Following a 104-77 playoff loss to the Bucks in Wisconsin, Raptors point guard Kyle Lowry uses the word “terrible” three times in one sentence in a dejected podium appearance. His team is now down 1-2 in their first-round series against the lengthy Milwaukee upstarts led by the ascending Giannis Antetokounmpo, and Toronto has been somewhere like this before.
Somehow, the postseason moment consistently gets on top of Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, who sits beside him tensely through this compulsory press appearance. Both are saying as little as possible. This Raptors team, emboldened by mid-season veteran pick-ups Serge Ibaka and P.J. Tucker, is perhaps the best iteration of the Lowry-DeRozan era, but at this moment they’re falling into the same playoff hole that’s plagued them in recent seasons.
Last year’s Raptors fought to within two wins of the NBA Finals, following two seasons ended by first-round exits. In none of the now six series Toronto has played in since 2013-14, however, has the team won a Game 1. “We got our ass busted,” Lowry says, when asked to summarize this dour Midwestern evening. “I still think we’ll win the series. It just sucks right now.” He and DeRozan — who missed all eight of his shot attempts in the contest — combined for just 21 points in the loss.
It is harder than usual to believe that the Raptors can fight back. Looking completely the part of a team broken and flustered, they fell fast into a 32-12 deficit and were never in Game 3. It took them until there was 8:32 left in the fourth quarter to match Milwaukee’s half-time tally. By mid-way through the second quarter, Ibaka was using unnecessary elbows on box-outs of Antetokounmpo, in a thinly veiled attempt to redirect the game’s emotional energy. It didn’t work, and Ibaka’s continued baiting earned him a technical foul that swung the game’s momentum even further in the Bucks’ direction.
The thing about doubt, of course, is that it does and always will feel like doubt. Each time the Raptors are punctured and facing the end, it will seem just that way, and that feeling of defeat, mid-battle is — theoretically — what it will take for them to pick themselves up with season-saving haymakers. It happened in last year’s Eastern Conference Finals, when they evened their series against the Cleveland Cavaliers at 2-2 after losing by a collective 50 points in the first two games.
But what if this time, the Raptors are not just battling with themselves, but also the future? The Bucks held them to 33.8 percent shooting from the field, and as dazed as Toronto looked, it also didn’t seem like much of a fluke. Starting rookie Thon Maker next to Antetokounmpo gives them essentially two 7-footers comfortable guarding at most positions. Khris Middleton, Tony Snell, and Malcolm Brodgon also amply exceed the average size at their respective positions, and together the Bucks’ starting lineup (one of the league’s very youngest) creates a suffocating web of interminable, omnipresent arms. Greg Monroe, long marooned and misused, has turned into a second-wind bench bully, and one who made Toronto Jonas Valanciunas look tiny on the night. All of this is exhausting to think about; in the third quarter, Antetokounmpo blocked a Norman Powell shot with his elbow.
Then again, LeBron James and his armada of Cavaliers shooters are quite tiring to think about, too, and the Raptors punched them defiantly on the chin before falling short of the Finals just one year ago. “Everything that happened tonight,” DeRozan says of his team’s latest playoff disappointment, “we use it as motivation.”
Why this keeps happening to the Raptors is anyone’s guess, but it does seem at least a little fitting that the league’s only non-American team finds itself perpetually in an underdog role — even in scenarios in which they are, by most standards, the superior team. The Raptors were fully nine games better than the Bucks through the regular season.
This penchant for digging themselves into holes also conforms to the dark horse mentality that kept Lowry and DeRozan, best friends on the court and off, in Toronto when both could have fled for max money in more traditionally appealing NBA cities. Late-blooming, undersized Lowry, in particular, has fought his way to superstar status through nearly a decade of being under-appreciated and overlooked, bouncing around between Houston and Memphis. As much as Lowry looks like he wants to puke his guts out following this loss — after which he takes off his jersey before entering the tunnel to the locker room, disappointed enough to not want to represent anything — there is undeniably something comfortable to him about having his back pushed all the way against the wall, with his audience convinced that his arc is over. He’s felt that wall before. That is, historically, when he and his team rise.
The stakes could be higher for the Raptors in this series and in these playoffs, but not by much. Lowry is 31, Ibaka’s contract expires after the season, and the Cavaliers have trotted out the worst defense LeBron’s been a part of in his six-season reign over the Eastern Conference Finals. If ever there was a moment for the Raptors to seize, now would be that moment.
Perhaps the Bucks have forced tomorrow early, and stolen that moment from under them. Whether or not this is the case, though, it’s more than likely that we’ll see a dog fight in Game 4 and beyond. These squads are at much different crossroads from each other, with the Raptors hoping to revive their schizophrenic competitive streak to stab the Bucks back a few times. If the future is here to overtake Toronto, they probably won’t die without bloodying it up first.