There’s something to a team finding themselves in the face of adversity, and it can be an exciting thing to witness. It happened for the Raptors in the second round against Philadelphia when they showcased their strength on the defensive end to win drag-it-out, physical games to escape the series, and that’s what they brought forward with them against Milwaukee. The Raptors came prepared with a game plan for a tough, low-scoring series, the game plan that had got them to the Eastern Conference Finals.
Unfortunately, the Milwaukee Bucks are not the Philadelphia 76ers, as has been demonstrated through the first two games of the series. You can’t grind it out against them because they are a sledgehammer in basketball form.
Toronto’s front office made some great moves throughout the last twelve months to prepare this team for a long playoff run, knowing they needed that sales pitch to potentially keep Kawhi Leonard longer than just one season after bringing him on board. They consolidated their depth and had the second best record in the league this season despite a very tough year on the injury front and an inability to really establish cohesiveness due to that. Pascal Siakam’s breakout year was a large part of that, but despite being an older third-year player, he remains someone still relatively young in his basketball career and still learning as he goes, and that’s been abundantly clear in some of his playoff struggles as defenses key in on him.
The front office, however, accounted for that as well, in bringing in a couple of older playoff veterans who had been through the fire of tough, long playoff runs against great teams in years previous. Guys who could help guide the younger Raptors through the struggles and keep the team afloat until those guys came along. That was supposed to be the role of Danny Green and Marc Gasol on this team. Green, the veteran who had been to the promised land previously and played a role on a championship team, and Gasol, the veteran who hadn’t quite been there but who could bring a necessary desperation because of that, knowing that his chances to win a title in the remainder of his career would be limited.
Especially with a rookie head coach and a startling lack of depth at the outset of the playoffs for the Raptors, those guys were clearly going to be necessary elements, and in the first two rounds each of them had some big moments for the team but never quite looked entirely comfortable. To their credit, the Bucks did a good job on their scouting and read that in the Raptors. They saw that those players hadn’t stepped up to the degree that the Raptors had hoped, and they built a defensive gameplan to challenge Green and Gasol to find their game. The Bucks decided that they were going to allow those players the space to make an impact and take it away from Kyle Lowry, Kawhi Leonard, and Pascal Siakam, and the Raptors haven’t yet found a way to punish that. The reduced space has stifled Siakam’s game, playing his second straight series guarded by a Defensive Player of the Year candidate and never looking entirely comfortable, and it has limited Kawhi to looking effective but mortal.
The first half of Friday night’s game was the Raptors looking for the answers that this strategy demanded and finding little and the Bucks taking advantage of the confusion to punish them as they raced out to a large lead. In the second half, the Raptors found some answers mostly in the form of minimizing those players and looking to Serge Ibaka and Norman Powell, who stepped up and helped reduce the margin of defeat but couldn’t provide enough to ever really put the game back into play against a juggernaut of a Milwaukee squad.
If Ibaka and Powell can continue their strong play, that might open things up a little bit for Toronto coming back home, but the Raptors’ depth problem remains, and that means that eventually they’ll have to look back in the direction of Green and Gasol, and those players will have to show themselves the veterans they were acquired to be in Toronto. Otherwise, this series will be over in short order because the Bucks have proven that they know how to punish the Raptors if they continue to show weakness.