The good, the bad, and the freakish from Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals.
GAME 1: Milwaukee Bucks 108, Toronto Raptors 100
Winner: Brook Lopez, the Meek Freak
Brook Lopez walks tall, his voice booms a perplexing tone of both low- and high-pitched sounds, and his gait is that of a gangly, friendly giant. Height and a great level of skill as a traditional big man got him to the NBA, but the 11-year vet has spent the past three seasons migrating from the paint and the post and the space underneath the basket to the 3-point line. The result has been a defibrillator to his career, a boon for a Mike Budenholzer–coached team that needs as many stretch bigs as it can get, and a blessing to viewers—we now get to see the 7-footer amble around the arc and take heat-check 3s because he damn sure can.
For the first three quarters of Game 1, Lopez’s sharpshooting prowess looked to be missing; I wondered aloud whether him taking six 3s was a good idea. But Lopez kept shooting into the fourth because shooters shoot, and the shots began to fall. He hit a 27-footer to start the quarter, then pulled up from near the Bucks’ half-court logo for a 29-footer that dropped in. By the time he took a 30-footer that he didn’t hesitate on, his cropped curly hair may as well have been on fire. The shot missed, but that didn’t dissuade Lopez, who added four more points via a putback and a dunk before he drained what was more or less the difference in the game: a 25-foot 3-pointer with two minutes left to push the Bucks’ lead to four as part of a 10-0 closing run. Free throws wrapped up the final result, and Lopez finished with a team-high 29 points after 17 in the second half alone.
Trying to fit Lopez into a box is useless because his height still allows him to impact the game on defense even if he’s spending most of his time behind the 3-point line on the other end. In the fourth, he swatted a Kawhi Leonard shot attempt, not once but twice. On the boards, he corralled 11 balls (the Bucks outrebounded Toronto 18-6 in the fourth), four of them on offense. On a night when Giannis wasn’t his typical destroyer-of-worlds self (he still had 24 points and 14 rebounds), Lopez was the one who stepped up and ignited the 13-point comeback win. He also did this:
Look upon your new freak, Milwaukee. He just won you a conference finals game.
Winner: Kyle Lowry in a Losing Effort
Lowry’s zero-point game in Round 1 feels like centuries ago, and he was not about to have you, or anyone else, pin this loss on him. The point guard played his ass off during Game 1, and not just in that “look at that plus-minus, though” kind of way he is very good at. You could argue this was one of the best, if not the best, playoff performances of his career. It’s too bad it had to go to waste.
It’s hard to overstate how amazing Lowry was. He’s so often championed for doing the little things, but in this game, he did the big things too. He was creating, affecting, stealing, dealing, and most of all, shooting and making. To wit: He shot nine 3s and made seven of them, the most 3s he’s ever had in a playoff game. His efficiency was exceptional—he needed only 15 shots (10 makes) to get to 30 points on the night and also grabbed eight boards, more than any other Raptor besides Leonard and Marc Gasol. The usual portions of Lowry’s unique game remained: He swarmed players on defense, especially when they tried posting him up. He recorded only one steal, but it felt like he had a hand in everything the Raptors did well on defense during the first half.
The galaxy-brain take on Lowry is that he was just saving his best for the conference finals, saving his very best for a game where Kawhi Leonard was human (he still had 31 points somehow, but his impact was not fully felt). A little playoff load management never hurt anybody who had a superstar like Kawhi for a teammate. Except that in this game, Lowry’s anomalous performance wasn’t enough due to the fact that well, once again, every other Raptor just didn’t have enough to give.
Loser: The Other Raptors, in the Clutch
It seems Nick Nurse has settled on an eight-man rotation, and though it makes for a unit that is strong defensively and can hang with the most efficient offense in the league, it’s also trouble when it has to give something more than the minimum offensively. We know Kawhi is going to be his usual 30-point self and that hopefully Pascal Siakam or, like in Wednesday night’s case, Lowry will impact the game. But what about everyone else?
Siakam was 6-for-20 and can’t seem to hit corner 3s anymore. Gasol was 2-for-11 and Danny Green was 1-for-5. Add those three to the three bench players who played, and the non-Kawhi, non-Lowry Raptors shot 27.4 percent from the field. Yikes. Somehow, it was worse in the fourth quarter. When the Bucks came alive and Lowry kept battling, this is what they did, Kawhi included:
Non-Lowry Raptors in the 4th quarter pic.twitter.com/JjrIXJAyrL— Kirk Goldsberry (@kirkgoldsberry) May 16, 2019
This isn’t a “Where’s Waldo?” game. You can’t find the “O” because they didn’t have a single one. No wonder the Bucks were able to shoot 25 percent from 3 and 39.8 percent from the field and still win.
Winner: Malcolm Brogdon, Back
The most interesting statistic of the night may have come from a player we haven’t seen much in these playoffs. Brogdon returned to the floor in Game 5 of the Boston series after missing the last 21 games due to a minor plantar fascia tear in his right foot. He played only 16 minutes and scored 10 points. But in Game 1, he came off the bench again, this time playing 27 minutes and finishing plus-18—by far the best of Milwaukee’s players. The Bucks’ starting lineup was outscored 34-3 in 14 minutes, but when Nikola Mirotic exited and Brogdon played with that unit, they outscored the Raptors 14-2 in four minutes. When none of the Bucks shooters were hitting and Toronto was threatening to push its lead, it was Brogdon’s three first-half 3s that kept them close enough to eventually make a run.
Brogdon was a 50-40-90 guy during the regular season, and it’s evident that he gives Milwaukee a valuable go-to scoring option who can also create off the dribble, a skill which few Bucks have. When Giannis is flummoxed and Eric Bledsoe is struggling (3-for-12 and 0-for-6 from 3 in Game 1), Brogdon is an invaluable safety valve. Against the Pistons and Celtics, he wasn’t necessary; against the Raptors and beyond, he may just be the key to winning.