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NBA Playoffs: The Raptors continue their collective quest to stop Giannis

It took the entire team, but the Raptors got the better of Giannis Antetokounmpo in Game 2.

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NBA: Playoffs-Milwaukee Bucks at Toronto Raptors Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

In Game 2’s final minute, Giannis Antetokounmpo of the Milwaukee Bucks moved across the perimeter, through a series of screens, to get a favourable match-up. Really though, when you’re seven feet tall, able to cross the court in three steps, and own arms that recall super-heroic feats, every match-up is a favourable one. By chance — or design — Giannis stood opposed by the RaptorsKyle Lowry, the smallest guy on the court.

In that moment, Game 2 was tied 100-100, and the Air Canada Centre, already atomized to explode, got tense. The milliseconds seemed to crawl by.

For the Raptors to defeat the Bucks in the opening round of the NBA playoffs, they need to solve Giannis — the human equivalent of an impossible riddle. He’s considered the future of the NBA because he literally appears to be the next evolution of humanity. Case in point, you can practically hear Thus Sprach Zarathustra beaming into Lowry’s head as Giannis makes this play:

For Toronto, it would take different looks, a lot of manpower, and probably some luck to slow Antetokounmpo down. That’s the best any mere mortal could hope for. (Just look at Giannis’ on/off splits for the night.) In Game 2, Toronto got all three.

“We made [Antetokounmpo] take some tough shots,” said Patrick Patterson, whose minutes rose from 16 to 30 for Game 2, and found himself body-to-body with the Greek Freak for long stretches. “Anytime he got into the paint we challenged him with a hard foul. Granted he’s a tough guy to guard everywhere on the court. But for the most part, I thought we did a decent job of guarding him altogether.”

Giannis still finished the game with 24 points, 15 rebounds, 7 assists and 2 steals, but he shot 9-of-24 for the game. And despite his propensity for drives to the basket — and rise in “superstar” calls going his way — was only gifted 7 free throw attempts (of which he made 5). The Raptors may have finally settled on their main option for slowing Antetokounmpo down in Patterson, but he had help.

To begin, there was Jonas Valanciunas walling off the paint as DeMarre Carroll strove along with Giannis on his drives. That worked for a time — though it’s clear Carroll needs assistance. Antetokounmpo would often find himself swarmed by DeMar DeRozan or Lowry, coming in for steal or block attempts. Antetokounmpo was still often able to attack in the pick-and-roll as the screener or the ball handler, sometimes even switching roles in the same possession. It was evolution in real-time.

Then P.J. Tucker checked in and made things physical, hounding Giannis on the perimeter, enacting smart close-outs, and using his active hands to dislodge the ball. Again, the Bucks’ young star could and would recover, but the Raptors were doing what they could to keep him harried. Coach Dwane Casey said his team would not always go under screens — saying it makes the team “soft” — and while that was not necessarily true — Toronto gave Giannis space — the Raptors squeezed through them when they could to keep the pressure on. For his part, Giannis went 3-of-5 on jumpers just inside the arc anyway. It was like watching the T-1000 reform itself and keep coming.

Later in the game, the Raptors settled on something approaching a workable solution. Put Tucker on Khris Middleton to bottle him up, have Patterson contend with Giannis, and leave Serge Ibaka to roam when necessary — risking attacks from Thon Maker or Greg Monroe (who continues to be an under-the-radar problem in his own right). When Antetokounmpo slipped by Raptor players on the perimeter, or when, god forbid, the Greek Freak was able to get out and run, Ibaka too rose to the challenge.

Which is what made the final sequence of events, Giannis with the ball in his hands backing down on Lowry, all the more astounding. The Raptors had just spent 47 minutes gearing an entire gameplan around stopping one of the more unstoppable players in the world, and now with the game tied, the match-up swung against them in a big, big way. As Casey joked afterwards, “I was praying that Serge would come over and help.”

But Lowry held his ground (sort of), the ball swung out of Giannis’ hands, and the Bucks did not score another point. The Raptors would go on to survive the one-man onslaught, and what’s more, their most important player was part of it. Sure, the Bucks had to miss some open shots late for it to all come together as it did, but that’s the luck part. Ultimately, Patterson had a more succinct summary: “Solid. Kyle Lowry basketball. Hopefully he continues it.”

On to Game 3.