MILWAUKEE — The difference in Game 1 between the Toronto Raptors and the Milwaukee Bucks came down to the center spot.
For the Bucks, there was Brook Lopez who totalled 29 points and made clutch plays in the fourth quarter both with his scoring and his shot-blocking. And for the Raptors there was Marc Gasol, who didn’t score a single basket in the second half despite being largely ignored by the defense, and also whiffed on a few block outs that led to costly second-chance opportunities for the Bucks.
Odds are that the gap will shrink as the series goes on. Lopez won’t always be prime Kevin Garnett, and Gasol will eventually ditch the Patrick Patterson act. But there is an unmistakeable symmetry to the match-up because both teams need the same production from their starting centers: To pack the paint against an oncoming superstar, and to knock down catch-and-shoot threes.
Lopez played his role better in Game 1, which isn’t a surprise given that he’s ahead of the curve. From the outset, Lopez embraced his new identity as a 7-foot shooting guard, and he finished with twice as many three-point attempts than twos. He’ll happily fire away from 30-feet out (Lopez fired 11 in Game 1), even though he shoots a pedestrian 36.5 percent from deep, because the goal really isn’t to knock down a high percentage. His jumpers are a loss leader — the real profit comes from decluttering the paint for Giannis Antetokounmpo.
On the other hand, Gasol needs cajoling. Even though he’s just as prolific from the perimeter, it’s against Gasol’s nature to be pigeonholed as a shooter. He prefers the traditional responsibilities of directing traffic and making plays, and on that account he is indeed superior to Lopez. The Raptors made a point to move him within the arc on occasion so Gasol could either take a shorter shot, or better yet, so he could fulfill his favorite hobby of spotting the opportunistic cutters sneaking backdoor. However, it’s also frustrating to watch Gasol probe for openings that aren’t there when he’s usually the one who is left open when Kawhi Leonard draws a crowd.
Defensively, both centers left their marks against the superstars. Lopez blocked Leonard twice, while Gasol forced two turnovers out of Antetokounmpo. Lopez did an amazing job of stepping up to meet Leonard off the high screen, while Gasol was tenacious in his rotations to both cut off Antetokounmpo’s drives before flying back out to the perimeter. Both All-Stars shot under 50 percent, but that was by design as both the Raptors and the Bucks collapsed the paint and forced role players to hit shots. That will be the strategy going forward on both sides.
In the end, it was Lopez who made the Raptors pay whereas Gasol let the Bucks off the hook. Lopez knocked down three of his four triples in the fourth, while also hustling for a putback and a transition dunk, while Gasol went 0-for-4 in the quarter including clanking an open look that would have put the Raptors up four with two minutes left, and another short baseline shot that would have made it a workable four-point deficit with 33 seconds on the clock. It’s a make-or-miss league, and that’s how the game was decided, not by the stars, but by the centers.
“This is the Brook we all know and we all love,” Antetokounmpo said after the win. “We just want him to be aggressive, especially in this series. We know Marc Gasol is trying to be active. He's trying to help a lot, and (Lopez) is going to be wide open most of the time. He's going to knock down shots like he did tonight. And especially when he's going, we've got to find him even more and more and more.”