At some point in a playoff series, a team breaks from itself. It doesn’t mean they lose, necessarily, or have lost; it means the plan they walked in with has been tested, and fractured on the shoals. So you break what you were, and change it.
The Toronto Raptors may already be there. Two losses into the Eastern Conference final against a relentless Milwaukee Bucks team, the hard choices are here. Danny Green has had a great year, but he is creaking. And centre Marc Gasol, two games in, has been frazzled, even cooked. Toronto’s starting five had been a supernova; it was effective in Game 1, and wiped out in Game 2. Something needs to change.
“Yeah, I think there could be more than one lineup change coming at us,” said Raptors coach Nick Nurse. “I think your question here is this: Are you gonna dance with the one you brung to the ball? It’s not easy. You think certain series aren’t for certain guys, et cetera, but I also think that … we’ve had bad biorhythms a couple times, maybe three or four times in the playoffs. And then the next game our biorhythms were back intact.
“So I kinda trust these guys, know who they are, believe in ’em, and know they’re better than they played last night, and have shown that on bounce-back situations, usually.”
Nurse has had to ride the balance between trusting his players and changing things up, but within fairly strict limits. He eventually hard-matched Gasol to Joel Embiid in the second round against Philadelphia, and mercilessly cut down his rotation to players he trusted.
Well, after two losses to the Bucks, the margin for error and experimentation is just about gone, and Nurse has to decide how much their identity can hold. Gasol deserves the respect of an accomplished and important veteran. The Spanish big man helped this team in so many ways after his arrival at the trade deadline. The ball moved better. The three-point attack finally flourished. Gasol ate up Orlando’s Nikola Vucevic in the first round, and limited the planet-smashing Embiid in the second.
But Gasol is 3-for-20 in the first two games, shooting .398 in the playoffs, and the offence needs a big man who will take shots, and make them. Milwaukee makes it hard to get to the rim, and shot-blocking centre Brook Lopez has set up shop in the paint, arranging furniture, putting up art, installing a flat-screen TV over the fireplace. Gasol is being left wide open on the perimeter, when he isn’t senselessly rolling into the paint and clogging it up for Kawhi Leonard or Pascal Siakam.
And Milwaukee unleashes its transition tidal wave on misses, and whoosh. Gasol might have more in him. But one of the points of friction for Gasol in Memphis was that he didn’t want to be the primary offensive option anymore, at 34. You get the sense the big playmaker isn’t going to take 20 shots, even if you locked him alone in the gym.
So, they need more Serge Ibaka. He was the starting centre for most of the year, and against Milwaukee he happily took the shots the Bucks offered. He took 21, 21, 17 and 15 shots in those four regular-season games, and the 18.5 per game were the most Ibaka attempted against any team. He wasn’t hyper-efficient, because he doesn’t hit threes at a high enough rate.
But he scored, and he took the shots. Against Milwaukee’s elite defence, you have to be patient, move the ball, attack, and take the best shots you can find. Toronto took more mid-range shots than they’d like in Game 2. Ibaka is good at those. You might lose some help defence, and some ball movement. Gasol is getting fewer touches already, as Leonard works more.
“I mean, they’re loading a lot, and Lopez never leaves the lane,” said Nurse. “I think I counted 15 illegal defences on the film … As I’ve already said, I think both of our centres are gonna have opportunities … we’ve never not wanted those guys to shoot all year. I think that’s the game. The game is if you draw help and they’re using a centre to protect the rim, your big’s gotta be able to make ’em pay for that.”
Ibaka hasn’t been great in this series — he had a second-quarter stretch in Game 2 that was like bad outcome bingo, with missed free throws, a missed three, a turnover, an offensive foul and defensive lapses — but he was a giant in Game 7 against Philadelphia. Gasol’s Game 1 help defence on Giannis Antetokounmpo was underappreciated; he is still important. He needs to rediscover his confidence, and his fierce serenity.
The time for trust is limited now. Nurse is right that the Raptors have bounced back. Game 1 against Orlando became a warmup; Games 3 and 6 against Philadelphia were letdowns that didn’t stick. Change would be a little desperate, but here they are. The Raptors, fatigued or not, banged up or not, are better than Game 2.
But that identity may not work anymore, because Milwaukee is so self-assured, so relentless: the Bucks roll out their game plan in waves, and the tide never stops coming in. The whole season could all but end Sunday, and it’s time to find a better way to swim.
Bruce Arthur is a Toronto-based sports columnist. Follow him on Twitter: @bruce_arthur