It was supposed to be different for the Raptors this year, wasn’t it?
We watched them leap the hurdle and earn playoff experience last season. They gritted out wins against an All-NBA talent in Paul George, a Hall of Famer in Dwyane Wade. They got two wins away from LeBron James and the eventual champions, and the fans earned his praise after the dust settled.
Then, Toronto’s core came back intact. They added two defense-oriented veterans at the trade deadline. They geared up for their run, and understood what was needed to get where they wanted to go.
The Raptors have the advantages of experience and talent over the six-seeded Milwaukee Bucks. Unfortunately for us, they’re still, inexplicably, the Raptors. For some reason, severe apathy plagues this team at seemingly random moments. Game 3 was one of those.
The 104-77 win for the Bucks on Thursday was the most embarrassing post-season moment in franchise history — starting with the Barney-themed player introductions — and can be best summed up by the litany of laughable, awful performances from the guys in red.
There’s Jonas Valanciunas, who went without a rebound until the second half. Valanciunas was thoroughly outplayed by Thon Maker in the first six minutes — losing battles for rebounds the team needs him to dominate. Jonas failed to get this rebound, for example:
He also couldn’t stop Maker from gaining a Bucks possession here:
The Raptors need Valanciunas to be bruising in his minutes, especially when matched up with a 19-year-old. Failing to the degree of not getting a rebound puts him in an unplayable category.
Then there’s DeMar DeRozan, who had the shrug-worthy line of “only eight points, and... was just free throws.”
GIANNIS IS MY NEW FAVORITE PLAYER pic.twitter.com/WFZYYeb95N— Win it For Rondo (@Scott_CEOofSUH) April 21, 2017
More concerning then his 0-for-8 stat line was DeRozan’s defense, though. He got lost in defensive communication and failed to recover onto his man throughout the game. On three straight possessions in the first, the Bucks ran action to get DeRozan on to Khris Middleton, which all resulted in baskets. Here, he’s not only held up by a Thon Maker screen, he makes no attempt to get around.
Finally, there’s DeMarre Carroll, who’s officially carrying the Luis Scola torch for inexplicable minutes. He can’t shoot, can’t guard Giannis Antetokounmpo, and can’t slow down Middleton — so why is he still playing? At one point, the broadcast observed that he should be getting minutes against second units to get going. That’s where his game is at.
We can go down the list, but if Delon Wright is going to be Toronto’s best player in a playoff game, it’s hard not to think that there’s serious issues festering below the surface.
So here we are again — another year, and the Raptors have once again backed themselves into a franchise-deciding playoff game. If Milwaukee continues to outplay the Raptors to the degree shown in Games 1 and 3, someone will shoulder the blame for these uninspired playoff performances.
The most likely candidate, as it so often is in professional sports, is the head coach. Dwane Casey’s job probably rides on the outcome of this series.
Then there’s the Kyle Lowry question. It’s very hard to see the Raptors not making a contract offer to Lowry in the off-season, but does his eye start to wander after a first round exit?
The supporting cast would undoubtedly get shaken up. Carroll is due for a salary dump, or some kind of move to free up cap space. It may also be time for Masai Ujiri to pull the plug on the Valanciunas project. We know Jonas is too slow to guard pick and roll, but he’s losing his minutes against both the lithe Thon Maker and bruising Greg Monroe. He can’t catch the ball on offense. Watching him run is as laborious as he makes it look. There’s a point where three good games in the 2016 playoffs isn’t enough to hold out hope.
And yet, through all the signs of a deteriorating team... it’s still a seven-game series and it’s only 2-1.
The Raptors need to make big changes ahead of Game 4. They need to change their starting lineup and go all-in on Serge Ibaka at centre. They need to play P.J. Tucker over 35 minutes and use Carroll as a reserve. They need DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry to be as assertive as possible on offense, taking available shots, or recognizing arms and kicking it out to a release valve to start ball movement. The role players need to make shots — Milwaukee is giving up open threes by the boatload, and you figure Toronto has to make at least 12 to win a game in this series. There’s adjustment on adjustment that the Raptors can still make, and it needs to start with experimentation for life without Valanciunas and Carroll.
You should be familiar with the stakes of Game 4. What team we see — the try hards who refused to get blown out in the regular season, or the Game 3 sad sacks who gave up the game in the first five minutes — could decide the direction of this team for years to come. I guess you can take solace that there’s never a dull moment in the life of a Raptors fan. Strap in for Saturday afternoon.