MILWAUKEE – Brook Lopez scored 29 points, while Giannis Antetokounmpo added 24 points and 14 rebounds and the Milwaukee Bucks beat the Toronto Raptors 108-100 in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals on Wednesday.
Kawhi Leonard had 31 points, while Kyle Lowry, playing with his left thumb wrapped after spraining it on Sunday, added 30 points and eight rebounds and never stopped hustling, making like a beach volleyball player with a spectacular third-quarter dive to bat in a ball headed out of bounds.
Pascal Siakam had 15 points for the Raptors, who led for most of the first three quarters.
Game 2 of the best-of-seven series is Friday in Milwaukee, then the series shifts to Toronto for Games 3 and 4.
Backed by their rock-solid defensive effort, the Raptors dominated for most of the night, taking a 13-point first-quarter lead, and responding well to every Bucks run. And when Siakam’s three-point shot dropped at the buzzer to end the third, it sent Toronto into the fourth with an 83-76 advantage.
A pair of Nikola Mirotic free throws capped an 8-0 Bucks run to begin the final frame, giving the home team their first lead since early in the first quarter. Malcolm Brogdon’s fast-break dunk put the Bucks up by five and ignited the capacity Fiserv Forum crowd of 17,345 that included Bucks legend Oscar Robinson and Pearl Jam bassist Jeff Ament.
A pair of Lowry three-pointers a minute and 19 seconds apart tied the game at 98-98 with 3:31 to play, but Lopez responded with a dunk and three-pointer and the Bucks took a four-point lead into the final 1:55.
Both teams turned the ball over and missed shots and then Eric Bledsoe’s pair of free throws with 42 seconds to play all but sealed the victory for Milwaukee.
One of the big positives on the night: the Raptors, whose three-point shooting has been well down compared to their regular-season numbers – they were 7-for-30 on Sunday – had 10 threes in the first half alone on Wednesday. They shot 15-for-42 from long distance on the night.
While the Bucks waited a week between dispatching Boston in five games in the conference semifinals, the Raptors were back on the court three nights after their thrilling Game 7 victory over Philadelphia.
Rather than lament the lack of rest, Raptors coach Nick Nurse suggested his team could benefit from the momentum.
He was right – at least for the first three quarters. The Raptors had the Bucks on their heels from the tipoff, taking a 13-point lead on a driving layup late in the first quarter. The Raptors made six three-pointers in the opening frame and led 34-23 going into the second.
An Antetokounmpo dunk capped a 7-0 Bucks run that sliced Toronto’s lead to three points late in the second quarter. But the Raptors closed strong to take a 59-51 lead into the break. And when Leonard mauled Antetokounmpo under the basket on the last play of the half – no foul was called – the crowd booed long after both teams had departed for their respective locker-rooms.
The Bucks twice pulled to within four points in the third, but the Raptors were able to extinguish any Milwaukee momentum.
The Raptors were rebuilt with a big goal in mind: their first appearance in the NBA Finals. They finished second with 58 wins behind the league-leading Bucks (60 wins) in the regular season. They’re making their second conference finals appearance in franchise history (2016 was the first). The Bucks are playing in their first conference final in 18 years and are looking to return to the finals for the first time in 45 years.
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The Raptors dispatched the Bucks in six games in the opening round in 2017, but Antetokounmpo has improved by leaps and bounds in the two seasons since.
The Bucks swept Dwane Casey’s Detroit Pistons in the opening round, while the Raptors ousted Orlando in five games. Milwaukee won the regular season series 3-1.
The winner of this series will have home-court advantage for the NBA Finals against either the Golden State Warriors or the Portland Trail Blazers.