-Joseph pairing is going to be difficult to play together when both of those players are on the floor, as Kidd hammered home in this same spot in the fourth quarter). The Raptors gummed things up for Milwaukee, limiting their transition opportunities and choking off their easy half-court cuts (hello, P.J. Tucker on Antetokounmpo), Serge Ibaka was incredible at both ends, and DeRozan found a bit of a groove scoring late in the half to take a five-point lead back.
That lead would swell to seven before the rails came off, Toronto’s cold shooting helping fuel Milwaukee’s transition game. The Bucks opened the third on a run, closed the third on a run, and then blew the doors off early in the fourth, totaling 14 fast-break points and 13 off of turnovers in the second half. Toronto shooting just 20 percent (!) over the second half and grabbing only 5 of 26 potential offensive rebounds let Milwaukee dictate the open-court flow of the game, and the Raptors broke, something they’re not supposed to have in their makeup any more.
“Our second half was just abysmal,” Casey said. “We didn’t play with any pace, any rhythm, any movement. You got to give them credit for doing a good job defensively. We got to figure out how to get a better rhythm, a better pace, spacing once the ball gets in the half-court we got to get better movement…You keep playing that way it’s always going to bite you in the behind. That’s what happened tonight.”
There is a long list of things the Raptors could have done differently or done better, and they have two days off to try to figure them out. Non-Tucker defenders need to keep Antetokounmpo’s legs from under him, and Patrick Patterson needs to get more opportunity in that matchup (and yes, a starting lineup tweak should be considered). The Raptors can’t play as small when Antetokounmpo and Middleton share the floor, because they’re not good enough at recognizing the cuts in Milwaukee’s corner offense and are too susceptible to post-up switches or back-door layups. Thon Maker won’t play as well, and if the Raptors are going to use Valanciunas for 23 minutes, they need to use him a bit more rather than just having him be the strong screen-setter he is, and he has to cause a greater problem on the offensive glass. Lowry also just needs to play a heck of a lot better, full stop, because in the words of Casey, the Raptors go as he goes.
They have some time. It’s a seven-game series, and there are nearly 48 hours between games. That can be a positive or a negative at times, but the Raptors don’t have the luxury of letting it be the latter.
“Doesn’t matter,” Tucker said of the break. “One day, two days, next day, just be prepared. We didn’t go out and execute our plan. Hopefully next game we will.”
The Raptors have been here before. They weren’t supposed to be again, not like this, and the hope now has to be that the experience they trumpeted ahead of the series manifests itself in the fight back in a way it didn’t for the opening salvo. It’s easy to wring hands and become disenfranchised after a loss like this, especially when the game felt so plainly winnable for three quarters. That’s how the Raptors certainly seemed to feel, as frustrated with themselves as much as anything. Same as it ever was, and with plenty of time to correct course.