- Kawhi Leonard's one-man show defeated the Sixers in grueling seven-game series—but taking down Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks will require more help from his teammates.
There’s little doubting Kawhi Leonard’s ability to keep pace with Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks in the Eastern Conference finals. Canada’s resident robot is averaging 31.8 points per game in the postseason on 52.5% shooting, willing Toronto past the Sixers in round two on one of the greatest buzzer-beaters in recent memory. Leonard is at the top of his game 24 months after landing on Zaza Pachulia’s foot, battling Giannis and Kevin Durant for the mantle of best player alive. Kawhi’s one-man band dispatched Philadelphia in a grueling seven-game series. Taking down the Bucks will require some significant backup.
Antetokounmpo received plenty of assistance in Milwaukee’s 108-100 Game 1 win on Wednesday night. Brook Lopez fully lived up to his Splash Mountain nickname with 29 points on four threes and Khris Middleton gobbled 11 boards en route to a plus-10 despite shooting just 1-6 from three. Malcolm Brogdon made a marked impact in his first game of the postseason, pouring in 15 points and a trio of triples. Down seven heading into the fourth quarter, Giannis’ supporting cast stepped up in a big way. The comeback victory could haunt Toronto into the summer. Milwaukee survived on a night where Antetokounmpo generated five turnovers and just seven made field goals. As Leonard went 10-26, Toronto cratered. Last year’s squad in The Six leaned on its depth. Toronto’s bench mob was one of the league’s best, overwhelming opponents with smothering length and a breakneck pace. This year’s version is stuck in mud.
Toronto won’t reach its first Finals in franchise history without strong contributions outside of Leonard. Philadelphia’s flaws—in fit and health—doomed its collection of talent as Joel Embiid gasped for air in the final minutes of Game 7, and even then, the Sixers still sat tied in the final seconds on the road. The Bucks are more equipped to slow Leonard and (obviously) better constructed throughout their roster. Leonard can’t carry the load alone.
One Raptor stepped up in Game 1: Kyle Lowry. Excising a portion of his playoff demons, the 13-year veteran poured in 30 points on 10 shots, canning seven threes with eight assists. Yet the bowling ball point guard was the lone Raptor to make a single shot in the fourth quarter on Wednesday. Leonard clanked two jumpers and had a layup blocked by Lopez. A two-point lead with 3:31 to play evaporated to an eight-point loss. A potential Game 1 steal slipped out of reach.
So who’s culpable for Toronto’s Game 1 struggles? There is plenty of blame to go around, though the most troubling performance came from Marc Gasol. Big Spain scored just six points on 2-11 shooting, failing to make a two-point field goal or register a free-throw attempt. This isn’t the same Gasol Masai Ujiri envisioned when he acquired the three-time All-Star at the trade deadline.
Gasol’s 2-7 performance from three on Wednesday is a touch encouraging. He’s a solid three-point shooter, canning 44.2% of attempts in 26 games with the Raptors in 2019. His numbers lean more toward serviceable than impressive before his Toronto stint—34.1% last season, 38.8% in 2016-17—though the attempts are frankly more important than the percentages. Gasol has been neutered as a scorer with Toronto, increasingly so in the postseason. The blame doesn’t lie with his teammates, though. Gasol looks unwilling to pull the trigger from beyond the arc or assert himself in the post. He couldn’t convert on post-ups against Tobias Harris in the second round and he’s attempted multiple threes in just six of 13 playoff games. Lopez is a capable defender, but the former Grizzlies star needs to hunt his shot to unload a dose of attention off of Leonard. Gasol isn’t scaring anyone in the pick-and-roll despite the ability to make defenses pay. His deference can often lead to beautiful displays of team basketball, though it hamstrung Toronto through Game 1 of the East finals.
Gasol isn’t the only player the Bucks will dare to beat them. Milwaukee will sag off Pascal Siakam even if he converts a few triples—15 points on 6-20 from the field in Game 1—and the same rules apply to Serge Ibaka, especially anywhere outside of from the corner. OG Anunoby’s absence will plague Toronto more against the Bucks than Philly, and the Fred VanVleet Fan Club is hemorrhaging members by the game. Nick Nurse’s rotation has been whittled to eight and it’s not necessarily a reliable octet. Even with the experience edge, Toronto’s core outside Kawhi remains shaky.
Game 1 isn’t always indicative of the path a series will take; just ask Kyrie Irving and the Celtics. Toronto will likely tweak its rotation and receive a boost north of the border, perhaps regaining its shooting stroke in the friendly confines of Scotiabank Arena. But Milwaukee’s comeback on Wednesday illustrated some significant holes in Toronto’s roster. The Raptors reliance on high-volume Leonard has become a necessity, and their inability to capitalize on Lowry’s Game 1 explosion portends trouble down the road. Leonard’s running mates better step up soon, or the memory of his legendary game-winner may slip away after a quick conference finals exit.