BENCH GASOL, START IBAKA
Loser: Pascal Siakam, the Raptor Wing Who’s Staying for Sure
Siakam hasn’t exactly been the revelation this series that he had been all season. Game 2 was his second questionable scoring night in a row: seven points, 4-for-9 from the field, and 0-for-2 from behind the arc. He didn’t take a single trip to the line, and fouled out with more than five minutes remaining. The timing didn’t matter, really, as Toronto was down 110-92, but it was the cap on an evening when Siakam was aggressive in all the wrong places.
Raptors optimists see Siakam as a consolation prize for whatever happens with Kawhi Leonard in free agency. I called him Leonard Lite; I’d still call him Leonard Lite. Those flashes of brilliance don’t go away with a pair of unfortunate games, especially considering Siakam may be dealing with the lingering effects of a calf injury from the Sixers series. Yet down 0-2 against what’s looking like an all-powerful Bucks team, it’s hard to rally around the fact that Siakam will be back next season. Milwaukee’s Fiserv Forum broke out in “Future Clipper” chants directed at Kawhi at one point, which is an NBA Twitter a thing to chant and depressing for Toronto—if it can’t pull off an NBA Finals appearance with Leonard, it certainly won’t be able to without him.
Siakam didn’t take the second-most field goal attempts behind Leonard on Friday, as he often did during the regular season, especially in the season’s second half. That was Kyle Lowry, who took 13 shots. Despite Lowry’s surge last game, he isn’t going to be the secondary scorer Leonard can count on each game. And, unlike Milwaukee, Toronto’s bench isn’t going to be much help, either. Five Bucks took more field goal attempts than Siakam in Game 2. That can’t happen in Toronto if the Raptors want to take both games on their home floor.
As much as Masai Ujiri did to put this roster together – acquiring Kawhi Leonard, acquiring Danny Green and Marc Gasol, elevating Pascal Siakam to the starting lineup – what’s clear against the Bucks is the Raptors aren’t deep enough to compete. Ujiri brought in a near-MVP in Leonard, but with OG Anunoby suffering from emergency appendix surgery, the Raps’ thin bench became that much thinner.
This much has been obvious in the playoffs against the better team: Fred VanVleet, such a great story after not getting drafted, such a great story after working his way into a life-changing contract, can’t play with the big boys. He’s a not-ready-for-prime time playoff performer for the Raptors. He hit some shots in the third quarter with the Raptors way behind, but he needed more earlier.
During the season, VanVleet averaged 11 points a game. VanVleet scored two points in Game 1 and had none halfway through the third quarter in Game 2. He scored 14 points in seven games against Philadelphia.
That isn’t good enough when Ersan Ilyasova is scoring at will off the bench for the Bucks and Malcolm Brogdon is doing the same.
Norm Powell was another great story, earning a big contract, then demonstrating he isn’t big-time at this time of year, although he got better in Game 2 as the game went on. Nurse has Serge Ibaka on his bench and, really, no one else.
The Bucks are a great front-running team in the same way that an avalanche is a great downhill skier, and if you give them a chance they will bury you. Everything was shaky, right from the start. Kyle Lowry turned the ball over early, twice. By the time the Bucks had a 14-3 lead Gasol and Green were a combined 1-for-7, and Milwaukee was flying. Gasol is a heady veteran who prepares rigorously and tries to stay in every moment, but he looked rattled. He fumbled a Kawhi Leonard pass in the lane, threw a backdoor pass to Kawhi that hit the rim.
His one field goal cut the lead to six, a jumper in the lane, and at least he took it with confidence. He was trying. But Toronto was down 10 when he sat, and Milwaukee rolled off the remainder of a 14-2 run that felt like it never really stopped. By halftime Gasol was 1-for-7, and Green 1-for-5, and they were just a part of a much bigger problem. Two Milwaukee bench players, Ersan Ilyasova and Malcolm Brogdon, had combined for 27 points. Toronto’s five starters had combined for 28, and the Raptors trailed 64-39.
“It made it pretty difficult, right,” Raptors’ head coach Nick Nurse when asked about Green and Gasol’s struggles. “Again, some of that’s design and some of it’s happening with the way they’re playing, especially with Marc. You know they’re sending (Brook) Lopez to the paint, to the rim all the time so Marc’s going to have his share of opportunities just because that’s the way the spacing lines up. I feel bad for him. Most of them went in and out, it’s like he’s a really good player, he’s a really good scorer, taking good shots and just couldn’t buy one. I even said at the first timeout, I think he was one for five or six at the first timeout, I said … let’s get him a bucket and maybe we can get him to see one go in. Again, they were good shots but to answer your question, it makes it tough, we’re taking what’s there, Danny’s a great shooter, Marc’’s a great scorer, guys that we need to step in and play and they will.”
The window, though, for it to mean anything is closing rather fast.
Gasol took this one very personally.
“The beginning kind of set us in a real bad spot and we couldn’t get a grip of the game early on and I take full responsibility for that,” he said.
Ersan Ilyasova, who came into this game the playoff leader in charges taken, suddenly became the Raptors biggest problem scoring from inside, scoring from outside and yes, still drawing charges even if they didn’t all seem like charges.
Through a half Ilyasova, in just 13 minutes had as many points, 15, as any player taking part in the game and four more than Toronto’s leading scorer Kawhi Leonard. Ilyasova wound up with 17 and was a game-best plus-22.
“You know, it’s not a team that we’re going to go beat with each guy trying to put it on their back,” Danny Green said. “We have to trust each other. The only way to beat this team is together. To try to limit them and try to stop the bleeding, stop the runs, not get too rattled, stay poised, continue to run our offence. I think we got out of our offence a little bit.”
“We just weren’t quite physical enough. We weren’t getting our screens set good enough,” Raptors coach Nick Nurse said. “We weren’t getting them off their screens good enough as well. We’re going to have to be better or they’re just going to look bigger and stronger than we are, and I don’t necessarily think that’s the case. We’ve got to play a little tougher.”
The rest of the series will reveal whether Nurse’s note of optimism was warranted or just lip service, but the Raptors don’t have the answers for Milwaukee’s long rotation right now. With the way the Bucks play, it is hard to beat them without scoring 110 or points so, and that is going to require knocking down open shots. Marc Gasol, Ujiri’s big acquisition at the deadline, went 1-for-9 in 19 minutes, and is now shooting 39.8 percent for the playoffs. Green, so solid during the regular season, continues to struggle to make the same impact within his role. He played 22 minutes.
Nick Nurse has been criticized for his use of three-reserve lineups the past few weeks because they have consistently been poor and often devolve into Fred VanVleet-Ibaka pick-and-rolls that go nowhere. Here, VanVleet then entered for Danny Green, rolling the three bench pieces with Leonard and Kyle Lowry. The process here is a little better — they’re leveraged by a ball-dominant star and a point guard who raises the play of his teammates, and the offence was rarely in VanVleet’s hands. What’s more, with the benefit of an early entry into the foul bonus and a more aggressive defensive approach, the Raptors got out and ran, something they hadn’t done well in these minutes prior. (They even flashed a little zone.) Two point guards and a speedy third guard in Powell forced a bit more urgency and kept the Bucks from settling into their deadly, smothering half-court defence.
“I think we played a little bit freer that quarter,” Lowry said. “That quarter, we played a little bit freer and made some shots. We just played a little bit better. We’ve got to play better defence. We gave up 125 points. That’s too many points in the playoffs. We’ve got to play much better defence.”
Marc Gasol had another atrocious outing, converting on just one of his nine field goal attempts on his way to two points, five rebounds, one assist, one block and two turnovers in 19 minutes. The Raptors clearly had a game plan to get him going early after he went just 2-of-11 from the field in their Game 1 loss, but he just kept chucking up bricks throughout game, and missed quite a few wide-open looks. Gasol hasn’t really had a big-time performance since landing in Toronto, and he’s been nearly invisible through the playoffs thus far with meager averages of 7.9 points, 6.0 rebounds, 2.9 assists, 1.1 steals and 1.1 blocks per game on 39.8% shooting.
Pascal Siakam wasn’t much better, hitting 4-of-9 shots for eight points, one rebounds, two assists and one steal before fouling out 26 minutes. “I’ve got to be more aggressive, I’ve got to do a better job, I’ve got to be better,” Siakam said after the game. “I’ve got to be smarter. There’s a couple fouls I just can’t have. It’s part of growing. It’s good to see that at the biggest stage you can’t make mistakes. I’m going to continue to learn, get better, watch film and make sure I’m better next game.”
4. Demoralizing: Marc Gasol deserves most of the blame for how the Raptors came out. The Bucks opted yet again to ignore Gasol in favor of containing Leonard, and Gasol responded by playing some of the worst basketball of his career. The catch-and-shoot jumpers weren’t falling, the pick-and-rolls went nowhere, and he looked helpless under the basket as Antetokounmpo loomed around every corner ready to erase his shot. He was just so utterly weak that it looked to have a demoralizing effect on the Raptors, while only further emboldening the Bucks to pack the paint.
5. Swap: The Raptors should seriously consider breaking up their starting lineup for Game 3. Gasol has shot 3-of-20 from the field in two games and is totally out of place chasing down the Bucks’ shooters. Ibaka hasn’t exactly lit the world on fire, but his hustle and scoring ability is better suited for how the Bucks like to play. Ditching their starting lineup would be a sure sign of desperation, but that’s where the Raptors are at this point.
— NBA (@NBA) May 17, 2019
Nurse had been asked pre-game what’s easier: preparing for a game after a win or after a loss?
“The losses should give you an edge and it should give you a determination thing, too,” Nurse said. “But in the playoffs, it doesn’t bode very well if you lose two in a row. So it puts a little bit more heat on you to get the win done on the second game.”
That heat has been cranked up a couple hundred degrees. Of the seven other times the Raptors have dropped the first two games of a playoff series, they’ve gone on to lose all seven series. Four of the series were sweeps.
The start of the game was a virtual reversal of two nights earlier, when the Raptors had the Bucks — rusty perhaps from their six days off between games — on their heels from tipoff. The Raptors led for 37 of the 48 minutes in a 108-100 loss, falling apart in a second half that saw every Raptor not named Lowry or Leonard shoot 1-for-23.
There was zero rust on Friday.
The Bucks outrebounded Toronto 53-40, two nights after beating the Raptors 60-46 on the boards. The Bucks turned the ball over just seven times, compared to 14 for the Raptors, costing them 19 points.
The Bucks’ best player – Giannis Antetokounmpo – finished with 30 points and 17 rebounds and five assists and is playing at a higher level than the Raptors’ best player, Leonard, who was met with “future Clipper” chants whenever he got to the free-throw line. Their second second-best player — Khris Middleton — held his own compared to the Raptors’ Kyle Lowry and the Bucks seem to have a list of players giving more than any of Pascal Siakam or Marc Gasol or Danny Green can provide.
The Raptors had three players in double figures — Leonard with 31, Lowry with 15 and Norman Powell with 14 off the bench — while the Bucks had three players score in double figures off their bench alone, and all of them hit that mark before the start of the fourth quarter, a big reason the Bucks had a 17-point lead heading into the final 12 minutes.
But human nature is to look for things to be optimistic about. In the hallways of Fiserv Forum, members of the Raptors brain trust remained outwardly confident that a serving of home-cooking would allow their club to claw back into a series. It may be wishful thinking against a Bucks team that is 10-1 in the playoffs, has won eight games by double digits and six by 20 or more — which ties an NBA record.
One area Toronto might point to is a third quarter where they outscored Milwaukee 39-31 and played a fast-paced up-and-down style the Bucks seemed happy to let them play. The Raptors’ only real hope was a 13-5 run midway through the third quarter that briefly provided a spark, as Toronto cut the Bucks’ lead to 13 after trailing by 28 early in the period. A big factor was the Raptors going smaller by playing Powell ahead of a struggling Gasol, but Milwaukee effortlessly surged back and took a 95-78 lead into the fourth quarter where they weren’t threatened.
Despite several small surges from Toronto during the second half, Game 2 provided precious little hope for Raptors fans just five days removed from witnessing Kawhi’s season-saving shot. Leonard continued his ludicrous run through the 2019 postseason, scoring 31 points on 10-of-18 shooting, but the rest of the team was 27-of-69 (39.1 percent). Toronto starters not named Kawhi went 11-of-37 (29.7 percent).
To beat a team as good as the Bucks—who just had the 29th-best regular season in NBA history, according to simple rating system—the North will need significantly better production.
In 2017-18, Toronto had eight players with at least 500 minutes and an above-average box plus-minus. Only the Golden State Warriors had more. It was depth that made the Raptors so good last season. And four of those players were dealt elsewhere since the end of the 2018 playoffs.
Jonas Valanciunas, Delon Wright, Jakob Poeltl and, of course, DeMar DeRozan are all gone. Marc Gasol and Leonard are in their place. Obviously, that’s a trade-off just about any front office in the league would make. But now, in the Eastern Conference Finals, Toronto looks overwhelmed against a deeper team.
Leonard has been doing his part. Gasol has to be better.
“The block is what stands out,” Bucks Coach Mike Budenholzer said. “When Giannis is active protecting the paint and rim, he plays so hard. He lays it all on the line all the time. It was a great start for us. Everybody fed off of Giannis. I’m beyond fortunate to have him.”
Antetokounmpo’s individual play makes him a worthy finalist alongside Houston Rockets guard James Harden and Oklahoma City Thunder forward Paul George. But it’s his ego-less leadership and impact on the Bucks’ offense, defense and culture that sets him apart this year.
As with Tim Duncan and Stephen Curry before him, Antetokounmpo has a personality and approach that are quieter than his overwhelming highlights. He might scream after a dunk, but he never fails to get back on defense. He might relentlessly drive to the hoop with his signature long strides, but he always has an understanding of where his shooters are located. He might be impossible to handle in single coverage, but he is a willing and intelligent passer who regularly defers credit to his teammates in news conferences.
Antetokounmpo finished with 30 points, 17 rebounds and five assists Friday, and his early attacks put the Bucks in a commanding position and put the Raptors’ defense back on its heels. Toronto Coach Nick Nurse agonized during his pregame news conference about Milwaukee’s perimeter attack, and his concerns proved founded.
“Our help [on Antetokounmpo] has got to be great, and then when [the ball] fires out to your man, you’ve got to go,” Nurse said. “I think our level of shot-contesting is another real key in this thing. The 40 threes are going up tonight. That little eight inches closer that you can get — and jump a little higher and contest it a little harder — makes a difference.”
“If we want to do anything, be a championship team, we’ve got to play through adversity,” Leonard said. “It’s a challenge now to come home, Game 3, and try to get a win.”
Two nights after a close Game 1 loss that left the Raptors lamenting an opportunity missed, Game 2 got ugly early. Antetokounmpo’s block on Gasol had Fiserv Forum crowd chanting “M-V-P!” The 6-11 forward fondly known as the “Greek Freak” played like an MVP. Gasol, meanwhile, seemed shaken by the block, missing his first four shots, and smacking his hands in frustration when he fumbled a pass.
How tough is it to stop the bleeding?
“Very tough,” Leonard said. “Especially on the road. You get down in the hole, and you’re on the road, it’s tough to come back in that game. They got adrenalin running, they’re feeling confident, and we’ve just got to really try to lock in and chip it down point by point and see what happens.”
A George Hill basket capped a 12-0 run that gave the Bucks an 18-point lead, and they roared into the second up 35-21.
The Raptors’ suffering continued. When Lowry missed on a free throw, a large section of fans chanted “Playoff Lowry!” And when Lowry fouled Ilyasova late in the first half, the Raptors point guard took a seat with a troublesome fourth foul, and Ilyasova’s free throw gave the Bucks a 23-point lead. Milwaukee took a 64-39 advantage into the halftime break.
“Where do you go from here?”
Kawhi: “I’m going to Toronto for Game 3” 😂😂 pic.twitter.com/DLNPPDTKDj
— Yahoo Sports Canada (@YahooCASports) May 18, 2019
Two more and – unless things change radically for the Raptors in every phase of the game from what we’ve seen – the basketball metaphor of their 2019 postseason is going to fall harmlessly to the side. No points, no buzzer-beater, no victory, no nothing.
Two games into this best-of-seven series, it’s already hard to see a way out for the Raptors that doesn’t include Hefty bags, cleaned-out lockers and a wide-open month of June.
Toronto played well enough to win in Game 1, yet managed to lose it anyway thanks to an open elevator shaft of a fourth quarter that qualified instantly as something that would haunt them. Then they played miserably in Friday’s Game 2, save for a stretch in the third quarter when slippage in Milwaukee’s focus appeared as culpable as anything Raptors-related.
Kyle Lowry, Toronto’s veteran point guard, is wandering around these days with a modified blue oven mitt on his left hand. It’s there to protect the thumb he sprained in Game 7 against Philadelphia. That’s the game that got the Raptors here, the one decided by Kawhi Leonard’s eternal-highlight shot at the end that bounced four times on the rim before dropping through the net.
It’s been kind of downhill for their crew since then.
Anyway, Lowry was asked a series of questions after Milwaukee’s 125-103 triumph at Fiserv Forum about the defense, about the rebounding, about the shift from the Bucks’ floor to the Raptors’ for Games 3 and 4 beginning Sunday. And Lowry earnestly answered by saying, yes, they have to defend better, they have to rebound better and they definitely have to assert themselves more to defend their Scotiabank Arena home court.
“The beginning [of the game] set us in a really bad spot,” Gasol said. “We couldn’t get a grip of the game early on, and I take full responsibility for that.”
Gasol finished with only two points on 1-for-9 shooting from the field, and he now is 3-for-20 over the first two games of the series. On Friday, he logged 19 minutes in total — only five in the second half — as Raptors coach Nick Nurse opted to play Serge Ibaka for much of the second half.
“I feel bad for him,” Nurse said. “Most of those went in and out. It’s like, he’s a really good player, a really good scorer. He was taking good shots and just couldn’t buy one.”
Gasol, who was crucial to containing Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid in the Raptors’ previous series, was hardly the sole or decisive factor in the Raptors’ blowout loss on Friday. Toronto, which ranks second among playoff teams in defensive efficiency in the postseason, allowed Milwaukee to score 50 points in the paint and 28 in transition in Game 2.
With the loss, the Raptors now trail the Bucks 2-0 as the series moves to Toronto for Game 3 on Sunday.
After being nipped by Milwaukee in the closing minutes of Game 1 on Wednesday night, the Raptors sputtered out of the gate in Game 2. They trailed 9-0 after three minutes of action, during which Gasol missed three shots, including a layup attempt swatted away at point-blank range by Bucks center Brook Lopez.
“I played really bad, and that set the tone,” Gasol said.
The Bucks contested the Raptors’ shots throughout. Toronto shot 10 for 32 (31.2%) on three-pointers after going 15 for 42 (35.7%) in the first game. It was clear that Milwaukee defenders wanted to run the Raptors off the three-point line.
“I thought we got better in Game 1 toward the end,” Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said. “The fourth quarter, our defense got better. And I think some of that carried over into the first half (of Game 2).
“You get a little bit of a rhythm. Our guards on the ball, taking individual pride doing what we need them to do. And then the activity from the bigs. Just all that kind of working in concert. Making every shot they take tough, whether it’s a three, a two, in the paint. No matter where it is, we want them taking tough shots.”
Even the Bucks players who haven’t been around all season have bought into the defensive mentality.
Nikola Mirotic was acquired by the Bucks in early February, mostly to add another shooter to the lineup.
But the 6-foot-10 Mirotic has caused disruption on the defensive end with his length. He had six rebounds in Game 2 and knocked several balls loose.
“It’s been great,” Budenholzer said. “I think it’s been a theme now for a few games or coming off the last series now into this one.
“I don’t know what the right word is, but I think he’s just taking a lot of pride and showing that he can guard different positions and guard wings and shooters and chase guys. He’s doing little things in transition, getting back, finding shooters. He’s just got like an edge to him that I think has been good for our team. We need him to continue to do that.”