MILWAUKEE — The Toronto Raptors led by one point with less than three minutes to go in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals. Kawhi Leonard and Marc Gasol had just combined to shut down a Giannis Antetokounmpo drive, leaving Antetokounmpo on the floor as Kyle Lowry pushed the ball in the opposite direction.
Brook Lopez was trying to catch up with Lowry, but wasn’t there, so Khris Middleton was back-pedaling to the paint, leaving Danny Green by himself on the left side of the floor. A few feet before reaching the 3-point line, Lowry picked up his dribble and fired a pass to an open Green, who was the second best 3-point shooter in the league this season.
But the pass was low, forcing Green to catch it to the side of his right knee. It was a rare moment of inaccuracy on this night from Lowry, and it kept Green from getting a shot off before Middleton closed out to the 3-point line.
The Raptors had an opportunity, and it was gone. Four passes later, Green had the ball back on the left wing, looking to get it to Leonard in the post against Eric Bledsoe. Middleton crowded him, preventing the pass. And when Green put the ball on the floor and crossed over to his left hand, he tripped over Middleton’s outstretched right leg. Green lost control of the ball.
“I tried to get him off me,” Green said afterward, holding back the frustration of not getting the foul call. “It didn’t go well, I guess.”
Middleton picked up the loose ball, and he eventually got it to Brook Lopez to put the Bucks up by one with 2:22 to go. The Raptors would never get the lead back. They missed their final eight shots and went scoreless on their final seven possessions as Milwaukee took a 1-0 series lead with a 108-100 victory on Wednesday.
It was a blown opportunity for Toronto in a myriad of ways.
They led by as many as 13 points, having gone 7-0 in games they led by double-digits through the first two rounds of the playoffs.
After Pascal Siakam beat the third-quarter buzzer with a pull-up 3-pointer, they led by seven points entering the fourth. Prior to Wednesday, the Raptors were 62-5 when holding a lead of five or more points in the last 12 minutes of regulation.
Lowry had one of the best playoff games of his life, scoring 30 points on 10-for-15 from the field. After shooting 1-for-20 from 3-point range in three regular season games against Milwaukee, Lowry made seven 3-pointers (one shy of his career high) on nine attempts on Wednesday.
“Individual stuff doesn’t do anything for me,” Lowry said. “I want to win games.”
In Game 7 against Philadelphia on Sunday, the Raptors were searching for any kind of offense beyond that of Leonard and they had shortened their rotation with their reserves having struggled through most of the series.
Game 1 in Milwaukee was a fresh start and less of a grind than any of the games against Philly. It was the fastest-paced game of the Raptors’ postseason, and that helped the Toronto offense find itself.
Leonard barely touched the ball in the first five minutes of the first quarter, and the Raptors jumped out to a 19-8 lead, with each of the other four Toronto starters having made at least one 3-pointer. The confidence and rhythm that was lost for much of the last round was back.
“It’s much more open and flowing and moving the ball,” Raptors guard Fred VanVleet said of the difference from one series to the next. “The last series was a lot of bumping and grinding and iso and post-ups. It’s kind of getting back to the way that we like to play.”
On the other end of the floor, the sharpness of Toronto’s defensive rotations carried over from Sunday, when they shut down the Sixers’ half-court offense both early and late. They kept Antetokounmpo in check and it was all good for three quarters. The Raptors had an opportunity to win a game in Milwaukee and steal home-court advantage.
But they let it slip away. With Leonard off the floor to start the fourth quarter, the seven-point lead was gone in just over two minutes. Lowry kept his team in it, but he was the only Raptor to make a shot from the field in the fourth. He was 5-for-7 and his teammates were 0-for-15.
“Man,” Raptors coach Nick Nurse said, “we had a couple great looks.”
Missed shots and turnovers led to an inability to get stops on the other end, which led to an inability to push the ball as much as the Raptors did earlier in the night.
Maybe with a more accurate pass from Lowry on that fast break, Green knocks down a three to put the Raptors back up four. Even if he misses a shot in that situation, Milwaukee doesn’t get as easy a fast break as they did with the ensuing turnover.
“When you’ve got a team down like that you’ve got to be mature enough and professional enough to try to keep them there,” Green said. “I feel like this one, we let it slip away.”
It was a 32-17 fourth period in favor of Milwaukee, and the Raptors now have to hope that the good vibes and rhythm of the first three quarters weren’t completely lost, along with what could have been their best chance to get a road win in this series. VanVleet didn’t want call it a blown opportunity, choosing to see it as the Raptors being right there with the best team in the league on its home floor.
“We understand that we can play with these guys,” VanVleet said, “and I’m sure they feel the same way.”
On the other hand, the Raptors can’t count on Lowry shooting like that again or Milwaukee shooting 25 percent (11-for-44) from 3-point range on the other end of the floor. The Bucks have only shot worse in eight of their 92 games this season.
The Raptors will have two days to put the frustration of Game 1 behind them. Game 2 is another opportunity and, as they learned in the last series, there’s not necessarily any carry-over from one game to the next.
“It really doesn’t matter,” Nurse said. “If it’s a buzzer-beater and you lose, or if it’s a 30-point blowout and you lose, that game’s over.”
On to the next one.
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