It’s not the start you wanted if you’re the Toronto Raptors. Down 2-0 to the league’s best team, the Milwaukee Bucks, the Raptors now need to win four out of five games “against a team that has suffered back-to-back losses only once since the beginning of the season and never lost three of four.” The Bucks feel inevitable in a lot of ways: impossible to defend and long and smart enough to keep the opposition from taking easy shots. That the Raptors need to do what only five of 56 teams in conference finals history have done, which is come back to win a series after falling behind two games, against a historically good team like the Bucks is going to be an uphill battle, to say the least.
If anyone is able to do it though, these Raptors fit the bill. This Raptors team has proven to be able to win with their backs against the wall: Think back to game 4 of the Raptors-76ers series, where Toronto needed a win in order to not go down 3-1 and absolutely blew the Sixers off the floor in one of their most impressive playoff performances to date. This Raptors team is full of savvy veterans who have been deep in the playoffs before and know what it takes to win.
Kawhi Leonard expressed that sentiment after game 2, saying, “If we wanna do anything, or be a championship team, we gotta play through adversity.”
The real adversity starts on Sunday night in a must-win game 3. On the bright side, the Raptors will be in Toronto at Scotiabank Arena with a crowd of 20,000 cheering them on. Let’s explore some storylines heading into the game.
To put it simply, Norman Powell has been better than Danny Green against the Bucks. Powell shot 6-9 against the Bucks in game 2 and has hit 4-8 three-pointers in the series. He has also been much more athletic and aggressive on defense, effectively staying in front of his man to avoid the dribble penetration that is at the heart of the Bucks offense.
Green, on the other hand, is shooting just .266 percent from the field in two games against the Bucks, but the real issue is his defense. He has looked out of sorts, dating back to the 76ers series, and his once-trademarked defense has lost a step or two. Bucks players are easily dribbling past Green into the paint, causing Toronto’s help defenders to collapse, which leads to kick-outs and open threes. Green is still the Raptors best three-point shooter, and he has the ability to go off any game and hit upwards five threes. But he’s not playing well enough to justify the 28 minutes he’s averaging against the Bucks (which would be even higher if not for foul trouble). Powell has done everything possible in very limited minutes to prove he deserves more. Since Green is the only Raptor to start every game this season, maybe Nurse keeps him in the starting lineup for chemistry reasons, but Powell should come in earlier and more often.
“I thought Norm had a good game,” Nurse said after game 2. “His athleticism was noticeable. At times, they’ve got a lot of athletes out there. And it’s nice to be able to match the speed. He was just playing hard. He was into people, up-guarding, blocking people out with some physicality. Those are the things that we also need. He should play a big role here going forward.”
Gasol vs. Ibaka
Marc Gasol was flat out terrible in Game 2, going 1-9 from the field while dishing out poor passes and not stepping into shots with any confidence. In fact, according to Sportsnet’s Arden Zwelling, “His Game 2 performance produced a minus-3.8 game score, tied for his second-lowest ever [in 868 career games]… Friday’s performance was Gasol’s worst in seven years and nearly 600 games.” He’s likely not going to play that poorly again, but he has proven too slow to contest shots on defense and without enough confidence shooting to justify his large role.
Despite the Raptors starting five being the third best of the postseason and even better in the regular season, it might be time for a change. After all, these are the moments to take bold risks. Just because something worked for the first two series’ doesn’t mean it is going to continue working. Every series is a different entity, and Gasol has been poor against the Bucks.
Starting Serge Ibaka might be an answer for the Raptors. He can provide the same floor spacing that Gasol provides while bringing more energy and scoring prowess. The two-man game between Lowry and Ibaka is one of the few plays the Raptors can consistently lean on to get a bucket, and they’ll need lots of buckets to beat the Bucks. Plus, giving Gasol more minutes with the bench should help the ball move around more freely in units without Lowry. Ibaka deserves a promotion like this: he was the best non-Kawhi Raptor in a crucial Game 7 against the 76ers, and he has been better than Gasol against the Bucks.
Plus, as Zwelling writes, “it wouldn’t be that jarring of a change, as Nurse mixed and matched with Gasol and Ibaka starting at center down the regular season stretch, laying the groundwork to have the option available for a situation just like this one.”
Slowing Down Giannis
Giannis Antetokounmpo put up 30-17-5 in game 2, becoming the second player in Bucks history (alongside Kareem Abdul Jabbar) to score 25 points, 15 rebounds and 5 assists in a single NBA Playoffs game. He is not only getting his own points and creating for others, but he also creates second-chance opportunities with his offensive rebounds. It is so hard to defend him in the paint and still have the energy to box him out and grab the rebound if he misses. If there is one player on the Raptors capable of such a task, though, his name is Kawhi Leonard.
It might be time to ask Kawhi to guard Giannis. He did it effectively it in the regular season, holding Giannis to just four points on the 31 possessions Kawhi was the primary defender, according to NBA.com. Siakam has tried his best to slow down Giannis, but due to Giannis’ size and strength advantage, he requires too much help, freeing up three-point opportunities for the other Bucks.
If there was ever a time to ask Leonard to defend Giannis while being the primary option on offense, it’s now. And there is a precedent: Nurse put Kawhi on Jimmy Butler down the stretch of the 76ers series, and that move limited Butler’s effectiveness while Kawhi proved he still had the energy to score on the other end. It’s time to see who the best player in the Eastern Conference really is.
Tipoff: 7:00 EST | TV: Sportsnet/TNT | MIL -2.5 (O/U 220)
OG Anunoby (appendectomy) is at least a week away from a return. Patrick McCaw (personal) is day-to-day.
PG: Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet, Jeremy Lin
SG: Danny Green, Norman Powell, Jodie Meeks
SF: Kawhi Leonard, Malcolm Miller
PF: Pascal Siakam
C: Marc Gasol, Serge Ibaka, Chris Boucher, Eric Moreland
DJ Wilson (ankle) is day-to-day, Pau Gasol (foot) is out, Donte DiVincenzo (heel) is out.
PG: Eric Bledsoe, George Hill
SG: Khris Middleton, Malcolm Brogdon, Pat Connaughton, Sterling Brown
SF: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Tony Snell
PF: Nikola Mirotic, Ersan Ilyasova
C: Brook Lopez