Big moments fade with the passing of time, but particularly so when the job is not complete.
So as special and as historic and as downright thrilling as that buzzer-beater was by Kawhi Leonard on Sunday night, the Raptors, as you read this, are already putting it behind them.
They are already back in the gym getting locked back in for what we can only assume will be an even more demanding task and that is somehow getting past Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks to earn a spot in the NBA Finals.
So much was said and so many words were used to describe that unbelievable game-winner by Leonard, the first time in the history of NBA Game 7s that a game has ended on a buzzer-beating shot, that’s it’s easy to forget those few words spent looking ahead.
The Raptors know exactly what is in front of them. They have seen this Bucks team, the team that won more games in the NBA this season than any other, four times and only once tasted success.
They’ve seen them run roughshod over an injured and overmatched Pistons team, barely lose stride in disposing of the Boston Celtics — a team that never did get past its personal issues despite an immense amount of talent. And now the rested Bucks await the Raptors, looking to continue that climb towards an NBA Finals.
There really is no time to celebrate.
For two rounds, the Raptors have been dealing with teams that rely on their size and a strong interior game. Against Orlando, it was all about shutting down Nikola Vucevic, which Marc Gasol — with a little help — did so admirably. With the Sixers, it was size and length up and down the lineup, from point guard Ben Simmons to centre Joel Embiid.
There’s still some size to deal with in Antetokounmpo, that “one-man fast break” as Kyle Lowry referred to him on Sunday, but the matchup is much different and presumably better suited to Toronto.
“They have a different style of play,” Danny Green said of the Bucks. “More faster pace. Definitely up and down, probably more three-point shooting, more guys on the perimeter, but I think it’s a style that we’re used to playing or able to adapt and adjust to well. Hopefully, we do. It’s going to be a battle and I guess a track meet.”
Raptors head coach Nick Nurse is in complete agreement with Green in that a real switch of gears is going to be necessary in a very short period of time (Game 1 goes Wednesday in Milwaukee with an 8:30 p.m. tip), but just making that adjustment isn’t going to be enough.
“We’re going to have to adjust to that very quickly, obviously, have to forget about how happy we are pretty quickly because it’s a hungry team, it’s a very deep team, we’re going to have to continue to grow and have to play better,” Nurse said.
And there it is, spoken plainly not just by Nurse, but by Lowry and Leonard too in their post-game talks.
As good as the Raptors have been, they have to be better in this next series if they hope to reach an NBA Finals for the first time in franchise history.
The Bucks aren’t just Antetokounmpo going coast-to-coast and breaking spirits along the way. He’s capable of that and a quick perusal of the stats reveals he leads the Bucks in scoring (27.4), rebounding (11.3) and steals (1.2). So yes, he is that good.
But also requiring attention are Khris Middleton, who is actually playing more minutes than Antetokounmpo these playoffs and shooting a ridiculous 46.7% from behind the arc, Eric Bledsoe who is shooting 47.9% from the field and coming off the bench a red-hot George Hill, who is shooting a team-best 54.7%.
In a bit of a surprise, Pat Connaughton — who was seventh on the team in minutes played in the regular season — has jumped all the way to third, behind only Middleton and Antetokounmpo. He has also been Milwaukee’s most productive rebounder not named Antetokounmpo.
Toronto’s defence is going to be tested more than ever by this group and that’s not necessarily a bad thing because right now that is what this Raptors team is doing best.
Look no further than that final few minutes of the Raptors’ Game 7 win, which saw Toronto’s swarming defence force Philadelphia into two shot-clock violations and would have had another had Lowry not made a steal with a second left. It was a clinic on how to pressure the ball, recover to open shooters and just out-physical a team.
“Defence has nothing to do with rhythm,” said Marc Gasol, the Raptors’ quarterback on defence. “It has to do with discipline, will, communication, and perseverance. We had that. We finished possessions with rebounds (in Game 7). It was something we didn’t do as well especially in Game 6, even in the games we won. So I’m proud of the job we did.”
Gasol is actually quite pleased with where the Raptors are defensively right now.
“I just like how we really do the things we need to do defensively,” he said. “We communicate, we do all the little things we work on. We are tied together and we’re pretty good defensively. I like that.”
There’s still room for improvement and everyone on the roster knows it, but the Raptors are alive and there is a real feeling that there is more to come from this team.
“Listen, the most important thing is this team is still playing and I think there’s still room for growth with this team,” Nurse said after Sunday’s game. “Mentioned it a few times here during both these playoff series, I thought we played a very, very good, hot Orlando team and if we got through it would make us better and this was a very, very good team with unbelievable firepower, size, talent and we obviously hopefully grew, will continue to grow while advancing through this series. That’s what’s most important to me.”
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