TORONTO – The Milwaukee Bucks are a problem. And though the Toronto Raptors evened their first-round series at one game apiece with a 106-100 victory on Tuesday, they're still a long way from finding the solution.
The Raptors played much better in Game 2. For 24 minutes, they moved the ball like they were they were the Golden State Warriors instead of the Toronto Raptors. DeMar DeRozan was quick to get rid of it when the Bucks sent a second defender on pick-and-rolls and the ball zipped around until it found the open man as the Toronto offense clicked to the tune of 55 points on 45 possessions before halftime.
"[It was] understanding how they're attacking me defensively, trying to put ‘em in rotation," DeRozan said. "They're sending two guys at me every time I come off the screen. Try to get off it quick, trust my teammates to make the next play. We did a great job of doing that tonight."
The Raptors, who assisted on just 47 percent of their baskets in the regular season, had 24 assists on 37 field goals. After going without a secondary ("hockey") assist in Game 1, they had 10 in Game 2. Kyle Lowry recovered from a brutal Game 1 to score 22 points on 12 shots, the ball movement produced better looks, and the Raptors made 14 of their 29 3-point attempts, with 13 of the 14 being assisted.
The Raptors also defended better. They got back in transition and blocked off the paint to make things much tougher on Giannis Antetokounmpo. He took 14 of his 24 shots in the paint, but made just five of the 14. The Bucks shot 2-for-12 at the rim with Serge Ibaka there to protect it.
"[There were] more bodies in the paint," Antetokounmpo said. "Whenever I drove the ball into the paint, they were packing and being more physical."
The Raptors were the more desperate team and played with the required urgency. They learned from Game 1 and seemed to be in control for much of Game 2. They built leads of 13 points in the third quarter and 12 points in the fourth.
But the Bucks kept coming back. The Raptors reverted to old habits on offense and the ball movement wasn't quite as crisp in the second half. A flurry of third quarter turnovers turned into a 15-4 Milwaukee run. And another ugly stretch in the fourth allowed the Bucks to tie the game with two minutes to go.
"When we lost that lead, I thought we relaxed a little bit, thought it was going to be easy," Raptors coach Dwane Casey said. "We have to make sure we keep our discipline and stay focused in those stretches and not give up those leads."
With the defense and versatility that they added at the trade deadline, the Raptors have a higher ceiling than they've ever had in this run of four straight playoff appearances. But the floor remains low and a bad matchup is all it takes for a potential trip to The Finals to turn into another first round exit.
The Raptors bought some time with Tuesday's performance. They passed better and defended better. Yet they just barely escaped with a win. With Toronto holding a two-point lead, Milwaukee's Malcolm Brogdon and Matthew Dellavedova each missed wide-open 3-pointers in the final two minutes. Brogdon's three rattled in and out.
"It would have been easy to let go of the rope," Bucks coach Jason Kidd said. "We got down, but they kept playing and we had an opportunity there. We got some great looks, the ball goes halfway down and comes out. That's just basketball."
On the other end of the floor, Ibaka, DeRozan and Lowry all hit tough shots to pull out the win. The margin of victory was thin. The improved ball movement didn't last and despite the better paint protection, Antetokounmpo still found ways to contribute offensively, racking up 24 points, seven assists and six offensive rebounds.
The Bucks are going back home with more than home-court advantage. They're a young and dangerous team with the knowledge that they have what it takes -- the talent, the length and the game plan -- to pull off the upset.
"We definitely gained some things out of these two games," Antetokounmpo said. "They had some leads and we came back. We had a chance to take the lead and the ball didn't go in. But at the end of the day, I think we did the right things, we had the right plays."
"For the most part, our goal was accomplished coming up here," Brogdon said. "Going back home, we have a chip on our shoulder and I think we have the advantage."
The Raptors took one step forward on Tuesday. But that won't be enough to beat this opponent three more times.
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