Meanwhile, the Raptors’ inconsistency has continued to be their defining identity in the postseason. And even as they sit four wins away from their first NBA Finals appearance, Nurse is still figuring out exactly what the best lineup combinations are, who the starting center should be, and who he can rely on off the bench on a nightly basis.
There’s no shame in losing to this Bucks team. If they go on to win the championship, we might need to look back on their entire body of work this season and place them among the all-time great teams. Everything about their statistical profile says they belong in that pantheon. For the Raptors, though, losing this series will reveal a larger truth: the difficulty of trying to retool so many pieces on a roster in a single season, even if it meant acquiring a franchise-altering talent like Leonard. That might ultimately be the lesson we will take from this season, and it will be a tough lesson to learn — especially if Leonard leaves in free agency and this will have indeed been a one-year championship-contending window.
The Raptors still have a chance. The series is not over yet. If they can take Game 3 on Sunday, we can hold off on talking about the offseason for a few more days, and perhaps longer. Time is just running out for this Toronto team to find one more new identity that can help them shake off two disappointing losses in Milwaukee.
Look back just as recently as the Philadelphia series, and it will tell you that the Raptors don’t take kindly to being blown out. It happened in Game 3 of that series, and they came back and won a thriller in Game 4. After the 76ers showed their resolve to force a Game 7 in dominant fashion, it was the Raptors who closed the series out with Leonard’s historic buzzer-beater.
Going back to the regular season, the Raptors lost by double-digits on nine occasions and came back to win the following game eight times. The opponents they beat coming off an emphatic loss included the 76ers, Bucks, Clippers and Celtics, while the only loss came at the buzzer in Dwane Casey’s return to Toronto.
Raptors head coach Nick Nurse is an X-factor as well in all of this — while he’s shown some struggles through his first NBA post-season as a head coach, he has found his best self when backed into a corner. There was Game 2 against Orlando where the Raptors came out playing much harder and executed an excellent defensive game plan against Game 1 hero D.J. Augustin. There was Game 4 against Philly when Nurse found a solution in playing both Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol together and then backed his best six guys to essentially play the entire second half.
There was also Game 7 against Philly when Nurse turned to Ibaka against Ben Simmons, tethered Gasol to Joel Embiid, and was finally rewarded for maintaining faith in Fred VanVleet when many would have given up on the young guard.
The Raptors took an 84th percentile rate of midrange shots in this one, an unacceptable rate against a team that shoots the 3 like the Bucks do. Yes, the Bucks’ core defensive strategy is to make the rim completely off-limits, and nobody does it better. The Raptors still have to do better to hunt — and take! — 3s and stay aggressive driving. This feels like a daily talking point, but it’s rarely been quite so bad for settling for long 2s when the math isn’t going to work too long in their favor.
Toronto even shot well at the rim when it got there (70 percent) and managed 25 free throws, so it’s not as if that part of the game isn’t occasionally there for the team.
It’s probably concerning that the Bucks shot poorly again and still blew out the Raptors. Milwaukee was 13-of-41 on 3s here, shooting 28 percent on an enormous volume of them, and is up 2-0 in the series. If it has a positive-outlier game, Toronto might be looking at a big hole again.
There’s also interest in point guard Kyle Lowry, who could be available if the Raptors lose Kawhi Leonard in free agency. Because of Lowry’s age (33) and contract ($33 million for next season), the Lakers could bring him in for a relatively limited outgoing package.
Another guy who, according to sources, the Lakers have an interest in is big man Derrick Favors. The Jazz have a team option on Favors that must be exercised by July 6 or he will be a free agent.
If I’m Nick – and I’m not because I don’t see the game with the same basketball mind as he does and, trust me, neither do you – the Norm one would make a little sense.
He’s more athletic and quicker and almost as big as Green and might provide some kind of spark. It’s a huge gamble, of course, because Norm’s prone to mental gaffes that can be costly, but desperate times, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. And he’s looked far more comfortable against the Bucks in two games than he did in seven against Philadelphia.
Gasol for Ibaka? Hold the phone on that one. I know Gasol missed a ton of early shots last night and most certainly didn’t play well offensively but it’s not like Brook Lopez got him for the second night in a row, it’s not like Giannis was continually dunking on everyone’s heads because Gasol’s help was a split second late.
The guy missed good shots, but there’s no guarantee he’ll miss them again Sunday and there’s no guarantee Ibaka would make – or even get – similar opportunities in the same situation. So that would be the kind of desperate move I don’t think they need to make.
It’s not homecoming to Toronto for Game 3 of the Eastern Conference final, but the Greek Freak understands the pride that exists within the giant Greek population in the Greater Toronto Area and how that has worked for him in previous stops at the Scotiabank Arena and its former name.
“I’ve played in a series in Toronto two years ago, so (there was) one or two Greek flags out there. I appreciate any Greeks that come out there and support me,” Antetokounmpo said late Friday night.
“I’m going to try not to focus as much on the people and the Greeks and the population in Toronto … If Greek people come out and support the team and me, it’s going to be awesome.”
Toronto has the largest Greek population in Canada and the second largest in North America, just behind New York City. That number is somewhere near 100,000.
In past trips to Toronto, Antetokounmpo has met with local Greek groups, posed for photographs, been honoured. And long before he came to the NBA, the Greek population of the city so cheered on its national team in a world championship game that it made it appear as though Greece was the home team playing against Canada.
“I just think that we’ve had some outstanding performances in these playoffs with effort and defence and connection and communication, and then we’ve had some nights where we’ve fallen well short of our capabilities,” Nurse said. “Like, Friday night, I could have probably summed up the post-game press conference by saying we were out-worked, out-hustled, and out-played. That’s three outs, end of inning … We know we can play better than that. We’ve done that a few times. Game 1 Orlando, Game 3 Philly. I don’t really like to think about them, but I know they’re there, and I know we also have snapped out of it and played really well in almost all the other games.”
All of which really doesn’t answer the question of how much change Nurse will be comfortable with in Game 3, but he is definitely considering some.
If Game 2 had a positive for Toronto it was the play of Norm Powell off the bench. The reserve guard played almost 25 minutes and had 14 points and added some pretty solid defence. He also had just one turnover, an area the Raptors have struggled with in this series.
Powell, given his season and how it’s gone, can probably relate to the situation the Raptors now find themselves better than most.
“It’s definitely taught me a lot about myself, the type of person I am, my mentality, just never breaking, never folding,” Powell said of the personal adversity an injury-plagued and opportunity-short season has had on him. “Just continuing to go out, whether it’s good or bad, just continue to go out and chip away it, chip away at it. It’s taught me to really focus on my big picture of being able to really focus on what the team needs. Take myself out of the equation … it shows me that I really want this because I continue to chip away it, continue to push, continue to say focused at the task at hand and the goals at hand for the team.”
The Bucks benchers — Ersan Ilyasova, Malcom Brogdon and George Hill — combined for 44 points in the 125-103 Game 2 blowout while the Raptors top bench player Norman Powell countered with 14 points.
“I think we gave away the first game for sure. The second one Milwaukee definitely played a good game,” said Kalden.
His girlfriend said she is confident about the Game 3 outcome.
“I’m confident they are going to change their game and take it (Sunday) night,” said Burns. “Bring it on.”
The Raptors dropped a tight Game 1 losing 108-100 and she’s hoping for a little Kawhi Leonard and Kyle Lowry magic in Game 3.
“The first game was tight and they were very unlucky and Game 2 was a bit of a blowout. They didn’t turn up (Friday) night,” Burns said.
Some of the time, Antetokounmpo doesn’t even have to do anything special to open up shots for his teammates. In Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals against the Toronto Raptors, he simply shows off some old-fashioned hustle and runs the floor in transition. As he does so, Marc Gasol, Serge Ibaka and Fred VanVleet all turn their attention toward him. In exchange, they completely forget about the Bucks’ best outside shooter and Malcolm Brogdon calmly knocks down the triple.
The gravitational pull Antetokounmpo has on opposing defenses isn’t by accident. He shoots 74 percent at the rim (according to Cleaning the Glass) and is unstoppable by just about every measure of the word when he gets that close to the hoop. Even in an age where three-point shooting has never been more valuable, the best shot in basketball is still around the rim.
When it comes to the Bucks’ MVP candidate, teams must choose between allowing a Greek bucket around the rim or an open three-point shot. There’s no way around it. And if Giannis is able to get to the rim at will, and shoot 74 percent when he gets there, that means his teammates would have to knock down 49.33 percent of their three-point looks to dissuade defenses from loading up on Antetokounmpo. Therefore, defenses choose to stop the Greek Freak. It’s the “least bad” option.
When defenses don’t implement the “build a wall” approach, Antetokounmpo can feast.
“I think he fits in this series a little more with his speed and strength and athleticism, his ability to take it off the bounce,” Nurse said of Powell after Toronto was thrashed 125-103 by the Bucks in Milwaukee on Friday. “We’re going to need that. It was good to get him going, and I would imagine going forward he’ll be a critical part of the series for our rotation.”
There is no question the Raptors have to do something in Game 3 that they didn’t do well enough or consistently enough in losing Game 1 and Game 2. Collectively, they’ve struggled to make shots, their transition defence has been lax — primarily because the Bucks have been running off too many defensive rebounds — and the ball has been sticking too much in half-court offensive threats.
With the season boiled down to one game — coming back from 3-0 down in a series is virtually impossible — Nurse has some decisions to make. He said on a Saturday afternoon conference call that change would likely be afoot, speaking specifically to a question about switching out Marc Gasol for Serge Ibaka.
“I think there could be more than one lineup change coming at us,” Nurse said.
Lowry still trains at Villanova in the off-season. It’s an ideal situation for Wright who has a living, breathing example of where hard work will get you in his gym every morning.
“Kyle is in our gym at 5:30 in the morning working out. Our team comes on the court at 7,” Wright said. “They come on the court and there’s an NBA all-star drenched in sweat, at 6:45 it’s the greatest example you can have. I don’t have to say a word. They walk on the court and he’s soaking wet at the end of his workout.”
Lowry and Leonard are desperately in need of help against the Bucks. The team’s supporting cast has all but disappeared. An ugly exit at the hands of the Bucks would be a major disappointment to a team rebuilt with a NBA Finals appearance in mind. This season is likely Lowry’s best shot to get to the Finals.
But they face a massive uphill battle. Teams that win the first two games of a seven-round series have a 94 per cent chance of winning that series.
“How do I find the solace? I find the solace when OKC got beat by 34 and 24 and went down 2-0 and then won four straight against a great, great, great, great San Antonio team (in 2012),” said Toronto head coach Nick Nurse. “I don’t know, I don’t really give a crap about that, I just want our team to play their ass off and get one game, and it changes the series.”
Last season, Cleveland lost its first two games to Boston in the conference finals, before roaring back to win the series.
Nurse doesn’t want to hear about history. It’s of no benefit when you’re trying to make some.
“That can’t be right,” said Nurse, laughing. “That can’t be right. Check the figures …. [but] I don’t know. I don’t really give a crap about that. I just want our team to come play their ass off tomorrow night and get one game and it changes the series.”
Part of the plan could include a change in the lineup. Nurse was transparent about the possibility on a conference call Saturday afternoon. “I think there could be more than one lineup change coming at us,” he said when I asked him about the possibility of flipping out Gasol at centre for Serge Ibaka.
If there was more than one it seems obvious that Norman Powell — who has shot the ball well in the post-season (52 per cent over his past 11 starts) and showed some legitimate spark with 14 points off the bench in Game 2 — could get the nod over Danny Green, who is shooting just 36.6 per cent from deep in the playoffs and 27.3 per cent in his past four games and doesn’t have the ability to attack a rotating defence off the dribble in the same way Powell does at his best.
Loyalties aside, Nurse would be silly to not try something at this stage. But will it only be a different way of arranging a collection of assets that doesn’t add up to enough? Is it possible to actually create more value by simply moving pieces around? Can Nurse rearrange four quarters and come up with more than a dollar?
Nurse has had to ride the balance between trusting his players and changing things up, but within fairly strict limits. He eventually hard-matched Gasol to Joel Embiid in the second round against Philadelphia, and mercilessly cut down his rotation to players he trusted.
Well, after two losses to the Bucks, the margin for error and experimentation is just about gone, and Nurse has to decide how much their identity can hold. Gasol deserves the respect of an accomplished and important veteran. The Spanish big man helped this team in so many ways after his arrival at the trade deadline. The ball moved better. The three-point attack finally flourished. Gasol ate up Orlando’s Nikola Vucevic in the first round, and limited the planet-smashing Embiid in the second.
But Gasol is 3-for-20 in the first two games, shooting .398 in the playoffs, and the offence needs a big man who will take shots, and make them. Milwaukee makes it hard to get to the rim, and shot-blocking centre Brook Lopez has set up shop in the paint, arranging furniture, putting up art, installing a flat-screen TV over the fireplace. Gasol is being left wide open on the perimeter, when he isn’t senselessly rolling into the paint and clogging it up for Kawhi Leonard or Pascal Siakam.
And Milwaukee unleashes its transition tidal wave on misses, and whoosh. Gasol might have more in him. But one of the points of friction for Gasol in Memphis was that he didn’t want to be the primary offensive option anymore, at 34. You get the sense the big playmaker isn’t going to take 20 shots, even if you locked him alone in the gym.
Don’t be surprised if the Toronto Raptors roll out a new starting five for Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Finals.
After the Milwaukee Bucks ran them off the court in Game 2, Raptors head coach Nick Nurse hinted at making some lineup changes at his media availability on Saturday.
“I think there could be more than one lineup change coming at us,” he said.
Nurse did, however, go on to say that it’s “not easy” to make big changes because of the trust he has in his starters to bounce back.
“I think your question here is this: Are you going to dance with the one you bring to the ball?” Nurse continued, per Blake Murphy of The Athletic. “It’s not easy. You think certain series aren’t for certain guys, et cetera, but I also think that we’ve had bad biorhythms a couple times, maybe three or four times in the playoffs, and then the next game our biorhythms were back in tact.
“So I kind of trust these guys, know who they are, believe in them and know they’re better than they played last night and have shown that in bounce-back situations usually.”
It’s well known Ujiri interviewed Mike Budenholzer, now coach of the Milwaukee team that’s put a 2-0 stranglehold on the Raptors in an Eastern final. This was in the days after Ujiri, frustrated by a second straight playoff sweep at the hands of LeBron James and the Cavaliers, ended Dwane Casey’s seven-year tenure in Toronto by firing the eventual winner of the 2017-18 Red Auerbach Trophy.
Depending on whose version of the events you believe, Budenholzer was either a) always fixed on taking the Milwaukee job and only entertained other suitors in the name of leverage, or b) clearly wasn’t Ujiri’s choice from the opening moments of a rocky initial interview. So maybe Budenholzer never really wanted to coach in Toronto — which, it’s important to remember, hadn’t yet swung the franchise-changing traded that brought Kawhi Leonard to town. Or maybe Ujiri never wanted Budenholzer. And maybe both those things can be true.
Still, when you look at how Budenholzer transformed the Bucks this season, taking them from an eighth-seeded first-round flameout to an overwhelming favourite to make their first appearance in the NBA final since 1974, it’s difficult not to at least imagine how differently the highly organized Budenholzer might have approached guiding a Raptors team currently stuck in an offensive muddle of isolation-centric ugliness.
And it’s difficult not to at least imagine how differently things might be going if Ujiri had landed the first name on his list of post-Casey coaching candidates. That’d be Doc Rivers, the coach-of-the-year nominee coming off a turnaround season with the L.A. Clippers. Multiple NBA sources say that, as it became clear Casey would no longer be Toronto’s coach, Ujiri immediately gauged Rivers’ interest in the vacancy.
“When you’re at a crossroads, you go back to who you know best — who you trust the most,” said one source. And Ujiri and Rivers go back to Ujiri’s earliest days in the NBA, back when Rivers was the head coach of the Orlando Magic and Ujiri, in a meeting with Rivers and then-Magic GM John Gabriel, talked his way into a job as an unpaid scout.
“From day one, he took a liking to me, it’s amazing the connection,” Ujiri once said of Rivers, years ago. “There was a great bond, a great understanding … Every time something happens, he is the first to call me. He always encourages me. There’s always a message on my phone. To me it speaks tons about the guy.”