Ahead of Friday’s Game 2, Milwaukee Bucks head of psychiatry Mike Budenholzer gave a précis of his working objective.
“Human nature is a strong force.”
We’re with you so far.
“I think every coach for a long time in every sport has been trying to fight it.”
Note to Milwaukee players: If you get invited to Mike Budenholzer’s office, avoid the couch. Standing is fine.
If human nature in this case means an easing off after a success, Budenholzer needn’t have worried. The Bucks displayed the most ruthless side of their nature on Friday night; the Raptors the most cringing part of theirs.
The result was a very human sort of interaction – fragility, and someone very willing to take advantage of it.
“In the playoffs, if you lose two in a row, it doesn’t bode very well,” Raptors coach Nick Nurse said beforehand.
Begin your foreboding. Milwaukee won 125-103.
It wasn’t just that Toronto lost. It was how it lost. The Raptors were annihilated within the first 10 minutes. Several Raptors, including the coach, waved the white flag in the first half. The second half had its moments of tension, but nothing else.
Now down 2-0, this series isn’t starting to get away from Toronto. It’s got there. At the very least, that’s how the Raptors ought to approach it from this point on.
One of the good-news stories from the opening loss was the relative containment of Milwaukee’s talisman, Giannis Antetokounmpo. He’d got his buckets, but had not run amok.
He began the second game by running amok.
Early on, Toronto’s Marc Gasol went up for a half-speed dunk. Antetokounmpo came swinging out of the rafters like the Phantom of the Opera on uppers and slapped the ball away. In the process, Gasol was trampled to the ground. It is hard to properly convey how humiliating this looked live and in real time. It was the vibrancy of youth chopping down the wisdom of age.
Over the next few minutes, the Spaniard played some of the worst basketball of his career. By the second quarter, he’d been effectively benched.
Antetokounmpo had at least temporarily robbed Gasol of his will to live.
It was 9-0 Milwaukee to start the game. It was 35-21 after the first quarter. All the things that had gone right early for Toronto in the first game – hitting shots, getting at 50-50 balls, defending well – were going wrong.
All the things Milwaukee had done wrong – notably, miss threes – were going right. Whenever Toronto put a small dent in the lead, one of the Bucks’ many shooters would stroll down to the other end of the floor and plant a three.
The Raptors have a bunch of guys who can sort of shoot from distance and aren’t right now. Milwaukee has nothing but specialists in this regard. If it flips that switch and it stays on, this series is going to be over in a hurry.
It got so desperate that Toronto’s unsuper-sub Jodie Meeks was put in the game. This was the second quarter. It was a bit early to turn to the ‘Anything! Just try anything!’ page of the playbook.
This season, Nurse’s coaching and rotations haven’t received the same scrutiny of years past for two reasons – Kawhi Leonard and the team wins on the regular. That’s fair.
Maybe, now that they’re losing and Leonard no longer looks like Wilt Chamberlain in rocket boots, it’s time to start asking a few questions.
Toronto had no answers for Milwaukee on Friday. The Raptors didn’t even seem to understand the questions.
Lineups were being juggled like so many plates. All those plates ended up on the floor in pieces. It was 64-39 at the half and already over.
Toronto made a run in the third, but it never got anywhere close to tight. In fact, watching the Raptors finally hitting shots once it no longer mattered was worse than getting completely blown out.
Friday’s failure is ultimately on Nurse. The players should be better, but a letdown this collective is on the guy in charge.
Part of the problem is Leonard’s small decline. He’s steadily denied that all the action and nightly pressure is wearing him down, but he’s not the same player he was a week ago. His stats are returning to norms. The eye test tells you he isn’t as sharp out there.
Without Leonard at his most dominating, we’re beginning to get a small sense of what the Toronto Raptors would look like without him. It’s not pretty. And nobody seems to know what to do about it.
The portents were bad going in. The Raptors have gone so far this year they have finally reached an inevitable playoff milestone – being sick of the playoffs.
Lowry ostentatiously refused to speak during the morning’s shootaround, then did two or three interviews anyway. When more people approached, he mock announced, “I can’t. I’m envisioning.”
Leonard did his availability, said nearly nothing and then afterward told no one in particular that the whole thing was a-word-that-cannot-be-printed-here. He said that a couple of times.
It was his most interesting utterance in quite a while.
Even Nurse – who usually enjoys a little banter – is getting to the ‘It’s us against the world!’ stage of postseason paranoia.
“The narratives are the narratives,” Nurse said. “They’re just a bunch of … a pile of … words.”
Take that, sportswriters. Also, Jane Austen and Solzhenitsyn.
It only gets worse now. If the post Game 1 narrative bothered them, one can’t wait for their reaction to ‘Nobody has been anywhere close to good enough’ and ‘If they lose on Sunday, they’re getting swept’.
Because, despite being a pile of words, that narrative sounds pretty bang on. That narrative has more legs than most of the guys playing for Toronto do right now.