On the rare occasion when they lost during the regular season, Milwaukee Bucks players brushed it off as just another game before turning their attention to what’s next.
That approach paid off more often than not. Only once during the 82-game regular season did the Bucks lose back-to-back games, and not once did they lose three in a row.
But after another frustrating performance against the Toronto Raptors Thursday night in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals — this time on their home court — the Bucks have lost three straight. If that streak reaches four, Milwaukee’s season will come to a painful and disappointing end.
So the Bucks know Game 6 Saturday night at Scotiabank Arena in Toronto isn’t just another game.
“It’s an elimination game,” Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said Friday. “It’s just a fact. It’s the first to four (wins). If they win Game 6, that’s four and it’s over. Those are the facts, that’s the reality. Nobody is portraying it any differently.”
In their three losses to the Raptors, the Bucks have looked little like the team that steamrolled its way through the season to finish with an NBA-best 60-22 record. They’ve struggled in all aspects of their game. They’ve struggled to shoot the ball, especially from beyond the arc, and they’ve had difficulty stopping Toronto’s shooters.
Meanwhile, the Raptors have looked every bit the part of a team that finished with just two fewer victories than the Bucks — a fact that might have been overlooked by some after Milwaukee dominated Toronto during a fourth-quarter rally in Game 1 and a wire-to-wire blowout in Game 2.
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Kawhi Leonard of the Raptors has been almost unstoppable during the series. After scoring 35 points in Toronto’s 105-99 victory Thursday night, he is averaging 30.4 points on 44.9% shooting in the series, and 31.4 points on 51.2% shooting in 17 postseason games.
Leonard is not just hurting the Bucks with the ball in his hands. He has proven to be a talented distributor, dishing out a career-high nine assists in Game 5 — all of them setting up 3-pointers — and has been a force on the defensive end, where he’s made Most Valuable Player candidate Giannis Antetokounmpo look like a mere mortal.
Toronto coach Nick Nurse made Leonard Antetokounmpo’s primary defender ahead of Game 3 and the results have been startling. Antetokounmpo averaged 27 points on 47.2% shooting the first two games but just 20.3 points on 45.1% shooting in the past three.
Even more unsettling for the Bucks is Antetokounmpo’s inability to get to the free throw line. He made 12 trips in each of the first two games — going 9-for-12 in both — but has had just seven, 10 and nine attempts in the past three games, despite drawing more than his fair share of contact, at least from Budenholzer’s point of view.
“It just feels like he should be at the free throw line more,” Budenholzer said. “They have a couple of guys that are veterans that are very crafty that seem to get there a lot, (Kyle) Lowry when he drives, you’ve got to be incredibly disciplined because he creates a lot of contact and is rewarded for it. Giannis creates a lot of the same contact and doesn’t seem to get the same whistle, get the same reward.
“The officials, they’ve got a tough job. They do the best they can. We’d love for Giannis to get to the free throw line more, feel like he deserves it. But you’re talking about the rebounding, the 3-point line, those types of things. Those are the things we’ve got to focus on and get better.”
Budenholzer thinks his team will rise to the challenge of keeping its season alive in front of a hostile crowd Saturday night.
“We certainly feel like we have what it takes to win the next two games,” he said. “We’ve blown each other out once each, and the other games have been pretty close. We need to go win, whether it be a close game or something different. We need to win Game 6, and obviously you go to a Game 7, both teams have to win it. We certainly feel like we can do that.”