The reason the Raptors will never be taken seriously in the post-season is because they do nothing to disabuse anyone of the notion they are a joke. Toronto lost Game 1 to the Bucks this evening, 97-83, in the 2017 NBA playoffs. It was the fifth time in a row the core of this team has coughed up a series opening game at home. It’s a tradition like no other.
A glance at the box score suggests the two main reasons for this Bucks win: Giannis Antetokounmpo and Kyle Lowry. For Milwaukee, Giannis was everything, everywhere, and all the time. He finished the game with 28 points, on 13-of-18 shooting, plus 8 rebounds and 3 assists. To cap off the game he rudely rejected a DeMar DeRozan lay-up to earn a technical foul. Ostensibly the tech was for celebrating too loudly, but it felt like it was really doled out for murdering the collective spirit of the Raptors. Even the refs felt bad.
Lowry, meanwhile, looked like the Lowry of old — and I don’t mean the pre-wrist injury version that was tearing up the NBA. I’m referencing the Lowry of the playoffs last year, and the year before, and the year before that. The Lowry who plays frenzied and slightly wild, who rushes shots, who finishes a team worst -22 for the night. This Lowry went 2-of-11 from the field, including 0-of-6 from three. He chipped in six assists and a couple of steals, along with a couple of vintage Lowry plays — including an offensive rebound tip-out over Giannis to P.J. Tucker in the corner for three — but that was it. He was even outdone by rookie Malcolm Brogdon (16 points, 4-of-7 from three). When Lowry plays like this, the Raptors have no hope.
The trickle down effect on the Raptors is obvious. Despite strong starts from DeRozan, who finished with 27 points (18 of which came in the first half), and Serge Ibaka (a solid 19 and 14 with 3 blocks), the rest of the team was lost. Nothing worked on either end, even when Giannis was sent to the bench in the third quarter with four fouls. The Bucks closed that period on an 11-5 run before cruising the rest of the way. “Our second half was just abysmal,” was Dwane Casey’s blunt assessment.
To summarize: Jonas Valanciunas finished with 9 points and 9 rebounds, but was largely unable to slow down Greg Monroe (14 points and 15 rebounds). DeMarre Carroll looked like a re-animated corpse for most of the game (despite a dunk in the first half), finishing with 5 points. Covering Giannis is a tall order for any human, but Carroll is definitely not the guy to do it. Cory Joseph was mostly invisible, unable to get away from the Bucks length. Patrick Patterson hit one 3 and was never heard from again. And Tucker, bless him, did what he could to actually slow Giannis while chipping in 7 points. He led the team, along with Joseph, in non-garbage time plus/minus at... 1.
That a Game 1 in Toronto ended in garbage time for the Raptors is a new low. Last season they lost in overtime to Miami in Game 1. This, after they’d let Indiana run away late in the series opener just weeks earlier. The year before those was an overtime loss to Washington. Before that, a nail-biter against the Nets. This felt different; it was different. The Raptors in the second half were strangled — outscored 29-19 in the third, and then 22-13 in the fourth — it was a mercy killing. The Raptors had scored just 6 points after almost 10 minutes in that final frame. It was brutal.
And it would all be funny if we weren’t sitting here in Toronto, as fans of the team, wondering what the hell is wrong with the Raptors in home Game 1s. There’s no real way to explain it, the total mystification, year after year. To hear Casey say “Lowry just needs to hit shots” again, after he said it last post-season, and the year before, it’s enough to make a man crazy. I feel unmoored from reality.
Most of the NBA world is cracking jokes about the Raptors and their hopelessness. The people who picked Toronto to upset the Cavaliers and make the Finals are wishing they could erase that prediction from history. How could anyone actually believe it will happen now? How could we?
It all feels like a joke. A bad one. One we’ve heard before.