After the Raptors outlasted the Bucks in double overtime to win Game 3 and get on the board in the conference finals, there was a sense that Toronto had merely postponed the inevitable. Milwaukee had worn down the Raps in Game 1 and busted them up in Game 2; they’d pushed Toronto to two extra sessions in Game 3 despite Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton, and Eric Bledsoe’s combined 11-for-48 shooting from the field. It took Kawhi Leonard producing both 36 points and a suffocating defensive performance while playing 52 minutes on a bum left leg just to get Toronto on the board in the series; with just one day of rest before a critical Game 4, more season-saving effort seemed like too much to expect.
It’s a good thing, then, that the rest of the Raptors entered Game 4 intent on actively participating in their own salvation. Even with Leonard moving at half-speed, Toronto weathered an early blitz by Antetokounmpo, collected itself, and dismantled the Bucks in a 120-102 win. It was clinical. It was convincing. In a heartening sign for a team that has at times shown a debilitating dependence on its superstar small forward this postseason, it was very much a collective effort.
Even with Leonard below 100 percent, the typically conservative Bucks defense ramped up its aggression in Game 4 to try to limit his opportunities, daring the Raptors’ trick-or-treat supporting cast to make enough plays to win. They did. Kyle Lowry made his peace with the series-opening waste of What Should Have Been The Kyle Lowry Game by going out and having another, leading the way with 25 points, six assists, five rebounds, and just one turnover in 34 minutes. The All-Star point guard pushed the pace to create clean looks, probed until he found a crack in the defense to exploit, and, if one wasn’t there, just punched a hole in it himself. Marc Gasol came up huge for the second straight game, scoring 17 points on 11 shots, making three of his six 3-point tries against a Bucks defense that sags off him by design, and weaponizing his vision and touch from the high post for seven assists in 30 minutes of turnover-free ball.
Toronto’s much-maligned second unit stood tall too. Norman Powell needed 18 shots to score his 18 points, but he did exactly what the Raptors needed him to do: space the floor and fire without a second thought. Serge Ibaka, who had piped up in the Raptors locker room about his experience coming back from 0-2 down, added a bruising 17 points and 13 rebounds. And Fred VanVleet—who entered Game 4 having shot just 7-for-44 since the start of the Sixers series—apparently found both his touch and his confidence after the birth of his son on Monday, chipping in 13 points on 5-for-6 shooting with six assists and just one turnover. (Early in the fourth, he even banked in a 3. Call it a gift for Fred Jr.)
Milwaukee’s often-overzealous help opened up previously closed driving and passing lanes. Toronto took advantage, swinging the ball around the perimeter ahead of Milwaukee’s rotations to rack up 32 assists on 41 made field goals—the team’s second-highest assist total this postseason. With the ball moving and the Bucks scrambling, the Raptors found themselves able to work in a steadier diet of preferred shots for the first time all series. The difference was massive: Even with a limited Leonard and Pascal Siakam (who also went more than 50 minutes in Game 3 and who battled foul trouble Tuesday) contributing just 26 points, Toronto roasted the best defense in the league to the tune of 124.2 points per 100 possessions, miles above what even the NBA’s top offenses manage.
The Raptors also turned in a stellar defensive effort. Leonard stuck with Antetokounmpo, who managed to finish with 25 points on 50 percent shooting, 10 rebounds, five assists, and four turnovers, but still doesn’t quite seem comfortable against the two-time Defensive Player of the Year. Attentive help defenders rotated on a string and recovered to contest shots. Everybody busted it back in transition to keep Giannis from devouring Toronto’s fast-break defense. Add all that up and combine it with the offensive fireworks, and you’ve got the recipe for a blowout. Which, ironically, means we now have the recipe for something more compelling: If nothing else, the Raptors’ getting level ensures some welcome dramatic tension in a conference finals round that didn’t get much from our friends on the Left Coast. (Not to mention at least two more games for fans to take in before the start of the 2019 NBA Finals on May 30.)
The Bucks entered this series looking every bit like the juggernaut they’d been during the regular season, and racing out to a 2-0 lead over a Toronto team that had just survived a seven-game war with Philadelphia made it seem like more of the same might be in store. On one hand, that would set up a titanic Finals between a Warriors squad playing some of its most entertaining basketball in years and Milwaukee, the squad that was the NBA’s best all season long. On the other, it’d be kind of a bummer to come away from the much-ballyhooed Eastern bloodfeud quadrangle having seen only one really hotly contested, down-to-the-wire series.
We can table all that for the time being. Before the Bucks can stake their claim as a 2019 reboot of the 2014-15 Warriors—the one from Steve Kerr’s first year on the bench, before Durant’s arrival, that took the league by surprise on the way to 67 wins, a 16-5 postseason, and the first title of this dynastic run—they’ll have to follow in that team’s footsteps.
Remember: Those Warriors were down 2-1 in both the conference semifinals against the Grizzlies and the Finals against the Cavaliers. They had to diagnose what was giving them trouble on the fly and fix it to extend their season. They stumbled; they solved; they survived and advanced, and eventually won it all. If the Bucks really are the team we think they’re on the verge of becoming, they’ll have to do the same.
Over these past two games, Leonard has guarded Antetokounmpo on 75 possessions, most of any Raptors defender. On those possessions, Giannis has scored just 11 points on 5-for-19 shooting, with four turnovers and only two assists. Coach Mike Budenholzer has to find ways to free Giannis from the Kawhi matchup; more pick-and-rolls with different partners to try to trigger switches would seem to be in the offing. He also has to figure out how to get Milwaukee’s cadre of complementary shooters off the schneid and back to drilling shots. Bledsoe and Nikola Mirotic, in particular, have been killers.
Toronto is basically ignoring Bledsoe on the perimeter, playing off him to load up on Giannis and daring a player who’s shooting just 22.6 percent from 3-point land and 23.3 percent on catch-and-shoot jumpers from anywhere on the court in the playoffs to prove he can make shots. Thus far, he hasn’t. Mirotic, too, has struggled with his shot, dropping to 30.1 percent from deep after Tuesday’s 2-for-8 outing, while also being a defensive liability; the Bucks are allowing nearly 20 more points per 100 possessions against Toronto with him on the floor than when he’s off it. If they don’t start contributing, and fast, Coach Bud will have some difficult lineup decisions to make.
There are so many interesting questions hovering over the series heading into Game 5: How much more does Leonard have to give while pretty clearly playing on one leg? Beyond that, what does the fact that he’s playing on one leg mean? Should Raptors fans find renewed hope that Kawhi will decide to stay in Toronto this summer in the fact that, after missing more than a quarter of the regular season to load management, he’s been willing to lay himself on the line like this in pursuit of a Finals berth? If he can keep this up—grinding out buckets while hobbled, somehow enveloping the potential MVP of the league on the other end, giving Toronto a chance—and get the Raptors to their first Finals ever, will we stamp him as this postseason’s best player, irrespective of what Curry’s done or Durant might do once he returns from his calf strain?
On the other side: How will Giannis respond to the first real taste of adversity in what has been a dream ascendancy this season? If the Raptors can keep taking away his easy buckets in transition—just 13 fast-break points for the Bucks in Game 4, after 29 in Game 3, 28 in Game 2, and 25 in Game 1—how will he unlock a disciplined and talented Toronto defense? Can he, if his teammates don’t start knocking down some more shots? If they can’t, and if Milwaukee falters after having had a 2-0 lead, will Giannis’s coronation as the new King in the East continue apace? Or will we start thinking differently about what he and the Bucks—a team, by the way, that could look very different after free agency, with Middleton, Brogdon, Mirotic, Brook Lopez, and others all potentially on the market—might ultimately be able to accomplish?
It’s all suddenly up in the air, so many present and future possibilities, because Marc Gasol started playing more aggressively and Norman Powell hit some jumpers. The Bucks blinked and the Raptors roared, and now we’ve got a series. For a couple of more games, at least, we can focus on what’s in front of us: two of the best players in the world, two of the best teams in the league, two franchises searching for answers and yearning to breathe the rarefied air at the pinnacle of the sport. It’s pretty compelling stuff—compelling enough to make the inevitable wait just a little while longer.