Lamar Derozen (238286)
Credit: Bill Moore photo

The Toronto Raptors have been one of the better teams in the Eastern Conference over the past four seasons. From the 2013-14 to the 2015 season, they won the Atlantic Division title three straight years. This season, they finished second to the Boston Celtics with a record of 51-31. But being based in Canada has somewhat obscured their accomplishments.

Furthermore, they were eliminated from the playoffs in the first round in 2014 and 2015 despite high expectations and one of the league’s most dynamic backcourts in guards DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry. Finally getting past the first round last season, they fell to the eventual NBA champion Cleveland Cavaliers 4-2 in the conference finals. The Raptors entered this postseason as the No. 3 seed and marginal threat to the Cavaliers’ march back to the finals.

Their status seemed warranted after losing Game 1 of the opening round at home to the No. 6 seed Milwaukee Bucks by 97-83 then getting annihilated in Game 3 on the road by 104-77. “They ambushed us,” said Raptors coach Dwane Casey after his team fell behind 2-1 in the best-of-seven series. “There was no aspect of our game that we executed whatsoever.”

Facing the possibility of incurring a monumental 3-1 deficit by losing Game 4 in Milwaukee, the Raptors knew their season was on the brink when they stepped on the court in Milwaukee for Game 4 last Saturday. It was then they called on their playoff experience versus the young Bucks to dictate the terms of the game.

Compelling their opponent to play at a methodical pace, not allowing the athletically endowed Giannis Antetokounmpo, the Bucks’ magnificent 22-year-old, 6 foot 11 point-forward, to clear the glass and generate easy fast-break points and early offense opportunities, the Raptors stymied the Bucks and came away with a critical 87-76 win to even the series at 2-2. They held Antetokounmpo to only 14 points on 6-19 shooting.

“I’ve always said we play better with our backs against the wall,” asserted Casey. “It’s a tough way to live, but I love our team’s resilience and personality.”

As for the Bucks, they were lured into playing a deliberate, physical style of basketball more suited to the defensive minded Raptors. “Our tempo was extremely slow,” said Bucks coach Jason Kidd. “Give them credit, they slowed us down.”

The Raptors took control of the series back in Toronto in a Game 5 blowout, winning by 118-93. They can close out the Bucks in Milwaukee with a win tonight (Thursday) and move on to meet the No. 2-seeded Cavs, who swept the No. 7-seeded Indiana Pacers 4-0 in their opening round series. A Bucks win would force a Game 7 in Toronto Saturday.

In the other Eastern Conference series, the top-seeded Boston Celtics and Chicago Bulls, the No. 8 seed, were tied 2-2 with Game 5 taking place last night in Boston. The No. 4-seeded Washington Wizards and No. 5-seeded Atlanta Hawks were also tied 2-2 and met in Game 5 last night in the nation’s capital.