Other than Kyle Lowry, who couldn’t seem to miss down the stretch, the Raptors went cold at the worst possible time
MILWAUKEE — The Toronto Raptors finally made some open shots.
They just didn’t do it for long enough.
On another night when Kawhi Leonard was unusually inefficient, Kyle Lowry went off for 30 points, providing the kind of offensive boost from someone other than their playoff supernova that had been sorely lacking as they struggled to put away the Philadelphia 76ers in the second round.
In the end, though, the balanced scoring that had pushed the visitors to a lead through most of the first three quarters dried up in the final frame, allowing the Milwaukee Bucks to push back and pull out a 108-100 victory in the opening game of the Eastern Conference Finals.
Other than Lowry, who couldn’t seem to miss down the stretch, the Raptors went cold at the worst possible time, putting up a 5-for-19 performance through the first 11 minutes of the fourth as Bucks erased an eight-point lead after three. For the whole of the fourth, Lowry was 5-for-7 and his teammates were 0-for-15.
The Raptors showed that they could at least give the East-leading Bucks a fight, but they also looked like a team that had gone a tough seven games against the Sixers, and they were playing a team that got much better after it shook off the rust of a long layoff after the second round, where they dispatched Boston in just five games.
Toronto coach Nick Nurse said afterward that he didn’t think fatigue was the difference.
“I thought we answered a bunch of runs, and we were still there at like 100-98,” he said. “Man, we had a couple great looks. We had a couple bad offensive possessions before that point, but we still clawed it back and we had a couple great looks there down the stretch.”
Those looks, though, didn’t turn into makes.
“We had open looks, we just didn’t finish,” said Leonard, who had 31 points but on 10-for-26 shooting.
It had been the thing that flashed like an early-warning signal throughout the second-round series against the Philadelphia 76ers: Toronto’s puzzling inability to hit open shots. Sixers coach Brett Brown, like Orlando coach Steve Clifford in the first round, kept insisting that the Raptors presented a major defensive challenge because they had a guy like Leonard who was hard to stop with one defender, and behind him they had an array of shooters who could punish them from long range.
The opposing coaches made the same point over and over, mentioning that the Raptors had been the best three-point shooting team in the NBA after the trade to acquire Marc Gasol in early February. They said this so much that you started to wonder if it was a subtle taunt: ‘You know, this is the best shooting team in the league. Oh, they were 5-for-25 from deep? I hadn’t noticed.’
Nurse would say, after one of the cold-shooting nights, that he didn’t see his guys taking bad shots, or making poor decisions, but just not converting the open looks that they had been coached all year to take. This worked against the Magic, where poor shooting nights early in the series turned to good shooting nights and allowed the Raptors to dust Orlando in five games, but against the Sixers the open shots never really started to fall. Toronto shot just 32 per cent from three-point range when wide open, where the NBA considers the closest defender to be at least six feet away. By Game 7, when the Raptors clanged a bunch of attempts in the first quarter, most of the team became hesitant, with the obvious exception of Leonard and his 39 attempts, and, oddly, Serge Ibaka, who had a poor season from beyond the three-point line but made more triples than any Raptor in Game 7.
Nurse conceded before Game 1 against Milwaukee that the new series offered a chance for some of the shooters to essentially feel like they were starting over. “You have a clean slate,” he said. “Some guys that weren’t playing much or didn’t play in a few games or whatever, that this series presents a new team, a new set of opportunities, right, a new set of issues, whatever it is.”
Toronto will need more than three good quarters if it hopes to get by this team
And then Nurse the same thing he said throughout the Philadelphia series: “Man, I hope we make some more of those shots. I’ve been saying that for a while, though. I hope we make some, and I hope we create them. As long as we’re creating them, and I hope we’re getting some more people involved… I think we have for most of the year, and I think we’ve shot it (well) for most of the year.”
Still, as Nurse himself admitted, he’s been saying that stuff for a while. Wednesday night just happened to be the first time in that same long while that it came true. Lowry drilled an open three for Toronto’s first points of the night, and then Pascal Siakam hit one. Lowry hit another one, and then Marc Gasol, left wide open at the top of the arc as he was so often against Philadelphia, was pure with his first attempt. By the end of the first quarter, the Raptors had shot 46 per cent from distance and opened up an 11-point lead. The Bucks, meanwhile, looked a lot like the Raptors of last round, missing 12 of a whopping 15 three-point attempts in the first quarter. Milwaukee picked up its shooting in the second quarter, but they were still below 40 per cent from the field in the first half and just 26 per cent from long range. As good as the Bucks were in rolling over the Detroit Pistons and Boston Celtics in the first two rounds, the potential for a cold stretch has always been there for a team that relies so much on the long ball. As the Raptors found out all too often against the Sixers, those high-variance shots do tend to vary highly.
That variance, though, flipped again in the final quarter on Wednesday night. The Bucks made just enough, including a bunch of big ones from Brook Lopez, who had 29 points to lead Milwaukee, and the Raptors did not. Toronto will need more than three good quarters if it hopes to get by this team.