MILWAUKEE—Marc Gasol is a proud man, and he has been doing this a long time. He doesn’t think about the big picture, he says; instead, the Spaniard focused on each play, each decision, each moment, one by one. He’s been doing it his whole basketball life.
Well, Gasol is lost in one of the toughest stretches of his long career, and he is not alone. And after a 125-103 loss to the Milwaukee Bucks in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference final, the Toronto Raptors have a problem. They are a top-heavy team, and some of the top has crumbled so far.
“I played really bad, and that set the tone,” said a visibly frustrated Gasol after the game. He was asked what he could do better, and said, “Make some shots, defend, run back, rebound, don’t turn the ball over. Simple things.”
“The beginning set us in a really bad spot,” said Gasol, “and we couldn’t get a grip on the game, and I take full responsibility for that.”
It wasn’t just him. It became, very quickly, a complete systems failure. But it started with the 34-year-old Spaniard, on the way to a collapse. The Raptors knew they had to get Gasol and shooting guard Danny Green going, get them comfortable against a Milwaukee team that will pull down the ceiling if you let it. On Toronto’s first possession the ball worked its way to Gasol at the rim. The 34-year-old seven-footer went to dunk it.
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Giannis Antetokounmpo came swooping in like a sky-filling bird of prey and swatted it away. Gasol got another shot, an open three; no. Tried a hook; no. Brook Lopez blocked the next one, and the Raptors were already down 9-0.
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The Bucks are a great front-running team in the same way that an avalanche is a great downhill skier, and if you give them a chance they will bury you. Everything was shaky, right from the start. Kyle Lowry turned the ball over early, twice. By the time the Bucks had a 14-3 lead Gasol and Green were a combined 1-for-7, and Milwaukee was flying. Gasol is a heady veteran who prepares rigorously and tries to stay in every moment, but he looked rattled. He fumbled a Kawhi Leonard pass in the lane, threw a backdoor pass to Kawhi that hit the rim.
His one field goal cut the lead to six, a jumper in the lane, and at least he took it with confidence. He was trying. But Toronto was down 10 when he sat, and Milwaukee rolled off the remainder of a 14-2 run that felt like it never really stopped. By halftime Gasol was 1-for-7, and Green 1-for-5, and they were just a part of a much bigger problem. Two Milwaukee bench players, Ersan Ilyasova and Malcolm Brogdon, had combined for 27 points. Toronto’s five starters had combined for 28, and the Raptors trailed 64-39.
“Well, it made it pretty difficult,” said Raptors head coach Nick Nurse. “Some of (their early shots) designed and some of it’s happening, again, the way they’re playing, especially with Marc. You know they’re sending (centre Brook) Lopez to the paint or to the rim all the time, so Marc is going to have his share of opportunities just because that’s the way the spacing lines up.
“I don’t know, I feel bad for him. Most of those went in and out. It’s like, he’s a really good player, a really good scorer. He was taking good shots and just couldn’t buy one. I even said it the first timeout. I think he was about 1-for-5 at the first timeout, and I said, let’s go to him and get him a bucket and maybe we can get him (to) see one go in. Again, they were good shots.
“But to answer your question, it makes it tough because we’re taking what’s there with guys that — Danny is a great shooter, and Marc is a scorer, and those are guys that we need to step in and play. And they will.”
They will have to. Gasol finished 1-for-9 for two points in 19 minutes, is 3-for-20 in the series, and may have been the worst player on the floor. Green had eight points on 2-of-8 shooting, and has hit six shots in his past four games on 22 tries. For a team whose starting five has to be great for it to compete, it is a big part of the problem.
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That it led to a breakdown in the offence was the bigger issue. No team in basketball defends the restricted area better than the Bucks, and they send waves of bodies at anybody approaching the lane. So you have to beat the bodies, or find open shooters. You can’t have weak points offensively.
Once the supporting shots stopped falling, Kawhi resorted too often to one-on-one drives that produced long twos. The offence as a whole found the mid-range too often. It devolved.
“It is tough, especially when we try to do it all at once,” said Green. “You know, it’s not a team that we’re going to go beat with each guy trying to put it on their back. We have to trust each other. The only way to beat this team is together. To try to limit them and try to stop the bleeding, stop the runs, not get too rattled, stay poised, continue to run our offence. I think we got out of our offence a little bit.
“Tonight is a reason why we were so disappointed we let Game 1 slip away.”
Before the game, Gasol and Green were asked about whether Toronto’s move toward more isolation basketball was affecting the shots that they weren’t making, because Toronto’s dominant scorers, Kawhi and Pascal Siakam, aren’t natural shot creators for others. Green acknowledged it was a part of it.
“At playoff time, that’s the time when you kind of play off your stars and let them dictate and make the plays,” said Green. “But when they’re shooting so well and playing so well, there’s not many times when they’re looking to facilitate as much.”
In other words, it’s harder to shoot well when you’re touching the ball less. In the regular season, after Gasol joined the team at the trade deadline and sparked more ball movement, Green touched the ball in the frontcourt an average of 22.3 times in his 25 minutes per game; since the end of the Orlando series it was just 17.6 in 33.3. Gasol was at 34.6 in 25.9 minutes in the regular season with Toronto; in the playoffs, 35.8 per 35.3.
With Gasol, the Raptors were assisting baskets at a rate that would have ranked second in the league for an entire season. In the playoffs, the number has dropped to 12th just among playoff teams. You have to make shots. Non-facilitating stars, great as they are, make it harder.
“Sometimes, yeah,” admitted Green. “And not only is it not a faster pace or as much ball movement, but probably getting to me and Marc, probably getting less looks, and getting less rhythm looks, where you haven’t gotten a touch in a while. If I haven’t gotten the ball in a while, sometimes you get the ball, it may feel heavier than normal. But it’s part of being a professional.”
But if the trust in the offence dies, the whole thing falls apart because Milwaukee is a team that is built to keep coming, and the pressure won’t stop. Back in the Philadelphia series Gasol, a bright and curious man, was sitting courtside on a quiet morning and said, “I read somewhere, you don’t stop doing things because you get old; you get old because you stop doing things. And I truly believe that.”
He has to keep trying to do things. They all do. But the Raptors let Game 1 slip away, and some key pieces look old, and now they have to beat a confident, deep, organized team four times in five games to keep their season alive. Welcome to the hole.
Bruce Arthur is a Toronto-based sports columnist. Follow him on Twitter: @bruce_arthur
Published at Sat, 18 May 2019 03:30:17 +0000