In a sport ravaged with high-low actions, advanced analytics and complex defensive schemes, sometimes things really aren’t as complicated as a they’re made out to be. Occasionally basketball is really quite simple. Who wants it more?
It sounds cliché, I know. But with each gravity-defying offensive rebound, every body thrown on top of a loose ball and each instance where Giannis didn’t have space to breathe on offense, one thing became abundantly clear: the Toronto Raptors wanted this one the most.
Prior to entering Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Finals, it was common knowledge that Kawhi Leonard and Pascal Siakam were the most consistent offensive contributors on the Raptors. If I told you that Pascal would finish with 7 points and Kawhi was going to connect on just 6 field goal attempts, you probably wouldn’t expect that to result in a Raptors win. You’d laugh me out of the room if I said it ended in a Raptor’s blowout.
Well, that’s exactly what happened last night.
In a team-centric, selfless brand of basketball, anchored by a shutdown defensive performance in the halfcourt, the Raptors looked as strong as they have all season. Norman Powell poured in 18 off the bench, Gasol finessed his way to 17 on 3/6 shooting from three, and Fred VanVleet, newly motivated by the recent birth of his son, finally remembered how to basketball. Ibaka stir fried up 17 points in 24 minutes and Kyle Lowry had one of the best playoff games of his life, as the Raptors topped the Bucks 120-102.
This game began at a frantic pace. Both teams eager to shake the shooting woes that plagued them in Game 3, were launching them early. But for the first few minutes, only the visitors were hitting. Milwaukee jumped out to a 7 point lead early. The Raptors needed an answer. Their spark plug, their straw that stirs the drink, and their leader: Kyle Lowry, was happy to oblige.
Following a Nurse time out, Lowry drained a three then another loud step back bucket to close the gap to two and give his teammates the shot of espresso they so desperately needed.
Then, the unthinkable happened. Some man in a Fred VanVleet costume checked into the game, and immediately nailed a 3.
You really love to see it.
Although the Raps only led by 1 after the first, they looked ready to keep dealing the Bucks blows until they toppled.
In a series where only guys named Kawhi, Kyle, and Marc have contributed on a nightly basis, the rest of the roster came alive to begin the second frame.
Serge Ibaka skied over the defense to grab offensive rebounds that should never have been his, and laid it in on 2 consecutive possessions, Norm nailed a 3 and Danny green snuck in a layup. Before you knew it, the Leonard + Bench unit that Nurse was tinkering with, took a double-digit lead.
The spunk that the Raptors played with on Tuesday night was a product of their ball movement. For all the great individual performances that we saw in game four, most of the Raptor’s bulky stat lines can be attributed to the “I don’t care who scores” style of offense they had on display.
This Kawhi to Ibaka dime epitomizes that brand of basketball:
That bucket was the 15th made field goal, and the 11th one that had been assisted on. It also nudged the Raptors even further in control of bench scoring pushing them to +16 on the night with that slam.
The other area of the court where Toronto asserted themselves was on the defensive end, particularly in how difficult they made it for Giannis. The Raptors were sending multiple bodies at Antetokounmpo every time he smelt leather, and fouling him at playoff magnitude when he did manage to get to the rim.
Giannis got swarmed like this on multiple occasions in Game 4, which allowed the Raptors to manufacture transition opportunities from his turnovers.
The bench handed the torch off to Kyle for the last few possessions of the quarter, as he continued their rampage, closing out the first half with a couple bulldoggish downhill drives to the cup. Toronto held a 10 point lead after 24 minutes of play.
First it was Lowry, then it was the retooled bench mob. Now it was Kawhi’s turn to send Toronto into an absolute frenzy. Marc Gasol nodded at Kawhi, as you would if you saw an acquaintance while walking downtown, Kawhi darted towards the hoop, and it was curtains from there:
Toronto’s lead ballooned to 14 at one point in the 3rd, they fended off a 9-1 Bucks run with a healthy blend of Kawhi iso’s, Powell threes and Kyle Lowry throwing his body on top of loose basketballs. It was not the worst day to be a Toronto Raptors fan, as the Raptors took a 14 point lead into the final quarter.
The 4th quarter was more of an internal conversation among raptors fans of whether Leonard would even have to reenter the game, than it was being concerned about securing the win. The bench unit played with the tenacity of a team who was down 3, when they were actually up by a dozen. Behind FVV, Ibaka and Norman Powell, the Raptors amassed a 20 point lead at the 8 minute mark of the second quarter, and never looked back.
When Jeremy Lin and Chris Boucher, Nick Nurse’s victory cigars, check into an Eastern Conference Finals game, you know you’ve done a few things very well.
The Raptors cruised to victory while conserving the stamina of their key players limiting Kawhi and Lowry to 34 minutes a piece. A pittance in comparison to the 52 minutes Kawhi was out there for in Game 3.
Last night the Dinos preserved its players health, gained momentum and tied this series at 2 games a piece.
In an even more exciting development than #KaWineandDine getting shouted out on US National TV by TNT, Bleacher Report, TheScore and House of Highlights, the Toronto Raptors are two wins away from a trip to the NBA Finals.
Take that for data.