About an hour after his team suffered a blowout loss at the hands of the Milwaukee Bucks, Kawhi Leonard -- never one to be subsumed into narratives or high drama -- offered the most literal response to the most pressing question facing his Toronto Raptors.
"We're going to Toronto," said Leonard, when asked where his team, now trailing the Eastern Conference finals 2-0, goes from here. "Game 3."
You have to admire Leonard's unflappable resolve. After outplaying the Bucks for most of Game 1 before losing in the closing minutes, the Raptors were outperformed wire-to-wire in Game 2. They struggled on each end of the floor, both with establishing a steady flow in the half court and with neutralizing Milwaukee's rhythm. The Bucks, now 10-1 this postseason, are just two games from their first NBA Finals in 45 years -- and they have yet to play their best basketball in the first two games of this series.
Even though Leonard's comment might seem imperceptive on the surface, he's correct to point out that the action now heads to Toronto, because few things shift momentum in a series quite like a change in venue. Yet to hold serve in Toronto, the Raptors will have to quickly come up with some solutions to a few very pressing problems.
How can the Raptors make life easier for Kawhi?
Defending Leonard might be the most difficult task in basketball this spring. In 14 playoff games, the Raptors forward is averaging 31.7 points per game on an effective field goal percentage (eFG) of 57.9. He attacks the defense from so many different angles -- off the dribble in isolation, in the post, finding gaps off the pick-and-roll, as a locomotive in transition.
Few defenders in the NBA have thrived in that challenge more effectively than Khris Middleton this season, a pattern that has continued in the playoffs. Leonard scored 31 points in both games at Milwaukee, but he has worked exceptionally hard to do so. Middleton, as well as Bucks guard Malcolm Brogdon, have limited Leonard's drives to his right, influencing him to his weaker hand -- and into the Bucks' active help defenders. Time and again on Friday, Leonard found himself headed in a suboptimal direction off a screen only to encounter the likes of Brook Lopez -- who, as Raptors coach Nick Nurse said on Saturday, "never leaves the paint" -- or Ersan Ilyasova.
In Games 3 and 4, the Raptors will need to figure out ways to shift the Bucks' defense to give Leonard a little more breathing room in the half court. That might mean getting Leonard the ball later in the possession after some primary actions predicated on movement. For instance, Pascal Siakam can pressure defenses off the dribble, as can Kyle Lowry off some crafty pick-and-roll action.
The Raptors certainly ran these sorts of sets, but when they're generating only 0.80 points per Leonard drive and 0.79 points on possessions when Leonard works in isolation, they'll need to be even more resourceful.
Is Milwaukee's depth too much for Toronto?
Asked to identify the most striking characteristic of the first two games, multiple coaches and players identified the Bucks' deep supporting cast as the most decisive factor in Milwaukee's success. When it's time for a fresh body, Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer has all kinds of options at his disposal: two poised combo guards who can defend in George Hill and Brogdon, a multi-skilled big man in Ilyasova, uber-athletic shooting guard Pat Connaughton. The Bucks' roster has capable players such as D.J. Wilson and Sterling Brown (who is nursing a bad back) on call if need be.
For the Raptors, finding combinations that can contend with the Bucks' size is a more daunting task. Toronto badly misses forward OG Anunoby, recovering from an emergency appendectomy last month, whose size and versatility is suited to this matchup. Norman Powell, Toronto's only true backup wing, played confidently and efficiently on Friday, but he and backup guard Fred VanVleet give up a lot of size to Milwaukee's behemoth roster.
Whatever the mix, the Raptors must find a few combinations that can give them the size, spacing and penetration required to have a puncher's chance against the league's top-ranked defense.
Will the Raptors find a way to keep the Bucks away from the rim?
The Bucks are a quintessential modern-day NBA offense that doesn't waste its time taking midrange shots. But as much as they launch from beyond the arc -- 82 attempts over the first two games -- they exact much of their damage at point-blank range.
Over the first two games of the series, the Bucks have attempted 63 shots at the rim to the Raptors' 36 prior to Friday's garbage time, according to Cleaning the Glass. Giannis Antetokounmpo, to no surprise, has been the most dominant weapon. Even though the Raptors have done a fine job of converging on him in half-court situations, Antetokounmpo has managed to sneak underneath the defense on a few occasions and has unleashed a couple of signature blow-by slams.
Antetokounmpo will undoubtedly get his, but the Raptors can't allow the Bucks' peripheral threats to abuse them, whether it's Ilyasova rolling untouched off high screens in Game 2 or Brook Lopez on the block in Game 1 or Brogdon and Bledsoe manufacturing shots for themselves as they probe in the paint.
The Raptors aren't big, but they're a smart unit that understands how to make timely help decisions. That intelligence has never been in greater demand, as the Bucks will continue to pressure them inside.
Can the Raptors hold their own on the glass?
This has been one of their most precarious spots this spring. They were a middling rebounding team during the regular season but have gotten pounded against a procession of big opponents -- the Orlando Magic, the Philadelphia 76ers and now the Bucks.
It's not unfair to say the Raptors' inability to control their defensive glass cost them Game 1, when Milwaukee scored only 68.8 points per 100 possessions in the half court but generated 24 second-chance points in the comeback win. Toronto managed to stem the tide -- a bit -- in Game 2 but still lost the rebounding battle to a team with more size, reach and athleticism.
"We've just got to be a little bit more physical rebounding the ball," said Lowry after Game 2. "We know that they're going to crash a little bit more. But when we get outrebounded, we don't get to play the way we need to play."
Antetokounmpo corralling a pogo-stick rebound beneath the rim off his own miss is one thing, but the Bucks' guards can't be left unaccounted for in the half court. The Raptors also need to heighten their awareness now that they're often switching while defending Milwaukee's pick-and-roll attack.
Make or miss?
"I sound like a broken record up here," Nurse said after Game 2, "but we had our share of wide-open shots that could have at least stymied a little bit of the breakout in the score."
As Nurse's exasperation implies, Toronto's inability to make its uncontested shots has become an unsettling trend in recent weeks that has confounded Raptors players and coaches alike. In the regular season, the Raptors ranked second in the NBA (68.1 eFG) in uncontested attempts, according to Second Spectrum tracking. But over the past two rounds of the playoffs, that mark has dropped to 52.1. To put that futility in perspective, the New York Knicks ranked last in the league in the regular season at an eFG of 59.4.
It's hard not to empathize with the Raptors. Their offensive execution hasn't been brilliant, but even an average performance on their open looks would have them looking like a far more competent offensive team. In fact, neither team has shot particularly well in the first two games. Among the starters, only Lowry and Middleton have overperformed from the field, according to Second Spectrum tracking, when their diet of attempts is measured for shot quality.
For the Raptors, the situation is especially dire since they're down 0-2 and the confidence of their shooters can wane. If that record keeps skipping, the music could stop very soon.