MILWAUKEE — An ancient NBA proverb states that a playoff series doesn't begin until the road team wins a game.
The Milwaukee Bucks would beg to differ. Their playoff series with the Toronto Raptors began during the second half of Game 4 Tuesday night in Toronto when it became apparent that the playoffs had ceased being a walk in the park for the Bucks.
The Bucks lost that game by a shocking 18 points, marking only the second time all season they had lost two games in a row. With the Eastern Conference final suddenly tied at 2-2, the series was finally on. That's because the inexperienced Bucks found themselves in the playoff hot seat going into Thursday night's game five at Fiserv Forum.
Until the Raptors swept them in Toronto, making them look uncharacteristically ineffective on both ends of the floor in the process, the Bucks had only a passing acquaintance with playoff pressure. Other than rebounding from a Game 1 loss to Boston, their playoff run was easy. Facing the pressure of a best-of-three series was not a position many of them had ever been in.
Sure, the Bucks had responded well to adversity all season. But as a team with only a couple of players who had advanced this deep in the playoffs, their reaction to the two losses and the deterioration of their game on both ends of the court in Toronto was quite possibly the most important moment of the series.
Not that coach Mike Budenholzer was worried about a lack of playoff experience.
"I think this team has thrown the experience card out the window to some degree," Budenholzer said before the game. "That was a question in the first round, a question in the second round, in the regular season. So I think this group has a great belief in itself. I think they're looking forward to tonight. You know, experience is always a good thing, but the only way you get it is by being here and playing and thriving and embracing it."
For the first time in a long time Thursday night, the Bucks failed to respond to adversity in a positive manner, blowing a 14-point lead and falling 105-99 to the Raptors in the all-important Game 5. Their third loss in a row not only put them down 3-2 in the series, it left them reeling because for the first time this season they just can't solve their opponent.
The Raptors did essentially the same thing they did in the two games in Toronto. They were 18-for-43 from 3-point range, held the high-scoring Bucks to 102 points or less in regulation play for the third consecutive game and seemed to corral every offensive rebound down the stretch.
If failing to come through in the clutch was a new development for the Bucks, now they're facing another new feeling after falling behind in a series they once controlled. Now they're in desperation mode. Now they have to go to Toronto and win Game 6 or their season for the ages will be over with a suddenness no one expected.
“We’ve been resilient all year," guard Malcolm Brogdon said. "If we don’t have a sense of resiliency now, our season is over. We need to lean on each other, rely on each other, go out there and compete as hard as we can."
Packers offensive lineman David Bakhtiari had no trouble downing three cups of beer when he was shown on the video board during the Bucks' 105-99 loss to the Raptors in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference final on Thursday night at Fiserv Forum in Milwaukee.
The Bucks did that in the first quarter as they started out doing everything they hadn't done in Toronto. They were active on offense, moved the ball, got out and ran, challenged shots on defense, controlled the boards, got scoring from players other than Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton and got Eric Bledsoe untracked en route to a 32-22 lead after one quarter.
A 1-for-13 shooting stretch at the start of the second quarter let the Raptors back in the game, however, and the game turned into a defensive struggle after that, not unlike the two games in Toronto. The Bucks struggled to get to the rim against the wall the Raptors built in the lane and their 3-point shooting remained inconsistent. Also, their bench was outplayed and outscored. That was a bad combination against steely-tough Kawhi Leonard and the Raptors.
"We've been a resilient group all year," Budenholzer said. "We just need to think about going and winning one game, go to Toronto and get that. Tonight, a little bit of a strange box score. Obviously, (Fred) VanVleet from the 3-point line and them in general from the 3-point line was a huge impact on the game. They got to the free-throw line more than us. We needed a couple of rebounds there down the stretch. I think when we look at the film, we'll feel like if we could have gotten a few more defensive rebounds from the 5, 4, 3-minute mark on, maybe the end result would have been different. But we'll get ready. We'll get prepared and go to Toronto."
When they get there, they're going to find a Raptors team that has made better adjustments and executed their game plan better than the Bucks have. Three straight games, all following the same pattern, have put the onus on the Bucks in a way no one could have imagined a week ago.
“Our mindset is still the same," center Brook Lopez said. "We’re not thinking about having to win two games right now, we’re just thinking about winning game six."
Problem is, teams that win Game 5 of a 2-2 best-of-seven series go on to win the series about 85% of the time. That's what the Bucks are facing now that the road team has won a game and the series has officially begun.