There are quick excuses to bring to bear here. The Raptors lost tonight to the Bucks, 108-97, while missing their starting centre Marc Gasol and sixth man Norman Powell. Milwaukee, too, could claim disadvantage, citing their appearance here in Toronto on the second night of a back-to-back. Both squad’s reasons played out in the game — neither shot particularly well, both had posessions and turnovers they’d probably like back, and a few players were not their typical selves.
But for the Raptors, the real and much bigger reason tonight’s game against the Bucks didn’t go their way (and may not in the playoffs, if a future matchup between these two teams comes to pass) is both simpler than that — and impossible to explain away. In short: the Raptors lack Kawhi Leonard.
To be clear, this isn’t to suggest the Raptors have no hope against the Bucks. Far from it. For much of the first half, Toronto actually looked like the better team. In the first, both teams were content to trade baskets, with the Raptors getting up a ton of threes (they shot 6-of-17 in the frame from deep). The similar defensive scheme Toronto had in place last year to slow Giannis Antetokounmpo looked to be working too; the reigning league MVP had just ten points in the first half on 3-of-6 shooting and didn’t really get any easy looks at the basket. Most importantly, despite a brutal shooting run from Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka, the Raptors managed to build a 12-point lead.
In retrospect, the first six minutes of the second quarter were the highlight of the game. The Raptors played with Lowry and the bench and found an almost impossible groove against the league’s best defensive team. The pair of Matt Thomas and Chris Boucher alone appeared to keep the Bucks on their heels for much of that time. For his part, Thomas checked into the game and hit three 3s; Boucher, meanwhile, ran the lane for some dunks — including one off a brilliant read from Thomas — and hit a pair of 3s of his own. In all, it felt like Toronto wouldn’t necessarily need their starters to step up to maintain the lead; a feeling confirmed when Thomas atypically checked back in to finish the half. It was also proven naive. The Bucks instead found their range to end the half, dropping Toronto’s lead to two points in a hurry.
The Raptors’ fortunes took a turn for the worse in the third largely thanks to Ibaka’s abysmal play. The big man managed just five points on the night, on some horrid 2-of-15 shooting to go with five rebounds. What’s worse, Ibaka also had three turnovers (which seems astoundingly low). He was due for a bad game, but this one could not have come at a worse time. In those opening minutes of the third, Ibaka was giving up looks on defense and missing every shot he took. The latter problem seemed to slowly infect the whole team which eventually softened Toronto’s defense too. Only Pascal Siakam finding his touch for seven points in the frame kept the Raps within range — down 13 heading into the fourth — after a 34-19 quarter. We dared to dream another miracle comeback was in store.
We return to the intractable problem the Raptors now face. In the fourth they did indeed get a boost — thanks largely to Terence Davis, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, and an unholy Boucher block on Giannis — but most of their offense seemed predicated on chaos. It’s fun to watch, and definitely gooses the crowd, but also wholly unreliable. This is especially the case against a team like the Bucks who, for the most part, play their game one way and make it difficult for other teams to assert an opposing will. Toronto managed to shrink Milwaukee’s lead to as low as five points, but it felt like the turn-the-tide bucket they needed kept eluding them. This is what happens when a team lacks the go-to scoring of, yes, a Kawhi.
Just before the eight minute mark of the fourth, the sequence that undid Toronto played out. Lowry hit two free throws to get the lead down to that aforementioned five, but then he missed a forced fadeaway jumper, Boucher missed the subsequent putback, and Hollis-Jefferon’s kick-out pass on that inexplicable miss found Thomas from deep for yet another miss. The Bucks would calmly march down and set up a Khris Middleton jumper, while standing by to see Lowry earn himself a tech. There just wasn’t enough juice in Toronto’s offense to do any more after that.
Yes, sure, the Raptors threatened — Siakam dug deep for a few buckets (too) late, Fred VanVleet hit a rarely seen 4-point play, OG Anunoby swooped in for a steal — but the Bucks looked unperturbed. The last time we’ve seen them consistently shook in a fourth quarter was Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Finals, and this Toronto squad may not have it in them to get that going again. What’s frustrating isn’t that potential reality though. It’s that the Raptors have just enough talent and expertise to make any game interesting. They can obviously push the Bucks too. It just so happens the Bucks are the kind of elite team that can push back — and hard.