MILWAUKEE — “Are they just a regular-season team?” the narrative setters and talking heads asked as the Bucks rolled to the N.B.A.’s best record. Then they swept a hapless Detroit Pistons team in the first round of the playoffs.
Well, that was just the first round. And Blake Griffin was injured. Can they ace a real test, like the Celtics?
They dispatched Boston in five games, barely breaking a sweat.
O.K., but Toronto? They were on the Bucks’ heels all season. They’ll put up a fight in the Eastern Conference finals.
And now, those voices are suddenly quiet. After the Bucks defeated the Raptors, 125-103, in Game 2 on Friday night, there is little doubt: The Bucks are real, and they are fantastic. Milwaukee is 10-1 in the playoffs and up, two games to none, in the conference finals. The deer is to be feared.
The Raptors might have missed their best chance to draw blood against the Bucks in Game 1. They led most of the game, but folded late and lost. Now, what was predicted to be one of the best series of this N.B.A. postseason may end up being one of the most lopsided. Toronto has been out-hustled, outmuscled, outshot and thoroughly outplayed.
It started right from the tip in Game 2. Giannis Antetokounmpo, who is fighting to solidify himself as the best player in the East over Kawhi Leonard, attacked the rim on the first possession with a thunderous dunk. Seconds later, he met Toronto’s Marc Gasol at the rim and blocked his dunk attempt, as if to say, “Only I do that in my house.” And to prove his point, Antetokounmpo dunked again on the next possession.
“The blocked shot, to me, is the one that stands out,” Bucks Coach Mike Budenholzer said. “I think when Giannis is active and protecting the paint, protecting the rim, he plays so hard. He lays it all on the line all the time. It was a great start for us.”
Again the Bucks dominated with help from their supporting cast. In Game 1, it was from center Brook Lopez, who scored 29 points and snatched 11 rebounds. In Game 2, it was from forward Ersan Ilyasova, who scored 17 points off the bench (his most since October); Nikola Mirotic, who chipped in 15; and the backup guard George Hill, who had 13 points. They eased the load on Antetokounmpo, who still finished with 30 points, 17 rebounds and 5 assists in 35 minutes.
At multiple points in both halves, the Bucks used a lineup featuring Malcolm Brogdon, Lopez, Mirotic, Hill and Ilyasova. It is rare this deep in the postseason for a team to dare run a unit, even for a few minutes, with three bench players and none of its All-Stars. It didn’t matter. The Raptors couldn’t meaningfully cut into their lead.
The Bucks were in good spirits after the game. Hill and Antetokounmpo joked about who would sit in the middle at their postgame news conference.
“In this team, any given night, guys can step up,” Antetokounmpo said. “You really don’t know where it’s going to come from. Tonight, Ersan had a great game. George Hill had a great game. In Game 3, someone else is going to have a great game. This is the beauty of basketball. This is the beauty of our team, that we trust one another. We’ve been winning, so it feels good.”
The Bucks were so deep during the regular season that Antetokounmpo played less than 33 minutes a game, allowing him to be fresher for an extended postseason run.
Now the series moves to Toronto, where the Raptors hope to regain some of their mojo. Fatigue may be an issue: They were coming off a grueling seven-game series against the Philadelphia 76ers. But there’s a bigger problem: Toronto can’t hit jumpers, particularly open ones. The Raptors shot 31 percent from outside on Friday night.
Too much of the weight is being placed on Leonard, who scored an efficient 31 points on 18 shots in 38 minutes. But the Bucks made many of those points difficult, often double- and triple-teaming him in the paint, building the same wall around the rim that defenders like to do for Antetokounmpo.
The rest of the Raptors shot a dismal 39 percent. Kyle Lowry, the Robin to Leonard’s Batman, couldn’t replicate his strong Game 1 performance, shooting 4 of 13 from the field for 15 points. Gasol, whose skill set is more suited to slower games, looked lost on both ends of the floor, shooting 1 of 9 in only 19 minutes.
Raptors Coach Nick Nurse tried to get creative, inserting the seldom-used reserve Jodie Meeks in the first half. It didn’t work. Toronto had hope when the Raptors cut a 28-point lead to 13 in the third period. Leonard scored 13 points in about 10 minutes to lead the charge. But the Bucks regrouped and entered the final frame with a 17-point lead.
“I sound like a broken record up here, but we had our share of wide-open shots that could have at least stymied a little bit of the breakout in the score,” Nurse said. He added: “We just weren’t quite physical enough. We weren’t getting our screens set good enough. We weren’t getting them off their screens good enough as well.”
The Raptors may fare better at home. They were 32-9 at Scotiabank Arena during the season and are 5-2 there so far in the playoffs. They have Leonard, an exceptional postseason player and one of the few in the league who can put teams on their backs to win games. But he’s going to need help — lots of it, considering how much of a lift Antetokounmpo is receiving from his teammates. This means the highflier Pascal Siakam can’t have almost as many fouls (6) as he did points (8) as he did in Game 2.
Otherwise, the Raptors will find themselves as just another speed bump on the Bucks’ quest to their first N.B.A. finals appearance since Richard Nixon was president (1974).
“We’re going to have to be better or they’re just going to look bigger and stronger than we are,” Nurse said, adding, “I don’t necessarily think that’s the case.”
Source link Sports