TORONTO â€” Moments before the Raptors took the floor against the Milwaukee Bucks on Tuesday, coach Dwane Casey was asked if anything special needed to be said to struggling point guard Kyle Lowry.
Then Lowry went out and showed why no words were needed.
Three nights after a horrible outing in Game 1, Lowry more than made up for it in Game 2, scoring 22 points, including the game-clinching 20-foot jump shot with 8.9 seconds to play, to lift Toronto to a 106-100 win over the Bucks.
The victory sends the best-of-seven series to Milwaukee for Game 3 tied up at one win apiece.
“It’s just his competitive edge,” Casey said of Lowry. “Being with him over these years, I’ve been in the trenches with him before. He’s always bounced back. That’s just who he is. He’s a competitor. He’s a fighter. I just knew that he wasn’t going to be satisfied with the way he played in the first game.
“He’s human. Everyone has a night like that. We just can’t panic every time a guy like that has a tough night.”
DeMar DeRozan led the Raptors with 23 points, while Serge Ibaka, playing on a sprained left ankle, added 16 points and seven rebounds. Jonas Valanciunas added 10 points and 10 boards, and Cory Joseph chipped in with 11 points.
Giannis Antetokounmpo led the Bucks with 24 points, 15 rebounds and seven assists.
Lowry scored just four points as the third-seeded Raptors dropped an ugly 97-83 loss to sixth-seeded Milwaukee in Game 1, and the talk around practice in the days since had been about playing with more ferocity.
One fan showed up to Maple Leaf Square â€” or “Jurassic Park” â€” to watch Game 2 carrying a “Trade Lowry” sign, creating an uproar on social media.
Lowry had the last laugh as he set the tone for a more aggressive Raptors performance from the outset. Asked about the turnaround, he shrugged and said: “Just playing.”
“Going out there and taking my shots. Being aggressive,” Lowry said. “My teammates challenged me. . . and I got to the free-throw line nine times. Got aggressive early and the second half, DeMar kind of got himself going. So we balanced well tonight. For me, it was just going out there and playing.”
The Raptors shot better, moved the ball better, and led by as many as 13 points. But the troublesome young Bucks just kept coming back, and Toronto went into the fourth quarter in front of a nervous Air Canada Centre crowd of 20,077 with a mere 84-83 lead.
After thoroughly falling apart in the fourth quarter of Game 1, they were better down the stretch of Game 2, and when P.J. Tucker drilled a three-pointer with 9:12 left to play, it put Toronto up by 12 points.
Milwaukee still had plenty of life, however, and when Antetokounmpo scored on an alley-oop layup from Matthew Dellavedova with 2:46 to play, the Bucks pulled to within a point.
Antetokounmpo scored on a three-pointer â€” and flexed his biceps on his way back down the court â€” to tie the game with two minutes left. DeRozan replied with a basket. And then, with the crowd on its collective feet, the Raptors played solid defence before Lowry connected to guarantee Toronto the victory.
Ibaka had just three points in the first half, but was solid in the second, prompting DeRozan to say “Without him, we wouldn’t have got this win tonight.”
“It’s big,” DeRozan said. “Just getting out there, being a soldier, doing the things he was able to do for us, especially defensively. He hit some key shots in the fourth quarter.”
The Congolese power forward, who sprained his ankle in Game 1, had doubts about playing.
“When I woke up this morning I didn’t know,” Ibaka said. “It was kind of a little tight, I wasn’t 100 per cent sure if I was going to go. After a couple of hours I just said, ‘I’m going to try to go, and if I can’t go, I’m just going to ask the coach to take me out.'”
The Raptors had history on their side, winning Game 2s against Brooklyn in 2014, and then Indiana and Miami last season. They’d also only lost back-to-back games once since the NBA all-star break.
The Raptors shot 48 per cent on the night, while holding the Bucks to 41 per cent. They also shot far better from three-point range in Game 2 â€” their 14 threes were a franchise playoff record.
“I thought we did a better job of moving the basketball,” Casey said. “They are a long team, we had to do a better job of spacing, creating space with screen, zip passes, you can’t throw â€” as my college coach used to say ‘dying quail passes’ â€” and I thought we did a much better job with on time, on target passes.”
A day after DeRozan compared the Raptors’ notoriously slow starts to an old Buick Regal, Toronto played with greater intensity from the tipoff, sprinting out to an early five-point lead. A floating jump shot by DeRozan to end the first quarter sent the Raptors into the second with a 28-25 lead.
Their momentum continued into the second quarter, and a running jumper from Tucker capped a 12-2 Raptors run and gave Toronto a nine-point lead. They couldn’t shake the pesky Bucks though and Spencer Hawes scored on a tip-in at the buzzer â€” an ugly possession that saw Milwaukee grab four offensive rebounds â€” and the Raptors’ lead was down to 55-52 at halftime.
The Raptors opened the third quarter with an 18-3 run capped by a Lowry jumper that gave them a 13-point lead. But the Bucks answered with a 15-4 run.
Game 3 is Thursday, and Game 4 on Saturday.
Lori Ewing, The Canadian Press