MILWAUKEE – Earlier in the day, Toronto coach Dwane Casey talked about the way in which experience reveals and asserts itself over an opponent still relatively on training wheels as far as this postseason pageant goes.
“On the road,” Casey said. “That’s where it’s got to show. Don’t get rattled. Keep your composure. You play to your identity. Don’t do things you don’t normally do. Every experienced team I’ve been around, on the road is kind of where it shows up.”
It’s hard, however, for a team’s experience to show up when the team itself doesn’t show up. That was apparent from the start for the Raptors, who fell behind in the first quarter 32-12, managed only 30 points by halftime, eventually trailed the Milwaukee Bucks by as much as 34 points and got drubbed 104-77 Thursday to drop into a 1-2 hole in their best-of-seven Eastern Conference first-round series.
Not get rattled? Keep their composure? Not even close.
“We got our a—busted,” Toronto point guard Kyle Lowry said. He added: “I still think we can win the series. It ain’t over. … It just sucks right now.”
Lowry, wrapping up his 11th NBA season, has gone to the playoffs five times, including the past four years. He had appeared in 44 postseason games prior to this series, part of a seasoned starting lineup that – with DeMar DeRozan (31), DeMarre Carroll (47), Jonas Valanciunas (23) and Serge Ibaka (89) – boasted 234 games of playoff experience.
Compare that to Milwaukee. Tony Snell, coming off Chicago’s bench in his first two seasons, averaged 11.6 minutes in 16 playoff games. Then there’s Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton, each of whom logged six games two years ago against the Bulls in a first-round ouster.
And then there’s Malcolm Brogdon and Thon Maker. Rookies. A second-round draft pick who, in staying four years at Virginia, allegedly had maxed out, and a surprise lottery pick built like a flagpole and pigeonholed as a project.
Add them together and the Bucks’ young starting lineup brought a whole 28 games of playoff experience against a contender that’s been making noise in the East for four seasons.
And Toronto’s 206-game advantage couldn’t get it any closer than 23 points after halftime at the raucous BMO Harris Bradley Center.
“I’m a young coach, so I think we all fit with the experience level,” said the Bucks’ Jason Kidd. Kidd is Hall of Fame-bound by virtue of his 19 seasons as one of the NBA’s best point guards, but as a coach he’s light in postseason reps, too. Between Brooklyn and Milwaukee, he’d coached 18 playoff games before this, compared to Casey’s 31.
“Thon and Malcolm being two rookies, [they] believe that they can do the job, and they’ve shown that during the season,” Kidd said. “The guys on the floor and on the bench, support them, and the coaching staff has done everything to prepare them for this moment. It’s up to them to be basketball players, and they’re very comfortable with doing that. … Watching those two guys right now is fun.”
Brogdon isn’t only an “old” rookie, he’s a seasoned one, having put himself in the running for Rookie of the Year honors with his season-long contributions for Milwaukee. He had four points, seven rebounds and nine assists in Game 3 and was a plus-10 in more than 27 minutes.
Maker, a native of South Sudan, built his rookie season brick by brick, eventually appearing in 57 games – for an average of just 5.3 minutes. But he scored 11 points with a pair of rebounds and assists each, while adding his length and rim protection to the Bucks’ tight defensive squad. He was plus-13 in 21 minutes.
Their counterparts, Lowry (minus-18) and Valanciunas (minus-12) didn’t fare so well.
“Me and Thon bring energy,” Brogdon said. “It’s what’s been working for us [since] maybe halfway through the season, so our coach decided to stick with it. I think everybody has accepted their roles and we try to follow Giannis, Khris, Moose [Greg Monroe] – the vets. We try to follow their lead.”
Said Maker: “Me and Malcolm are being mature. And we have a lot of vets keeping an eye on us at all times. We know there’s no room for errors, so we’ve got to stay locked in and they’re going to guide us all the way. Our coach being a former player really helps – he knows how to get rookies out of the ‘rookie zone,’ or whatever it is. He knows how to get us back into regular basketball mode, not thinking of it as rookies.”
That is vital. One of two things must happen for a rookie when the playoffs start: Either he grows his game to suit the occasion or he mentally keeps the occasion small enough not to awe or stymie.
“We know they’re bigger games,” Brogdon said. “We know there’s pressure. But we don’t pay attention to the distraction – pressure can be a distraction. We were really focused on coming out and playing harder than the other team.”
In that category, Brogdon and Maker hardly could have a better example and mentor than Bucks guard Matthew Dellavedova. The Australian point guard and pricey free-agent acquisition (four years, $38 million) started 54 games but posted numbers nearly indistinguishable from his previous backup role in Cleveland. His 3-point game was done, both in attempts and accuracy.
But what Dellavedova did bring was his hustle, his peskiness and his own elite playoff experience. More than his teammates, the 26-year-old played 20 games in each of the past two postseasons, reaching the Finals twice and helping the Cavaliers win the championship last spring.
Dellavedova was at it again Thursday, buzzing around the Raptors, setting screens, annoying Lowry and logging a plus-20 in nearly 29 minutes off the bench.
“Everybody’s gonna complain about somebody who plays hard,” Kidd said, “which is unfortunate because as a player that’s what you want. As a coach that’s what you want. As a teammate that’s what you want. That’s what he does, every play, every practice, every game.
“We enjoy his DNA, what he is and what he can share with the other guys on the team.”
Dellavedova has been an easy role model for Brogdon, second only to Kidd himself. But the obvious difference between him and Maker hasn’t gotten in the way of teachable moments there, either.
“He’s very helpful,” Maker said. “He leads by example. He talks to us about it on the bench, on the court. He’s always talking about little things here and there to correct and work on. That playoff experience is showing a lot for him. And it’s not like it just came out, he’s been doing it all year.”
Said Dellavedova: “These guys aren’t typical rookies. Malcolm’s experienced. He’s got a very good head on his shoulders, very mature. And Thon has just been a sponge since he got here. He’s improved so much, yeah. He’ll take any advice from anyone and he puts it into place.”
By the end of a giddy night in Milwaukee, heading toward their Game 4 matinee Saturday (3 p.m. ET, TNT), the Bucks’ inexperience relative to Toronto’s savvy didn’t appear to be an issue at all – with one possible exception.
Brogdon was especially candid when talking about the effect his team’s blitzing start had on the Raptors.
“I thought they took their foot off the gas,” he said. “I thought they complained a little bit to the refs, and I thought we got in their heads a little bit. And that’s what we wanted to see.”
Chances are, Dellavedova or one of the Bucks’ other vets would have shushed him up some, with two victories still a long way from four.
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