TORONTO -- The Toronto Raptors are used to coming back from early deficits. They had a league-high 36 wins after trailing by 10 or more points over the last two regular seasons, and they won two playoff series last year after losing Game 1 at home.
But a strong start, whether it be in a series or in a game within, would be nice.
"I think the gift and the curse is all our comebacks," P.J. Tucker said Sunday, less than 24 hours after his new team lost another Game 1 to the Milwaukee Bucks. "I think we get down and we're still really relaxed and thinking we're just going to turn it on every single time. We do a lot, but in this league, it's hard to do that. And I imagine in the playoffs, it's even harder."
In Game 1 on Saturday, the Raptors put themselves in a 22-15 hole in the first quarter. Their bench helped them recover and take a five-point lead into halftime, but they were down again early in the third. The Bucks built a 10-point lead early in the fourth quarter and there was no comeback.
Though the Raptors have led the league in wins after trailing by 10-plus points over the last couple of years, they still have a losing record (36-47) in those games. When they didn't trail by 10-plus, they were 71-10 over the last two regular seasons. And in last year's playoffs, they were just 1-9 after trailing by 10 or more and 9-1 otherwise.
The Raptors have typically been at their best later in halves with reserves on the floor. They were the best fourth quarter team in the league this season, outscoring their opponents by 13.0 points per 100 possessions in the final 12 minutes of regulation.
"You ever have an old Regal, you've got to start up and sit there for a while before you pull off and you go on a little road trip, but once you get going, your car feels like a 2016 Lexus or something?" DeMar DeRozan asked on Monday. "I think that's just kind of our problem. I don't know. It's something we have to be better with."
Over the last two seasons, playoffs included, the Raptors have led after the first six minutes of the first quarter 78 times and trailed after the first six minutes 94 times. For a good team, those are bad numbers.
"It's a hard way to live," Raptors coach Dwane Casey said. "I like it because it means we do have fight, but let's start that fight in the first quarter. We've been preaching that for a while. Let's start the first quarter. We've had it in stretches but we've kind of lived by being down and coming back. It's taxing. It's hard on your body. But we've had success doing it. It's not a great way to live, to be always fighting back, scratching, coming back."
In 10 minutes with all 10 starters on the floor on Saturday, the Bucks outscored the Raptors, 30-19. But Casey doesn't believe his team's early-half struggles are about the specific players on the floor. After all, with Kyle Lowry was injured after Serge Ibaka was acquired, the current starting lineup has played just four games together.
"We have looked at the numbers, the stats, the rotations, the matchups, the groups that were in there, and there is no consistent statistic or number or group," Casey said. "It's just kind of been our DNA. We have had different people in the starting lineups and that hasn't changed very much. I think it is our DNA - slow starts and hard finishes."
Another slow start in Game 2 on Tuesday (7 p.m. ET, NBA TV) could put the Raptors in a hole they can't climb out of.
First three steps
The Raptors need better starts in another way, too. Priority No. 1 in defending the Bucks is getting back in transition, and Toronto didn't do that well enough on Saturday. Milwaukee outscored Toronto 17-4 in fast break points.
Giannis Antetokounmpo is one of the toughest players to defend in transition, because he can step around a single defender. Two guys need to be back on the break, and that didn't happen enough in Game 1, even though the game plan was to sacrifice offensive rebounds for the sake of slowing down the Milwaukee break.
"That was the game plan not to crash as much, and we didn't follow that," Lowry said. "They got out in transition a lot. It's unfortunate that we didn't follow the game plan that we needed to follow."
"Going for fake rebounds or rebounds we thought we could get hurt us more by not getting back in transition," Casey added. "[Not trying for offensive boards] has been our philosophy and it will continue to be our philosophy. We give Jonas [Valanciunas] the leeway of rebounding if he's right in the paint … but we should never be coming in from the corner for an offensive rebound."
For Casey, transition defense is about the first three steps. They have to be in the right direction and taken with purpose.
"They had 28 points in transition that's way too many," he said. "We were one of the top transition teams in the regular season and that's got to transfer over. That's one thing you can control is turning and sprinting back the first three steps."
And Antetokounmpo is a problem, in transition or in the Bucks' half-court offense.
"He's going to try to get the paint," Tucker said. "We try to give him the shot, he's not going to take it, he's going to keep trying to get to the paint so for us, it's defending the paint.
"He can exploit angles better than any player probably in the league right now. It's like Russell Westbrook where Russ can blow up and really get into the paint fast. [Antetokounmpo] is one step from being able to dunk the ball from almost anywhere on the court. So you've got to cut angles and play him straight up."
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