Milwaukee's strengths turning into weaknesses in East finals

ABS-CBN Sports on May 24, 2019 06:29 PM
Milwaukee's strengths turning into weaknesses in East finals
Milwaukee Bucks' Giannis Antetokounmpo tries to drive in traffic during the first half of Game 5 of the NBA Eastern Conference basketball playoff finals against the Toronto Raptors Thursday, May 23, 2019, in Milwaukee. (AP Photo/Morry Gash)

By Steve Aschburner,

MILWAUKEE -- The safe spaces into which the Milwaukee Bucks could retreat whenever circumstances grew relatively dire in their long and otherwise successful season are all but gone now.

Their formula, which solidified into the Bucks’ brand for 2018-19, was built on some basics that served them well in reeling off 60 victories in the regular season, snagging the playoffs’ No. 1 seed (and homecourt advantage over the other 15 qualifiers) and racing to a 10-1 mark to start the postseason before ever digging out their passports.

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Then they went to Canada last weekend and saw their game, apparently, confiscated by customs.

All the constants Milwaukee came to trust and maybe even take for granted have abandoned them in the Eastern Conference finals. Against a Toronto Raptors squad ready and eager to pounce, the Bucks have been laid bare. Their strengths look now like flaws, the pillars on which they made their case as the NBA’s stingiest defense and fourth-ranked offense have turned wobbly.

The Raptors, clawing out of a 0-2 hole in the best-of-seven series, have caught and passed the Bucks. They lead 3-2 after their impressive 105-99 victory Thursday night (Friday, PHL time) at Fiserv Forum -- the first in the series by a road team -- and can eliminate Milwaukee as soon as Game 6 Saturday (Sunday, PHL time) in Toronto.

“Obviously,” Bucks star forward Giannis Antetokounmpo said late Thursday (Friday, PHL time), “I’m pissed.”

He should be. He and his team had to deal with the hardship of losing two games in a row only once all season. Bouncing back immediately became a source of pride, an excellent habit when bouncing from opponent to opponent over the course of 82 games but something even more valuable for the postseason, when a series can swing fast.

Well, the resilient Bucks have lost three in a row, picking the worst time to dabble in a real losing streak. If it reaches four, Antetokounmpo won’t just be, er, peeved, he’ll be eliminated.

That’s just one of several comfort zones in which the Bucks can no longer take solace. This was a team that won 45 games by 10 points or more, routinely turning big leads into bigger ones. Milwaukee was 64-7 during the regular season in games it led by double digits and 9-0 in the playoffs … until Thursday (Friday, PHL time).

By the end, the 18-4 lead they’d opened early in Game 4 just meant the Raptors outscored them by 20 over the remaining 41 minutes.

Milwaukee didn’t face an abundance of close games, but when it did, it prided itself on late-game execution. The Bucks knew how to nurse leads, winning 60 of the 63 games they led after three quarters and all nine in which they’d done so in this tournament. Until, again, Thursday (Friday, PHL time).

The fourth quarter they began with a 75-72 lead got taken from them by a Toronto team that outworked them down the stretch. Three more hallmarks of Milwaukee’s season -- defending without fouling, defensive rebounding and three-point shooting -- got stripped away in one hellish period.

The Bucks committed 10 fouls in the fourth quarter, sending Raptors players to the line for 14 free throws and getting outscored on the freebies by six in the quarter and 12 in the game.

They did fine on the boards overall but let Toronto grab five offensive rebounds, all in the game’s final 6:25. That stymied and then snuffed the Bucks’ chances to come back.

Pascal Siakam grabbed a missed layup by Norman Powell and finished with a putback dunk to make it 89-81. Marc Gasol and Siakam extended a possession soon after by claiming Toronto misses, setting up Gasol’s three-pointer to make it 92-85.

No sooner had Antetokounmpo thrown down an alley-oop dunk to close to 96-95, then Kawhi Leonard managed to launch a 28-footer that missed -- and scoot in to grab the ball as it fell off the rim. Antetokounmpo fouled, sending Leonard to the line to push the lead back to three with 1:48 left.

The fifth nail came in the final minute, with Toronto up 99-97. Leonard missed from the right side and Gasol managed to seal the ball from Brook Lopez. Lopez fouled, so the Raptors center hit 1-of-2 free throws to crack 100.

A poor pass by Eric Bledsoe turned into a turnover off Malcolm Brogdon. Then the Bucks pressed Toronto hard, leaving Siakam alone on the baseline for a dunk that sealed it. But clearly, any two of those offensive boards -- by a Bucks team that led the NBA in defensive rebounding percentage (80.3) -- might have swung the momentum at the end and the outcome.

“We’ve got to get [them], find a way,” Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said. “All five guys gotta participate.”

Oh yeah, that reminds us: Milwaukee was a team that had nine guys participating earlier in this series, as well as in the rounds against Detroit and Boston. Budenholzer makes one tweak to his lineup, moving Brogdon back into a starting job in place of Nikola Mirotic, and poof! The bench produced only 15 points, 20 fewer than Toronto’s.

That leaves three-point shooting as the most vital component of Milwaukee’s game suddenly gone fallow. This marked the seventh consecutive game in which the Bucks made a third or fewer of their three-point attempts. They were 10-of-31 in Game 5, so 59-of-195 in this series.

That’s a 30.3-percent success rate, significant slippage from their 35.3-percent accuracy in the regular season. How significant? At 30.3 percent, the Bucks would have made 156 fewer three-pointers. That’s 468 fewer points scored, which would have dropped Milwaukee from the league’s top scoring team (9,686) all the way down to No. 13.

More than that, the let-it-fly, live-by-the-three ethos became part of their team’s bravado. Budenholzer believed that, even allowing for some chilly shooting nights, counting by threes would prevail at least four times in any seven games.

The Bucks still haven’t gotten shy about taking them. They just haven’t found a fix for making them.

Some in the Milwaukee camp were bemoaning the number of uncontested looks their shooters missed in Game 4. Raptors coach Nick Nurse, without specifics readily available right after Game 5, thought his team might have yielded even more open looks Thursday (Friday, PHL time).

Still, when the clangs mount to the point that a trend is apparent, you have to consider there is more in play than bum luck. Maybe tight game situations lead to nerves. Or desperation.

“It came be anything,” Nurse said. “I think it can be your defense is flying around a little bit and you’ve got them hearing footsteps. Or you’ve played a lot of minutes. I don’t know, maybe if it’s a big tall guy coming out at you and you aren’t that big.”

Right now, the only thing worse for Milwaukee than its three-point percentage is 20-of-288 (6.9 percent). That’s how many NBA teams have opened up a 2-0 lead in a best-of-seven series, yet managed to lose anyway.

The team that never had lost three in a row was being reminded late Thursday (Friday, PHL time) of the prickly Celtics team they’d beaten two weeks ago, after Boston won the series opener, then went belly-up in the next four.

“We’re not gonna fold,” Antetokounmpo said. “We’re not gonna fold. We [were] the best team in the league, we’re not gonna fold. We’re gonna go give everything we’ve got. You’re not gonna go there and … even if they set a great tone [in Game 6] and hit us in the mouth first, you can’t fold.”

The Bucks star added: “Obviously, I’m pissed. I’m not going to lie to you. But you’ve just got to keep your head up. Keep having that confidence. Try to pick up your teammates and tell them they can do this. ‘We’ve got two more games to go, and we can do this.’”

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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