MILWAUKEE — At the moment Kawhi Leonard shook Khris Middleton on a backdoor cut for an easy layup midway through the third quarter of Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals on Wednesday night, the Toronto Raptors looked like their best selves.
The Raptors had managed only five shot attempts at the rim in the first half, but here was a beautiful half-court set that encapsulated how brutally efficient the Raptors can be when they’re maximizing their strengths: Leonard and Kyle Lowry splitting off Marc Gasol in the high post — Lowry fanning out to the left corner and Leonard skirting behind Middleton. This was Toronto high IQ basketball at its savviest, and the bucket gave the Raptors a 10-point lead with 5:50 left in the third period.
By many measures, the Raptors turned in a solid effort Wednesday night. They executed their defensive game plan, enthusiastically took many of the open shots they’d turned down through much of the first two rounds of the postseason, and found opportunities in transition.
Yet, a fatal fourth quarter undid much of that solid work in a 108-100 loss to the Milwaukee Bucks.
Wednesday night was another Game 1 throat-clearing for a Bucks team that hadn’t played in a full week. A unit that relies on cadence and timing, the Bucks couldn’t find their flow through much of the game. Mainstays like Middleton initially struggled to find shots against Toronto’s switching schemes, an irregular coverage for Toronto. Giannis Antetokounmpo, the ultimate rhythm player, wasn’t at maximum effect with the long break.
Yet despite missing 29 of their first 35 attempts from 3-point range and their forgettable 45.7 percent effective field goal percentage, the Bucks came away with the series opener. If Game 1 is evidence of anything, it’s that the Milwaukee Bucks are — and will continue to be — an exceptionally difficult team to beat under any condition.
“I think we did a great job of just sticking with what we’ve been doing all postseason long,” said Brook Lopez, who led the Bucks with 29 points. “Shots didn’t go in early, but we did a great job of grinding it out, played great defense and just stuck with it. Then things started going our way.”
This is one measure of NBA team dominance: an ability to win difficult games against tough opponents despite subpar performances from top players, marginal success against defensive strategies, and poor shooting. On that standard, the Bucks, now 9-1 in the postseason, are dominant, even if the end result in Game 1 wasn’t an exhibition of their best choreography.
As he donned his signature Disney gear at his locker before heading to the postgame podium, Lopez debated one of the great postseason conundrums for a team that encounters a switching defense like the one Toronto fashioned Wednesday night. Should an offensive team respond by hunting available mismatches in the half court, or should it disregard whatever advantage it might or might not have and just continue to run its stuff?
“Someone will say, ‘Why don’t you just go down in the post?’ but that’s not who we are,” Lopez said. “We don’t want to change who we are.”
Though there are many NBA coaches who believe not attacking mismatches amounts to leaving money on the NBA hardwood, the position articulated by Lopez has been the consistent stance of Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer. Though the Bucks never quite cracked the code offensively in Game 1, they enjoyed a timely outburst by Lopez in the fourth quarter, when he drained three of his five attempts from beyond the arc.
“This is the Brook we all know and we all love,” said Antetokounmpo, who noted that Gasol, assigned to guard Lopez, has a directive to be an active help defender in this series, which will frequently leave Lopez open.
Lopez’s exploits everywhere on the floor were essential to Milwaukee’s victory Wednesday night, but the game was won on the defensive end — with Lopez, again, as the catalyst. With rare exceptions, the Raptors simply couldn’t get to the rim in Game 1, attempting only a fifth of their shots at point-blank range, a woefully low frequency. For all of Antetokounmpo’s offensive gifts and the floor spacing the Bucks demonstrate, their ability to wall off the basket area is their single most consistent attribute as a team. Toronto rarely got to the rim, and on the occasions the Raptors did, they were a meager 9-for-17.
“You can bring your defense every night, and that’s what we expect,” Budenholzer said. “There are going to be nights when you don’t make shots, and you’ve got to just continue to do well or give it defensively. If you do that, you maybe can break through and find a way to win on a night when you really don’t shoot very well offensively or play that well offensively.”
This idea is gospel in Milwaukee under Budenholzer: In a league where games are increasingly won and lost by the vagaries of streaky perimeter shooting, defense is the ultimate insurance policy. Go 6-for-35 from 3-point range over the first 36 minutes of basketball? Certainly not ideal, but nobody attempts to miss. But if the defense is tightening around the paint like a vise, and defenders are instantaneously scrambling back out, and rotators are sharp in their anticipation, cold snaps can be endured — and big games can be won.
Herein lies the challenge for any team that needs to take down the Bucks in a seven-game series: Setting aside the games that will be lost because Milwaukee employs a transcendent superstar, and capable shooters around him, what do you when the Bucks’ defensive effort — far less variable — is so ruggedly committed to depriving you what you want and need most?