- Milwaukee trailed until the fourth quarter, but the Bucks' sharpshooting center stood tall while Giannis Antetokounmpo went to the bench, and powered a comeback victory in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals.
The Bucks have a 1–0 lead in the Eastern Conference finals after a come-from-behind, 108–100 win against the Raptors on Wednesday. After trailing for most of the first half, Milwaukee eventually pulled even with Toronto in the third quarter, before dominating the final frame en route to the victory. Both stars had solid if not spectacular nights. Giannis Antetokounmpo scored 24 points, while Kawhi Leonard had 31 of his own—though he shot poorly from the field. The real hero of the game was Brook Lopez, a.k.a Splash Mountain, who poured in 29 critical points in the win. Here’s how the Bucks won Game 1:
Lopez’s contributions cannot be overstated. Most of Milwaukee’s supporting cast struggled Wednesday. Khris Middleton, Eric Bledsoe, and Nikola Mirotic shot a combined 10-of-33 from the field, including an unhelpful 2-of-18 from three. Lopez was the team’s leading scorer, and kept the Bucks alive long enough for them to ultimately take over down the stretch. Lopez was a marksman from beyond the arc, nailing four of his 11 treys. He also picked up important buckets as a roll man and off offensive rebounds. With Milwaukee down seven to start the fourth, Lopez hit back-to-back threes to ignite the crowd and kickstart a takeover. His big night helped the Bucks overcome a pedestrian (by his standards) game from Antetokounmpo, and a poor three-point shooting night overall. In the fourth, Middleton and Mirotic finally each hit a shot from downtown, and Milwaukee’s defense continued to suffocate Toronto. But the Bucks wouldn’t have been in a position to complete the comeback if Lopez didn’t keep them afloat in the first place. (Also—Lopez’s shooting will get more attention, but not only did he survive defensively Wednesday, he excelled.)
The Raptors have to be livid about losing this game. They played at a faster pace (like someone predicted this morning!) to offset the effectiveness of Milwaukee’s halfcourt defense, and for a while, it worked! Toronto finally started to shoot like itself from three after struggling for much of the postseason, and the Raptors were able to build a big lead. Their defense was also incredibly crisp, and Toronto looked like it was going to beat the Bucks at their own game before it ran out of gas in the second half.
Kyle Lowry (more on him in a bit), Leonard, and Pascal Siakam were the only players to score for the Raps in the second half. Meanwhile, Lowry was the only player to make any field goals in the fourth. Leonard looked gassed in crunch time. He was able to get to the free-throw line for much of the game, but he largely struggled trying to attack Milwaukee’s lengthy defense. The Bucks happily conceded above-the-break threes to Leonard, but he couldn’t make them pay from outside. Siakam also struggled, shooting 30% from the field on 20 shot attempts. Toronto is in a tough spot without a deep bench, and Nick Nurse will either need to slow down the pace or miraculously find a ninth player to employ this series, because the Raptors’ stars—who have a lot on their shoulders—could have a tough time keeping up at this speed.
Kyle Lowry and the defense really stepped up. And that's what makes Game 1 extra frustrating for Toronto. Lowry was special, scoring 30 points on 10-of-15 shooting, including an absurd 7-of-9 from three. He single-handedly answered a bunch of Milwaukee’s run with big shots, and he was steady throughout the night, convincingly outplaying Eric Bledsoe. The Raptors’ defense also showed up. The Bucks finished the game with an offensive rating of 106.7, considerably lower than the 113.4 mark they entered Wednesday with. Toronto was disciplined, though it benefitted from Milwaukee missing some outside looks. We didn’t see Kawhi and Giannis matched up purposefully for any serious length of time, but the Raptors made do with the combination of Siakam, Marc Gasol, and Serge Ibaka.
Toronto needs to find a way to create closer looks. Moving forward, while the three-point shooting was nice for Toronto, the Raptors also need to find ways to generate good looks inside. The Raps shot only 38% on their two-point field goals in Game 1, a startling number for a team with an iso/post-up savant in Leonard, and an athletic finisher in Siakam. It’s good for Toronto that the supporting cast was willing to shoot from deep, but Lowry’s performance isn’t sustainable, and if the looks aren’t falling, the burden shifts back onto Leonard. It may seem counterintuitive, but slowing things down and trying to attract doubles with Kawhi on the block may benefit Toronto’s offense in Game 2—though there really aren’t any great solutions against a defense as rigid as Milwaukee’s.
The Bucks have to be ecstatic about the win. They didn’t play their best game, and won despite shooting under 40% and hitting four less threes than the Raptors. Lopez may not have a bunch of big nights in him, but Milwaukee should rightfully expect other role players to return to sea level as the series continues. The Raptors squandered a nice opportunity to steal a road game to start the Eastern finals, and now they’ll have to go back to the drawing board to figure out how to keep their legs for a full 48 minutes. Game 2 is Friday.