Less than a minute into Friday’s game, Giannis Antetokounmpo threw down a monster dunk, then mauled Marc Gasol on a dunk attempt 19 seconds later.
The rout was on. And now the Toronto Raptors face a massive task: digging themselves out of a 0-2 series deficit. It’s something Toronto has never done.
“That kind of set the tone for us,” Gasol said. “I played really bad and that set the tone.”
Antetokounmpo had 30 points and 17 rebounds to lead Milwaukee 125-103 over the Toronto Raptors, putting the Bucks up 2-0 in the best-of-seven Eastern Conference finals.
Kawhi Leonard had 31 points and eight rebounds to top the Raptors, who were done in by one of their worst first halves of the season. They never led, trailing by 18 points in the first quarter. It grew to 25 points by the second.
“We didn’t do much well tonight, obviously,” Raptors coach Nick Nurse said.
Kyle Lowry had 15 points, while Norm Powell had his best game of these playoffs with 14 points off the bench.
Pascal Siakam, who averaged 24 points against Milwaukee in the regular season, had just eight points and one rebound and fouled out with 5:17 to play.
Gasol struggled mightily, finishing with two points on 1-for-9 shooting and looking out of sorts all night. The Spaniard was trending on Twitter all night. Fans weren’t kind. Gasol was similarly hard on himself.
“The beginning kind of set us in a real bad spot and we couldn’t get a grip of the game early on and I take full responsibility for that,” he said.
Serge Ibaka had 10 rebounds to go with eight points.
Now the series heads to Toronto for Game 3 on Sunday.
“If we want to do anything, be a championship team, we’ve got to play through adversity,” Leonard said. “It’s a challenge now to come home, Game 3, and try to get a win.”
Two nights after a close Game 1 loss that left the Raptors lamenting an opportunity missed, Game 2 got ugly early. Antetokounmpo’s block on Gasol had Fiserv Forum crowd chanting “M-V-P!” The 6-11 forward fondly known as the “Greek Freak” played like an MVP. Gasol, meanwhile, seemed shaken by the block, missing his first four shots, and smacking his hands in frustration when he fumbled a pass.
How tough is it to stop the bleeding?
“Very tough,” Leonard said. “Especially on the road. You get down in the hole, and you’re on the road, it’s tough to come back in that game. They got adrenalin running, they’re feeling confident, and we’ve just got to really try to lock in and chip it down point by point and see what happens.”
A George Hill basket capped a 12-0 run that gave the Bucks an 18-point lead, and they roared into the second up 35-21.
The Raptors’ suffering continued. When Lowry missed on a free throw, a large section of fans chanted “Playoff Lowry!” And when Lowry fouled Ilyasova late in the first half, the Raptors point guard took a seat with a troublesome fourth foul, and Ilyasova’s free throw gave the Bucks a 23-point lead. Milwaukee took a 64-39 advantage into the halftime break.
Antetokounmpo converted a three-point play to begin the third, stretching the Bucks’ lead to a game-high 28 points. But the Raptors outscored the Bucks the rest of the quarter, slicing the difference to 13 points a couple of times. Seldom-used Jodie Meeks scored on a three-pointer at the buzzer and the Raptors trailed Milwaukee with 95-78.
“I think we played a little freer that quarter,” Lowry said. “We’ve got to play better defence. We gave up 125. That’s too many points in the playoffs.”
The same rowdy section of fans serenaded Leonard during fourth-quarter free throws with “Future Clipper!” in reference to rumours the Raptors star is headed home to L.A. to play next season.
Leonard’s three-point play pulled Toronto within 15 points with 6:10 to play, but that was the end of any Raptors momentum. Both coaches went deep into their benches soon after.
“We get to go back home and protect our home court, like they did these last two games,” Lowry said. “We’ve got a chance to go home, protect home court and do what we’re supposed to do.”
Nurse had been asked pre-game what’s easier: preparing for a game after a win or after a loss?
“The losses should give you an edge and it should give you a determination thing, too,” Nurse said. “But in the playoffs, it doesn’t bode very well if you lose two in a row. So it puts a little bit more heat on you to get the win done on the second game.”
That heat has been cranked up a couple hundred degrees. Of the seven other times the Raptors have dropped the first two games of a playoff series, they’ve gone on to lose all seven series. Four of the series were sweeps.
The start of the game was a virtual reversal of two nights earlier, when the Raptors had the Bucks — rusty perhaps from their six days off between games — on their heels from tipoff. The Raptors led for 37 of the 48 minutes in a 108-100 loss, falling apart in a second half that saw every Raptor not named Lowry or Leonard shoot 1-for-23.
There was zero rust on Friday.
The Bucks outrebounded Toronto 53-40, two nights after beating the Raptors 60-46 on the boards. The Bucks turned the ball over just seven times, compared to 14 for the Raptors, costing them 19 points.
The Bucks won a league-high 60 games in the regular season, two more than the second-seeded Raptors. The winner of this series will have homecourt in the NBA Finals against either the Golden State Warriors or the Portland Trail Blazers.
The Raptors are playing their second Eastern Conference final in franchise history, while the Bucks are making their first appearance in the conference final in 18 years.
The Bucks have had a countdown going since the playoffs began: how many victories before they hoist the Larry O’Brien trophy as the NBA champion? Friday made it six more wins.
Game 4 is Tuesday at Scotiabank Arena.