The good, the bad, and the Drake shoulder massages from Game 4 of the Eastern Conference finals.
Game 4: Raptors 120, Bucks 102
Winner: Toronto’s Surging Bench
For the first time all series, Toronto had the better bench on Tuesday night, outscoring Milwaukee’s 48-23. The Raptors needed that production from their long-awaited reinforcements; Kawhi Leonard was coming off a career-high 52 minutes in Game 3’s double-overtime win and needed to conserve his energy in Game 4 (more on that later). Shout-out Norman Powell, Serge Ibaka, and Fred VanVleet, who, with MacGyver– and Jack Bauer–esque timing, finally came through. The trio were the only players out of eight Toronto reserves to get on the board, though they were also the only three Nick Nurse played for more than three minutes.
Powell finished with 18 points and is now averaging 14.3 per game this series—far more than his regular-season average of 8.6. This was also the third straight “Norman Powell Game,” which explains why he felt confident enough to attempt a team-high 18 field goals. Ibaka scored 17 points and VanVleet 13, the latter coming off a particularly rough game where he made several errors and jacked a few unearned shots in overtime while filling in for Kyle Lowry, who was on the bench after fouling out midway through the fourth quarter.
Speaking of Lowry, it’s worth applauding starting role players as well: While Leonard sat, Lowry took command of the game, something that can’t always be said of the point guard, whose reputation for choking in the playoffs often overshadows his positive reputation for “doing the little things.” On Tuesday, Lowry did the big and the little things, dropping a team-high 25 points, bodying his way to 10 free throw attempts (all of which he made), and adding five rebounds and six assists.
Winner and Loser: Giannis’s Physicality Prevailing … When He Wants It To
A player like Giannis doesn’t have many lows. His body alone is a safeguard against truly bad games; with a 7-foot-3 wingspan and stilts for legs, he has automatic access to basketball’s most efficient shot. Giannis can beat defenders to the rim in half the steps it would take them to keep up, and he can also finish over the top of said defenders like he’s operating a crane. But Game 3 was one of Giannis’s rare poor performances, and I even use the word “poor” lightly—though he scored just 12 points, a personal low this postseason, he still grabbed a career-high 23 boards, the most of any Buck in the postseason since Kareem in 1974.
The Raptors found success stopping Giannis’s penetration in Game 3 by forming a wall around him, preventing his usual barrage in the paint and causing him to turn the ball over eight times, which tied a career high. So coming into Tuesday night, aggression and ball control were top priorities. At the start, both seemed to be clicking for Giannis: He went 5-for-8 in the first quarter, the same amount of made field goals he had in Sunday’s game—which, you’ll remember, went to double overtime. Then things slowed down. He went without a made basket in the second quarter and finished with just four more buckets the rest of the way, which is very much a credit to the Raptors defense and Leonard specifically. Giannis’s determination to make amends for Game 3 was there, but the execution was spotty; he also suffered the misfortune of air-balling a free throw for the second time (the second time!) this series, and got yammed on by Leonard, who was literally hobbling half the game:
Giannis’s final stat line was better than Leonard’s in the same amount of minutes, though less efficient—25 points, 10 rebounds, five assists, one steal, three blocks, and just half the turnovers he had on Sunday with four—but he, at full strength, was once again contained by a man with a limp in his step.
Loser: The Immediate Future of Kawhi Leonard
How many years have we waited for excitement to return to the Eastern Conference finals? For new teams to rise to the occasion in LeBron James’s absence? That’s what this Milwaukee-Toronto series promised: the future face of the league in Giannis Antetokounmpo versus one of the top performers of the postseason, Kawhi Leonard. The Raptors pushing the series to six games (at least) is what the NBA wants and what the league’s casual fans had hoped for: some actual competition while the Warriors, such predictable winners that they’ve bordered on boring for years, rest.
Yet some negativity tinged the feel-good moment that was Game 4. Toronto couldn’t have won without Leonard, as has been the story all playoffs: He had 19 points, seven rebounds, one assist, four steals, and two blocks. But even with the Raptors’ improved bench contribution and Leonard playing the fewest minutes he had in Toronto’s past 10 games (34), the time he did spend on the court was, quite literally, painful. Leonard took a cautious approach to his playing time this season, like he was a sneeze away from reaggravating his quad injury—which was understandable, given that the injury caused him to miss most of the 2017-18 campaign. And even with Toronto’s careful handling of his health, concerns over his fragility have grown throughout the playoffs, with Tuesday night being the most glaring example yet. Leonard’s bursts to the basket were followed by limps, and after jumps came winces—just like what we saw at the end of Sunday’s Game 3, when he logged a career-high minutes total.
Moving forward, the Raptors will have to perform a precarious balancing act—playing Leonard just enough to advance, yet also resting him enough to preserve as much of his effectiveness as possible. When Leonard’s on the court, he is fun, a basketball Magneto who repels opposing players on offense with the same ease he has drawing them near on defense. But it’s tough to celebrate his game while he’s so obviously in pain—and it’ll become especially difficult to reconcile if Toronto rallies, only for Leonard not to have enough left in the tank for a Game 7. In Game 4, thanks to his teammates’ production, Leonard was afforded time on the bench. Here’s hoping that rest didn’t arrive too late.
Loser: Thirsty Drake
Does Nick Nurse listen to Drake? I’m not sure. Nick is obviously musically inclined, given that he deboarded the team plane in Milwaukee last week with Beats on and a guitar strapped to his back:
nick nurse is outta control raptors in 4 pic.twitter.com/Tju1YOXWqI— alex (@steven_lebron) May 14, 2019
You never know when inspiration will strike! I don’t know what Nick had cued up on his Spotify leaving that plane. Maybe it was just a meditation session; maybe it was jazz, judging by the suit; maybe it was that Kawhi laugh sound effect on loop. Or maybe, just maybe, it was Drake. October’s Very Own is, after all, the unofficial and official mascot of the Raptors. It would only benefit Nick to familiarize himself, as Drake is known to drop the names of basketball personnel—Toronto-centric or otherwise—in his songs. Think of all the words that rhyme with Nurse!
What I do know is that Drake is a fan of Nick Nurse. Game 4 confirmed that—not that, before Tuesday night, I had any intention of ever spending more than 21 seconds looking up the nature of their relationship. But still, here’s the evidence: Exhibit A—Drake laughing at Giannis, which, by attempting to mess with the Bucks star’s confidence, is indirectly supporting Nick:
Drake stays clowning Giannis at the free throw line pic.twitter.com/W4iiGg7nMi— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) May 22, 2019
Let’s look closer at that. Drake follows up his over-the-top laughter with an air guitar celebration, which we have to assume is in direct support of Nick, because, you know, I guess guitars are his thing:
And Exhibit B—here is Drake massaging Nick’s shoulders after VanVleet hit a big 3:
why is Drake just allowed to wander freely on the sidelines? pic.twitter.com/qxl70Z9pO3— Dan Favale (@danfavale) May 22, 2019
Again, no evidence that they’re friends! But lots of evidence that Drake is a fan of Nick Nurse. (Physical touch must be Drake’s love language.) Nick won on Tuesday night, so Drake won on Tuesday night. Which is great, because what this world needs is Drake having more confidence on the Raptors sideline.