Adversity strikes for Raptors, is anyone capable of responding?

With 1:45 left in the first quarter of Game 2 and the score 33-15 the Raptors called a timeout. In the interest of time and our sanity that could have been the fourth quarter buzzer because there was not a chance in Dante’s inferno that the Raptors would mount anything of a comeback. There were many press conferences after, the ones that made the headlines were Marc Gasol blaming himself and Nick Nurse pondering how exactly to win with two of his starters (in addition to the non-existent bench) assuming the fetal position. There was one quote from Kawhi Leonard that I thought summed everything up: “If we want to do anything, be a championship team, we’ve got to play through adversity”.

There’s a scene in the TV show Billions where a psychiatrist is speaking to a brilliant astronaut who is the leading candidate to go on a space mission. Her resume is flawless, technical achievements perfect and physically fit. She is an obvious choice. However, the shrink’s recommendation is to reject her, much to the surprise of the person in charge of the operation. When asked to explain the decision she says, “She’s never had to deal with adversity. Never had to face terrible consequences. When something goes wrong in space as it always does, she’s going to crack…she needs a trip to the shaker room”:

This parallel isn’t perfect, in fact it might be argued that it’s flawed because the Raptors over the last several seasons have faced adversity and been to the shaker room. The same could be said about this post-season, especially against the Sixers. In previous years they’ve folded, and though they have progressed in the first two rounds, it’s been due to Kawhi Leonard’s sheer will and resolve. When adversity strikes, he is the one man whose response is equivalent to the occasion. The others shrink, and as Wendy Rhoades in the clip above suggests, they “crack”.

Danny Green cracks. Marc Gasol cracks. Pascal Siakam cracks. Kyle Lowry cracks. The bench cracks. They crack. Going down 15 in the first quarter should not signal the end of the game, yet any fan watching knew in their heart of hearts that this contest was over and that the rest of the night was giving service to basketball’s rules, not mounting a comeback. What can change in Game 3 and 4?

There are no hidden tricks up Nick Nurse’s sleeve. There are no rotations that will dramatically impact outcomes, and there certainly aren’t any secret plays that he’s yet to unleash, as he had stupidly (and very possibly inadvertently) suggested before the post-season. What the Raptors can do to shift this series is play with a higher degree of aggression and confidence. Their play is timid and unsure. In the face of Milwaukee’s pressure defense they panic and can’t think. This panic leads to turnovers, over-dribbling and not recognizing when shots are available. The compounding effect leads to the Raptors playing fast while being lost in their sets.

For example, the amount of hail-mary passes that the Raptors made in the first quarter had as much to do with the Bucks mounting that lead than the Bucks offensive play. Kyle Lowry trying to thread needles leading to turnovers has one primary motivation: he doesn’t feel confident they can get a shot in the half-court so tries to test his luck. It’s a low-percentage pass for Siakam and an impossible one for the lumbering and slow Gasol to bend down and collect. The effects are clear: turnover, crowd gets into it, Milwaukee gets momentum, they score, we get the ball back with even more pressure and the death spiral continues. Most importantly, the panic of the shook Raptors continues on the defensive end where they blow easy coverages. For example, Danny Green helping on a Lopez drive and leaving Brogdon open, or Siakam not reading a baseline screen and losing Giannis for a wide open dunk. There’s too many glaring reads that the Raptors aren’t making, and it’s not because they’re not capable of doing so, it’s because when adversity hits, all except Kawhi Leonard break.

That is what the home-court can help remedy: steady the nerves so we can actually play basketball and not just strive to survive. First, the Raptors have to be more physical. Marc Gasol should not be starting in this series against the more mobile Brook Lopez. Joel Embiid shot himself in the foot because of his inexperience and mouthiness; Lopez will not do that. Lopez can be neutralized via speed and agility, neither of which Gasol possesses. Serge Ibaka does and is more willing to make Lopez pay for camping out under the rim. On the other end the Bucks are paying such little attention to Gasol that they effectively have an extra defender on the court at all times. This is an obvious one and if Nick Nurse can’t see this he should be fired.

Second, Pascal Siakam has to do to Giannis what he’s doing to the Raptors. Putting pressure on the break and getting the Raptors on their heels. Currently, Giannis is not having to play any defense – he picked up one foul in Game 1 and two in Game 2. That has to change. They need to pay a price for their aggressive defense, and that price is a slow down in pace and an uptick in fouls. If the Raptors are able to get the Bucks into penalty situations, perhaps the game can be slowed down, and we can get to the FT line more (in both games the Raptors have been outshot there). It’s much harder to get attacked in transition from a dead-ball situation. This would also force Mike Budenholzer to think about this game a little because I’m pretty sure he’s watching Netflix on the bench.

Third, the Raptors have to put up more shots at the rim. They cannot afford to be taking too many jumpers leading to long rebounds to start the game. Not until they have some kind of offensive rhythm. If the first few possessions are Danny Green’s hesitant over-dribbled threes, Pascal Siakam taking anything but a corner three, Kyle Lowry’s no-rebounds-underneath pull-up bombs, then that sets the Bucks offense in motion. As Leo Rautins espouses every single game he’s ever called, go inside to establish your game and it’ll give you the requisite confidence to then take it outside. In this case, he’s right.

This is what the homecourt can enable for the Raptors. 2-0 sounds like a major hole, but psychologically that’s not the view to adopt here. All that’s happened is Milwaukee has protected their homecourt. The Raptors have to do the same, and it starts with winning Game 3 and setting up a pivotal Game 4. There’s been some points made about the crowd being quieter at the ACC these days on account of the lower bowl prices being inflated like a Zimbabwean dollar, and that’s probably true, too. The crowd definitely has needed more prompting than before. In Game 7, for the first time ever, I heard the PA announcer chant “Let’s go Raptors” into the microphone to whip things up. That was lame, and hopefully it’s not needed in Game 3.

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