The only previous Toronto Raptors trip to the Eastern Conference final played out exactly the same way through the first four games: A pair of losses on the road, followed by two home victories powered by Kyle Lowry, the team’s other all-star and gritty play from the club’s big men.
According to Lowry, the comparisons end there.
That would be good news for the Raptors, considering the Cleveland Cavaliers absolutely pulverized Toronto in the final two games of that 2016 series, winning by 28 and then 26 points to march back to the NBA Finals.
“They took it to another level and we didn’t have that level,” Lowry told the Toronto Sun in a quiet moment after yet another strong playoff performance against the Milwaukee Bucks on Tuesday night in Toronto.
“We didn’t know how to get to that level and I think now having the experience of a couple champions (joining the team in Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green, who both won while with the San Antonio Spurs) and having Marc (Gasol, Serge Ibaka) and myself (who each have at least nine years of NBA experience and multiple years of playoff runs), I think we can get to another level (like) that. I think we understand what is the next step and I think that’s the one thing that I can think of that is different from that series,” Lowry said.
That’s what, in part, Toronto’s management was banking on when it traded for Ibaka, the two ex-Spurs and then Gasol — each proven veterans who have seen just about everything.
When there were some worries about Gasol not exactly hitting it out of the park during his first couple of months with the team (not that he was bad, just that what he was doing didn’t stand out unless one dug into the team numbers), one member of the Raptors front office was clear: “That guy is going to show up in the playoffs. It might not be every night, but he’s going to (subtly) have some big moments.”
Gasol has backed up those expectations, first against Orlando all-star Nikola Vucevic, then against Philadelphia superstar Joel Embiid and now with two stellar games against the Bucks following an admittedly terrible start to the series.
Leonard has been fabulous, as expected, while Ibaka helped win Game 4 with his tenacious rebounding (and some earlier games in the post-season when most of his teammates were struggling). Green has been good defensively and awaits an offensive breakthrough.
Add it all up and this is a confident, experienced group.
Norman Powell, who has sprung to life against the Bucks, building off of a couple of big playoff series in the past (one against Milwaukee, one against Indiana), is the only other Raptor besides Lowry still around who faced the Cavaliers in 2016.
“You always learn,” Powell told the Sun. “This team is so different. We have so many more veteran players that have been to it, have been to the Finals, have been in deep playoff runs, have been around this league and seen it all. The mentality and focus is going to be even better than it was my rookie year,” Powell said.
On the flip side, Milwaukee is not used to this type of adversity. The Bucks just lost two in a row for only the second time all season and the group as a whole does not have much playoff experience aside from George Hill.
They are closer to where the 2016 Raptors were, even if these Bucks are a much better team than that Raptors group.
Usually teams need to go through some battles before they march on to the Finals or a championship.
The Bucks are trying to avoid another scenario some of the Raptors are familiar with. Leonard, Green and Ibaka were all once involved in a classic series, one which saw the Spurs fall to Oklahoma City after blowing a 2-0 lead.
“I’m hoping that it’s in our favour,” Green said. “It was Serge’s team, OKC, so, I remember. We had to make adjustments (after the Thunder tied the series). They got one at us at home and that’s what we need to do, we need to sneak one on the road,” Green said.
“Championship teams have to win on the road. In order for us to be the last team standing, we have to go beat them at their home.”
Kyle Lowry was outstanding in Tuesday’s Game 4, doing a little bit of everything to help the Raptors even up the series. Here’s a look at his finest playoff performances, in order or recency:
Game Year Opponent (Round) Points Assists Rebounds 3PM
4 2019 Bucks 3 25 6 5 3
1 2019 Bucks 3 30 2 8 7
5 2019 Sixers 2 19 5 6 2
5 2018 Wizards 1 17 10 2 3
4 2016 Cavaliers 3 35 5 5 4
7 2016 Heat 2 35 9 7 5
5 2015 Nets 1 36 6 0 6
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019