Morning Coffee

Morning Coffee – Wed, May 22

Now that’s how you basketball! Raptors tie series at 2; closing out in 6 is in play.

Fred VanVleet, Raptors bench reward faith amid struggles, help even series – The Athletic

Serge Ibaka could be forgiven for not knowing when or for how long his number will be called right now. While he has been the most consistent presence off the bench for the Raptors in these playoffs, he has been prone to off nights himself, and his workload is often dictated by the play of Gasol. Now that the two centres together isn’t delivering as much return, Ibaka is playing a true backup role. He’s played anywhere from 13 to 32 minutes, and he wasn’t called on at all in the fourth quarter or overtime in Game 3.

The move has not been easy. Head coach Nick Nurse hasn’t hidden that preseason conversations about Ibaka moving to a part-time bench role were not easy, nor were those resurfaced conversations once the team acquired Gasol, right as Ibaka was in a short-lived groove as a full-time centre. Against Philadelphia, his minutes opposite Joel Embiid eventually needed to be minimized. The Bucks dared him to shoot at will in the regular-season series, and that strategy escalated to double-dog-dares with the leverage ratcheted up in a playoff series.

“We have to take it personal,” he said of the bench’s struggles. “We’re here for a reason. It’s not by mistake we’re here, and we show during the season what the bench can do. And then when we have a couple games where we can’t really play our best basketball or we can’t really help our team, we take that personal, everybody.”

He is in control of how he plays, though, and it is usually a strong bellwether for which direction the Raptors are headed. They are undefeated when he scores in double-figures in the playoffs, and his highs have reached quite, well, high. On Tuesday, he was reminiscent of another Raptors backup centre in the franchise’s only other Game 4 in an Eastern Conference Finals, lurking as a rim protector, swallowing up the defensive glass and tilting the Raptors normally conservative strategy on the offensive glass to come down with four offensive rebounds. He scored 17 points with 13 rebounds, both his high-water marks for this postseason.

As VanVleet’s banked 3 went up, Ibaka filled the paint and took rebounding position, drawing an away-from-play foul on Giannis Antetokounmpo. VanVleet’s bank became a four-point play and exposed, maybe for the first time all season, a modicum of frustration on the part of the Bucks.

10 things from Raptors-Bucks (Game 4) -n Yahoo

Five – Massive: Don’t look now, but Marc Gasol is starting to win the Brook Lopez matchup. Gasol was efficient from deep, but most importantly, he’s also getting more varied looks that’s activated his playmaking ability. Gasol was able to feed Leonard two easy baskets off a simple high-low action from the elbow, and he also created for Pascal Siakam by posting up on the block and getting to work against smaller defenders in Nikola Mirotic and Ersan Ilyasova. Gasol’s ability to generate offence for his teammates is a huge development, as it takes the burden off Lowry and Leonard to repeatedly break down a set defence.

Raptors bail out weary Kawhi Leonard with complete Game 4 win – Sportsnet.ca

It was desperately needed. Coming into the game there were serious questions about what Raptors cornerstone Kawhi Leonard would have left to give after his 52-minute opus in Game 3 that saw him visibly limping at various points in that game.

The answers came early — not nearly as much as they’ve been accustomed to him providing.

Battered, grimacing, limping. It was clear to anyone who has watched Leonard carry Toronto through so many magical playoff moments that he wasn’t himself.

There was no bounce. His thunder-and-lightning attacks on the rim where he either scatters the weak, casts aside the slow or rises up over the strong, were nowhere to be found.

On the odd occasion, he was willing or able to get to the rim and lift the ball in one of his massive claws. But when he came down it looked like he was in pain: the same right thigh that had cost him nearly an entire season a year ago and had been so carefully managed this season was acting up, angry at being put through so much. And it wasn’t that he simply looked weary, with almost every shot short and some possessions simply spent standing around: One of the best players in the world was a decoy.

“This is one of the nights that we knew Kawhi was a little bit limited,” said Raptors point guard Kyle Lowry, who was brilliant with 25 points and six assists in leading the charge as Leonard took a step back. “We had to come out and be aggressive for him. The great thing about having him on your team is he still gets all the attention. We fed off of that — drive, kick, swing. He gets in the lane, kick out. That’s the benefit of having a superstar like him on the team.”

The Raptors took advantage, notching a playoff-high 32 assists on 41 field goals while shooting 47 per cent from the floor with six different players in double figures.

It was a departure from the standard storyline of the post-season as the Raptors have at times become almost a vehicle for Leonard to do great things — knock down game-winning, series-winning shots or make game-changing steals or merely put up more points more efficiently than almost anyone ever has.

The not-so-subtle implication is that the supporting cast needs the help. The Raptors know it. They hear it.

‘It’s the Kawhi effect’: The impact of having a transcendent star – ESPN

“Kawhi is going to get attention all the time, no matter what,” Raptors point guard Kyle Lowry told ESPN. “It’s the Kawhi effect.”

The privilege of having a transcendent superstar like Leonard isn’t just the gift of the singular performance that wins a game, though Leonard has done plenty of that over the past six weeks of the postseason. The team also enjoys the ability to leverage a defense like Milwaukee’s that devotes its full weight and diligence to stopping Leonard.

“He’s going to carry us some games — he’s a superstar,” Lowry said. “But then you have nights like tonight when he just let everyone else do their thing and he doesn’t have to carry as much. In the first quarter, he didn’t touch the ball all that much. But we attacked and moved the ball off the attention he attracted.”

Easing Leonard’s load was imperative for Toronto because the three-time All-Star came in still gassed from Game 3. Though there has been no specific diagnosis and Leonard insists he feels good, Raptors coach Nick Nurse characterized his best player as “tired,” and Lowry said he was “a little bit limited.” Leonard’s 19 points were his lowest output since Game 3 of the Raptors’ first-round series against Orlando, a night he was under the weather.

The Bucks’ top-ranked defense has established and refined its principles over the course of the regular season and playoffs. While Milwaukee has introduced a tweak or two against specific matchups, its broad strategy hasn’t changed. The Bucks are fully committed to packing the paint to ward off penetration and prevent easy shots inside. Help will be dispatched from marginal and even some average shooters, which will leave some open shots on the perimeter. So long as the integrity of the interior defense isn’t compromised, this is a trade-off Milwaukee is content to live with.

Accordingly, Raptors center Marc Gasol shot the ball from beyond the arc six times in Game 4 (converting three), and Powell attempted 13 3-pointers. In total, the Raptors have attempted 40 uncontested shots over the past two games, according to Second Spectrum tracking, and converted them at an effective field goal percentage of 61.3. Over the first two games in Milwaukee, they also found 40 uncontested shots — but hit them at an effective field goal rate of only 47.5 percent.

“With Kawhi having the ball, he draws so much attention,” Powell said. “So it’s opening up a lot for us on the weak side. We’re just trying to play through him a little bit, play through Marc. I think Marc did a phenomenal job of breaking down the defenses when he had the ball up top on cuts, on screens. I think we’re just playing for one another. Everybody is talking on what we see and how we can get better looks and try to get a shot up every time. We’re staying confident in one another.”

Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka are both showing their specific types of intelligence for Raptors – The Athletic

The Raptors had 10 offensive rebounds to Milwaukee’s seven, although it resulted in just a narrow 10-8 win in second-chance points. However, the Bucks scored only 13 fast-break points to the Raptors’ 12. If those numbers repeat for the two or three games that are left in this series, the Raptors will take it.

“If I’m down (low), I’m going to stay down for the offensive rebounds,” said Ibaka, simplifying his thought process. “If I’m out, I’m gonna go try to get back early.”

“I think Serge was determined to get in there and fight for some position, and he looked really big and bouncy tonight and strong,” Nurse added. “And he got his hands on a bunch of them.”

Perhaps he can owe that bounciness to playing just 14 minutes in Sunday’s double-overtime epic, a game in which 13 players logged 30 or more minutes. Nurse has mentioned how he needs to find a way to get Ibaka, who is one of the six best Raptors, to impact the series, even if the Bucks are not as ripe for a two-big lineup as the 76ers were the last series.

Due to Ibaka’s defensive flexibility, at least compared to Gasol, and his willingness to shoot — he got up 12 shots on Tuesday, third on the team behind Kawhi Leonard and the positively trigger-happy Norman Powell — there was a call for Ibaka to even take Gasol’s place in the starting lineup. That was a little far-fetched, given what Gasol can bring to both ends. Regardless, Ibaka’s 17-point, 13-rebound effort left no doubt that this series is one that he can influence.

“He was amazing. He was amazing,” Gasol said. “He grabbed the ones he had to grab. It’s like a calculated risk. You have to be smart with it, I think he’s really smart with it. He has a great instinct. You just cannot send too many bodies because you have to start creating your defence and building your walls. One guy will hopefully get it.”

Raptors flex on the Bucks in Game 4 to even their series 2-2 – The Step Back

Toronto won the battle of the bench. Through the first three games of this series, Milwaukee’s bench had outscored Toronto’s 130-78, or just over 17 points per game. Norman Powell had his moments but Serge Ibaka and Fred VanVleet had given Toronto next to nothing and with OG Anunoby out, their bench really only runs three deep. In Game 4, all three of those players were in double figures, combining for 48 points and outscoring Milwaukee’s bench by 15. Ibaka had several huge dunks, Powell was relentless attacking the basket and he and VanVleet combined to hit 7-of-16 on 3-pointers. Toronto’s depth was a strength during the regular season and, in Game 4, it was as well, for the first time in this series.

Toronto won the battle of the break. Technically, Milwaukee has more fastbreak points in Game 4, but the Raptors held them way below their playoff average and essentially played them even. Milwaukee’s offense is fueled by their relentless pace, particularly the ability of Giannis Antetokounmpo and Eric Bledsoe to grab a defensive rebound and immediately push into transition. They had put up at least 25 fastbreak points in each of the first three games of the series, with a +30 margin, combined, on the Raptors. Toronto shot extremely well and limited their turnovers keeping the game in the halfcourt as much as possible but when Milwaukee did push, Toronto did an excellent job recovering quickly, keeping tracking of shooters and keeping bodies in front of Giannis. The Raptors had just 12 fastbreak points, but they held Milwaukee to 13, which proved to be a major disruption to the Bucks’ offensive rhythm.

Toronto won the battle in the paint. Everyone knows about Milwaukee’s 3-point shooting but their interior scoring is what scaffolds everything that happens on the perimeter. When you think of interior scoring you generally think of a bruising post player but Giannis Antetokounmpo led the league in points in the paint during the regular season with his explosive drives. The Bucks scored at least 44 points in the paint in each of the first three games of this series, working up a combined +32 margin on the Raptors. In Game 4, Toronto held the Bucks to 40 points in the paint and matched them with 40 of their own. It won’t be an easy task to repeat, but the Raptors have proven they’re capable of it.

Rapid Recap: Milwaukee Bucks 102, Toronto Raptors 120 – Brew Hoop

Both teams scorched the nets in the first quarter, with shots falling early and often; Milwaukee’s first quarter FG% (54.5%) beat Toronto’s (47.6%), the Raptors hit 6/12 threes (the Bucks only hit 4/10). Giannis Antetokounmpo (25 points, 10 rebounds, 5 assists, 2 blocks) got himself started early with a Euro-step, a dunk, and another dunk, and Kawhi Leonard (19 points, 7 rebounds, 4 steals, 2 blocks) matched Giannis’ offense with some stout defense and savvy midrange makes…when he wasn’t getting some extra rest due to a mysterious leg injury.

With the first quarter closing at 32-31 in favor of Toronto, the Bucks gave up an extended run that ended up with a ten-point deficit and a Mike Budenholzer timeout to the sounds of a very excited Toronto crowd. Serge Ibaka (17 points, 13 boards) had a particularly strong stretch of rebounds and dunks, with a three-pointer for good measure. Khris Middleton (30 points, 7 assists, 6 rebounds) helped steady the Bucks’ offense with a trio of threes, a nifty floater, and a savvy two-shot foul against Pascal Siakam (7 points, 6 dimes, 5 fouls). Nevertheless, the Bucks continued to struggle with the Raptor’s zone defense, while the defense continued to hemorrhage points and halftime saw Toronto carrying a 65-55 lead.

The third quarter largely brought more of the same; as soon as Milwaukee would string together a few nice possessions, someone like Kyle Lowry (25 points, 6 assists, 5 rebounds) or Norman Powell (18 points on 18 shots) would hit a shot to rebuild the lead. Then the wheels started to rattle off of the axels as the fourth quarter brought even more poor fortune Milwaukee’s way.

Raptors 120, Bucks 102: NBA Eastern Conference finals tied, 2-2 – Journal Sentinel

It wasn’t just one Raptors player who crushed the Bucks. It was all of them.

Kyle Lowry got going early, scoring 12 of his 25 points in the first quarter. Marc Gasol was efficient all night, stretching the floor and dabbling in a few buckets inside for 17 points. Toronto’s bench — oft-maligned during the playoffs — was fantastic, with Norman Powell hitting big shots on the way to 18 points, Serge Ibaka 7 of 12 for 17 points and Fred VanVleet 5 of 6 for 13 points.

Oh, and Raptors star Kawhi Leonard? He had just five points at halftime and the Raptors were still ahead by 10. When he added 11 points in the third quarter – he finished with 19 – it essentially broke the Bucks’ collective back.

“I think they did a lot of the little things right,” Bucks center Brook Lopez said. “They crashed the offensive glass, they got a lot of loose balls. … They did a great job of getting the crowd into it, bringing that energy and playing off that, feeding off that.”

The Bucks’ production was quite the opposite. Middleton scored a team-high 30 points, including keeping the Bucks alive by making eight straight shots from the first quarter to the middle of the third. He also dished out seven assists, finding cutters for buckets inside.

Giannis Antetokounmpo got off to a strong start, tenaciously driving the lane for a couple hammer dunks on the way to scoring 11 of his 25 points in the first quarter. He looked more like himself than he did on an off night Sunday in Game 3.

But outside of those two, the Bucks couldn’t count on anyone.

2019 NBA Playoffs Recap: Raptors run wild in Game 4, beat the Bucks 120-102 – Raptors HQ

On the night, Powell finished with 18 points, five rebounds, and three assists. His shooting wasn’t always great, at 6-of-18 from the field Norm could have been a bit more selective. Then again, it’s easy to respect Powell’s extended heat check confidence. VanVleet, meanwhile, upturned the nightmare run of his post-season by rediscovering his shot tonight and actually making good plays at the rim. VanVleet finished with 13 points, on 5-of-6 shooting including 3-for-3 from three, and six assists. And last but not least, Ibaka once again did his monster power forward thing: a 17-13 double-double, with four offensive boards.

It’s not overstating it to say that Toronto’s bench play was the difference. The Bucks, fresh and powerful in Games 1 and 2, now look like they’re stuck in the same mud as some of the Raptors. Milwaukee’s depth is no joke, but Toronto has rediscovered theirs, which suddenly gives them options on offense. What’s more, the trend of the Raptors’ fearsome defense pushing the Bucks into ugly shots again and again just keeps going too. Yes, it’s possible the Bucks could blow open Game 5 in the comforts of their own home. But Toronto could just as easily turn it into another slog for them.

If we’ve learned anything else by watching the Raptors in this post-season, and really, while watching the Raptors forever, they live in that slog. It certainly feels like they’ll be ready. And hey, Kawhi got a bunch of rest on the night too. Chalk that up as another bit of smart thinking.

VanVleet and Raptors bench bounce back and pick up hobbling Leonard – TSN.ca

It was just the latest chapter in a disappointing postseason run for the former Sixth Man of the Year finalist. Through the first three games of the Eastern Conference Finals, VanVleet had scored 10 points on 20 shots. He was shooting a shockingly abysmal 7-for-44 since the start of the previous series against Philadelphia.

Late in the game he took an elbow to the left eye, which required multiple stitches to close the gash that remained bloodied hours later.

On Monday, he welcomed his second child and first son, Fred Jr., into the world.

The following evening, on very little sleep, VanVleet re-joined his teammates ahead of the Raptors’ crucial and potentially series-shifting Game 4.

Despite being at home, Toronto was a 3-point underdog going into the night, and you could understand why. Down 2-1 in the series, the Raptors emptied the tank to win Game 3. Their two leading scorers, Kawhi Leonard and Pascal Siakam, had each logged over 50 minutes, with Leonard playing on a leg injury of undisclosed severity. Meanwhile, the team’s supporting cast – VanVleet included – continue to underwhelm.

However, Tuesday’s game was a different story. VanVleet checked in with three minutes to go in the opening quarter. The score was tied. Eight seconds later he knocked down his first shot, a long three-pointer at the top of the arc. Early in the second quarter he hit his second, a triple from the elbow.

Instead of bleeding points or coughing up the lead, as they’ve done for most of the postseason, the Raptors’ bench extended it. An ongoing thorn in Milwaukee’s side, Norman Powell looked to attack early and finished the game with 18 points. Serge Ibaka’s energy was contagious; he had a double-double of 17 points and 13 rebounds. But VanVleet’s performance was the biggest, and perhaps the most unexpected, of them all.

It’s a series now after Raptors come to Kawhi’s rescue in Game 4 win over Bucks | The Star

So many Raptors stepped forward. Fred VanVleet,, who was 4-for-20 in the series, hit five of six shots for 13 points, plus six assists. Serge Ibaka entered the night 8-of-24, and had been left on the bench when all else failed in Game 3; he finished with 17 points and 13 rebounds. Norm Powell was his serenely confident self: he had 21 points in the whole second round, and has 51 in his past two games, though he missed his share in this one.

Kawhi finished with 19 points on 6-of-13 shooting, and had enough for a three-pointer in the fourth to push any comeback away. Add the defence, and this was something closer to the team that went 17-5 without Kawhi, that won in Utah on the second night of a back-to-back without him, that won back-to-back games against the Clippers — funny that the Raptors held Kawhi out of that game, in Los Angeles — and in Golden State, with all four big Warriors in the lineup, by 20.

Toronto wasn’t just a one-man band this year, with Kawhi playing the banjo, the harmonica, and a big bass drum. That was before the playoffs started to eat at that depth; before OG Anunoby’s appendectomy, before Philadelphia’s size shrank VanVleet and Powell, before Milwaukee forced them to play a Game 1 in which all but three of Toronto’s second-half points were scored by Lowry and Kawhi. At the end of Game 3 there were so few Raptors on the floor that you figured you could trust. Since the Philadelphia series, the recurring theme has been: Is this team good enough for its superstar?

STINSON: Kawhi gets a little help from his friends in Raptors win | Toronto Sun

The Toronto win, which goes immediately on the very short list of biggest in franchise history, sends the series back to Wisconsin tied at 2-2, and puts the pressure squarely on Milwaukee, a team that had gone 10-1 in the playoffs until arriving in Toronto last weekend. The Raptors now avoid a 3-1 hole and the grim prospect of needing to beat the Bucks three straight.

They also need to hope that whatever ails Leonard improves over the next couple of days, before Game 5 on Thursday night. He finished with 19 gutty points and seven rebounds, most of it the result of a fairly remarkable demonstration of determination. They didn’t need him to be his all-world best on this night, but they will if they are going to swipe a game at the Fiserv Forum.

That the Raptors have evened the series is at least something of a surprise after the events of last week in Milwaukee. Toronto dropped a game it should have won to open the series and then was flattened in Game 2, with the Bucks scoring at will for most of the contest. Even after the Raptors’ double-overtime Game 3 win, the home team hadn’t been totally convincing. Milwaukee missed a ton of shots, and they still had Antetokounmpo, one of the toughest people to defend on the planet.

Three games is not nearly enough of a sample size for a definitive answer, but throw in Milwaukee’s 3-1 record against Toronto in the regular season, plus the 10-2 record in these playoffs entering Tuesday against Toronto’s 9-6, and there was enough evidence for at least some kind of conclusion. The Bucks looked to be the better team, by a small margin. They are deeper and have shown the ability to get scoring from all over their roster, while the Raptors other than Leonard have been up and down like a heart monitor in this post-season.

That’s not to say that the series was over before Game 4 tipped off, but it was evident that some combination of things would have to happen for the Raptors to become one of the few teams that were able to pull out a series after falling into a 0-2 hole.

NBA playoffs: Raptors slow Giannis to even series – Yahoo

It started with a turnover. Toronto’s Pascal Siakam dribbled up the floor, posted up and spun right into Antetokounmpo’s waiting arms, allowing the Bucks star to traverse the court for a Euro-step by Marc Gasol for a bucket.

Two threes (by Nikola Mirotic and Brook Lopez) and two dunks by Giannis later, the Bucks led by seven just three minutes into the game, like it was the Raptors’ blowout Game 2 loss all over again, with the Greek Freak flexing and stomping around the court, setting the terms of the night early.

Sometimes you need a nightmare to snap you back into focus.

Raptors head coach Nick Nurse jumped out of his chair and immediately called a timeout.

“We always talk about a lot of things,” Nurse said. “What’s the foundation of our defense? Right at the top of the list is readiness, and I just didn’t see us ready. We were kind of back, but we were straight-legged. We weren’t showing much length. Our gaps were too wide. He sees those openings, and he’s punching right through them.”

“I think we were just a little bit fearful of getting foul trouble early,” Raptors guard Danny Green said. After multiple players, including Kyle Lowry and Norman Powell, fouled out in Game 3 — while Siakam and Fred VanVleet played in foul trouble — the Raptors naturally came out of the gate timid, despite the fact that in film sessions, the coaching staff emphasized matching Antetokounmpo’s physicality.

The message? “Don’t worry about fouls,” Green said. “Be into bodies. Don’t give any ground. Help each other and rotate. Trust each other. Trust in yourselves. We need you guys to be physical and active. If we’re going to lose fouling out, then we’ll do that.”

After that timeout, Antetokounmpo scored 19 points on 6-of-14 shooting, numbers you’ll live with from the presumptive MVP-in-waiting.

Whether it was Serge Ibaka switched onto him or Siakam draped all over him, Giannis would drive to his right and find Leonard — one of the few defenders he can’t overpower with mere strength — waiting at the nail, relegating him to stepping back, relinquishing the ball, or taking jump shots. Lowry, who finished with 25 points, six assists and five rebounds, drew multiple charges and got underneath Antetokounmpo’s base.

Fired-Up Raptors Thoroughly Flatten Bucks, Draw Even In Eastern Conference Finals – Deadspin

But mostly it had to do with Toronto’s defense suffocating Milwaukee’s Giannis-centric attack, and then treating every stop as a chance to push forward in transition, before Milwaukee’s long and dominant defense could get situated. For as sharp as these two teams are, both are vastly more dangerous offensively when they’re on the run and attacking a retreating defense than they are in the half court. Toronto seized the advantage in that exchange by walling off the paint, cleaning up the defensive glass, and pushing the tempo at every opportunity. That aggression was across the board—even Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet dropped in layups, something that each of them can sometimes seem constitutionally opposed to even attempting.

Toronto’s defense was tremendous, for the second game in a row. Sunday they locked in and held the Bucks to a 93.3 offensive rating, a number that is more than 11 points lower than that of the stingiest defense from this regular season (the Bucks). Their defense wasn’t nearly so dominant Tuesday night—it allowed the Bucks 106.3 points per 100 possessions—but it still pinned the Bucks well below their usual lights-out efficiency, and the Raptors did a better job of converting stops into defensive rebounds and quick offensive chances. The defensive effort plus the up-tempo scoring plus Giannis’s very poor free throw shooting whipped the lunatic Toronto crowd into a frenzy, which seemed to propel the Raptors onward.

That the Raptors held serve across two games at home is less notable than precisely how they did it, fiercely holding off the Bucks in Game 3 and then storming out and wiping them off the court in Game 4. That progress points to a long series with no clear favorite, which could and should be a lot of fun! Of course, on the other hand, that means the dreaded Warriors will be resting and healing while their two potential Finals opponents bloody each other up over the next week, proving once again that the arc of the moral universe may be long, but it bends inexorably toward the freaking Warriors never losing another Finals series during any of our lifetimes.

SIMMONS: Raptors step up for Kawhi in enormous win over Bucks | Toronto Sun

Where to begin to celebrate after this victory? With one of Kyle Lowry’s greatest games as a Raptor. With a giant performance from Marc Gasol, offensively and defensively, at centre. With fabulous play from the normally up and down Serge Ibaka, who was part of a Raptors bench that completely dominated the Bucks, outscoring them 48-23 — and that was more than the difference in the final score.

It all started with Lowry in the first quarter. He’s scored more in other playoff games over the years. But has he ever been better than he was in Tuesday night’s victory, more complete, more important, scoring 25 points, hitting 10-for-10 from the free throw line, playing early on with gigantic energy that the Raptors certainly benefited from.

He was the early energy and efficiency. Lowry scored 12 of the Raptors 32 first-quarter points, the only quarter that was close. He played the kind of game he often talks about playing, being a difference maker, changing games, being a leader, adjusting. It started with Lowry. He was the leadoff hitter.

It moved from him to becoming a giant night for the Raptors bench and by comparison a quiet night for the Raptors giant, Leonard. Around here, the end of this season and when that might be — and the possible end of Leonard’s time in Toronto is picking up steam. Restaurants are offering free food for life if he chooses to stay in Toronto. A law firm is offered free legal advice. Uber is offering free rides. And what’s more enticing for a man making $40 million a year than free burgers.

But good for local businesses to get involved. Because there’s only one Leonard. There’s only one season like this one. Unless there’s another and another after that. This is his journey and your journey and it’s not quite over yet for anyone. It’s reached the most exciting point, frankly, in Raptors history.

With Kawhi less than 100 percent, Raptors’ bench shines in Game 4 | NBA.com

From game to game, really. VanVleet gave the Raptors important minutes when Kyle Lowry fouled out of Game 3, and he did hit a big shot late in the fourth quarter of that overtime victory. But he still entered Game 4 having shot a brutal 6-for-42 (including 3-for-24 from 3-point range) over the last nine games.

On Tuesday, VanVleet drained a catch-and-shoot 3-pointer just eight seconds after checking in for the first time. He would go on to shoot 5-for-6, connecting on all three of his shots from beyond the arc, including a bank shot from the right wing when everything seemed to be going right for the Raptors early in the fourth quarter. He added six assists on a night that the Raptors had 32 assists on their 41 buckets, their second highest rate of the postseason.

Early in that Philadelphia series, Toronto was better offensively when they didn’t move the ball, because Leonard was so efficient shooting off the dribble and his teammates weren’t shooting with any confidence. But the way the offense looked on Tuesday, with everybody getting touches, is likely more sustainable, even against the league’s No. 1 defense. And despite the injury (and fatigue), Leonard was still able to get into the paint. He had a team-high 14 drives in Game 4, according to Second Spectrum tracking.

“The great thing about having him on your team is he still gets all the attention,” Lowry said of Leonard. “We fed off of that — drive, kick, swing. He gets in the lane, kick out. That’s the benefit of having a superstar like him on the team.”

But while the Raptors were still feeding off Leonard, they knew they needed to support him more than they had been. In fact, they didn’t run a single action for Leonard until their 12th possession of the game. And while the other starters did their part — Lowry finished with a team-high 25 points and Marc Gasol drained three 3-pointers (making him 7-for-14 from beyond the arc over the last two games) — it was the bench that really turned things up.

Powell, the guy who played just four total minutes in Games 4 and 7 against Philadelphia, has emerged as a difference maker in this series. He has totaled 51 points over the last three games, shooting 5-for-10 on corner threes and providing some much-needed juice off the dribble.

“There’s some speed we need there with Norman,” Nurse said. “There’s some athleticism we need there with Serge. And there’s some ball handling and running the club with Fred that we need.

“It’s really them playing up to their capabilities.”

Raptors roll as Kawhi Leonard limps through Game 4 win vs. Bucks – Yahoo

The series we expected

It all adds up to the competitive series many thought we’d see in the Eastern Conference finals that appeared to slip away when the Bucks cruised to a Game 2 win at home.

But as should be expected, role players are thriving at home and struggling on the road for both teams, making the balance of what is now a best-of-three series with the right to face the Golden State Warriors a truly compelling one.

Winners and Losers: The Raptors Bench Finally Woke Up – The Ringer

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.

Raptors Have the Firepower to Reach NBA Finals with Hobbled Kawhi Leonard | Bleacher Report

Still, it quickly became clear that Leonard’s grit and smarts and will were substitutes for his dominance. He wasn’t heavily involved in the offense to start. He didn’t make his first shot until roughly halfway through the first quarter, and his first rest of the game came shortly thereafter—far earlier than usual.

Leonard didn’t look as explosive on either of his two dunks or when trying to create space off the ball. His one-on-one attacks felt slower—not deliberately more methodical, but involuntarily gradual.

That he still cobbled together an essential performance deserves to be commended. He is the Raptors’ championship hopes personified, and he did not disappoint. He thrived amid strategic conservation; a lower-key offensive role and brief respites from Antetokounmpo on defense allowed him to both stand out and bypass his usual exhaustive volume.

But these calculated concessions don’t pan out—or persist for the entire game—if his teammates cannot lift him up.

They did.

That wasn’t a given. Toronto’s supporting cast has remained a visceral inconstant for much of the playoffs. Pascal Siakam has been Leonard’s most reliable running mate, with the occasional detonation from Kyle Lowry, Norman Powell, Serge Ibaka or, much less often, Marc Gasol peppered in.

Very rarely, though, has Leonard’s aid come from numerous sources all at once. The Raptors backups were being outscored by 2.4 points per 100 possessions entering Tuesday night, which ranked 10th among all 16 playoff teams. Gasol, Lowry and Danny Green were shooting a combined 40.3 percent (35.4 percent from downtown).

Lowry, to his credit, has found his groove. His 25 points, six assists and all-out defense in Game 4 were an accurate view of all he’s done against the Bucks. He’s now averaging 20.3 points and shooting 48.4 percent from distance on nearly eight deep attempts per game for the series:

NBA playoffs: Raptors beat Bucks in Game 4 to even East finals – USA Today

The Raptors used two decisive runs to pull away from Milwaukee. A 13-0 run that stretched across the first and second quarters led to a 41-31 lead and a 23-10 run in the second half put the Raptors ahead 104-84. Powell and VanVleet combined for 15 of those points.

Toronto had its offense clicking – 32 assists on 41 makes, 47.1% from the field and 14 3-pointers.

“I thought we cut better tonight maybe than we had a for a long time,” Raptors coach Nick Nurse said. “I know we were cutting in and re-spacing, and if they did get out to us, we’d try to attack right back in and relocate and re-space the floor and keep moving the ball.”

The Bucks got off to the start they wanted. All-Star forward Giannis Antetokounmpo, who was limited to 12 points in Game 3, had two layups and two dunks for eight points in the opening six minutes. It was expected he would be more aggressive going to the rim, and he was.

Nurse called timeout after one of Antetokounmpo’s easy buckets.

“We needed to get down and bend our knees and extend our arms and get ready to go and get ready to try to catch the first move and not give him the straight line (to the basket),” Nurse said.

Antetokounmpo finished with 25 points, 10 rebounds and five assists. Khris Middleton scored a game-high 30 points, but Nikola Mirotic was the only other Bucks player with double-digit points.

Milwaukee shot just 31.4% on threes. “We’re going to have to finish better at the 3-point line or make more threes,” Budenholzer said.

It is just the second time this season the Bucks lost two consecutive games, and even though they trailed Boston 1-0 in the conference semifinals, they now face their biggest test of the playoffs with a spot in the Finals distilled to a best-of-3.

When the Raptors left Milwaukee, they had questions to answer and found them at home. Leaving Toronto, the Bucks have their own problems to solve.

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