Raptors ride momentum into Milwaukee
MILWAUKEE – Coach Nick Nurse has overheard conversations about his team’s huge Game 7 win while waiting for his Uber in the lobby of his condo.
Kawhi Leonard has received congratulations from virtually everyone he’s crossed paths with over the past 48 hours.
Pascal Siakam admitted he’s watched replays of Leonard’s high-arcing buzzer-beater — now simply know as the “big shot” — on social media too many times to count.
While the Toronto Raptors must reset for another epic battle, this one against the Milwaukee Bucks beginning Wednesday night at Fiserv Forum, there’s nothing wrong with riding a wave of excitement into their second Eastern Conference final appearance in franchise history.
“It’s good,” Nurse said on the frenzy around Toronto’s thrilling Game 7 win over Philadelphia that will go down as one of the most exciting finishes in NBA post-season history.
“I can hear conversations going on about where (people) were at watching the game, and things like that. So you can sense that excitement a little bit. There’s literally nothing like a buzzer-beater, and I think that added a lot to the emotion of it all. But it’s good. All I’m really happy about is that we’re still playing and we’re getting ready to go again.”
The Raptors, who practised Tuesday before flying to Milwaukee, face a rested Bucks team that dispatched Boston in five games last Wednesday.
A New York Times articles on the series ran under the headline: “Tired Raptors head to Milwaukee for Slugfest.”
But Nurse believes Toronto’s brief break might work in his team’s favour. Maybe momentum is more beneficial than rest.
“There’s a case for that, there’s certainly a theory or history that the team that’s been on edge stays on edge, and we’ve certainly been on edge and had to play at a very high level,” the coach said. “Hopefully we get right back into that same vehicle.”
Social media blew up Sunday night after Leonard’s moon shot at the buzzer over Sixers forward Joel Embiid. Fans called it a “Canadian Heritage Moment,” posting his photo in the TV segment’s familiar frame.
“That’s the first time I heard that,” Leonard said Tuesday. “Pretty much everybody congratulated me and the team on the win. I don’t know yet the ripple effect it will have.”
He savoured the victory Sunday night, but had switched his focus to the Bucks by Monday.
“When you have your mind focused on one thing, and that’s winning the game, it’s just time to shift over from there,” Leonard said. “That’s why you’ve got to stay even-keeled in this league, don’t get too low or too high until it’s all done. That’s what I try to pride myself on, just staying level-headed going into the next game.”
Leonard’s level head has seeped into the rest of the roster, said Siakam. The quiet confidence that led to Leonard’s MVP honours of the 2014 NBA Finals has been contagious.
“He’s always calm and no matter what’s going on he has the same demeanour, same attitude,” Siakam said. “Even when we lose he doesn’t really get worried and I think it’s good to have a guy like that you can look at and he always gives you that look of, ‘Hey, there’s gonna be adversity, it’s gonna be tough, but we can definitely bounce back all the time.’”
The Raptors ousted the Magic in five games in the opening round before moving on to face the Sixers.
Nurse said both series were learning experiences for his team. Lesson No. 1? With major effort comes major reward.
“Let’s be honest: we had some great moments where we looked awesome, and we had some moments where we didn’t play very well,” Nurse said. “I hope we learned how proportionate our effort is to how well we play, and learn to not have any more of those games.
“I thought we learned from that Game 1 loss against Orlando, because we ripped off about six tough-ass, hard-playing games right? Six in a row, and then we took a step back in Game 3 in Philly, and maybe Game 6. So I’m hoping we learned that.”
Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer, who was an assistant in San Antonio for two seasons while Leonard was there, joined the parade of opposing coaches singing the praises of Leonard on Tuesday.
“He’s such a great player. He scores in lots of different ways, it’s really difficult to defend him without extra activity,” said Budenholzer, who was part of the Raptors’ head coach search last summer before Masai Ujiri decided on Nurse. “You’ve got to throw a lot of different looks at him, a lot of bodies at him. Just a very dynamic, gifted scorer with a great body. He brings a physicality to the offensive end of the court so it’s a great challenge.”
Leonard and the Raptors, meanwhile, have to contend with Milwaukee’s gifted scorer with a great body: 6-11 forward Giannis Antetokounmpo.
“Obviously he’s an overpowering type player, with his size, now his strength, his speed, and then his array of kind of moving up the floor,” Nurse said. “He’s got the speed dribble, he’s got the shoulder hits, he’s constantly running people over, he’s spin-moving, and he’s big and long that he can reach out that even if you do a great job, he can still reach out over the top of you and lay it in sometimes.
“You’ve gotta try to slow him down in transition, which is more than a one-person job, it’s probably a five-person job, they have to build walls and build ’em early so the freight train doesn’t get going too fast. And you’re gonna have to stand in there. The one thing I’m super proud of our defence is we stand in there and we take hits, and we take charges.”
The Raptors could use the athleticism of OG Anunoby on defence, but Nurse said the sophomore small forward is still at least a week away from practising fully.
While Anunoby, who had an emergency appendectomy two days before the playoffs began, is able to move around more, Nurse said “We’ve got about one more week before we think we can probably start really moving him around, and getting to a point where we see something in the distance of possibly returning.”
The Bucks host Game 2 on Friday before the series shifts to Scotiabank Arena for Game 3 on Sunday.
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