Would you rather have won Game 3 in a blowout or in double OT? I thought about that long and hard and feel that the way the Raptors won can carry a lot of momentum into pivotal Game 4. They won despite getting two key performers fouling out, facing serious adversity after blowing two chances to ice the game in regulation and overtime, and while their star player hobbled around. There’s not much point in focusing on the refs who were guilty of incompetence at best and pushing an agenda at worst. If we want to have a ref conversation we also need to consider the double-dribble and charge Leonard and Siakam got away with, respectively. Considering all the data points it still skewed in Milwaukee’s favor and given that the Raptors won, this is less of an issue.
The constancy of Kawhi Leonard’s production is such that we’ve taken him for granted. You could dedicated a 5000 word post to Leonard’s commitment and play and it wouldn’t be enough. So let’s leave him aside for a second and instead start with Norman Powell, who came off the bench for a crucial 19 points on 7-13 shooting. When Danny Green was sputtering and choking like a congested piston and Fred was Fred, the Raptors needed someone to spell starters while being remotely productive and Powell exceeded all expectations. His contribution was the relief that allowed Nick Nurse to give the starters the break they need.
Powell’s strength and speed are comparable to what Milwaukee has on offer and in this series he is part of our best lineup: Lowry, Powell, Leonard, Siakam and Ibaka/Gasol. Once Green is replaced by Powell the agility in the backcourt matches Milwaukee’s and suddenly they have to pay a lot more attention to guards curling off screens and attacking in transition. Powell’s far superior ball-handling enables this. He was brought in for Danny Green after the latter struggled. Green wasn’t a write-off but remained ineffective for 95% of the game at times falling for fakes instead of executing disciplined close-outs. He is playing slightly better defense than offense but that’s not saying anything. Powell’s a streaky shooter but at least he’s shooting with confidence and right now the Raptors can’t afford to have hesitant players on the court. The margin of error is too small.
Marc Gasol hit five straight threes in warm-ups and carried that shooting into the game and ended up going 4-8 from downtown including a massive three late on. His pass back while at the rim on a break which led to a Milwaukee score almost handed all the momentum back to the Bucks, but luckily we only bent and didn’t break. The Raptors positioning on defense was much improved, with Gasol and Pascal Siakam deserving special mentions. The Raptors gave Giannis space to shoot from outside which he fortunately took. They also congested the paint forcing their guards to finish tough shots while Gasol parked underneath. The perimeter shots were defended well enough considering that the primary focus was stopping those soul-crushing drives. Credit to the Bucks who did get clean looks from three because they’re a good team which moves the ball very well. I don’t think the Raptors can quite stop that but we can cancel it out by hitting our own open threes, which we can adequately generate if the rock is moving. The number of good clean looks from the corner the Raptors get has to be encouraging. If those get knocked down at a reasonable clip then they can afford to concede those long-ass Lopez bombs and still be on the balance. Gasol was asked post-game on TNT about defending Brook Lopez and talked about the difficulties and help needed in covering up to and underneath.
Pascal Siakam’s workload in this series has been unbelievably high and it’s not only about guarding Giannis one-on-one. He’s bringing the ball up the court so that Milwaukee’s defense isn’t able to set in a comfortable way. He’s posting up when anyone smaller is on him and driving when anyone bigger/slower is checking him. He’s also attacking Giannis which prevents the latter from parking and playing help defense. On the other end he’s boxing him out – he drew two fouls on Giannis in box-out situations based on outstanding positioning and use of strength. How he has the energy to hit threes is a testament to his fitness. Siakam is the anchor that lets the bench remain relatively productive in their stints (-4 in the last 3+ minutes of the fourth) by sticking with them as other starters rest. It was nice to see the crowd give him a well-deserved standing ovation after playing with the bench in the second half.
It is because of the work rate and heart he’s shown that my heart sank when those two FTs in regulation were missed. If the Raptors had lost this one it would’ve been harsh on Siakam who did everything but that right. I can’t imagine how one must feel after a moment like. I wrote about adversity earlier in the week and facing two OTs without Kyle Lowry after a seven-game series while the Bucks rested are adverse conditions. Coming out on top in Game 3 has to feel like an achievement one can build on, especially for Siakam who earned a much needed reprieve.
You can take two views to this result: it took the Raptors two OTs to finally beat the Bucks so whatever, or the Bucks were beaten despite Lowry missing and the bench other than Norm misfiring again (FVV and Green were a combined 2-20). I mostly see it as the latter because leaving aside missing players and coin-flip moments, the Raptors found pathways to effectiveness which they can leverage going forward. For example, they’re comfortable conceding small-on-big mismatches on the perimeter because the Bucks are not a great post-up team. They’re collapsing on Giannis and making passing lanes difficult enough where the Bucks don’t have to just catch-and-shoot, i.e., they’re forcing Giannis to pass back up top to reset rather than to the sides for threes (note that this is something Siakam struggled with in Games 1 and 2).
Offensively, Gasol has the space to drive and shoot as he wishes. The trick is for him to figure out when and where to pass on those slow drives. He found plenty of opportunity for good passes but the Bucks’ length got in the way and deflected a few balls that if telegraphed better, would’ve yielded good looks. All this helped overcome another drubbing by the bench (54-27). You would have to think that at some point the law of averages will kick in and Green and VanVleet will get in their stride, if only for a game or two. It has to happen, no? They both hit only one three (their only baskets) but the clutchness of the shots hopefully would have instilled some much-needed confidence. Milwaukee does feel they can pressure them into turnovers or bad decisions and will send an extra defender whenever they drive. With Ibaka and Gasol parked on the perimeter, VanVleet and Green will always have a relatively easy pass back out to them and then it becomes a question of shot-making.
Even Ibaka who played limited minutes was effective while there. He missed some jumpers and a couple lean-ins but the movement and idea was right. The three at the end of the first half which pushed the lead to seven instead of a squeaky four gave the Raptors a hugely needed boost, or else Milwaukee would have had much of the momentum. Despite the Bucks firing on most cylinders and the Raptors sputtering they’ve been able to stay competitive in two of the three games. More than anything Game 3 was a case of a team rising to the occasion instead of deferring and hesitating. Make no mistake, there are still instances of shots being passed up but they’re not as egregious as the first two games, so let’s call it a positive trend.
I’m running out of praise for Kawhi Leonard so I’ll leave it at this: I have never been as proud of having a player on the Raptors as I am of having Leonard. Even when he fails I can’t complain because I know that he did his absolute best while being fully responsible. That “fully responsible” part is important because many players have tried their best. What makes Kawhi different is that in the moment, it is rare to see him make the “wrong” basketball decision given the circumstance. You simply trust him to make the responsible play. Whether it works or not is secondary (it usually does), but you can’t complain about the thinking process behind the action. 538 has an excellent breakdown of the defense he supplied in Game 3.
Kudos to the Raptors crowd. I sat in the 300s and I can tell you that all of the MVP, Let’s Go Raptors, Defense, etc. chants start there. It feels good to start those rhythms when the team is struggling and needs a boost. Unprompted. They sometimes make it to the lower bowl which is quieter than I’ve ever seen it at playoff time. My theory is that if prices are reduced by 35% the average decibel level will increase by 20%. Someone test it.