The Raptors needed their two stars and head coach to come through in Game 2. They did.
Doubt is a pervasive force more powerful than optimism. Two quarters of piss-poor basketball on Saturday washing away a month of excitement over the Raptors’ post-season promise was proof of that.
In the two intervening days since the Raptors dropped yet another Game 1, red flags and negativity came from all directions. Kyle Lowry was ornery after a series-opening dud — hinting that he might deviate from his typically cerebral style of play in order to answer his teammates’ calls for more aggression. Toronto found itself in its familiar place in the general NBA discourse: at the butt-end of jokes, labelled as chokers incapable of adapting to playoff circumstances. Heading into Game 2 on Tuesday night, you might have found your mind wandering about what a first round exit might mean for the long-term plans of the Raptors franchise.
Tuesday’s 106-100 win in Game 2 put those existential concerns on hold for now — and Lowry is a core reason why.
In Game 2, Toronto’s bristly point guard fired back at the narratives and growing piles of empirical evidence that paint his playoff worthiness in an unfavourable light. Entering the game as the NBA’s all-time worst playoff shooter and coming off of 4-point Game 1 on 2-of-11 shooting, Lowry was fantastic wire-to-wire.
His final line of 22 points, four rebounds and five assists wasn’t all that eye-popping, but he operated decisively within the constraints that the lengthy and aggressive Bucks placed upon him. In the second half of Game 1, Toronto’s guards put on a clinic in how not to handle Milwaukee traps. Their reads were slow, their passes sloppy. Too often the Raptors found themselves bogged down in a thicket of Bucks defenders incapable of swinging the ball to the open real estate of the weak side.
Lowry had no such problems in Game 2. He dictated a more upbeat tempo, and deferred to his teammates with quick precision when the Bucks threatened to envelope him. When shots presented themselves, he took them; there was none of the “forcing” he alluded to over the weekend. That is, of course, until he hit a pull-up dagger in the final minute with the score 104-100 Raptors; a play Lowry later revealed was originally drawn up for DeRozan. It was the kind of shot that was a recurrence in big moments throughout the 2016 playoffs; a shot that erased the criticism of his dreadful Game 1.
Dwane Casey didn’t sound surprised that Lowry turned in an antithetical performance to the one he posted on Saturday.
“That’s just who he is. He’s a competitor. He’s a fighter,” said Casey. We just can’t panic every time a guy has a rough night.”
Casey himself had a rebound game on Tuesday. Game 1 saw the Raptors’ head coach struggle to settle on a rotation; with just five games to fidget with his full complement of bodies, he failed to find cohesive units for more than a couple minutes here and there.
He was a mad scientist achieving a breakthrough in Game 2. Jonas Valanciunas as the second unit anchor was replaced by Serge Ibaka — a more obvious fit in that running-and-gunning, defense-focused unit headed by Lowry. Delon Wright was inserted in the second frame as a taller stand-in for Joseph; his eight minutes were infinitely more important than his zero points might suggest. Wright, with his herky-jerky, drive-and-kick game, blended seamlessly into the Raptors’ side-to-side attack.
Most significantly, Casey unleashed the Ibaka, P.J. Tucker and Patrick Patterson front court that played a grand total of one minute together in Game 1. Apart from a 51-second breather for Ibaka (who was terrific in the second half once his wobbly ankle warmed up), the trio closed the final seven-plus minutes of the game.
Casey’s rotation alterations stand a good chance of sticking this time.
Not to be forgotten was DeMar DeRozan. His Game 1 showing wasn’t quite the lightning rod that Lowry and Casey’s were, but he was visibly bothered by Milwaukee’s trapping in the second-half on Saturday. Like Lowry, DeRozan mastered the Bucks’ puzzle in Game 2.
“He did a really good job of stretching out the trap,” said Casey. We did a good job of getting it to the weak side ... We shot 48% from three and that’ll loosen up those traps when you get that.”
Both of Toronto’s All-Star guards were more trusting in Game 2. Maybe their personal stat lines didn’t pop, but Serge Ibaka’s six assists and the team’s 14-of-29 mark from deep were both products of DeRozan and Lowry adjusting their calculus of Milwaukee’s swarming defense.
They may not have stolen back home court advantage yet, but they’ve clearly cracked out the Bucks’ go-to defensive strategy. Going back to Wisconsin for Games 3 and 4, the onus is back on Jason Kidd and his staff to counter Toronto’s three figureheads.
For the next 44 hours or so, the Raptors are free of the creeping shadow of pessimism that hung over them since the buzzer sounded to end Game 1. Belief — at least for a short while — has been restored in Toronto.