DeMar DeRozan was embarrassed. In the day-and-a-half since he put up the first field goal-free game of this postseason career, DeRozan was steadfast in his belief that he’d have a bounce-back in Game 4. He’s had off nights, of course, but it’s rarely happened for extended stretches, and DeRozan’s assertion that he’d be in for a big game Saturday – “A different side of me” – was borne of a cool, steely confidence. His career to this point has been built on self-belief, and his ability to fight through adversity is so pronounced that it literally manifests itself in his new shoe.
His belief in himself didn’t make those outside of the locker room any less fraught with nerves and anxiety. His offensive performance, though, eventually spoke for itself. DeRozan would finish with 33 points on 12-of-22 shooting and a perfect 9-of-9 at the line, and he’d add nine rebounds, five assists, and four steals. He certainly wasn’t at his best defensively outside of the ball-hawking and rebounding (that late strip!), but overall, this was about as good a performance as the Raptors could have expected from him. Broken brilliance, as it were.
“It won’t happen twice,” DeRozan said on the floor as the game ended.
Opinions will vary on whether playing a major part in a Game 4 victory “makes up” for having an equally large hand in a Game 3 loss. This is part of a larger philosophical question about the Raptors’ approach and need to be punched in the mouth in general – as Josh Lewenberg of TSN points out, the Raptors are now 7-2 in playoff games following a double-digit loss over the last two years, which is great. It also means they’ve lost by double-digits nine times in 24 games, which almost seems impossible for a team that won two series in that time.
“I’ve always said, we play better with our backs against the wall,” head coach Dwane Casey said. “It’s a tough way to live but I love our team’s resilient personality. I wish we wouldn’t just have to have a stinker before we played that way, but if we can consistently get everybody at their potential level, I think we’ll be in good shape.”
Obviously, the inconsistencies of DeRozan and Kyle Lowry have been a big part of that in the postseason, and Saturday was the rare time both players turned in a strong performance together (Lowry was really good in the second half, DeRozan in the first and again late). It goes without saying, but the Raptors need more of that to close this series out.
Lowry: Real old school Eastern conference basketball out there. It was kind of ugly. But we won, so that’s all that matters.”
— (((Eric Koreen))) (@ekoreen) April 22, 2017
At this point, that’s probably not worth dwelling on whether or not they’ve atoned (or whatever) for earlier shaky outings. Whether they should have been in this spot or not, DeRozan and the Raptors answered the call and even the series at 2-2, taking back home-court advantage as the series now shrinks to a best-of-three. The Raptors will be favored by Vegas, FiveThrityEight, BPI, and historical precedent from here, which is encouraging. It’s less encouraging that the Raptors have so consistently had off nights to bring the best out of themselves – and Milwaukee should play much better in Game 5 (Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton aren’t combining to shoot 10-of-32 with 11 turnovers again, however good the defense) – but if DeRozan’s promise that Game 3 won’t happen twice holds true, and if the Raptors, you know, maybe hit a three or two, the Raptors might be back in good shape.
Norman Powell swings another playoff series, and other adjustments
Casey teased an overdue change to the starting lineup between Games 3 and 4, and when the announcement came, it was a bit surprising: Norman Powell was set to start, with Jonas Valanciunas moving to the bench. After the game, Casey half-jokingly declined to give reasons for why Powell was chosen to start, but he had previously talked up a need to help the offense more than the defense.
The move worked out. Powell played 34 minutes, chipped in 12 points and four assists, and was a plus-15, tied for the best mark on the team. His aggression attacking from the weak side when the Bucks overloaded on Lowry and DeRozan was useful, and he ran some nice baseline actions to work as a distributor or secondary scorer. Powell’s made his name on the defensive end, though, and it was there that the change seemed to have more of an impact, with the sophomore proving paramount in helping limit Khris Middleton to a 4-of-13 shooting night with four turnovers.
“I thought Norm stepped in and carried his load,” Casey said. “I thought he played really well. I thought defensively, he had leverage, he got into his body…I just thought he did a good job.”
Powell has now played a major role in swinging two first-round playoff series, helping pull them from the brink. That he didn’t have a role earlier in this series is perhaps frustrating, but at least a little understandable – he struggled after the All-Star break, by his own admission, and Delon Wright’s play early in this series limited minutes at the two-guard. But Casey was adamant that Powell would have a place at some point, and it’s clear the coaching staff has faith in Powell responding as a break-glass-in-case-of-emergency option. He played really well here, and while it wasn’t the starting lineup change I was expecting (though I did call him the series’ X-factor before Game 1), this worked out well. Powell may now have the greatest ratio of playoff impact to regular season impact of any player ever not named Robert Horry.
Valanciunas was just fine in his Greg Monroe role, too, and even closed out the game thanks to some strong play down the stretch. The Raptors did a better job finding Valanciunas on the short-roll and on dump offs, and while the Lithuanian only grabbed five rebounds and had four turnovers in his 22 minutes, he added 12 points on perfect shooting and was less of an issue defensively coming off the bench.
“I thought he handled it really well. It’s tough for a guy that’s started every game he’s been physically ready and able to play,” Casey said. “To understand, this isn’t the playoffs, and it isn’t anything you did wrong…He had the proper attitude, the proper disposition. He was a pro.”
What’s more, the Bucks trapped the Raptors’ ball-handlers a little less aggressively opposite Serge Ibaka in the starting lineup, so everyone seemed to benefit from this change (the Raptors also set a lot of their screens much higher, which freed up some space vertically. They were also smart in attacking the same big repeatedly (specifically Monroe), as Milwaukee’s system can be exhausting for big men having to trap and recover on multiple possessions in a row.
I’d expect the starting lineup to stay the same for Game 5, though DeMarre Carroll’s leash has to be incredibly short given P.J. Tucker’s consistently larger role and impact. Tucker was incredible defensively down the stretch, and the Raptors have been at their best defensively (93.1 defensive rating versus 110.1 when he sits) when he’s on the court in this series. (You won’t at all be surprised to learn that Carroll and Cory Joseph have the worst net ratings on the team, by far.) As long as Tucker’s playing the bulk of the minutes and closing games, there’s not too big a gripe to be had, but the Raptors’ best foot forward involves Tucker on the floor.
Injury Updates – Patterson is apparently fine
Patrick Patterson went unused in the second half but was apparently available. The rotation Dwane Casey rolled with worked out, in that the fourth quarter lineups were tough to find fault with and the Raptors won, but his absence late in the third quarter, in particular, was strange. He didn’t have the best eight minutes in the first half, he just represents such an obviously useful piece on the defensive end in this series. Casey said Patterson going unused was not related to a sore big toe from Game 2 or anything else, and that he was there if needed.
- The Raptors’ new starters were actually a -1 in 15 minutes, so while Powell was good, there’s still something to figure out there. That this lineup had literally never played a minute of game action together before may suggest a learning curve, but the Raptors don’t have the luxury of time for that kind of thing, so more changes should remain on the table.
- It’s a bit odd considering Serge Ibaka was the Raptors’ best player through three games of the series, but Toronto was at its best with a fivesome that didn’t include him tonight. THe closing group of the starters with Tucker and Valanciunas in place of Carroll and Ibaka were a +8 in 11 minutes.
- The starters with Valanciunas in place of Ibaka, without the Tucker-Carroll swap, were also a +8 in three minutes.
- The Tucker-Patterson-Ibaka trio once again only playued a minute together. Naturally, they were a +4.
- The Bucks only used seven lineups here, one of the lower totals I can ever remember seeing. Their starters were a -6 in 21 minutes, close to the maximum you’ll see a single unit playing together in a game.
- The starters with Monroe in place of Thon Maker were -9 in four minutes.
- Bucks fans at Bradley Center chanted “Bucks in six” as the game ended, which I got a kick out of. Yeah, they’re the underdog and they just lost an ugly one, but that’s the kind of confidence and energy that the fan base for an upstart team should be bringing. The energy the last two games has been very reminiscent of the Air Canada Centre circa the Brooklyn Nets series.
- I would have given anything for DeRozan to read Antetokounmpo’s stat line for petty revenge.
- A classic Caseyism on coaching criticism: “One day you’re the statue, the next day you’re the pigeon.”
- This doesn’t bring up an interesting point for Game 5, though, in terms of coaching criticism. Jason Kidd hasn’t really had to answer too much for his choices since the Bucks more or less went according to plan in taking two of the first three, save for the Michael Beasley/Mirza Teletovic and Spencer Hawes tweaks. They were a bit more conservative against smaller Raptors lineups here, but it wasn’t a fundamental change in approach. Kidd will now be tested as a between-game tactician. He probably left Tony Snell (or Middleton) off the floor too long as Toronto pulled away in the fourth, and if the Raptors continue playing small and switching just about everything, Milwaukee’s going to have to work to find better looks for Antetokounmpo, who struggled being forced into more jumpers in this one.
- This is an actual sequence that happened:
— Blake Murphy (@BlakeMurphyODC) April 22, 2017
- Game 5 goes Monday back in Toronto. The regular recap comes at 9 tomorrow, and Cooper or I will have some video work for 11, and then it’s Raptors 905 time, with the D-Leaguers tipping off Game 1 of the finals at 8 p.m. in Rio.