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Winners and Losers: The Bucks Run Into the Wall

Milwaukee broke out to a big lead early, but the Raptors’ defensive strategy prevailed for a third straight game. Now Toronto can finish the series in Canada.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The good, the bad, and the beer chugging from Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals.


Game 5: Raptors 105, Bucks 99

Winner: Fred VanVleet

They say having a child changes everything, and I imagine that’s true. I just never thought “everything” included a shooting stroke. On Monday, Fred VanVleet welcomed his second child, Fred Jr., into the world. (I couldn’t find a picture; I guess just put the Snapchat “baby” filter on VanVleet and pretend the chin strap is gone. I hope.) (On second thought, Fred Jr. being born with a beard would be iconic.) Then, on Tuesday, VanVleet scored 13 points in Game 4. Thirteen points may not sound extraordinary, but it was the most VanVleet’s contributed since the opening game of the playoffs against Orlando—14 games ago. “Slump” doesn’t seem quite strong enough for the way he’d been playing before having his son.

“It gives you a little perspective, I guess, on life,” VanVleet said Tuesday. “Had to sit at the hospital all day, had a lot of time to think, obviously a plane ride back. It just changes the way you’re looking at things. You are not so down on yourself about everything.”

VanVleet continued his, um, rebirth in Game 5. He finished with 21 points and scored a career-high seven 3s on nine attempts, and all in all, the Raptors bench outscored the Bucks by 20 points, 35-15. Game 4 was the first time in a long time that Toronto’s reserves topped their counterparts, and repeating that on Thursday gave the Raptors a chance to close out this series at home in Game 6. This VanVleet showing up Saturday is imperative to clinch the series, especially if Marc Gasol and Danny Green—a combined 1-for-9 from the field and 1-for-7 behind the arc—carry their offensive performances over to another game. Kawhi Leonard needs another shooter to back him up; his right- and left-hand men, Kyle Lowry and Pascal Siakam, also struggled from deep (4-for-15). Dad-mode VanVleet is the man for the job, as he has, you know, recently been reacquainted with cleaning up other people’s shit.

Loser: Eric Bledsoe

Eighty days have passed since Milwaukee re-signed Bledsoe to his four-year, $70 million extension. Only eight days have passed since the Eastern Conference finals began. Yet it’s been more than long enough to begin [watches a compilation of Bledsoe’s bricks] rethinking that contract.

Bledsoe ended Game 5 with 20 points, four rebounds, and two assists. He took six free throws—one-third of the Bucks’ total attempts—and made all of them. Without context, Bledsoe had the playoff game one would want from their starting point guard, considering he isn’t even the Bucks’ second or third-best starter.

But Bledsoe’s game-high four turnovers tell another story, one of impulse and forced passes and 3s. His hasty decision-making makes it seem like Bledsoe would be one of those “says exactly what he’s thinking and regrets it later”-type hangs, which, yeah. And to add to that predisposition, Bledsoe always dials up his personal speed from intense to positively twitchy in close games, which Game 5 was throughout.

Some passes were so off that it was unimaginable from the moment the ball left Bledsoe’s hands that any Buck could receive it. On others, Bledsoe passed on an open route to the basket. The inverse was also true; Bledsoe pulled up when he should’ve moved the ball. Mastering the halfcourt requires mentally picking apart the defense in real time, and often, especially on drives to the basket, it seems like Bledsoe was thinking two seconds behind. He’s a fake-it-til-you-make-it kind of driver, with the caveat that he often does not make it.

It turns out that making it up as you go isn’t as easy as Steph Curry makes it look, and that no-look passes are only cool when there is a teammate waiting to receive them. I’m not sure what Bledsoe will bring to Game 6, but I am apprehensive. Can he … can he have a baby by Thursday?

Winner: The Wall

Let’s stick to parents, because they don’t get enough love. (PSA: Father’s Day is in less than a month. You’re welcome.) If you’ve ever been around multiple kids or even toddlers, you’ll know that they can take you down with sheer numbers. It’s math, as Daryl Morey would say. One man is no match for three kids “play” attacking—folks, kids are strong.

So now imagine one man versus three grown men. Or, in the case of Giannis Antetokounmpo against the Raptors defense, sometimes four grown men. Nick Nurse decided after Game 2 that to stop Giannis, his men would have to form a wall. (I love this song.) That strategy has severely hindered Giannis: In Game 3, he was held to 12 points, in Game 4, 25 points (Giannis managed to break through more, but still went an entire quarter without a field goal), and in Game 5, he scored 24 points. That’s good by normal-NBA-player standards and fine by Giannis standards, but actually watching the sheer number of times he was stopped from entering the lane made it clear that Toronto’s defense is getting the presumptive MVP off his game.

With 1:36 left in the game, for example, and the Bucks down 98-95, Giannis took off on a drive to the left. The penetration effort was blocked just shy of the paint by three swarming Raptors, and Giannis was forced to pass the ball back out to the perimeter to, well, Bledsoe. Did he miss the 27-footer? You bet he missed the 27-footer.

Though he’s by far Milwaukee’s best player, Giannis isn’t Mike Budenholzer’s designated closer. That’s Khris Middleton, who has a far better chance leveling a three-point deficit simply by being a better shooter. Still, Giannis getting to the rim is the highest-percentage shot the Bucks can get. (He scored on 63.3 percent of his field-goal attempts off drives in the regular season.) That weapon being stripped from its holster changes Giannis completely.

Maybe a lack of confidence is why he went to the bench with 1:12 remaining in the game and his team down three; maybe it was pure exhaustion from the relentless trapping; maybe it was the ankle he appeared to tweak a couple minutes before. It was one of the weirdest rests that I can remember, even if Giannis reentered the game with 34.7 seconds left. The last place a superstar should be in the final minute of a series-turning Eastern Conference finals game is the bench. Perhaps the wall already made him feel sidelined.

Loser: Aaron Rodgers

A lesson I learned long ago is to never partake in a beer-chugging contest with an NFL offensive lineman. (We’ve all been there.) Aaron Rodgers made that mistake courtside in Game 5. To be clear, I’m not sure he consented to a beer-drinking contest. From the looks of it, he doesn’t even really like beer:

As if Rodgers’s 59-second “I remember my first beer” chug attempt wasn’t bad enough, Packers lineman David Bakhtiari then followed Rodgers’s sipping by chugging a third beer in five seconds. Bakhtiari’s job when he’s not swallowing Miller Lites whole is to protect Rodgers, his quarterback. I imagine respecting the man you put your body on the line for is kind of crucial. And while I won’t say that Rodgers’s performance led to the Bucks loss, I will say that one followed the other, and let you come to your own conclusion. Cheers.