On the first Monday in March, the Milwaukee Bucks let one of the worst teams in the NBA, the Phoenix Suns, beat them.
It’s the kind of loss every great NBA team has that time of year. The 72-win Chicago Bulls lost to a Toronto team that won 51 fewer games than them in March of 1996. The miserable 17-win Lakers? They beat the 73-win Golden State Warriors in March 2016.
But that loss to the Suns was of special significance Tuesday in Toronto. Because up to that point, that loss in Phoenix was the only time this year Milwaukee lost consecutive games — the only time, that is, until Game 4 of the Eastern Conference finals.
Even with Kawhi Leonard clearly hobbling, even with Pascal Siakam mostly invisible on offense, even with Giannis Antetokounmpo driving and Khris Middleton scoring, the Raptors beat the Bucks for the second game in a row, evening the series at two games apiece with a 120-102 win.
Toronto’s depth, which has been maligned for most of the playoffs and wasn’t a factor in the series’ first two games in Milwaukee, carried the Raptors. Six Raptors scored at least 13 points, with Kyle Lowry leading them with 25 points on 11 shots.
“They got to good spots,” Milwaukee coach Mike Budenholzer said. “They shared the ball. They passed it. They made open shots. They made some high-degree-of-difficulty shots. So, that’s a bad combination — they’re making open looks and they’re making tough ones too.”
Toronto’s three reserves that played more than 20 minutes — Norman Powell, Serge Ibaka and Fred VanVleet — combined to score 48 points Tuesday. In the first two games of the series, those three scored 39 points combined.
Powell, in particular, has put his thumbprint on the series after falling out of the rotation by the end of the Raptors’ seven-game set with Philadelphia in the previous round. Since Game 2, when coach Nick Nurse decided to use Powell more, the former UCLA guard has been electric. He has scored 51 points in the last three games.
In the previous 12, Powell scored 71.
“I watch from the bench, talk to the guys and see how the game is being played,” Powell said. “I’m going out there and trying to impact the game where I see that I can — just take what the defense is giving me — and just stay confident in my reads.”
But before the Raptors’ bench could even get into the game, Antetokounmpo got the Bucks going. He looked to be in attack mode from the tip, easily slicing through the Toronto defense that did such a good job slowing him in Game 3. He got a steal and stepped around Marc Gasol for a layup. And then he got through the defense for a pair of dunks in the first few minutes of the game, the second putting the Bucks up 12-5 and sending Nurse onto the court for a quick timeout.
“What’s the foundation of our defense? Right at the top of the list is readiness, and I just didn’t see us ready,” Nurse said. “We were kind of back, but we were kind of straight-legged. We weren’t showing much length. What we call our gaps were too wide and he just saw — he sees those openings, and he’s punching right through them. And we just needed … to get down and bend our knees and extend our arms and get ready to go.”
And while the Raptors’ defense locked in and responded to the timeout — only Middleton and Antetokounmpo did any damage — the Bucks never got close to getting enough stops.
That seven-point lead before Nurse’s timeout? It was their biggest in the game. By the second quarter, they trailed by as many as 10. By the third, they were down by as many 16 and by the fourth, the lead was never less than 14.
The blowout helped keep Leonard’s minutes relatively low. The 34:02 of court time Tuesday was Leonard’s shortest appearance since the first round. At times in the last two games, both his legs have looked like they’re bothering him.
“Yeah, we were concerned,” Nurse said. “I think he’s fine. …I think there’s a number of guys out there that aren’t 100% on both sides of the ball.”
And they’re kind of used to being down a superstar, as much as any team can be used to not having a force like Leonard on the court. The Raptors won a lot of games this season while they sat Leonard trying to preserve his health.
“We stepped up for him,” Lowry said. “He’s given us a lot these playoffs. …I think we rely on him a lot, and he definitely does a lot for us. But [when] we have a game like this where everyone steps up, it’s a lot of easing the pressure off him doing something offensively for us.”
The Bucks now go home, their 2-0 lead completely erased, with a losing streak on their hands for only the second time in 95 games this season.
“It’s not going to be easy,” Middleton said. “Nothing is going to be easy.”
“It’s going to be a hell of a series,” Budenholzer added.
With only three games left to figure out who will face the Warriors in the Finals, it probably already is.