By Ben Golliver


The Washington Post


MILWAUKEE (TNS) — The reluctance and indecisiveness that dogged Kawhi Leonard’s supporting cast in the second round was gone within two minutes, as the gun-shy Toronto Raptors opened these Eastern Conference finals as veritable gunslingers.


The torrid shooting display was enough to thoroughly scare the top-seeded Milwaukee Bucks, but it didn’t last quite long enough to beat them.


Milwaukee claimed a 108-100 Game 1 on Wednesday, surviving a playoff career-high seven 3s from Kyle Lowry, to gut out a tight contest with a fourth-quarter comeback. Giannis Antetokounmpo tallied 24 points, 14 rebounds and six assists for the Bucks, but three 3-pointers by center Brook Lopez, who finished with a playoff career-high 29 points, swung the final period.


“This is the Brook we all know and we all love,” Antetokounmpo said. “[Raptors center] Marc Gasol is trying to be active and help a lot, and Brook is going to be wide open. When he’s going, we’ve got to find him more and more.”


Despite the defeat, it was a promising start for the Raptors. Leonard had carried his adopted team past the Philadelphia 76ers on Sunday by shooting 39 times, including a dramatic buzzer-beater, that gave him 41 of Toronto’s 92 points. The effort was both heroic and evidence of an offense overly dependentupon him. Against Philly, Lowry, Pascal Siakam and Gasol all appeared comfortable slinking into the background to watch Leonard’s impressive one-man show.


Beating the Bucks, the East’s highest-scoring and most prolific 3-point shooting team during the regular season, requires a different formula based on better offensive balance.


Early on, that’s exactly what the Raptors got. Siakam buried a 3-pointer to open the scoring, Lowry nailed two in a row moments later, and Toronto’s floodgates opened. The Raptors hit six 3-pointers in the first quarter, 10 in the first half, and 15 by game’s end.


Toronto’s outside shots were remarkable for their quantity, their diversity of sources, and their ambitious locations. The Bucks’ defense has been built to cede midrange jumpers and “above the break” 3-pointers, in hopes of protecting the paint and encouraging opponents to take lower-percentage shots. It was immediately clear that the Raptors were going to take the shots that were given to them, as Lowry stepped into multiple deep 3s and reserve guard Norman Powell, an afterthought against Philadelphia, hit a pair of 3s in the first half.


The Raptors ranked sixth in 3-point percentage during the regular season but entered the Eastern Conference finals ranked 13th out of 16 playoff teams. In the run-up to the East finals, Coach Nick Nurse sounded like a cross between a banker offering debt forgiveness and a traveler awaiting a delayed train.


“For some guys, you could even actually use those exact words: clean slate,” Nurse said Wednesday, when asked about the Raptors’ hesitant and unreliable shooting. “For some guys that weren’t playing much, this series presents a new team, a new set of opportunities. Man, I hope we make some more of those shots. I’ve been saying that for a while.”


Milwaukee, by contrast, stumbled into Game 1 by missing its first six 3-point attempts, with some failing to draw iron at all. Antetokounmpo, the least reliable 3-point shooter in the Bucks’ starting lineup, finally got one to go after nearly seven minutes of misfiring.


As the second half continued, though, Toronto’s shooting gradually regressed and Milwaukee’s picked up. Lopez scored 13 points in the fourth quarter in a strong counterpunch.


“We did a great job of sticking with what we’ve been doing,” Lopez said. “Shots didn’t go in early, but we did a great job of grinding it out by playing defense. There’s no quit in our team.”


Meanwhile, the Bucks’ defense held Leonard to just two points in the final period, and Antetokounmpo was pleased with his team’s physical and disciplined defense that aimed to send Leonard to his left and clog the paint to dissuade his drives.


“Kawhi is going to hit shots,” Antetokounmpo said. “In the fourth quarter we were tough on him. We made him feel us the whole game. We’re trying to make him play one against five.”


Leonard still finished with a game-high 31 on the night, but the Raptors, save Lowry, missed all 15 of their fourth-quarter shot attempts. Their sterling early scoring balance dried up as Milwaukee won the fourth quarter 32-17.


“Our pace wasn’t good enough in the second half,” Lowry said. “The pace we played with in the first half is the pace we need to play all game. [Losing like that is] pretty frustrating. The fourth quarter killed us.”


Milwaukee narrowly avoided ceding the home-court advantage it claimed by winning a league-best 60 games for the second straight series. In the conference semis, a Game 1 dud against the Boston Celtics led to adjustments from Antetokounmpo and four straight victories, each more resounding than the last. After that experience the Bucks had spent their time off this week vocalizing the importance of dodging another early-series stumble against Leonard and Raptors.


“Against Boston, you can go down 1-0 and still be fine,” Antetokounmpo said Tuesday. “But against Toronto, it’s hard to be in that spot when you lose the first game in your home.”


The Bucks therefore leave Game 1 breathing a sigh of relief, knowing that their youth and athleticism was able to outlast the Raptors down the stretch. Knowing, too, that they endured a perimeter flurry that would have broken many teams.