MILWAUKEE—All Nick Nurse wanted from the Raptors defence was everything.
Help in the paint to close off passage to the front of the rim for the Milwaukee Bucks; still get back out to close out on three-point shooters before they had time to comfortably get set and shoot; be able to get back in transition and not get confused or out of whack in finding someone appropriate to guard.
It was a large request from the team’s head coach and probably an unfair one, but it was to be one of the ways the Raptors were going to be able to steal Game 2 of the NBA Eastern Conference final here Friday night.
Instead of everything, though, Nurse got basically nothing and the Raptors find themselves in a deep and troubling hole, down 2-0 in the best-of-seven affair that resumes Sunday at Scotiabank Arena.
In what was their worst offensive performance of the post-season so far, the Raptors were shredded for 35 points in the first quarter and 64 in the opening half by the Bucks in shockingly easy 125-103 victory in a rollicking Fiserv Forum.
The second half barely mattered — the Raptors made their requisite run and twice cut a deficit as big as 28 down to 13 points — but the damage had long been done.
The way the Raptors opened the game will be the most disappointing aspect of the night. They have shown an ability throughout the playoffs to handle adversity well. They rebounded from early-round losses with solid redemptive performances and also maintained a high level in Game 1 after the emotional Game 7 against Philadelphia.
“We had the highest of highs we were coming off of, and we got down to business as soon as that ball went up,” Nurse said of Game 1 before the horrid start to Game 2. “I thought we played with effort. We played a pretty good game. There are tons of things to clean up, but it was dead even with two (minutes) to go. I think we were all wondering how we were going to come out after that game (Sunday against Philadelphia).
“Conversely, when we’ve kind of got punched in the gut a little bit, we’ve pulled up our shorts and got right back into the fight. I think we’ve handled things pretty evenly all season and all playoffs.”
That will be the thing that irks the Raptors the most: That they weren’t ready for the challenge right off the bat. The Bucks were more intense and effective from the start, exactly the opposite of what Toronto was.
“We’re hard on ourselves,” coach Mike Budenholzer said before the game. “We look at ourselves, try to be honest and teach from positive, teach from areas where we can improve.
“I think there are significant areas where we can improve from Game 1. When the players embrace just getting better from day to day, from game to game, I think that’s been helpful for us.”
For Nurse, the issue is now what to expect in the season’s biggest game, at home Sunday at 7 p.m. The team’s predilection all year has been to bounce back, to figure things out, to rely on maturity and discipline and intelligence, to not let bad games fester.
The Raptors didn’t play poorly in Game 1, but they were dreadful for most of Game 2; if they are that bad again on Sunday, the series and season will be over.
If there was one bright spot for the Raptors — and it’s all relative and won’t necessarily carry over to Sunday — it’s that Norm Powell finally had an impact on a full game. The backup swingman, who had struggled the entirety of the playoffs, finished with 14 points in his best game.
“Especially now in the playoffs, the starters are playing so many heavy minutes, we (Powell and fellow backups Serge Ibaka and Fred VanVleet) are trying to get out there and have a game or two where it’s a good feel for the coaches, and they feel they can rest the starters little more and let us play a little more,” Powell said.
The other end of the spectrum was Pascal Siakam, who fouled out with just eight points and one rebound in 26 minutes.
Doug Smith is a sports reporter based in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter: @smithraps