The Toronto Raptors were confounded and embarrassed in their playoff opener yet again, and none of them could explain why it keeps happening.
For a fourth straight year, the Raptors lost their opening game of the postseason at home, deflating the fervent playoff crowd both inside and outside the Air Canada Centre. This time it was a 97-83 beating at the hands of the young Milwaukee Bucks, which stretched the Raps' inexplicable all-time record in playoff openers to 0-9.
Why does this team – favoured in each of those opening series – keep laying an egg on postseason opening days?
"I have no clue. If I had the answer, maybe we could have pulled it out tonight," said a puzzled DeMar DeRozan after the game. "But it's something we're not unfamiliar with, being at this point. It's never ideal but we've got to bounce back and understand we make it harder on ourselves to come back and fight back even harder. But it's on us. We don't have no excuse."
DeRozan led third-seeded Toronto with 27 points, and Serge Ibaka had 19 points and 14 rebounds, while Kyle Lowry made only two of 11 field-goal attempts, missing all six 3-point efforts, and finished with four points. Jonas Valanciunas had nine points and nine rebounds.
They were outplayed by superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo and his team-leading 28 points, but five others on the sixth-seeded Bucks also scored in double digits. Rookie point guard Malcolm Brogdon tallied 16 points in his playoff debut.
The Raps came into the game winners of three of their four meetings with Milwaukee this year. The Air Canada was unmistakably decked for the playoff season. Fans were cloaked in red and black playoff t-shirts, distributed throughout the stadium in a lumberjack checked pattern. The rowdy Toronto faithful welcomed Bucks coach Jason Kidd with a healthy boo – a familiar foe who had beaten the Raptors in the postseason twice before; first as a player, then as a coach.
The Raptors kept it close in the first half. The Bucks were trapping DeRozan, but he still managed to get eight points in the first quarter while Ibaka (appearing in his 90th playoff game but first for the Raptors) tallied 10. Antetokounmpo was hot – scoring in multiple ways from flashy dunks to jump shots to luring Raptors to foul him. Toronto tried various defenders on him from DeMarre Carroll to P.J. Tucker to Patrick Patterson.
Greg Monroe made trouble in the paint, and Milwaukee was sharing the ball. The Bucks were shooting 52 per cent from the field and lead 30-22 by the end of the quarter.
Valanciunas came out hot in the second quarter, and in a furious couple of minutes made a cutting layup, a driving hook shot, drew a foul and nabbed three rebounds. His teammates added a couple of threes and an 11-4 run had the Raps back in it. The Raptors outscored the Bucks 30-16 in the quarter and took a 51-46 lead into the half.
Early in the second half, Antetokounmpo picked up his fourth foul and Kidd was forced to pull his star off the floor. The Raptors simply never jumped on that opportunity. Toronto kept missing shots and failed to get back and defend in transition. Things unravelled.
Other Bucks soldiered on without the Greek Freak in the game. Brogdon knocked down threes, while Monroe, Tony Snell, Thon Maker and former Cavalier Matthew Dellavedova also shared in the scoring, pulling Milwaukee ahead 75-70 going into the final quarter.
Antetokounmpo returned in the fourth quarter, but Khris Middleton was scoring, too, while Monroe continued to absolutely rule the boards, finishing the night with 15 rebounds and 14 points. For a dreadful nine-minute stretch, the Raptors failed to score a field goal while the Bucks built an 85-71 lead.
"Giannis is a special player and he can cause a problem by getting two or three guys on him," said Kidd. "I thought our guys did a great job of sharing the ball, the ball wasn't sticking and they didn't care who shot it or who made the shot, it was about making the right play. I thought the guys did a great job offensively; make or miss there was multiple touches and plays made. That's the way you have to play this time of year if you want to win."
The Raptors, unfathomably, mustered a mere 32 points in the entire second half. They shot just 36 per cent on the night.
"Our second half was just abysmal," said Raptors coach Dwane Casey. "We didn't play with any pace, any rhythm, any movement."
With less than three minutes left in the fourth quarter, and their team being confounded and trailing 93-76, thousands of Toronto fans headed for the exits. Instead of battling for the win in the dying minutes, the team was shuffling in its reserves in blowout garbage time.
"I've got to dig myself out of a hole and perform," said Lowry. "It happens. I have to make the adjustments and figure it out. I have to dig myself out somehow, some way."
Game 2 takes place Tuesday in Toronto, before the series shifts to Milwaukee on Thursday and Saturday.