If there ever was any game the Toronto Raptors could best steal at the Fiserv Forum, yesterday’s appeared to be it. They headed into the opener of the Eastern Conference Finals with significant momentum borne of a dramatic victory in the rubber match of their semifinal-round series against the Sixers. The monumental shot that set up their date with the regular-season-leading Bucks looked to have been a gift from the hoops gods, coming right at the buzzer and bouncing four times before finding the bottom of the net. And it was so defining for a franchise usually snakebitten this time of the year that Kawhi Leonard, its creator, could not but be feted in the aftermath as a savior destined to lead them to ultimate success.
To be sure, a narrative designed to inspire but feeding on emotion tends to be self-fulfilling only if the principal protagonists prove up to the task of backing them up with decisive action. Against the much deeper Bucks featuring presumptive league Most Valuable Player Giannis Antetokounmpo, it’s an endeavor that is much easier said than done. And, yesterday, it most definitely wasn’t done. True, All-Star Kyle Lowry finally contributed on offense and came up with 30 points on an efficient 15 shots. Unfortunately, his exertions proved inadequate in the face of Leonard’s passive fourth quarter — no doubt due to fatigue — and third wheel Pascal Siakam’s on-and-off (okay, mostly off) forays.
In this regard, the Bucks’ win was to be expected, never mind a pronounced difficulty in blowing Game One open early. For all the Raptors’ overreliance on Leonard and, to a lesser extent, Lowry and Siakam on offense, they continued to have a stout presence on the other end of the court; all outstanding one-on-one defenders, they were even better as a collective; that they managed to prevent Antetokounmpo & Company from shooting better than 40% from the field yesterday is a testament to their oneness in coverage.
Still, the Raptors remain in position to claim homecourt advantage with a win tomorrow. A split is all they need to do so, and, for motivation, they would be wise to note that despite their offensive travails in Game One, they could well have prevailed had the Bucks not benefited from splash mountain Brook Lopez’s career night. That said, they’re bound to encounter even stiffer opposition moving forward as counters to their already-predictable sets are developed. As more knowledge is gathered and used to prepare for battles ahead, skill set becomes the single most important factor in gaining superiority. It’s why the more stacked teams almost always come out on top in a long series, and why they, in turn, will continue to be the underdogs.
Certainly, Leonard gives the Raptors a chance. He needs considerable support, though, and not just from Lowry, Siakam, and Gasol. Fellow starter Danny Green and erstwhile supersubs Serge Ibaka and Fred VanVleet need to stop being on milk cartons. Meanwhile, head coach Nick Nurse would do well to expand the rotation to give him breathers. Admittedly, trust is built over time. In this case, however, trust is borne of necessity. Ask the Bucks, who weren’t afraid to steer plays away from Antetokounmpo yesterday even if results left much to be desired.
The Raptors know they’ll invariably go as far as Leonard can take them, but they can’t ride him at every single instance. He may be otherworldly, but he gets tired, too, and the burden they’ve placed on him is turning him into a worse version of James Harden. Which is why they’ll have to change, pronto. For them to prevail tomorrow, and beyond, they’re compelled to view variation as a friend. They can’t keep doing the same thing over and over again, and then expect a different result. Not when they’re running on fumes, and not against the Milwaukee Bucks.
Anthony L. Cuaycong has been writing Courtside since BusinessWorld introduced a Sports section in 1994.