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Raptors’ strength becoming a weakness

When I was in my undergraduate, one of the easiest courses I ever took turned into my worst grade of any class in my degree. I was a history major, and I already had enough credits from seminar courses by the second semester of my fourth year. I needed more history credits, but it didn’t matter from which area. So I took a first-year course. It wasn’t that I never opened the textbook. I never bought it. I was good at history (I went on to earn a Master’s of Arts in history), so I figured it was easy enough. I was wrong.

Intelligence alone does not always get the job done.

The Raptors bet the farm on their own intelligence this year. Kyle Lowry is a basketball genius whose cerebral style has coaxed brilliant basketball writers to spill thousands of words explaining how he is so successful. For most basketball players, their skill hits viewers in the face with its own self-evidence. LeBron James was the best because he was the fastest, strongest, and smartest. Giannis Antetokounmpo is the best because he is the tallest and yet most agile. Lowry is very good because of his choices, his angles, and his booty. It’s a little more opaque.

But when Toronto acquired Marc Gasol, the billing was that Lowry would have a player with an IQ equal to his own. Someone else could finally read the music that Lowry wrote. They would dance in the pick-and-roll on the poor, uneducated graves of their opponents, like a galaxy brain flexing on lesser geniuses.

That worked in the regular season. Lowry and Gasol danced together like Johnny Castle and Baby Houseman. Gasol flipped screens, short-rolled, passed back, reset, and generally caused enough movement in ball screens to force open shots for his teammates. Lowry rejected screens, Nashed along the baseline, popped out for 3, and buzzed around the court, similarly opening shots for teammates. The two shared a brainwave, thinking on a higher plane. It was as impressive as it was aesthetically pleasing.

Those balletic opuses have vanished in the playoffs. The aesthetics have ground into mush. Great defensive teams like the Philadelphia 76ers and Milwaukee Bucks realized that neither Lowry nor Gasol is a great scorer. They can juke all they like, but if defenses don’t respect their scoring and don’t budge an inch, have Gasol or Lowry really created an advantage? The Bucks stayed home against any action involving Lowry and Gasol, forcing the two geniuses to put on their hard hats and head to the coal mines. They weren’t able to convert. Lowry and Gasol looked less like Tango and Cash and more like Abbott and Costello.

Gasol had trouble finishing anything around the rim. He doesn’t have much lift left in his legs, and Milwaukee’s freakishly athletic help defenders were able to meet him above the rim. Brook Lopez completely ignored him and helped protect the rim from more threatening Raptors. Worse, when Gasol rolled into the paint, he only clogged up the lane for his teammates.

Gasol was benched halfway through the third quarter, and he only played 19 minutes, his third-lowest total in a Raptors’ jersey. He finished with two points (on 1-for-9 shooting), five rebounds, and one assist. It was not a good showing. The Bucks are betting that for all Gasol’s intelligence, for all his wiles and cunning, he cannot put the ball in the basket when contested by much younger and more athletic defenders. So far, Milwaukee’s bet is paying well.

“The beginning put 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,” said Gasol after the game.

Lowry had his own troubles. Lowry is a marksman. He shot 7-for-9 from deep in game one, as he was the single biggest reason Toronto was in a position to steal the opener on the road. In game two, the Bucks were more respectful of his ability from behind the arc. But when Lowry entered the paint, the Bucks gave him the Gasol treatment. They stayed at home on Lowry’s teammates, did not toggle rotations, and forced Lowry to finish over length. He generally didn’t even try it, preferring to dribble the ball over to the other side and either pulling the center out to the perimeter or passing back to reset the offense. No matter Lowry’s choices, the results were the same. Toronto was unable to score in the half court.

It wasn’t just Gasol and Lowry who underperformed. Danny Green may not be considered a brilliant basketball mind, but he is certainly a high-IQ veteran with the sort of seen-it-all and experienced demeanor that coaches crave. The Bucks were dutiful guarding him around the arc, but they forced him into a driver, where he missed a pair of floaters in the first quarter. Siakam had his own treatment, where he was guarded in the paint but not behind the arc. Players who can score from both regions are valuable.

Milwaukee’s defense gave Toronto opportunities, and the Raptors created advantages on the offensive end. But for all their intelligence, they do not have enough shot-making. Sometimes, you need players who, when given an advantage, can beat defenders. Kawhi Leonard can do that. Pascal Siakam has run into some trouble doing that recently, but he can firmly be trusted. Who else on Toronto can just, you know, score?

The Bucks chose a different style of team building from Toronto. The Bucks have plenty of high-IQ players, but they have no players more valuable for their brilliance than their skill. Instead of valuing intelligence, the Bucks decided to value shot-making. Every player up and down the roster can go put the ball in the basket, and the team implemented a system – based on the singularly unique abilities of Antetokounmpo – that allows a bunch of scorers and shooters to coexist. Each game allows a new Buck to take advantage. Lopez embodied that ethos in game one. In game two, it was one Ersan Ilyasova.

Ilyasova was monstrous for the Bucks. He scored 15 points in the first half, continually pushing the Raptors into an endlessly deepening hole with improbable shot after improbable shot. At one point, he even dusted off the Dirk Nowitzki one-legged fadeaway to beat the buzzer because why not?

The Bucks have any number of players who can lead them in scoring on any night. Through two games, Lopez and Ilyasova have starred in their own spinoff shows. Khris Middleton could do the same on any night. Malcolm Brogdon has quietly been the Bucks’ most efficient scorer against Toronto. Nikola Mirotic is coming for his own moment in the sun. But who does Toronto have that can just make shots from anywhere on the floor? Leonard can. Beyond that, the supporting cast has wilted. They’re smart, but making the right basketball play hasn’t resulted in points on the scoreboard. For all the Raptors’ grace, brute force sometimes gets the job done better.

As a result, the Raptors face a 0-2 deficit in the face. All is not yet lost. Leonard started to wake in the third quarter, as did the bench. If Fred VanVleet and Serge Ibaka roar into the series, Toronto will re-awaken from the dead. But 0-2 is a serious hole, and the Bucks have yet to play a game where they even shoot well from deep. Let’s see the Raptors try to think their way out of this one.

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