The Eastern Conference Finals began in a frenzy Wednesday night, with the Toronto Raptors building an early first-half lead before the Milwaukee Bucks stormed back late. The Bucks came back from seven down at the start of the fourth quarter and grabbed the lead late, finishing the game on a 10–0 run to pull away for a 108-to-100 victory.
Both stars struggled to make their usual impact, despite solid numbers, and instead it was Kyle Lowry and Brook Lopez carrying their teams to the finish line. I was in Milwaukee to take in all the festivities. Here’s everything you saw from Game 1 and a few things you might have missed…
1. The Raptors did a great job taking the Milwaukee crowd out of the game repeatedly.
There must have been 10 different times the Bucks would make a big play or a little run, the crowd would get on its feet and get into it, and immediately the Raptors answered with a three or a drawn foul. Milwaukee closed the gap and looked like they had it so many times only for Toronto to respond right back. The crowd was also grumbling in the first half with so many missed threes by the Bucks, but the players were clearly undeterred and kept right on shooting. That’s good coaching empowerment, knowing the shots will even out.
2. There are belligerent Canadian fans after all, eh?
It was easy to spot the Raptors fans around the arena, in part because of the white T-shirts worn by all the fans and mostly because Raptors red was few and far between. In our section there were about seven Toronto fans and they stood and yelled all game long, chanting MVP for Kawhi every time he was at the line and jeering the Bucks. The locals were not pleased but didn’t respond until the whole section started chanting “Raptors suck!” at them… once the Bucks had put the game away with under 30 seconds left. Good on the Raps fans for showing up. Do better, Bucks fans.
3. Milwaukee was awesome, and the city is all-in on the Bucks.
Milwaukee was green, and the city was buzzing with Bucks fever. Everyone within a few blocks of Fiserv Forum was wearing Bucks green. The local bars and restaurants have Giannis-themed menus. Every TV and radio station in town was there covering on the streets and in the bars — I even got to appear on 102.9 The Hog’s local radio show. This was not just a game; it was a citywide event, and Milwaukee did it up big. Also, Fiserv is a really nice and modern arena, even if their exit policy feels like a massive fire hazard.
4. The Bucks need more Malcolm Brogdon going forward.
I’d start him. He was terrific for Milwaukee and looks like their fourth best player in this series, after Giannis, Middleton, and Lopez. Brogdon outscored the entire Raptors bench on his own, and the team played better with his handling, control, and playmaking on the court. With Toronto forcing the ball out of Antetokounmpo’s hands, more playmaking and shooting on the court are always going to help.
Additionally, Brogdon was a surprise Kawhi defender and actually did a pretty good job. Leonard had been getting by Middleton going right past most other defenders, but Brogdon’s quickness cut off Kawhi’s step and he’s strong enough to bother him despite the size difference. Whether or not Brogdon starts, he should be playing 35+ minutes this series if his body can handle it.
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5. Ersan Ilyasova should be watching from the sidelines.
Ilyasova played 14 minutes in Game 1, and it felt like 14 too many. He was really bad. He has no shot defensively and really no one to guard unless he’s playing center. Even Danny Green and the bench Raps guards were beating him off the dribble. Ilyasova acts as a poor man’s Mirotic for the Bucks, who himself is a poor man’s Lopez. The shooting range drops and the defense disappears completely. Ilyasova should, too.
6. Mike Budenholzer’s rotations were… not great.
Milwaukee is 9–1 in these playoffs, yet to really be challenged, and it showed in the way Coach Bud handled the Bucks rotations. I admit I’m not totally certain of Milwaukee’s typical substitution patterns, but what are we doing sitting Giannis for two extended stints in the first half? Why did Middleton and Bledsoe end the third quarter with just 24 and 21 minutes played? Why did each one of the three have a stint on the bench in the final six minutes of a close game? You just had an entire week off and this is the Eastern Conference Finals. What are you doing?
One lineup felt especially egregious, and Bud kept going back to it, without any of Giannis, Middleton, or Bledsoe, basically Hill, Brogdon, Connaughton, and two of the tall shooters. Somehow Milwaukee ended up playing like 10 or 12 offensive possessions with those five on the court. A few threes saved the unit, but what are we doing? Who on that unit is supposed to create offense against this tough Raptors D? It’s inexcusable to sit Antetokounmpo, Middleton, and Bledsoe together for any stretch.
7. Both teams, but especially Milwaukee, played a little too slow.
Credit the defense for that, of course. But there were an especially high number of possessions for both teams where it just took far too long to get into the offense, if they ever did. Milwaukee had way too many possessions where the ball was suddenly in the hands of Lopez or Connaughton being asked to create something out of nothing with a few seconds on the shot clock. Lopez bailed them out a number of times, but they can’t rely on that every game.
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8. The Raptors felt like they were rushing their shots up.
In the first half, Toronto got a ton of open looks (we’ll get back to that). As the game progressed, it felt like the looks weren’t quite as open and suddenly Raps players started rushing shots up, getting out of their usual confident shooting motion. Siakam, Gasol, and others all short-armed jumpers, perhaps hurrying to get a shot up over Milwaukee’s length. It was bothering them, but they need to get the usual shot up and hope they get fouled if the Bucks close.
9. The fouls were not coming for Giannis, and he didn’t adapt much.
It felt like a strange whistle much of the night, with a number of ticky-tack fouls called on jump shots but then almost anything goes in the paint. Antetokounmpo didn’t shoot a free throw the entire first half. He’d drive, see the defense collapse two or three guys on him and body him up, twist, and pass it out. Many could have been fouls, but they weren’t getting called and Giannis didn’t adapt. I’d like to see him make that same drive and then force the ref to make the call by leaning into the contact and getting a shot up. By passing out or fading away, he’s bailing the ref out from making the call. MVPs need to adjust their game when the whistle isn’t coming in their favor.
10. Unlike the other super-duper-stars, Giannis can get schemed out of the game to an extent.
As Giannis shared the court with Kawhi, neither with a great game, it was clear how much of a difference it makes for Leonard to be able to hit a consistent jumper. Toronto took the Giannis drive away by collapsing and double- or triple-teaming early, and they mostly took away the Bucks offense with it. Too many possessions saw Giannis kick out an awkward pass to a player the Raps had time to close on, then a ticking shot clock while a secondary player had to create something out of nothing. Other possessions saw the ball out of Antetokounmpo’s hands early, with him standing idly by in the corner, mostly out of the play.
Players like LeBron, Durant, Kawhi, and Steph are never irrelevant or out of a play. If they are standing in the corner, it’s because they’re ready to hit a deadly three, spacing the defense out. Even LeBron is 39% for his career on corner threes. Giannis is under 25%. If he’s not on the ball, he should be screening or rolling to the rim or cutting back door, warping the defense. Any possession with Giannis standing on the wing off-ball is a win for the defense. There is no way to scheme LeBron, KD, Kawhi, Steph, or Harden out of the game. If Giannis is to belong in that group — and to be clear, he absolutely does — then he’s going to have to find an answer to this question.
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11. It’s a make-or-miss league.
For all the analysis in the world, it’s hard to ignore the fact that the Raptors made a bunch of threes early and took the lead, then missed them late and lost, while the Bucks missed everything early, then hit theirs late and pulled away. Sometimes you just gotta make big shots.
12. The Bucks looked nothing like the #1 defense early.
Milwaukee had the league’s top defense in the regular season, but you’d never know it from the first half. Toronto got any shot it wanted. So many open threes, and plenty of easy twos. The Bucks slow-footed big men funneled Toronto corner players to the basket, conceding the baseline, but then didn’t have anyone at the rim to stop them. They also closed too hard on the wrong shooters early, leaving themselves vulnerable to the hockey assist and a wide open shot from the next pass over. Milwaukee was better in the second half, not closing quite as hard, especially on the shooters who didn’t merit it, and that left them close enough on the second guy too. The Bucks are so long they don’t have to close out quite as hard to affect the shots.
13. Toronto pushed the ball, even off makes, and got easy looks before the Bucks defense was set.
This was especially true early in the game. Off a Bucks miss or even a make, the ball was quickly up the court as the Raptors pushed forward into the offense, creating semi-transition opportunities to score before Milwaukee could get into its half-court defense. There was no excuse, really; it just felt like the Bucks weren’t ready for it. Maybe that tired Toronto out in the end, but it’s what helped them get so many easy looks early.
14. The minutes dispersion was… weird.
Toronto played an emotionally exhausting Game 7 barely 48 hours before, and Milwaukee hadn’t played in a week. So how did Toronto end up with four starters playing 40+ minutes while the Bucks had only three over 30? Giannis led the team with only 37 minutes. How is the tired team the one playing the short rotation? This should have burned Milwaukee. Instead, with the stolen win, it could burn Toronto. They emptied the tank and should’ve stolen home court, and that will be pretty tough to get back mentally.
Milwaukee’s bench played 79 minutes to just 40 for Toronto. That wasn’t enough for the Raps, and it meant Kawhi and Gasol in particular were really dragging late, and Leonard wasn’t getting enough lift on his jumper. But 79 is way too many bench minutes for Milwaukee in a Conference Finals game. Find a happy medium, guys.
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15. The Raptors bench was abysmal.
Of course, part of why Toronto played so few bench minutes is because their once-vaunted bench unit is in shambles. Ibaka played 17 minutes off the bench and went -17, a shell of himself after a huge Game 7. VanVleet went -10 in 13 minutes. Norman Powell hit a couple threes to “only” be -6 in 10 minutes. That was the entirety of the bench effort from Toronto. The Raptors miss OG Anunoby, and you have to wonder if Delon Wright and Jonas Valanciunas could’ve given some valuable minutes here. Remember when the Raptors used to hammer teams with their Lowry-plus-bench unit? Their bench got crushed by the bench-less Sixers, and they’re off to a bad start again. The Raptors can’t win this series with a 6-man rotation.
16. Kyle Lowry was awesome, a dominant vintage game.
You know about the points already. Lowry scored 30, including a scorching 7-of-9 from deep. He was the only Raptor to make a field goal in the fourth quarter. Every time the Bucks made a run, Lowry responded with another big three. Lowry has played 928 games in his career. He’s made more than 7 threes only once. But it was more than just the shooting or the fact that Lowry was the only Raptor that showed up in the fourth quarter (his teammates shot 0-for-14).
With Lowry, it’s always about the little plays that don’t show up on the scorecard. There was the weirdly overthrown pass Lowry dove out of bounds to save a possession. There was the huge fourth quarter steal and bucket just as the Bucks seemed to be pulling away. There was the stout defense and charges drawn, like always. We don’t appreciate Kyle Lowry enough.
17. Eric Bledsoe was bad. Toronto is daring him to shoot and it looks like a winning dare.
Bledsoe played only 30 minutes and shot 3-for-12 from the field, including 0-for-6 from deep. Toronto was sagging way off Bledsoe, using his man to double Giannis as needed, and Bledsoe couldn’t make them pay. Most of his three-point misses were ugly, not even close. Bledsoe shot 33% on threes this year, about in line with his career average. That’s not a positive shot for him, and he knows it, and everyone knows it. Bledsoe had a great stretch early in the third quarter when he got aggressive driving to the rim, and he’ll need a lot more of that to stay in this series. He obviously did little to limit Lowry, and he got bench for a section of the fourth quarter for the esteemed George Hill, who did not score in 27 minutes but kept playing over Bledsoe anyway. That might be all you need to know there.
18. Pascal Siakam was terrific early but lost his aggressiveness again.
Siakam was so good out of the gates in the first quarter. He hit his first three and, more importantly, was very aggressive attacking the slower-footed big man on him, looking happy to be free from Joel Embiid. Then he turned into a spot-up shooter the rest of the game. All last series, Siakam played hot potato with a deer-in-the-headlights look of a guy afraid to shoot. Milwaukee has no one to match Siakam when they play their two-big-shooter lineups. He absolutely has to be more aggressive, put the ball on the floor, and attack. Siakam was pretty good in defense but that’s not enough this series.
19. Brook Lopez played the game of his life.
I’ve probably buried the lede, but you already know Lopez was awesome. He scored 29 to lead the Bucks, adding 11 rebounds and 4 blocks. The threes were not falling early but came through late, finishing 4-of-11 there. He’s the first center ever to take double-digit threes in a playoff game (and his eight attempts Game 2 last round were fourth most, as were Horford’s in Game 4). That’s Bucks basketball. Lopez shot confidently early and often, not easy when you’ve been shooting 28% for the playoffs. It’s not like 36% is that great. But it’s the threat of the three that kills. Milwaukee wants Toronto to know Lopez and Mirotic are shooting every time. That will pull Gasol away from the rim, even a half step, and it will mean more space for Giannis.
But it wasn’t just the threes. Lopez was terrific on D with four blocks and good rim protection, constantly bothering shots as the Bucks held Toronto to 38% on twos (19-of-50). Lopez also created his own shot a few times, finishing a couple circus moves no one knew he had, and he was a pest on the offensive glass with four offensive rebounds and a handful of tip-ins, finishing 8-of-10 on twos. The Lopez threes pushed Milwaukee ahead late, but it was all the points-out-of-nothing Lopez possessions that kept the Bucks in the game early.
This was The Brook Lopez Game, and he’s been terrific all season, the MVP of my Tim Duncan All-Stars bargain bin team. If Lopez keeps playing like this, the Raptors are in serious trouble. And the Warriors might be too.
20. Toronto shot way too many threes… which is exactly what Milwaukee’s defense is designed to entice.
The Bucks were the league’s best defense. They also allowed more threes made and attempted than any other team. Wait, what?
Yes, that’s Milwaukee’s defense in a nutshell. They play drop defense, dare you to turn into a jump shooting team, and take their chances. Sometimes you’ll make them, like Toronto did early running out to a big lead and like Boston in Game 1. But they know you’ll miss soon enough, leaving transition opportunities for Giannis, and they know you’ll get out of your game.
That’s exactly what happened to the Raptors. Toronto attempted 42 threes, their fifth most in 95 games this season. They took almost as many threes as twos (50) and shot almost the same percentage, 36% versus 38%. Marc Gasol scored just six points on two threes. Same for Norman Powell. Danny Green scored six too, three on free throws off a trey and the other on a make. That’s three guys who literally only scored threes for Toronto.
Milwaukee wants you to shoot threes — they just want the wrong guys shooting them. Lowry isn’t the wrong guy. They’ll adjust for that. Kawhi took only five threes. But VanVleet and Powell took six off the bench, and Toronto’s big men combined to shoot 4-of-18 from deep. Both of those numbers are bad. Eighteen threes from Siakam, Gasol, and Ibaka is way too many, up from just seven in the regular season. It pulls their best rebounders away from the hoop — the Bucks won the rebounding battle 60-to-46 — and gets the offense out of sync. The Bucks know they’ll make more of their threes next time. They want you to keep on shooting, and Toronto fell right into their trap.
And it’s not the first time. Remember how this was the Raptors’ fifth most threes this season? Two of their four games with more this season were also against Milwaukee — and they lost both of those, too. If they keep jacking this many threes the rest of the series, it’s probably not going to last very long.