TORONTO — Exhale, Toronto. You’re back in this series.
You almost weren’t. You came oh-so-close to giving back a win Milwaukee tried to gift-wrap to you. The Raptors took Game 3 of these conference finals: a 118-112, double overtime … what exactly? What’s the word that best describes what played out over 58 minutes on Sunday night?
A classic? Hardly. Neither team shot better than 40% from the floor and neither cracked 38% from three. The Bucks nailed the bad shooting trifecta, connecting on 66.7% of their free throws. The presumptive MVP, Giannis Antetokounmpo, scored 12 points, airballed a fourth-quarter free throw, missed layups and fouled out early in the second overtime. Khris Middleton, Milwaukee’s marksman, was 3-16 from the floor.
A slugfest? Only if you expand the definition to include wounds that are self-inflicted. Conference finals games are routinely well-played affairs. This one wasn’t. The Raptors built an 11-point lead in the second quarter against the suddenly offensively inept Bucks. Ersan Ilyasova was ricocheting jumpers off the side of the backboard. Antetokounmpo was firing passes off the stanchion holding it up. Eric Bledsoe—a standout in Milwaukee’s second-round series against Boston—submitted his third straight clunker.
Milwaukee tried to give Toronto the game. And the Raptors just wouldn’t take it. When Giannis checked out for a breather midway through the fourth quarter, Toronto let Brook (Air) Lopez spin in the lane for a three-point play.
Can we take a minute to appreciate Lopez? He’s arguably the NBA’s best bargain, inked to a one-year, $3.3 million deal last summer by Bucks wunderkind general manager Jon Horst, and on the floor he has been worth five times that. Chatting with Horst before the game, he told me he expected Lopez to boost the team's rebounding—Lopez is a great team rebounder, willing to tie up an opposing big while a teammate collects the official board—and be a solid defender, but he never anticipated Lopez’s emergence as a prolific shot blocker (career-high 2.2 per game) and his career-best 36.5% from three was a pleasant surprise.
“I think one of the things he gets credit for, and he should, is that the teams that he plays on are great defensive rebounding teams,” Raptors coach Nick Nurse said. “He’s not grabbing 16 of them himself, but there’s something that he does. He must be blocking out three guys at once or something.”
Lopez was good, the only Bucks starter who could say that, and still Milwaukee had opportunities to win. Kyle Lowry fouled out midway through the fourth. Middleton nearly won the game with 10 seconds left, firing up a 26-foot transition three that rimmed out. A pair of missed free throws by Pascal Siakam at the end of the fourth quarter gave the Bucks a chance to extend the game. They took it, thanks to a Middleton second-chance layup that sent it to overtime.
In overtime, the Raptors built a four-point lead with 90 seconds to play. Then Siakam missed a layup, Malcolm Brogdon made a runner, Kawhi Leonard bricked a 29-footer, George Hill made a pair of free throws and, poof, another overtime period to play.
Antetokounmpo fouled out in the first minute of the second overtime, and Toronto finally took over. Marc Gasol—frustrated after struggling mightily in Game 2—chipped in with 16 points, the last two a couple of free throws, giving the Raptors a three-point lead they wouldn’t give back.
“I thought we were kind of gritty,” Nurse said. “And we didn’t have much choice.”
Said Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer, “I feel like we gave ourselves several chances. We weren’t able to get over the hump.”
Takeaways from this one? Hard to say. The Raptors are happy, I guess. A 3-0 hole against a Bucks team that has emerged as a juggernaut would have been insurmountable. After hinting at lineup changes before the game, Nurse stayed with his same starting five, opting instead to shift defensive assignments. Leonard drew Antetokounmpo, aided by swarming double teams. “His defense was probably the key to the game,” Nurse said. Norman Powell got an early call off the bench, and he responded with 19 points.
“We just played a lot tougher, man,” Nurse said. “We were guarding, we were physical and we were ready to play tonight.”
Added Siakam, “Even when we have bad games and we don’t play as well as we want to, I think one thing you can always count on is for us to come back and as a team to play stronger and give everything we have got. That’s just the mentality we have as a group.”
Leonard’s health bears watching. Leonard played 52 minutes on Sunday, many of which came after aggravating something in his right leg early in the game. He declined repeated offers from Nurse to take a breather, but he moved with a visible limp for most of the second half, appearing to tweak the leg again in the second overtime after landing from a dunk.
“I think he’s OK,” Nurse said.
And Milwaukee? The Bucks can rest comfortably with the belief that Antetokounmpo won’t play that badly again. But Middleton has been balancing his role as Milwaukee’s secondary scorer with being Leonard’s primary defender, with Budenholzer admitting that Middleton “has got his hands full.” Bledsoe is cemented as the starter, but it was George Hill (24 points) that kept the Bucks in the game late. Hill lacks Bledsoe’s explosiveness, but he makes up for it with efficient three-point shooting and the guile that comes with 114 playoff games under his belt. If Bledsoe continues to struggle, Hill could assume an even larger role.
“I thought we came out and went through the motions a little bit, got ourselves down,” Brogdon said. “It was sort of a hole we couldn’t really dig out of the whole game. Our energy and effort will step up. Our defense will step up. Our rebounding, limiting their second chance points, will step up.”
Anyway, it’s a series again, with both teams having less than 48 hours to make adjustments before Game 4 at Scotiabank Arena on Tuesday night. The Bucks aren’t panicking, rather embracing how poorly they played. The team is confident, as Brogdon suggested, that like the chin check Milwaukee took in the conference semifinals against Boston, a game like this was an aberration.
“We’ve still got the lead,” Antetokounmpo said. “It’s not going to be easy. I’ve never been here before and obviously I never expected it to be easy. As a team, usually when we face adversity and we lose a game, we come out and play better. Hopefully we can do that [in] Game 4.”