MILWAUKEE — Down by 25 at halftime to a rampant Milwaukee Bucks team clicking on all cylinders, the Toronto Raptors had little hope of a comeback in Game 2. In fact, in the history of the franchise, they were 0-62 all-time when trailing by 20-plus points at the half.
But through a combination of lackadaisical defense by the Bucks, and a more concerted effort from the Raptors’ star man, Kawhi Leonard, Toronto had whittled the deficit down to 13 points with a little over two minutes left in the third quarter. Still a large deficit, but manageable.
Enter Malcolm Brogdon.
Taking a little shovel pass from Giannis Antetokounmpo, Brogdon drove inside but had his first attempt stifled by Serge Ibaka and Kawhi Leonard. No matter, as he re-gathered the ball and put it in for a big bucket. Down on the other end of the court, he helped force a turnover on Leonard, then pushed the ball in transition and found George Hill for a layup that was goaltended by Ibaka. After yet another turnover by the Raptors on the very next possession, Brogdon once again ran the break to perfection and hit a streaking Hill for two more easy points.
In the span of thirty-seven seconds, Brogdon scored two points, dished out two assists and swiped one steal, and all of a sudden the Bucks were back up by 19. The game was over, and everyone in Fiserv Forum knew it. The Bucks cruised the rest of the way, securing a 125-103 victory and a 2-0 lead in the Eastern Conference finals.
As Bucks head coach Mike Budenholzer explained after the win, that’s that kind of play they’ve come to expect from Brogdon. But the fact that Brogdon is playing this well so soon after returning from a long-term injury makes stretches like the one in the third quarter even more impressive.
“I feel fortunate to have been around a lot of good teams,” Budenholzer said. “I can’t think of a guy that’s emerged in the second round in a game, I think, four and five and now into one and two that’s almost picked up right where he left off. He was so good for us all year — 90, 50, 40 [shooting percentages] — does so many good things. I think certainly from my perspective what he’s been able to do, I just thought, if we can just get back going — he’s exceeded all of our expectations.”
In just his third game back from a plantar fascia injury that kept him out for almost two months, Brogdon finished with 14 points on 5-of-10 from the field, four rebounds and five assists in 25 minutes in Game 2. And that’s to say nothing of the solid defense he gives the Bucks, which once again included important minutes on Leonard.
“He seems in very good shape, he’s confident, and that’s the Brogdon we know,” Nikola Mirotic said. “He’s been amazing. Right now he’s on the bench, but contributing very good. Not just scoring, but guarding Kawhi, sharing the ball, he’s big time. If we want to win, we need him playing the same way he is now. We are blessed that he’s back, that he’s with us. We feel much more confident with him, we have much more of a chance to do something special this year with Brogdon back.”
Mirotic’s entire response about Brogdon was glowing, but his last point there is the most important going forward and it was echoed by both Brook Lopez and George Hill when asked about their teammate after the game. A healthy Brogdon takes the Bucks to another level; they all know it, and having them back gives them even more confidence. That’s bad news for not only the Raptors over the remainder of this series but the Golden State Warriors as well — assuming they go on to win the West.
In his first three games back from injury, Brogdon is averaging 12.5 points, 3.0 rebounds and 3.5 assists while shooting 52.9 percent from the field and 44.4 percent from downtown. Coming back from a two-month layoff and playing that well would be impressive at any point in the season, but is remarkable considering the intensity of the games this late in the playoffs.
It’s a testament to not only how healthy Brogdon feels, but the work that the Bucks’ medical staff does. Following the podium interviews on Friday night, Giannis Antetokounmpo took time to give a shout-out to the Bucks’ head of strength and conditioning, Suki Hobson. Her team has done tremendous work all season and has Brogdon back in prime form.
“I feel great, I feel great,” Brogdon said. “I’m on a team where I don’t have to go out there and score 30 points a game for us to win. I can go out there and contribute, do what I do, stay in my role and ease my way back in.”
For now, Brogdon is coming off the bench, and it remains to be seen if that will continue to be the case throughout the Bucks’ run. In truth though, it doesn’t matter when or where Brogdon plays; his even-keeled nature and versatile skill set allows him to adapt well to any circumstance or role. He can drive — both to score and facilitate — he can really shoot it and he gives tremendous effort on the defensive end. His return makes the Bucks even deeper, strengthening one of their biggest advantages over the course of the playoffs.
The Bucks have still only lost one game this entire postseason, and with Brogdon back and playing as he did in Game 2, that might not change any time soon.