MILWAUKEE — Giannis Antetokounmpo had 30 points and 17 rebounds to lead Milwaukee 125-103 over the Toronto Raptors on Friday, putting the Bucks up 2-0 in the best-of-seven Eastern Conference finals.
Now the Raptors are faced with a mammoth task: digging themselves out of a 0-2 series deficit. It’s something Toronto has never done before.
Kawhi Leonard had 31 points and eight rebounds to lead the Raptors, who were done in by one of their worst first halves of the season. They trailed by 18 points in the first quarter. It grew to 25 points by the second.
Kyle Lowry had 15 points, while Norm Powell had his best game of these playoffs with 14 points.
Pascal Siakam, who averaged 24 points against Milwaukee in the regular season, had just eight points and one rebound and fouled out with 5:17 to play. Marc Gasol struggled mightily, finishing with two points on 1-for-9 shooting and looking out of sorts all night. Serge Ibaka had 10 rebounds to go with eight points.
Now the series heads to Toronto for Game 3 on Sunday.
Our turn to protect home court. pic.twitter.com/8vm9ZshZ5T— Toronto Raptors (@Raptors) May 18, 2019
Two nights after a close Game 1 loss that left the Raptors lamenting an opportunity missed, Game 2 got ugly early. Antetokounmpo threw down a dunk in the opening minute, then mauled Gasol on a dunk attempt from behind on the Raptors’ next possession, prompting “M-V-P!” chants from the Fiserv Forum crowd. The big block seemed to shake Gasol, who missed his first four shots, and smacked his hands in frustration when he fumbled a pass.
A George Hill basket capped a 12-0 run gave the Bucks an 18-point lead, and they roared into the second up 35-21.
The Raptors’ suffering continued. When Lowry missed on a free throw, a large section of fans chanted “Playoff Lowry!” And when Lowry fouled Ilyasova with 1:02 to play, the Raptors point guard took a seat with a troublesome fourth foul, and Ilyasova’s free throw gave the Bucks a 23-point lead. Milwaukee took a 64-39 advantage into the halftime break.
Antetokounmpo converted a three-point play to begin the third, stretching the Bucks’ lead to a game-high 28 points. But the Raptors outscored the Bucks the rest of the quarter, slicing the difference to 13 points a couple of times. Seldom-used Jodie Meeks scored on a three-pointer at the buzzer and the Raptors trailed Milwaukee with 95-78.
The same rowdy section of fans serenaded Leonard during fourth-quarter free throws with “Future Clipper!” in reference to rumours that the Raptors star is headed home to L.A. to play next season.
Leonard’s three-point play pulled Toronto within 15 points with 6:10 to play, but Antetokounmpo was fouled by Leonard the next time down the floor for his own three-point play. Hill’s three-pointer with 4:06 to play all but sealed the Bucks’ victory, and both coaches went deep into their benches soon after.
Raptors coach Nick Nurse was asked pre-game what’s easier: preparing for a game after a win or after a loss?
“The losses should give you an edge and it should give you a determination thing, too,” Nurse said. ”But in the playoffs, it doesn’t bode very well if you lose two in a row. So it puts a little bit more heat on you to get the win done on the second game.”
That heat has been cranked up a couple hundred degrees. Of the seven other times the Raptors have dropped the first two games of a playoff series, they’ve gone on to lose all seven series. Four of the series were sweeps.
The start of the game was a virtual reversal of two nights earlier, when the Raptors had the Bucks — rusty perhaps from their six days off between games — on their heels from tipoff. The Raptors led for 37 of the 48 minutes in a 108-100 loss, falling apart in a second half that saw every Raptor not named Lowry or Leonard shoot 1-for-23.
There was zero rust on Friday.
The Bucks outrebounded Toronto 53-40, two nights after beating the Raptors 60-46 on the boards. The Bucks turned the ball over just seven times, compared to 14 for the Raptors, costing them 19 points.
The Bucks won a league-high 60 games in the regular season, two more than the second-seeded Raptors. The winner of this series will have homecourt in the NBA Finals against either the Golden State Warriors or the Portland Trail Blazers.
The Raptors are playing their second Eastern Conference final in franchise history, while the Bucks are making their first appearance in the conference final in 18 years.
The Bucks have had a countdown going since the playoffs began: how many victories before they hoist the Larry O’Brien trophy as the NBA champion? Friday made it six more wins.
Game 4 is Tuesday at Scotiabank Arena.
Lori Ewing, The Canadian Press