Saturday’s Game 1 loss to Milwaukee might have been the last stand of the “It’s Just One Game” brigade.
An analytical approach to understanding the Raptors insistence on losing series openers would suggest viewing each disappointing loss as its own entity; a game in which the outcome has no relation to the coincidentally similar results of the recent past.
The Game 1 loss at home to Brooklyn in 2014 was to be expected for an inexperienced team dabbling in late-April hoops for the first time. Losing to Washington the following year was an exposé of a team that may have never been all that good. Indiana’s first win last year was a Paul George solo job -- the kind of individual performance you expect from a superstar at some point in a series. Game 1 against Miami was a coin-flip that needed overtime. All of the losses can be explained or justified on an individual basis. With so much of the roster having been turned over since that first defeat at the hands of the Nets, there shouldn’t be anything other than narrative weaving all of the Raptors’ Game 1 downfalls together.
After a fifth-straight series-opening loss at home, though, it’s getting harder to to deny the existence of Game 1 yips with Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan and Dwane Casey’s Raptors.
Saturday’s second-half collapse marked the trio’s darkest Game 1 moment yet. Having never been such heavy favourites at home to open a series, and with the positive vibes that the trade deadline and late-season return of Lowry had incited in recent weeks, it felt like the Raptors were set to shoot down the discourse surrounding their cursed Game 1s.
That Toronto couldn’t make good on all those aligning factors left DeRozan at a loss for an explanation.
“I have no clue,” he said of why the team struggles in openers. “ If I had the answer then maybe we would have pulled it out tonight.”
From the Greg Monroe podium game, to Giannis Antetokounmpo hunting posters for sport, to Kyle Lowry’s energy-sapping missed threes and turnovers, this was as deflating a loss as the team has been delivered during the franchise’s golden age.
There were, however, glimpses — albeit fleeting — of the real Raptors sprinkled in with the bricked open looks and pre-deadline-level defense; moments that showcased exactly why this iteration of team was supposed to be different than its unreliable predecessors. If you squint, and selectively ignore the mushroom clouds in the background, you can make out a rough blueprint for how Toronto can rediscover its best self in the games to come.
As much as the 32-point second half confirmed the rumours that the Raptors are playoff choke artists, the first half was a stark deviation from the narrative script. Normally timid in openers, Toronto carried an air of confidence early that has rarely been seen in previous Game 1s.
DeRozan has fallen into the trap of settling for the mid-range in playoffs past. Case in point: his bricklaying chart from Game 1 against the Pacers last season:
Against Milwaukee, DeRozan flashed his evolution as a player on the playoff stage. Jason Kidd’s defense is hyper-aggressive by design; the goal against slasher like DeRozan being to deter penetration and force the ball out of his hands. DeRozan cared not for the Bucks’ plan early on, repeatedly jetting through or around whichever two defenders were thrown his way.
Even Lowry, whose shot was invisible most of the night, exhibited some comfort with Milwaukee’s traps and hedges early. At practice on Sunday, Lowry referenced the thicket of Bucks arms that enveloped him in screen-and-roll actions throughout Game 1 as a reason why he couldn’t be more aggressive creating his own shot.
Early in Saturday’s game, pull-up bombs from Lowry weren’t a necessity. With some well-timed skip passes over the outstretched arms of the Milwaukee defense, Lowry was able to ignite some positive offensive sequences.
Lowry’s decision-making became less precise, and DeRozan’s trips to the rim became more scarce as the game progressed. But the Bucks didn’t exactly alter their scheme — they executed better while the Raptors lost their sense of direction.
Sequences like this in which the indecision of Toronto’s supporting cast sapped the offensive flow became the standard in the second half.
Thon Maker was the poster boy for Milwaukee’s heightened attention to detail in the closing 24 minutes. He only played 15 minutes in Game 1, but the seven-minute stretch of pick-and-roll defense he played to open the third quarter was well beyond his rookie scale pay grade. Where DeRozan would skirt by his man (or men) in the first half en route to lay-ups, Maker made sure no lay-up attempt went uncontested in the third. During his superhuman stint, Maker blocked one DeRozan shot and contested a handful more. Game flow then saw DeRozan go most unused in the fourth quarter.
Maker’s brilliance extended Lowry’s way too. Plays like this one were indicative of how his everywhere-ness stifled the Raptors’ second-half attack.
Thon Maker, step for step with Kyle Lowry pic.twitter.com/WbcvbsmDov— John Turner (@GrandpaTurner) April 15, 2017
Maybe Maker — who was essentially a ceremonial starter for the Bucks coming into the series — has officially morphed into 2012 Serge Ibaka. If that’s the case, the Raptors could have issues scoring at all in this series considering how dependent they are on DeRozan and Lowry’s creation via the pick-and-roll.
What’s far more likely though, is that the Raptors will eventually solve the Maker riddle and begin to exploit the Bucks’ 19th-ranked defense; a defense that didn’t deploy anything ingenious or new in Game 1.
P.J Tucker spoke after the game and discussed the Bucks adhering to the scouting report with their defensive strategy.
“They did everything we expected and everything we scouted, and did it well,” said Tucker. “We missed shots.”
Simple as Tucker’s explanation was, he wasn’t off base. Per NBA.com’s tracking data, the Raptors shot just 8-of-24 on looks considered either open or wide open. That’s unseasonably cool. Lowry missed all six of his threes; rusty or not, we probably won’t see him brick that many triples in succession too often in this series.
Even more of an outlier was the Raptors’ shooting line on shots that were contested. On shots from 10 feet and out with a defender within two and four feet, the Raptors went an impossible 0-of-14. That’s exceedingly hard to do — especially when you employ DeRozan, whose mid-range artistry is built on the heads of the defenders he shoots over. Comparatively, the Bucks shot 4-of-9 on such shots in Game 1.
Process-wise, Toronto’s offense was sound. Its execution should refine itself as the familiarity that a seven-game series breeds reaches its peak. DeRozan won’t get shut-out from the mid-range again. And the always cerebral Lowry should find a way to create space for himself with the threat of more direction-altering passes.
Game 1s are a feeling out process, and while it would be refreshing if the Raptors would force their opponents to do the adjusting for once, there’s plenty of reason to believe Lowry and DeRozan can rediscover their offensive potency as the series extends.
Fewer missed shots will in turn leave fewer opportunities for Giannis to break Raptor hearts in transition — a boost that the defense could certainly use after coughing up more than 110 points per-100 possessions in Game 1.
In fact, getting stops might be an even greater concern than the offense for Casey and his staff after going down 0-1. Milwaukee’s offensive recipe was a no-name rendition of Cleveland’s gourmet offering in last year’s Eastern Conference Finals, with Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton tag-teaming the duties that LeBron James monopolized in that series. Giannis would blow through perimeter mismatches (ahem, DeMarre Carroll) and assault the rim, while Middleton picked out shooters from the post, primarily with the undersized Cory Joseph on his hip.
Over-helping and sloppy rotations out to shooters left Milwaukee’s supporting cast with plenty of room to breathe. In true Raptors fashion, they allowed the trio of Tony Snell, Malcolm Brogdon and Matthew Dellavedova to go 8-of-17 from deep. As a team, Milwaukee was open or wide open on 21 of their 23 three-point tries, per NBA.com.
Much like with the Raptors’ offensive issues in the opener, these defensive shortcomings should be reparable. Toronto wasn’t the third-best post-All Star defense by accident.
Potential improvement in Game 2 could be contingent on Casey’s rotation decisions. Maximizing the time Toronto’s best defensive units see the floor is one simple touch-up Casey can make to his game plan.
Strength and speed are necessary to have a prayer of impeding Antetokounmpo; Carroll doesn’t have enough of either at this point. That he’s still in the starting five isn’t as egregious as Luis Scola’s undying iron-man starting streak of last year, but there’s a clear difference in Carroll and, say, Tucker’s ability to defend the Greak Freak.
The empirical data is there to suggest that the Raptors don’t need a grand redesign of their defensive scheme. Limiting Carroll’s exposure to Giannis (Carroll & The Bench Mob, anyone?), and running out Toronto’s best theoretical defensive front court of Tucker, Patrick Patterson and Serge Ibaka could be a simple fix that pays massive dividends. Those three can switch smoothly on actions where Antetokounmpo is the catalyst. In theory, that switching could make his plunges into the defense trickier to initiate. As you can see in the clip of Tucker above, when Giannis can’t collapse the defense with a drive, Milwaukee’s offense quickly devolves.
By sticking all three of the his defensive ringers on the court, Casey can also limit the burden on Joseph or DeRozan to be Middleton’s main check. Want to have Patterson’s blend of smarts and size on Giannis? Great. Tucker can rabidly fight to stay with Middleton off-ball, or be a sizable deterrent to the post-and-pass M.O. the Bucks’ 6’8 two-guard adopted in Game 1. The pieces are on hand to hassle Antetokounmpo and Middleton, Casey just needs to use them.
In just 72 minutes over 20 games in the regular season, Toronto’s should-be go-to front court posted a stingy 90.5 Defensive Rating. A team’s best lineup should typically play about 20 minutes, maybe more, together in a playoff setting. Having Tucker, Patterson and Ibaka share the floor for all of one minute in Game 1 simply wasn’t enough.
Casey has earned the leeway to sort out how to best implement his lineups. This entire season has been an exercise in experimentation by Casey as he’s juggled injuries, new acquisitions and a young and uneven set of back-bench players. The smart money is on Casey tinkering his rotations into the Goldilocks zone before the series is out of reach.
One game doesn’t erase the mountains of analysis that pinned the Raptors as heavy favourites before the series began. Toronto still has a significant edge in talent; it’s not bold to suggest that seven or eight of the ten-best players in this series wear red, black and white.
Milwaukee is a burgeoning Eastern Conference powerhouse, but if the Raptors stick with their offensive process and slightly re-jig the rotation to better suit the demands of Milwaukee’s two stars, the Bucks should eventually be exposed as the NET negative team they were after the All-Star break. Seven games have a way of revealing a team’s true colours.
That’s especially true of Toronto. And if there’s any team that should be judged on the wide-view of a full series and not a one-game dud, it’s DeRozan, Lowry and Casey’s Raptors.
“It's something now we're not unfamiliar with, being at this point,” said DeRozan of the team’s regrettable predicament. “It's never ideal but we've got to bounce back and understand we make it hard on ourselves to come back and fight back even harder. But it's on us. We don't have no excuse.”