TORONTO â€” Another Game 1, another shocking playoff defeat for the Toronto Raptors.
And now, in a black-cloud scenario they’ve faced an incredible 10 times before, the Raptors find themselves having to claw their way back.
DeMar DeRozan scored 27 points, but it wasn’t nearly enough to lift the Raptors over a young and inspired Milwaukee Bucks team that roared to a 97-83 victory to take Game 1 of the opening round of the playoffs on Saturday.
Game 1 curse? DeRozan could only shrug his shoulders moments after the perplexing loss.
“I have no clue,” DeRozan said. “If I had the answer, maybe we would have pulled it out tonight, but it’s something now that 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 hard on ourselves. . . to come back and fight back even harder.”
Toronto has never won a Game 1 in the opening round of the playoffs. Their lone victory in 11 series openers came in the second round, in 2002 against Philadelphia.
The Raptors could not have made the night more difficult on themselves. They missed easy buckets. They disappeared for long stretches on defence. They fell apart in a second half that coach Dwane Casey called “abysmal.”
“We didn’t play with any pace, any rhythm, any movement,” the stone-faced coach said.
The Raptors had no answer for the Bucks’ young star Giannis Antetokounmpo, who held a post-season coming-out party with 28 points and eight rebounds.
Serge Ibaka, acquired in a deal at February’s trade deadline to help Toronto avoid nights like this, was the only Raptor to score in double figures, finishing with 19 points and 14 rebounds. Jonas Valanciunas finished with nine points and nine boards.
Kyle Lowry, playing just his fifth game after missing 21 with a wrist injury, had just four points on 2-for-11 shooting. He missed all six of his three-point shots.
The three-time all-star summed up his night as “super frustrating.”
“They just outplayed us tonight and I didn’t play well enough,” Lowry said. “I never put it on anybody else but me. I have to play better. A lot of things that I did tonight didn’t help my team win.”
The Raptors, who are making their fourth consecutive post-season appearance, had talked about the experience gained in last season’s playoff run that saw them take eventual-champion Cleveland to six games in the Eastern Conference final. But they were schooled by a Bucks squad Saturday that started a pair of rookies in Thon Maker and Malcolm Brogdon and is led by the 22-year-old Antetokounmpo, nicknamed the “Greek Freak.”
Fear the Deer indeed.
“I don’t know if we played hard enough to deserve to win,” Casey said.
The Raptors, who finished third in the jam-packed Eastern Conference, had won the regular-season series 3-1 against the sixth-seeded Bucks, but Milwaukee went a league-best 14-4 in March to salvage their season. The Raptors went 12-3 to finish the season, and both teams went into the playoffs on a roll.
Neither team led by more than 10 points through the game’s first three quarters. The Raptors’ only decent quarter was the second, when they outscored the Bucks 29-16. But the Bucks fired back in the third to take a 75-70 advantage into the fourth quarter.
“We just trusted one another defensively and we just ran,” Antetokounmpo said. “We moved the ball real well. We got a lot of open looks and we were able to knock some (shots) down.”
The Bucks opened the final frame with a 9-1 run before a jump shot from Ibaka with 7:49 to play ended an agonizing stretch of nine minutes and 17 seconds without a field goal for Toronto.
Ibaka scored again to pull the Raptors to within 10, injecting some hope into a Raptors crowd that was awash in red and black â€” thanks to a pre-game T-shirt giveaway â€” and included actor Ethan Hawke and rapper Talib Kweli, who performed at halftime.
That brief offensive output was the Raptors’ virtual last gasp, and when Milwaukee’s Kris Middleton waltzed in for an easy bucket with 4:19 to play, a few Raptors fans chanted: “Let’s go Leafs!”
By the time Casey put his bench players into the game in the dying minutes, the cranky ACC crowd was barely two-thirds full.
“We will figure it out. We have been there before,” Casey said. “It’s not a good feeling but they are things that are correctable as far as our offence is concerned.”
The Bucks shot 45 per cent on the night while holding Toronto to 36 per cent. Milwaukee hit nine of their 23 three-point attempts, while Toronto made good on just five of their 23 attempts. The Raptors missed nine of their 33 free throws.
If the young Bucks, who are making their first post-season appearance in two years, were feeling any playoff jitters, they showed zero from the opening tip-off, finishing the first quarter with a 15-7 run to take a 30-22 lead into the second.
Antetokounmpo’s layup to open the second quarter gave the Bucks a 10-point lead, but the Raptors hit back and a driving finger roll by DeRozan had Toronto up by three points. The Raptors ended the half with a 10-3 run to take a 51-46 advantage into the break.
Game 2 is Tuesday in Toronto, then the series shifts to Milwaukee for Game 3 on Thursday.
Lori Ewing, The Canadian Press