MILWAUKEE – Stay composed. Take care of the basketball. Trust each other. And for crying out loud, slow down.
The Toronto Raptors had rounded up all the usual reassurances as the Milwaukee Bucks came back and back and back into the fourth quarter Thursday night at the BMO Harris Bradley Center, only they weren’t helping.
The Raptors might as well have been counting floors after stepping into an open elevator shaft for all the good those affirmations did until it almost was too late. The splat they were about to make was not going to be pretty, messy enough to potentially splash all the way onto an if-necessary Game 7.
How far did Toronto plummet? From 25 points up at the 5:17 mark of the third quarter, 71-46, all the way to trailing 80-78 with 3:06 left in the game. That’s a 34-7 rally by the Bucks and collapse by the Raptors, and for the visiting team and a lot of NBA skeptics, this was going to be about the latter more than the former.
Especially since the Bucks, for all their resiliency, defensive pestering and uncorked scoring, missed seven of 11 free throws during the last three minutes of that run.
In the nick of time, the Raptors did gather themselves. Think Tom Cruise hitting the end of that cable in “Mission: Impossible.” It took a timeout huddle and some methodical execution, which led to clutch plays for buckets by DeMar DeRozan, Patrick Patterson, Cory Joseph and DeRozan again to edge ahead 89-82 over the next two-plus minutes.
It also took a gassed Bucks team, particularly a panting Giannis Antetokounmpo, to run low even on fumes. The Raptors survived a late scare, benefiting from some shaky clock management in the final 16 seconds (given Milwaukee’s lack of timeouts at the end) and a last-gasp inbounds pass picked off by Patterson.
That’s why, even as Toronto advanced with a 92-89 victory, there was a sense this team regressed, too. Or shrunk from the moment anyway. The Raptors definitely did not swing any smart money their way in Vegas in anticipation of the Eastern Conference semifinal series against the Cavaliers that begins Monday in Cleveland (7 p.m. ET, TNT).
“I’ve seen a lot of playoff games from my time with my previous team [San Antonio] and also being here last year,” said Joseph, Toronto’s backup point guard. “I’ve been in a lot of situations like that. You always have to play until that clock is 0:00:00, whatever.
“Sometimes we get lazy a little bit or we tend to miss rotations when we build that cushion, and we have to be more disciplined. I was just saying in the timeout – cuz [it] was a little intense, guys were a little tight on the bench – I was just telling ‘em to stay relaxed and trust the plays, let’s move the ball, let’s keep doing the things that got us that high in the first place. We were just trying to calm everybody down.”
DeRozan’s driving layup out of the timeout and Patterson’s emphatic dunk the next trip down helped. Joseph’s 3-pointer from the left corner, at the end of a precision possession, put them up again. And DeRozan’s curl from the sideline for another dunk enabled the Raptors to breathe.
“It’s human nature,” Joseph said, “to get a little bit tense when things aren’t going your way and the whole building is against you on the road. You’ve got to fight against that to calm yourself down and still play the game.”
That’s something the Raptors have had to answer for in the past and it’s something that reared up again when they went 10-15 from mid-January to mid-March. As boisterous as the Milwaukee crowd was Thursday, as relentless as the Bucks were in chasing them down with that 34-7 blowout in the equivalent of a quarter, everything’s going to get louder and tougher and more tenacious at Quicken Loans Arena against the defending champs.
“We’ve got to learn to play through that physicality and not cough the ball up and get quality shots,” Toronto coach Dwane Casey said. “We’ve got to learn. Most of all to understand what got us the lead and not think it’s over. We was up 15 or 16 points with six, seven minutes to go, whatever it was, and we thought it was over and it’s not.”
Toronto dropped the opener against the Bucks, barely showed up for Game 3 on its first trip to Milwaukee and went dinosaurs-in-the-headlights almost until it was too late in Game 6. The Raptors began this season touted as the closest thing to a legit challenge the Cavaliers would face in the East, but they didn’t play up to the billing. Boston beat out Cleveland for the No. 1 seed and Washington went 18-4 during Toronto’s lull to grab some of its spotlight.
Now they’ll meet the champs a round earlier than last year. And even though Cleveland doesn’t have the defensive length and wingspan that gave Toronto so much trouble against the Bucks, it has LeBron James and a roster of salty veterans who – when staring at a 3-1 hole in the Finals – didn’t fray anywhere close to what we saw from the Raptors Thursday.
Sounds like they’ll carry the reputation into the next round on their shoulders, a chip big enough to last best-of-seven.
“We’re just a team up north that doesn’t get a lot of respect and I like that,” Casey said. “I like that people don’t really give us the credit, our players the credit they deserve. There’s always somebody better, there’s always something better. We’re not this, we’re not that, we don’t do this, we don’t do that and quietly we go about our job.
“That doesn’t bother me at all. As a matter of fact, I think we’re better with our backs against the wall instead of smoke blown at us. The league is what it is, and people feel about us the way they feel. But I know what we have in that locker room, and that’s some fighters and scrappers.”
That’s who they were in Game 6, even when they shouldn’t have had to be.
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