Kawhi Leonard and Kyle Lowry have more than held their own against Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton so far in these Eastern Conference finals.
Other than some pretty boxscores, the Toronto Raptors have nothing to show for those efforts.
The supporting cast hasn’t supported much for Toronto, and with what is almost certainly a must-win Game 3 of the East title series looming on Sunday night at home, Raptors coach Nick Nurse is weighing lineup tweaks. Nurse suggested Saturday that Serge Ibaka may start at centre over struggling Marc Gasol, and Norman Powell may get minutes that would figure to come at Danny Green’s expense.
“We’ve got to be better, man,” Nurse said Saturday. “We’ve got to be more physical, we’ve got to hustle more and we’ve got to work harder.”
He may as well have punctuated that by adding “or else.”
In this playoff format that was put into play in 1984, teams that win the first two games at home of a best-of-seven series have ultimately prevailed 94% of the time. And that’s the luxury Milwaukee has right now, leading the series 2-0 after rallying to win the opener and then controlling Game 2 start to finish.
“We can’t rest,” Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said. “We can’t relax. We can’t assume anything.”
So the odds are stacked against the Raptors. Nurse was told the lack of success teams have when down 0-2 in a series, and insisted he doesn’t care.
“I don’t really give a crap about that,” he said. “I just want our team to come play their (butt) off tomorrow night and get one game and it changes the series.”
Leonard and Lowry are outscoring Antetokounmpo and Middleton 107-77 – which would figure to have been a boon to Toronto’s chances.
It hasn’t worked that way.
Add up everyone else’s scoring in the series, and it’s Bucks 156, Raptors 96. Rebounding has been one-sided in both games, with Milwaukee controlling things on the backboards. Bench scoring has tilted heavily toward Milwaukee as well.
“We’re just trying to be us,” Bucks centre Brook Lopez said. “We’re not playing any differently, regular season or post-season. We’re just trying to go out there and play Bucks basketball. It starts with our defence. Getting stops. Getting out. Playing in transition. Playing with pace. Sharing the ball and being aggressive and attacking the basket.”
The Raptors don’t have to look at the history books to know this series isn’t over.
All they need to do is recall the 2012 Western Conference finals. Leonard and Green were with top-seeded San Antonio, and Ibaka was with second-seeded Oklahoma City. The Spurs won Games 1 and 2 at home – then lost the next four, and the Thunder went to the NBA Finals.
“We have another chance to bounce back on Sunday,” Gasol said. “That’s all that matters right now. That’s all that matters.”
Here’s some of what to know before Game 3:
QUICK WIT: Leonard, who isn’t the most talkative guy in the league to put it mildly, had a simple answer when asked where the Raptors go from here after the Game 2 loss. “I’m going to Toronto for Game 3,” Leonard said.
WE (BARELY) THE NORTH: The series now shifts to Toronto, where the Raptors’ motto is “We The North.” It is, but barely in this case. Toronto is about 430 miles east of Milwaukee by air, and is only slightly north. And it should be noted that Toronto isn’t even the northernmost city that will be playing host to conference final games this weekend – Portland holds that distinction.
GREEK FREAKS: Census figures show that at least a quarter-million Greeks live in Canada, and roughly half of those live in Ontario. Antetokounmpo isn’t expecting an overly warm welcome, but has seen a few Greek flags in the crowd on his past trips to Toronto. Antetokounmpo said he’d be touched if they were there Sunday, but isn’t thinking about it too much. “I’m going to try not to focus as much in the people and the Greeks and the population in Toronto,” Antetokounmpo said. “Just focusing on Game 3 and what we’ve got to do.”
OFF, WISCONSIN: Including Games 1 and 2 of this series, matchups in Wisconsin are rarely kind to Nurse. He played at Northern Iowa, a conference rival of Green Bay – and his teams went 1-8 in those games, 0-4 at Green Bay’s former home court, the being-demolished Brown County Arena. Nurse said it was a nice place, but wasn’t upset to hear it’s coming down. “There weren’t very many good memories for me,” he said.
BREAK FROM DRAKE: At least one Milwaukee radio station is taking this series extremely seriously. WXSS-FM is not allowing any songs by Raptors superfan Drake to be played on its station until the East finals are over. “We’re taking a break from you,” the station wrote in an open letter of sorts to the Toronto native and courtside ticketholder.