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Sports A long series looms as the Raptors let Game 1 slip away against the Bucks

Toronto Raptors forward Kawhi Leonard (right) passes the ball away from Milwaukee Bucks guard Malcolm Brogdon. The Bucks beat the Raptors 108-100 in Game 1 on May 15, 2019.

Benny Sieu/USA TODAY Sports via Reuters

Before last night’s Game 1, a Milwaukee radio station announced that it was suspending Drake’s music for the duration of the Raptors/Bucks series.

Since as best I understand it, every single pop track currently recorded must, by law, include Drake’s involvement, that’s a bold statement of purpose. Well played, attention-deprived Milwaukee DJs.

Okay, we’re up for this. Toronto radio will ban (Googling) Al Jarreau … No, that doesn’t work. Woody Herman? No. Davey Von Bohlen? I don’t know who that is. Nobody knows who any of these people are.

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As feuding goes, this is a poor effort on Milwaukee’s part. You shouldn’t start things when you know you’re out of your depth.

On the very early evidence, they are better at the basketball part of basketball.

Milwaukee beat Toronto 108-100 on Wednesday night in a game the Raptors led for most of proceedings. With about two minutes left, a Danny Green slip and turnover turned a small lead into a small deficit that grew.

Asked afterward if being in it for so long gave them confidence, Raptors guard Fred VanVleet deadpanned: “Winning the game would’ve given us a lot more confidence.”

It wasn’t a disaster by Toronto lights. The Raptors did something they don’t often do – most of the team showed up at the same time.

Kawhi Leonard was the standout, but Kyle Lowry was right there with him. Even the bench put in a shift.

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Still, this one may hurt in retrospect. It was very doable, until it suddenly wasn’t right at the end.

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The Raptors could be forgiven a letdown after Sunday’s Game 7 against Philadelphia and The Shot. That was a bit emotional.

The team did little actual practice between then and now as it tried to insulate the players from sudden worldwide interest. Instead of basketball, Leonard practised not talking about his shot when directly and repeatedly asked about it.

Raptors coach Nick Nurse called this anti-hype process “re-juicing.”

In fairness, you can’t coach away Toronto’s biggest problem in the Philadelphia series – an inability by everyone not named Kawhi to hit open jumpers. At this time of year, NBA players should figure that out on their own.

“I hope we make some more of those shots,” Toronto coach Nick Nurse said beforehand, and then a smirk: “I been saying that for a while.”

In the opening 90 seconds of the game, you got the full range of what Milwaukee’s inside-and-outside monster Giannis Antetokounmpo will do to you if you don’t.

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In that span of time, Antetokounmpo had a field goal, a block, a steal and an uncontested dunk. For some others, that would be a fun stat line for a full game.

Whenever Antetokounmpo gets in the lane, it’s like an enraged giant squid coming at you – an indistinguishable blur of arms.

But Toronto was making those early shots, most of them from three. Conversely, Milwaukee – which lives and dies by the three – was playing horseshoes. Toronto led by 12 after the first quarter.

That took the crowd out of it. Milwaukee has the same set-up as Toronto – big crowd watching outside; a lot of in-arena choreography to manufacture excitement. They may not have it precisely right.

Their giveaway T-shirts read: Built to stay. Built to advance. Built to contend.

That’s not a slogan. It’s a lunchtime talk at Ameritrade’s annual meeting of deputy regional managers.

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The audience entered proceedings on the last play of the first half. Antetokounmpo went up for a tip in. Coming from behind, Leonard skied over him to slap the ball away. Antetokounmpo went down in a heap. No foul was called. In the arena, all the ‘Mr. Midwestern Nice Guy’ went out the window.

That was the first time in the evening you’d noticed the two overwhelming stars of the series together.

The hype has, as you can imagine, been quite reasonable. Nurse analogized it as being something like “Bird vs. Magic.” So no pressure.

But the pair play very different games. They aren’t regularly in contact on the floor. But in the first instance of close combat, Leonard came out better.

By the third quarter, the game had drawn even. This was more like what you can expect to see going forward – games decided by small margins in skill, runs and toughness.

The evening’s greatest takeaway was that this series has the feel of something that could go on for a while. The two teams seem evenly matched – which is usual at this point – but also interestingly matched. Tactics will play a major role here.

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So good news – there’s already been some off-court chippiness. In the pre-game, Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer was asked how close he came to taking the coaching position in Toronto this past off-season.

Budenholzer isn’t exactly an electric speaking presence. In fact, he is the vocal and tonal equivalent of the low drone emitted by overhead lighting. But that one woke him up.

Budenholzer started short-arming answers about things working out and having “a lot of respect” for the Raptors organization. Then he said he found the question “a little inappropriate.” Which it shouldn’t be if he’s being given the chance to speak about people he has a lot of respect for.

Budenholzer was initially very high on Toronto’s wanted list. He flew in and did a day of interviews. Then he flew out and got hired by the Bucks. The Raptors tapped Nurse instead.

Based on the mood of the answer, there are some hurt feelings mixed in there somewhere.

That’s good news for all involved. The Raptors have done a lot of things during this postseason, but they have yet to engage in a proper quarrel. Everything’s been quite gentlemanly by NBA standards. And DJs don’t count.

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Budenholzer is motivated here by something more than competitive fire. Presumably, his team can sense that. Not that players play for a coach. They play for each other. But any sort of motivation is useful to a pro.

One game is where you set up the conflicts to come. Kawhi v. Giannis is what everyone’s hoping for. Maybe it’ll be someone else instead. Maybe it needn’t necessarily be someone in uniform.

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