It makes sense that the Milwaukee Bucks won Game 1 of the 2019 Eastern Conference finals. As awesome as the Toronto Raptors have been throughout the 2018-19 NBA season, the Bucks have been better, on both ends of the court. They had the best record in the NBA, they’re 9-1 in the playoffs, and they’ve owned the best net rating in both the regular season and playoffs. From 30,000 feet, Wednesday’s result, a 108-100 home win, scans as unremarkable. The Bucks have lost only 23 times in 92 games since October’s opening tip, and just nine times in 46 games at Fiserv Forum. If you want to beat them, especially at home, you’re probably going to need something pretty special.
That’s what hurts if you’re a Raptors fan, because Toronto got something special on Wednesday. Kyle Lowry—the five-time All-Star point guard with the spotty postseason résumé that actually isn’t as spotty as you might remember it—bowling-balled his way into Wisconsin and played something like the game of his life. He’s been great in big moments before; Game 7 of the 2016 Eastern Conference semis against the Heat comes to mind, as does Game 4 of the next round against the Cavs. But if Lowry was better on those nights than he was in Game 1, it wasn’t by much, and it still wasn’t enough against Milwaukee.
Lowry did the “unstatable” stuff that has made him the longtime linchpin of the best era in Raptors history—pushing the pace off misses and makes, competing for rebounds in traffic, making sharp rotations as a help defender, sacrificing his body to both save possessions and end them, etc.—while also scoring 30 points on 10-for-15 shooting, including seven made 3-pointers in nine tries, a new career postseason high. In one of the biggest games of his career, Lowry met the moment, completely flipping the script on an opponent that had owned him during the regular season.
With the game in the balance in the fourth, Lowry carried the load, pouring in 14 points on a string of tough, deep, ballsy shots. But the Raptors couldn’t finish the job … and, in a cruel inversion of the kind of story that’s dinged Lowry’s reputation over the years, it was because while he stood tall, his teammates shrank. No other Raptor made even a single field goal in the fourth quarter, collectively going a staggering 0-for-15. Even Kawhi Leonard, the unwavering killer at the heart of Toronto’s wins over Orlando and Philadelphia, seemed to hit the proverbial wall, badly missing from deep and proving unable to circumvent Brook Lopez in the paint.
The Raptors suffered through an agonizing final three and a half minutes, in which they missed all eight shots they took. The Bucks responded by going on a 10-0 run, turning The Kyle Lowry Game into The Brook Lopez Game, and relegating to the dustbin of history what could have been a statement-making outing for one of the league’s more (perhaps unfairly) maligned postseason performers.
What makes this particularly deflating for the Raptors isn’t that they had the game in hand and frittered it away. It’s that Lowry’s heroics nearly allowed them to steal a game they might not have had much business winning. After a first quarter in which Toronto played about as well as it could, the Bucks locked into their game and started controlling the proceedings, outscoring the Raptors 85-66 after the opening 12 minutes despite shooting just 42.4 percent from the field. (If this sounds familiar, it’s probably because you tuned into the Celtics series.)
Even with Toronto packing the paint to prevent Giannis Antetokounmpo from penetrating, the Raptors allowed the Bucks to go 20-for-34 inside the restricted area Wednesday. The Raptors, on the other hand, took just 17 shots at the rim and made only nine, as Milwaukee’s swarming defense locked down the lane. The Bucks shot just 11-for-44 from long range, but a ton of those looks were clean; on 34 of the 44, the shooter was wide-open, with at least 6 feet of space to fire, according to NBA.com/Stats. Milwaukee created higher-quality looks all night, dominating both in transition and on the offensive glass. Toronto started strong, but over the full 48 minutes, the sheer force of Antetokounmpo’s play—24 points on 7-for-16 shooting, 14 rebounds, six assists, three blocks, and two steals in 37 minutes—broke down the Raptors.
All those punishing drives to the paint and all those disrupted defensive possessions are like body blows a boxer throws early in a fight. Take enough of them, and eventually you’re going to be so busted up inside that you drop your hands to protect your ribs. That’s when the Bucks throw the knockout punch: in this case, the 32-17 fourth quarter that turned the game.
If there’s such a thing as a quiet 31 points in a conference finals game, Leonard registered them Wednesday. He struggled to get to his preferred spots against the length and smarts of Khris Middleton, who—much as he did during the regular-season meetings between these two teams—worked to force Kawhi to his left, into the midrange, and into the help of long-armed, aggressive teammates. Even as he grinded his way to his league-best eighth 30-point game of this postseason, Leonard looked beat; errant jumpers caught front-rim or veered well off-course, his hands were on his knees, his motions were imprecise and labored. After shooting 59 percent from the field and 50 percent from 3-point land over his first nine playoff games as a Raptor, Kawhi’s now made just 42 percent of his field goals and only three of his last 22 triples over the past four contests. All those heavy-lifting heroics earlier in the postseason might have taken a toll; that would be very bad news for a Raptors team that needs him to be almost impossibly good to win this series.
With the exceptions of Lowry’s shooting and Leonard getting to the free throw line, just about everything that had worked for Toronto withered on the vine as the game wore on. Pascal Siakam opened the game looking thrilled that he no longer had to try to score over Joel Embiid; he finished the game 2-for-13 from the floor over the final three quarters, unable to can the corner 3s he splashed at a 42 percent clip during the regular season. Marc Gasol started off true to his pregame word, taking three early shots and canning a pick-and-pop 3; he’d miss seven of eight shots after the first quarter, including four of five 3s. Only Lowry, Leonard, and Siakam scored after halftime. By game’s end, nobody else could do a damn thing.
Some of that’s probably owed to fatigue. With the team fresh off a week of rest after decimating Boston, Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer went nine deep, with no player logging more than 37 minutes and his starters getting early rest to keep them fresh for the closing kick. After just two days off following a seven-game war that went down to the final possession, Toronto’s Nick Nurse played only eight, with three starters (Leonard, Siakam, Lowry) all on the court for at least 40 minutes. You can understand Nurse’s not wanting to lean on Fred VanVleet or Norman Powell for significant stretches, but Serge Ibaka probably could’ve stood to play more than 17 minutes, especially with Gasol struggling. (In this matchup, in particular, Toronto misses OG Anunoby, a 6-foot-8, 232-pound defensive stalwart who can also hit a corner 3 and run in transition. The second-year pro has missed the entire postseason after an emergency appendectomy last month and is reportedly unlikely to be back until the end of this round, at the earliest.)
Toronto needs more versatility and verve to topple the favored Bucks. Lowry did his part Wednesday, and it wasn’t enough, and that might have been the Raptors’ best chance to make Milwaukee feel real pressure. Now, Toronto will turn its attention to Game 2, where it’ll hope for more of the same from Lowry and more of everything from everyone else in a Toronto uniform. If they get it, this could still be a series. If they don’t … well, then they might have to start worrying about losing a hell of a lot more than just The Kyle Lowry Game.