TORONTO — After the Toronto Raptors cruised to a 120-102 Game 4 victory over the Milwaukee Bucks, Giannis Antetokounmpo scrunched into his locker room with his head tucked between his hands, both wrists adorned with wristbands reading “Never Give Up.”
With his elbows resting on his thighs and athletic tape wrapped around bags of ice on each knee, he chewed on his cheeks and stared into the bucket of ice his feet sat in, interrupted only by the timer on his iPhone.
That’s supposed to be the thing with Giannis: supreme, unrivaled focus. “It’s unmatched,” Bucks general manager Jon Horst said before the game. “It’s not just because we lost the last game or because we’re in the Eastern Conference finals. It’s who he is. It’s the way he prepares. He’s focused.”
After being held to 12 points in Game 3, he was supposed to come back with a vengeance. Had the Raptors and Kawhi Leonard figured him out? Probably only for a night. The Celtics’ Al Horford learned that lesson the hard way after muzzling Antetokounmpo in Game 1 of the second round, only for Milwaukee to win the next four games. Prior to Tuesday night, the Bucks hadn’t dropped back-to-back games since March.
Before a film session on Tuesday, Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer was asked how the 6-foot-11 star bounces back after tough games. “Usually well, you know? Hopefully, we’ll see. I think he’ll be aggressive.”
The Raptors did, too. They expected the man who has made a career of slugging through bodies to barrel into the lane with reckless abandon and unmatched confidence. After a lethargic start, they finally matched Antetokounmpo’s focus and aggression, stymieing his drives, contesting shooters, and winning two straight games to tie the best-of-seven series heading back to Milwaukee.
It started with a turnover. Toronto’s Pascal Siakam dribbled up the floor, posted up and spun right into Antetokounmpo’s waiting arms, allowing the Bucks star to traverse the court for a Euro-step by Marc Gasol for a bucket.
Two threes (by Nikola Mirotic and Brook Lopez) and two dunks by Giannis later, the Bucks led by seven just three minutes into the game, like it was the Raptors’ blowout Game 2 loss all over again, with the Greek Freak flexing and stomping around the court, setting the terms of the night early.
Sometimes you need a nightmare to snap you back into focus.
Raptors head coach Nick Nurse jumped out of his chair and immediately called a timeout.
“We always talk about a lot of things,” Nurse said. “What’s the foundation of our defense? Right at the top of the list is readiness, and I just didn’t see us ready. We were kind of back, but we were straight-legged. We weren’t showing much length. Our gaps were too wide. He sees those openings, and he’s punching right through them.”
“I think we were just a little bit fearful of getting foul trouble early,” Raptors guard Danny Green said. After multiple players, including Kyle Lowry and Norman Powell, fouled out in Game 3 — while Siakam and Fred VanVleet played in foul trouble — the Raptors naturally came out of the gate timid, despite the fact that in film sessions, the coaching staff emphasized matching Antetokounmpo’s physicality.
The message? “Don’t worry about fouls,” Green said. “Be into bodies. Don’t give any ground. Help each other and rotate. Trust each other. Trust in yourselves. We need you guys to be physical and active. If we’re going to lose fouling out, then we’ll do that.”
After that timeout, Antetokounmpo scored 19 points on 6-of-14 shooting, numbers you’ll live with from the presumptive MVP-in-waiting.
Whether it was Serge Ibaka switched onto him or Siakam draped all over him, Giannis would drive to his right and find Leonard — one of the few defenders he can’t overpower with mere strength — waiting at the nail, relegating him to stepping back, relinquishing the ball, or taking jump shots. Lowry, who finished with 25 points, six assists and five rebounds, drew multiple charges and got underneath Antetokounmpo’s base.
When Giannis had the ball in the middle of the floor, where a luxury of options make him the NBA’s toughest cover, the help squeezed in from the corners and trailed back to predictable shooters. Antetokounmpo is a smart and willing passer, but he’s still working a year away from being deceptive or accurate, evident in a corner swing that ricocheted onto the floor before reaching Mirotic.
Through the first two games of the series, the Bucks cultivated an aura of invincibility. The Greek Freak looked like an impossible cover wrapped inside the Bucks’ impossibly spaced five-out offense. Let dunkers dunk or shooters shoot, both at your own peril.
Now Budenholzer is the one facing questions about impossible options. Leonard (19 points) was routed by committee — and a possible leg injury — but for once, the cavalry came. Lowry, Gasol (17 points) and the Raptors’ bench finally answered the call.
“We’ll have to look to see how much of it is regarding Leonard, what we’re doing with Leonard,” said Budenholzer of the Bucks’ defense, “and how much of it is just we need to be better individually, we need to be better collectively.”
Two games ago, it looked like the end. It turns out it’s just the beginning.
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