TORONTO -- After an Eastern Conference Finals appearance last season, and with the acquisitions of Serge Ibaka and P.J. Tucker at the trade deadline, the Raptors had every reason to think the first round would be easier than the past three seasons (two early exits and last year's gritty seven-game survival). Saturday's loss at home to the Milwaukee Bucks was déjà vu for a Toronto team that lost their fourth consecutive Game 1 at home to start the playoffs. The storylines were eerily similar. Last season, Kyle Lowry shot 31.6 percent from the field in the first round against Indiana, and 7-for-43 from three. In Game 1 against the Bucks, Lowry -- playing in his fifth game after missing 21 games during the regular season with a wrist injury -- shot 2-for-11 from the field and scored just four points.
Before Game 2, Lowry vowed to be more aggressive against the Bucks. "Put it this way, I guess I'm going to have to force shots," Lowry said. "My teammates want me to be more aggressive, so I'm going to force some more shots. Simple as that." The statement inspired little confidence, given Lowry needed two rounds to get out of his playoff shooting slump last year, but his head coach was not concerned at all. "He's a self-starter," Casey said after tip-off on Tuesday. "He understands the situation and I'll be very shocked if he doesn't come out and play much better than he did the other night. It doesn't mean he's going to make every shot he takes but I think he'll play better and I think we'll play better as a team."
In Game 2 on Tuesday, Toronto got a more assertive and in-control Lowry, the point guard that was one of the best 20 players in the league during the regular season, the player who pushes them to the next level when he is right on offense. Lowry did not come out forcing shots -- he acted as mostly a facilitator in the first quarter, hitting two free throws and making his first three-point attempt of the game to calm the nerves of the home crowd.
The Raptors strengthened their defense at the trade deadline, but without Lowry for most of the second half of the season, a top five offense fell out of the top ten and, per NBA.com, was 13th in the league in offensive efficiency, scoring 107.3 points per 100 possessions, and 25th in three-pointers made per game. Toronto scored 83 points in Game 1, and needed Lowry to catapult the offense in Game 2.
For stretches in their 106-100 victory on Tuesday, Toronto looked like the championship contender it aspires to be. A nine-point lead in the second quarter after a flurry of three-pointers and open jumpers. A 13-0 run in the third quarter to seemingly blow the game open. An 11-0 run in the fourth quarter when the team appeared to finally put the Bucks away. But these are the Raptors, and they've made a habit of turning first round series into a debacle. The Bucks kept fighting back, making timely jumpers, forcing turnovers, and a Giannis Antetokounmpo three-pointer tied the game with under two minutes left.
It was difficult in that moment to not think about the first-round disappointments of seasons past, but the Raptors survived, buying themselves more time to find their rhythm in the postseason. Leading by two in the final minutes, Toronto survived two wide-open go-ahead three-point attempts from Malcolm Brogdon and Matthew Dellavedova, two missed free throws from P.J. Tucker that would have extended the lead to four points, and then, with just eight seconds left on the clock, there was Lowry, who finished with 22 points on 6-for-12 shooting and made eight of nine free throws, stepping into a jumper to close out the Bucks.
"I've been in the trenches with him before," Casey said afterwards. "He's always bounced back. That's just who he is. He's a competitor. He's a fighter. I just knew that he wasn't going to be satisfied with the way he played in the first game. He's human. Everyone has a night like that, we just can't panic every time a guy has a tough night." Lowry, who said the last play was intended for DeMar DeRozan, downplayed the significance of his game-clinching shot. "I just wanted to get to my spot and let it go," Lowry said.
The Raptors leaned on Lowry early and late, but the most positive sign from Game 2 was the performance of Serge Ibaka -- who has been the team's most consistent player through two games in the series. Ibaka, who sprained his ankle in Game 1, was a game-time decision on Tuesday, and looked bothered by his injury in the first half, as he was slow on defense and lacked any sort of lift on his jumpers. After shooting 1-for-7 through the first two quarters, Ibaka had 13 points in the second half, hit three-of-four threes and had two emphatic blocks of Antetokounmpo and Thon Maker at the basket.
"I think [his ankle] got warmer, looser and he got his adrenaline going and was able to play on it," Casey said of his power forward's second half. "That's a tough thing to fight through and I don't know if this is the regular season, if he would have an opportunity to play, or be ready to play." Added DeRozan: "Without him, we wouldn't have gotten that win tonight."
For the Raptors, Game 2 was another sign of relief for a group familiar with first round disappointments, and another great escape from a potential early playoff disaster. But even on an off-shooting night, Antetokounmpo put up 24 points, 15 rebounds and seven assists and almost authored a fourth quarter comeback for the Bucks. Milwaukee's length and size in the paint continued to bother the Raptors. This series looks like it'll be a battle from start to finish.