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NBA Playoffs 2017: Raptors almost collapse, hang on to beat Bucks, win series

This wasn’t the most inspiring performance the Raptors churned out in this series, but they finally won a series in less than the maximum number of games.

Toronto Raptors v Milwaukee Bucks - Game Six Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images

Trust is a fleeting concept when it comes to these Raptors. After a month and a half of post-trade deadline build-up, there was a belief that this team, with Serge Ibaka, P.J. Tucker, and a growing bank of playoff experience to lean on, was different. While the PTSD of past playoff disappointments certainly lingered, there was an air of confidence surrounding the team heading into the playoffs for the first time in the franchise’s still-happening hey day.

One game against the swarming, hyper-athletic Bucks was enough to erase that trust. And just when a mostly promising Game 2 hinted at it being restored once again, Toronto’s Game 3 demolition at the hands of Milwaukee was enough to force some to abandon all hope. The conversation pivoted. It was no longer about this edition of the Raptors being different; it was about it being the same. Four years into the franchise’s current run of success, a third first round loss might have been enough to incite a different kind of change than the team hoped to exhibit this time around.

Fans can be easily persuaded by a couple favourable scorelines, though. Games 4 and 5, in which the Raptors appeared to crack the riddle of Jason Kidd’s oppressive defensive scheme, felt like true representations of what March and April suggested — that this team was worthy of the hype; that it was something fans could believe in.

It’s hard to say how fans should feel after what happened in the series-closing win on Thursday night. Game 6, in which the Raptors won 92-89 after blowing a 25-point lead midway through the third quarter, can be viewed one of two ways: either as an example of the Raptors’ illegitimacy on the playoff stage, or as a confirmation of this team’s ability to thrive under adversity — however self-created that adversity may have been.

For those tired of the emotional roller coaster and looking for reasons to maintain their faith in what this Raptors team is capable of, re-watching the first two and a half quarters of Game 6 will certainly make that easier. Persevering through early Serge Ibaka foul trouble and a hot 8-2 start by the desperate and charged up Bucks, Toronto’s offense found the gear it reached in Game 5.

DeMar DeRozan displayed his growing mastery of Milwaukee’s traps — dishing deft pocket passes through defenders, or simply splitting them with a powerful drive to the rim. He finished the first with 10 points on 4-of-7 shooting while sprinkling in two assists — one of which came as a result of a well-timed steal that eventually turned into a DeMarre Carroll elbow three.

Jonas Valanciunas put in some admirable work too. After Ibaka hit the bench with 9:44 left to play in the first, Valanciunas played out the remainder of the quarter. In the process, he made decisive moves to the basket an scooped four of his five boards on the night.

Through the second quarter, and first half of the third, Toronto unleashed a full-scale deconstruction of Milwaukee’s defense — swinging the ball out of traps, going to work on the mushy weak side, and generating a string of open looks in all corners of the court. On defense, and exhausted Giannis Antetokounmpo saw his easy lanes to the rim blocked, while his inaccurate supporting cast left him stranded.

This was an even more beautiful and cohesive version of the Raptors than people had hitched their wagons to before the playoffs began. Based on Toronto’s first 30 minutes, maybe it wasn’t insane to start believing that this team’s ceiling didn’t need to be capped at a round two loss to Cleveland.

The fickleness of trust was highlighted by these Raptors in the following 18 minutes.

With the score 71-46 midway through the third, the mood was understandably joyous. The Bradley Centre crowd muted, the Bucks’ offense stifled. Doubtless moments are rare when it comes to the Raptors in the playoffs, though. Sure enough, Milwaukee — or more specifically, Antetokounmpo — saw to it that if Toronto was going to win, they were going to have to do so in a very Toronto way.

From that win probability high point, the Bucks embarked on a prolonged 34-7 run that culminated in a Jason Terry three putting Milwaukee up 80-78 with 3:06 on the clock. It’s not like the Bucks eviscerated the Raptors with offense during their comeback; it was achieved through a rediscovery of the defensive execution they found at earlier points in the series. Giannis turned down opportunities to switch off of DeRozan, instead baiting him into ill-fated drives to the rim. Any fluid ball movement that the Raptors achieved in the first half was non-existent. Were it not for a steady commitment to defending, Toronto would have coughed up the lead half a quarter sooner.

Crunch time was a microcosm of the game, and the Raptors’ overall fluctuation in legitimacy in this series. From being tied 80-80, Toronto screamed ahead to an 89-82 cushion with 33 seconds left — a stretch punctuated by a DeRozan two-handed dunk that echoed the famous tweet he sent the day Chris Bosh left for Miami.

Even up seven and into free throw territory, Toronto toyed with their believers. A head-scratching Lowry turnover against the Milwaukee press, a missed DeRozan free-throw and a bizarre non-foul turned Bucks ball call gave Milwaukee the chance to tie with the shot clock off. Antetokounmpo panicked and opted for a dunk with 3.5 seconds left, putting the Raptors in the clear at last. Had he played it differently, perhaps overtime would have followed. Maybe the Raptors lose and the feelings of triumph and belief turn to distrust and acrimony.

Toronto’s first round win was a grueling six-game exercise in gauging the Raptors’ validity.

Could Dwane Casey be counted on to turn around a 2-1 deficit with smart in-series adjustments? Could Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan be relied upon to at last perform to their regular season standards in a post-season setting? Could the Raptors be trusted to finally make quick work of an inferior first-round opponent?

Despite the two ugly early-series losses, and even with the near-collapse in Game 6, these Raptors did enough to prove that they deserved the belief the fan base carried into this series; that they had grown past the playoff ineptitude of seasons past. Milwaukee tried their damned hardest to expose the Raptors’ unreliable side in this series. Toronto resisted, and in the process displayed growth in the end.

They’ll move on to face a Cleveland team that will be heavy favourites in round two; the team that shredded them by more than 100 points in last year’s Eastern Conference Finals. Is it a sure thing that the Raptors will be a more formidable test for the Cavs this time around? Absolutely not — these are the Raptors after all. But based on what they showed in beating the darling Bucks, the Raptors finally feel like a team you can truly believe in.