MILWAUKEE — Basketball games of consequence tend to wear their anxieties plainly. The Toronto Raptors know this well, having turned their own home-court advantage into a self-defeating prophecy and road arenas into pressure cookers over the life of their current core. Comforts with this group tend to be fleeting. So it was that Toronto looked its absolute worst in Game 6—and in their entire first-round series against Milwaukee—after first taking a 25-point lead.
It was only then that the ball began to stick, undoing every bit of a lead earned through careful ball movement. Milwaukee rode what seemed like a token comeback to sneak inside 20. Then inside 10. By the time the Raptors seemed to realize what had happened, the Bucks were already on top of them, claiming every gutsy basket and winnable rebound for themselves. Giannis Antetokounmpo, with jersey tail untucked, overwhelmed on offense and worked tirelessly on defense to contain DeMar DeRozan. It became nearly impossible for Toronto to screen DeRozan free. Any attempt to do so was jammed, and thus so were the Raptors. Their possessions withered. “To close out on the road,” Raptors coach Dwane Casey said, “is one of the hardest things to do in the NBA.”
Toronto managed with a 92-89 victory that brought a competitive series to its lukewarm end—but not without first making "one of the hardest things" that much harder.
These self-imposed struggles are the closest thing Toronto has to a consistent identity. No other team this good so bafflingly takes the wind from its own sails. Reversing the ball from one side of the floor to another—a critical counter to Milwaukee’s choice defense—seemed second nature to the Raptors in the first 30 minutes. Their offense for most of the game thereafter played lobotomized, dwelling on just the kind of straightforward isolation that the Bucks are engineered to devour. “We were moving the ball,” Lowry said. “The ball zipped around. I think we gave up the lead by not passing the ball, not moving the ball as much in that span that we had.”
Moments of panic can be hypnotic. There is such pressing temptation to put the ball in the hands of DeRozan or Lowry and step aside, largely because that very premise drove the Raptors all season. It backfired against the Bucks. “They changed it up tonight,” Casey said. “They stopped blitzing as much and got us into more of a one-on-one game. We fell into the trap.” If not for Milwaukee’s 10 missed free throws; or Antetokounmpo’s endgame blunder of taking a dunk in a three-point game; or the reluctance of various Bucks to take open shots; or the raw attrition of Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton playing a combined 89 minutes; or any number of conceivable breaks, one of the best teams in the East could have been heading home tonight to face its potential elimination.
“I mean,” Lowry added, “you live and you learn.”
Toronto, should it choose to, can take some small comfort from the fact that it found sanity at just the right time. After their collapse had fully run its course—and a 25-point lead had given way to a two-point deficit—a flurry of ball movement set up Patrick Patterson for a driving dunk. A possession later, Toronto progressively passed its way out of a trap into a corner three for Cory Joseph. The success of these possessions relative to the game plan can be read in the fact that DeRozan and Lowry didn’t have a direct, recorded hand in either. Those two helped to create the pressure and then to alleviate it. Only by letting the offense build through pass after pass was disaster averted.
“The possessions where Pat scored, Cory scored, that was big for us,” DeRozan said. “That was a time of the game where we really buckled down and understood: it's winning time."
Toronto never did quite figure out how to stop Antetokounmpo, which doesn’t exactly bode well for their containing LeBron James and the Cavaliers in the second round. Kyrie Irving will not be rattled like Malcolm Brogdon was. Even an active, engaged Raptor defense will not be able to shrink the floor against LeBron as they did against Giannis. Essentially every one of Cleveland’s lineups is well spaced, offering the grounds for a brilliant, efficient offense. The good news: If nothing else, Toronto proved that it can survive a 7-34 run. This Raptors team can dodge bullets. That they need to at all, however, is still too often their own doing.