Kawhi and Danny’s defense superb; Lowry’s hands a mess; Bench is back. Game 5 tonight!
In Milwaukee, Nurse was expressing some fatigue with the media’s exploration and questioning of his decisions. Alas, that is a reality of his job, but amid the complaints there was at least a kernel of truth: When we analyze coaches, there is a lot of post-factual wisdom applied. Nurse’s moves have looked good because they have worked. Even in the playoffs, where adjustments matter disproportionately, this is a players’ league. VanVleet and Powell hit shots on Tuesday that they have been missing for most of the playoffs, while Ibaka, who can be over-eager in several areas of the game, toed the risk-reward of the offensive rebound chase expertly. That stuff is as likely to take a step back on Thursday in Milwaukee as it is to continue.
That is just how it goes with coaches. However, there is no denying that his feel for his players and his lineups has improved as the playoffs have gone on, especially since the nadir of the Philadelphia series. There are some areas to improve upon, such as finding a way to unlock Pascal Siakam in a brutal defensive matchup, but there is a lot to like about the slight shifts Nurse has made.
There are two questions that have been whispered around the Raptors coaching situation all year, and particularly as their success has grown: Would the Raptors have been just as good if Masai Ujiri had elected to retain Dwane Casey but still made all the same personnel moves, giving the longtime Raptors coach the most top-end talent he ever had to work with in Toronto? And would Ujiri have hired Nurse, a rookie NBA head coach, if he knew he was going to trade for Leonard, giving the team a one-year window to really impress the star? I suspect the answers to both questions are yes, but the first one is unknowable, as is the second, so long as you do not have access to sodium pentothal.
Crucially, both questions are irrelevant. Nurse is doing what he can — learning and adapting on the fly, trying to put his players in ideal situations. There have been some iffy moments and some good ones, as there will be with all coaches in such high-leverage situations. His batting average has been solid.
As a coach, Nurse has been everywhere, man, or at least close enough. There is one frontier he has not been to, and neither has this franchise. Let’s see if they can get there together.
Now? As the Raptors return to Milwaukee for Game 5 of their best-of-seven series against the Bucks Thursday night it feels different. Forget squeezing through an open window, if the Kawhi Leonard-era Raptors are going to break through and advance the franchise and the city to the NBA Finals for the first time they need to smash through the front door.
Get Game 5 in front of a rabid home crowd in Milwaukee and then bring it home to Scotiabank Arena and finish the job Saturday night.
Sound like a plan?
Of course the Raptors would sign off on any combination that ends with them progressing out of the East to the NBA Finals against the Golden State Warriors.
For the moment, they have the Bucks reeling. The Raptors have managed to contain Milwaukee’s emerging Superman and presumptive NBA MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo while knocking the Bucks back both with Leonard throwing bombs in double-overtime in Game 3 and then — with Leonard clearly ailing in Game 4 — forcing them into a corner with a flurry of jabs from Toronto’s previously under-performing bench.
Later the Bucks — having cruised through their first 11 playoff starts and the entire regular season without having a glove laid on them — sounded like they weren’t sure what hit them and where the next body blow might be coming from.
“[We] just couldn’t get stops,” said Bucks all-star wing Khris Middleton. “I feel like for the most part, from top to bottom, all their guys played well. They shared the ball. They moved the ball. Took advantage of some of our defensive coverages and just made shots.”
If you thought the Raptors were toast when they went down 0-2 to the masterful Bucks in this Eastern Conference finals series, it’s time to recalibrate your sensors. Toronto blew Milwaukee out of the water on Tuesday to even up the series at 2-2 despite Kawhi Leonard being injured and tired and Pascal Siakam suffering from foul trouble.
Kawhi still did damage in 34 minutes, and Kyle Lowry (25 on 6-11 shooting) and Marc Gasol (17-7-5-2-1) were great. But the bench was the real story: Serge Ibaka, Norman Powell, and Fred VanVleet were all confident and good. Powell shot inefficiently to get his 18 points, and VanVleet made up for it (13 points on 5-6 shooting, 6 assists, 1 turnover). All of the above played really tough defense, which was the difference in this one.
After Game 2, it looked like Toronto had no cards left to play against a superior Bucks team. Game 3’s double overtime thriller didn’t really convince anyone Toronto had a chance, even though they won. Game 4 should change that.
This is a GREAT series and no one can reasonably know who will win. We have a best-of-3 series starring Kawhi and Giannis and, well, uh, Drake. Let’s go.
Kawhi Leonard’s Defense
Kawhi Leonard had his second lowest point total of the playoffs (19 points) in Game 4 but it in no way spoke to his floor game. He was smothering on defense, recording four steals and two blocks, and he always seemed to be in the right place at the right time, especially guarding Giannis Antetokounmpo.
The way Leonard defends Antetokounmpo is impressive. You almost never see their hips collide. Leonard stays back with his lower half, but keeps his hands active in front. If Antetokounmpo spins, there is no one there to spin off of. If Giannis does an in-and-out dribble or Euro-step, Leonard is right there with active hands. In Game 4, on 31 possessions with Leonard as the defender, Antetokounmpo scored 18.5 points per 100 possessions less than his regular season average.
And just for kicks, Kawhi was just named to the All-NBA Defensive Second team.
It was Leonard’s fifth selection (three to the first team). He finished seventh in the league in steals and only Leonard and Jimmy Butler had more steals than personal fouls.
He was joined on the second team by Joel Embiid, Draymond Green, Jrue Holiday and Klay Thompson.
Rudy Gobert, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Paul George, Marcus Smart and Eric Bledsoe were voted on to the first team.
Raptors guard Danny Green got the most points through the voting of 100 media members of all players not named to one of the teams (66, more than either Green or Leonard), but voting is done by position and four guards had more points.
Green got 19 first-team votes, eighth amongst all players.
Full disclosure, this corner had a vote and put Green on the first team and left Leonard off either team because of games missed and because we saw Green as having the better defensive season.
This is Leonard’s fifth All-Defensive team selection; he has three first-team selections. This year he received five first team votes, and 29 second team votes, for a total of 39 points.
Leonard’s teammates Siakam and Danny Green both narrowly missed making the squad; Green actually received more votes than Leonard — 19 first and 28 second, for 66 total points — but faced stiff competition in the guard category. Siakam finished with 24 points in the forward category. Kyle Lowry also received three second-team votes. That four Raptors received votes, and four finished so high, really does speak to the superb level of defense they’ve played this season — defense that continues to be on display in their Eastern Conference Finals series against the Milwaukee Bucks.
The 2018-19 NBA All-Defensive Second Team consists of New Orleans guard Jrue Holiday (90 points), Golden State Warriors guard Klay Thompson (82), Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid (80), Warriors forward Draymond Green (61) and Toronto Raptors forward Kawhi Leonard (39). This is the first NBA All-Defensive Team selection for Thompson, a five-time NBA All-Star.
In a series in which the bench was being outworked and out-produced by their Milwaukee counterparts for the first few games, it was a significant turn of events.
Now clearly boxscore stats don’t cover everything. And Nurse wouldn’t have a team playing for him the way they are now, if he just gave up on players such as VanVleet or Ibaka when the results weren’t there over a period of time.
Give Nurse plenty of credit for rolling with the bench members now producing for him when everyone was screaming at him to go in another direction. A man could have gotten rich if given a dollar for every Jeremy Lin suggestion that was floated during some of those rougher bench moments earlier in the run.
Nurse did condense those minutes in the Philadelphia series although Ibaka eventually wound up playing more than a couple of starters in the final three games.
But this deep into the playoffs, there comes a time when your starters need a breather.
For the Raptors, that came Tuesday night in Game 4. In a blowout win, no starter logged more than the 34 minutes that Kyle Lowry and Kawhi Leonard logged. Marc Gasol punched in with 30. But to have three subs play more minutes than at least two starters — and in one case three — Nurse couldn’t have asked for more, save for OG Anunoby, recovering from appendicitis, suddenly joining this series.
Richard Jefferson points out that the Bucks will continue to struggle if Giannis Antetokounmpo doesn’t start dominating.
Of all the ways this Raptors team has knit together to this point, the one that is perhaps most interesting is how their belief, collectively and individually, has waxed, waned and survived. It has not been an easy road. The Philadelphia 76ers were a second round-beast, and Toronto had to survive series-defining contests in Game 4 and Game 7. Gasol, so solid in the first two rounds, became a conspicuous weak link against Milwaukee. And after Game 2, he was furious at himself.
“I misread every situation offensively,” Gasol said. “Defensively I was a step behind every play, and that is what really hurt me, more than the missed shot and the turnovers. That hurt me.”
“But you’ve got to keep going. I don’t think you can look back; you’ve got to continue to play through, find a way to help your team, and take the shots that are open. You know, play with that pace, that rhythm, and defensively, no matter what happens, defensively you have to be that anchor, and that communicator, and that guy who is willing to do multiple things, because that is what the team needs you to do.”
Essentially, Gasol had to remind himself of who he was, and restate it for all to see. Pascal Siakam was standing in the dressing room, and was asked about Gasol.
“Transition is huge. Everybody knows that,” Nick Nurse, the Toronto coach, said before the series began. “(Milwaukee) gets a ton out of transition … Our transition awareness and just execution of transition defence is where it’s all going to start for us. And I guess we’ll see.”
By now, we’ve seen it. When the Raptors do what’s necessary to limit Milwaukee’s running game, the Bucks go from untouchably transcendent to quickly looking desperate. While Milwaukee comes into Game 5 still commanding home court, they’ve been exposed in the half court. Witness Game 4, when the Raptors limited the Bucks to just 13 points on the fast break en route to a convincing victory. Therein lies the recipe to two more wins.
It’ll take more than simply running back on defence with effort and purpose, although that’ll be important. As Nurse has said, good transition defence starts on offence. Toronto shot a series-high 47% from the field in Game 4. It was tough for Milwaukee to ignite a running game when they were starting so many possessions from behind the end line.
“Anytime it comes off the rim, they’re at a huge advantage,” Nurse said earlier in the series. “Because they’re playing downhill on you … When you blow a layup or you get knocked down or something and the ball is still in play, they come at you in transition.”
In the push to put a brake on Milwaukee’s pace, taking care of the ball is as critical as shooting it efficiently. On Tuesday the Raptors surrendered a mere five points off turnovers en route to the win. In a blowout loss in Game 2, by way of comparison, Toronto coughed up 14 giveaways that led to 19 easy Milwaukee points.
Lowry has been wearing a specially designed oven mitt since to try to speed the healing process, but Nurse admitted the All-Star guard is playing through pain.
“Kyle’s hand is not great,” Nurse said. “You know, he’s — it’s hurt and it’s sore and it causes him a lot of pain. But he seems to be able to manage it through the game and do what he can do.
“He’s obviously scoring and playing great on top of the other things he always does, and we’re really [seeing] a heck of a lot of toughness and again, the spirit that he just wants to be out there and help his team any way he can.”
For Lowry on Tuesday night in Game 4, that meant scoring 12 quick points in the first quarter to help the Raptors get a lead, then another six late in the second quarter to help Toronto preserve that advantage at halftime.
Those early points helped lead a wave of scoring from Toronto’s supporting cast. That was particularly useful for the Raptors, given that the two players who played 50 minutes in the double-overtime thriller in Game 3, Leonard and Pascal Siakam, both showed signs of fatigue at times in Game 4.
“I think you just don’t know how people are going to react,” Nurse said. “I think kind of the main narrative is that Kawhi was super tired and extra minutes and all those kind of things. I think we kind of had that in the back of our minds, but you know, you just don’t know how guys are going to react when the ball goes up, their adrenaline kicks up, etc.
“I do think Kyle feels like he sees opportunities for himself in these series, and I think Kyle is usually an early, early scorer. He knows leads are precious and he’s trying to jump-start that. He was humongous last night. We didn’t get off to a great start, and I think he automatically changed that by himself.”
Forward OG Anunoby, on the other hand, remains “a ways away” from contributing after undergoing an emergency appendectomy last month.
“We got 17, 18, and 13,” Lowry said, rhyming off the points scored by Serge Ibaka, Norman Powell, and Fred VanVleet, respectively. “We needed it.”
And there was the Kawhi Leonard effect — the gravity that the superstar generates even while playing battered and exhausted, after carrying the team so many times through the playoffs.
“We knew Kawhi was going to be limited. We had to come out and be aggressive for him,” Lowry said. “The great thing about having him on your team is that he still gets all the attention. We fed off that.”
But Lowry didn’t field a single question about his own performance: a team-leading 25 points, with six assists and five rebounds.
Lowry scored 12 of his points in the first five minutes of the game, keeping the Raptors in step with a Bucks team that was looking to take them out early. He had 18 in the first half, as Toronto carried a 10-point lead into the break.
But in the end, Lowry wasn’t the main story, because his effort wasn’t exceptional — it was typical of what he means to the Raptors.
As he lauded his teammates effort in the 120-102 win, Lowry wore his now-trademark blue mitten on his left hand, helping with circulation for his injured thumb. He’s been unflinching despite the pain — drawing more charges than anyone in the playoffs, with 12, and taking on giants to bring down improbable offensive rebounds. Playing the way he always does.
“It’s contagious, that energy,” said Danny Green. “Especially because you know he’s fighting through pain, fighting through an injury. When you see a guy giving his all, playing as well as he’s been playing. And he’s not even thinking about injuries. He’s giving us his all.”
There’s no question that Toronto is here because of Leonard. But as the Raptors have clawed back into the best-of-seven series to stand just two wins away the team’s first ever shot at a championship, Lowry has been the leader. Leonard might have the murals, but in the end, this is Lowry’s team.
“He’s the heart and soul,” said Powell. “The toughness, the grit, the voice that he has in the locker room and on the court — he’s the floor general of this team.”
“We didn’t know how to get to that level and I think now having the experience of a couple champions (joining the team in Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green, who both won while with the San Antonio Spurs) and having Marc (Gasol, Serge Ibaka) and myself (who each have at least nine years of NBA experience and multiple years of playoff runs), I think we can get to another level (like) that. I think we understand what is the next step and I think that’s the one thing that I can think of that is different from that series,” Lowry said.
That’s what, in part, Toronto’s management was banking on when it traded for Ibaka, the two ex-Spurs and then Gasol — each proven veterans who have seen just about everything.
When there were some worries about Gasol not exactly hitting it out of the park during his first couple of months with the team (not that he was bad, just that what he was doing didn’t stand out unless one dug into the team numbers), one member of the Raptors front office was clear: “That guy is going to show up in the playoffs. It might not be every night, but he’s going to (subtly) have some big moments.”
Gasol has backed up those expectations, first against Orlando all-star Nikola Vucevic, then against Philadelphia superstar Joel Embiid and now with two stellar games against the Bucks following an admittedly terrible start to the series.
Leonard has been fabulous, as expected, while Ibaka helped win Game 4 with his tenacious rebounding (and some earlier games in the post-season when most of his teammates were struggling). Green has been good defensively and awaits an offensive breakthrough.
Add it all up and this is a confident, experienced group.
“I think he needed it,” Raptors guard Kyle Lowry said. “I think those type of things kind of relaxed him a little bit.
“He needed one of those games. You know what he needed? That banked 3 to go in. Stuff like that. Just get in some type of rhythm. He played well and made some great plays tonight.
“Sometimes it’s just one or two shots where something happens. It’s all mental sometimes.”
The same could be said for the Raptors as a whole throughout these playoffs. VanVleet’s struggles might have been the most notable, but he was far from the only one who couldn’t buy a basket for much of the past two series.
Tuesday night, though, the dam finally broke.
After being bludgeoned by Milwaukee’s bench for most of the first three games, Toronto’s bench trio of VanVleet, Norman Powell and Serge Ibaka combined to score 48 points and shoot 18-for-36 from the floor. Milwaukee’s main bench players — George Hill, Ersan Ilyasova, Malcolm Brogdon and Pat Connaughton — combined to go 7-for-22 overall and 2-for-8 from 3.
The Raptors couldn’t have asked for a better time for this kind of game to happen, either, with the two players who expended the most energy in Sunday’s double-overtime win, Kawhi Leonard and Pascal Siakam, both looking worse for the wear because of it.
“It was big time,” Leonard said of the balanced production across the roster. “Everybody contributed tonight, knocking down shots, playing great defense.”
The Raptors evened the Eastern Conference Finals on Tuesday and Leonard has fully repaired his reputation. Questions about his toughness dogged Leonard in his final season in San Antonio, questions in part fueled by comments from his own teammates. Green never believed Leonard was anything but legitimately hurt, and back-to-back brilliant performances the last two games, with Leonard spearheading the Raptors offense on one end and taking on the challenge that is Antetokounmpo on the other, Green said, “reinforces how serious the injury was.”
“It was a year later and it was still something that he had to manage throughout [this] year,” Green said. “For good reason. Now he’s playing a ton of minutes and as you see, some of it still lingers, is still coming back. It’s an injury that you have to be very careful with and it just shows you that he would fight through it if he could, and he is doing it now.”
Leonard won’t cop to any injury, of course. In a Leonard-esque, two-minute post game media gaggle, Leonard said he felt good.
“I can keep going, keep fighting,” Leonard said. “We have a chance to make history. There’s no excuses. You’re playing basketball. And we got a win tonight.”
Indeed, and with Leonard hobbled, the Raptors made sure he had back up. There was Kyle Lowry, the mainstay, the face of the Raptors in recent seasons, seasons that ended with crushing playoff disappointments. What a redemptive series this has been for Lowry. He scored 30 points in Game 1, keeping Toronto in an eventual defeat. In Game 4, Lowry chipped in 25, making all ten of his free throws and handing out six assists.
Despite Kawhi Leonard’s lingering quadriceps injury, his stellar defense and the Toronto Raptors’ overall adjustments prove successful against the Milwaukee Bucks for the second game in a row as they tie the series (1:25). Plus: Rumors say Kevin Durant could sign with the Los Angeles Clippers in the offseason (23:41) while the New Orleans Pelicans navigate the happy dilemma of pairing Anthony Davis and Zion Williamson (31:33).
It’s not like Drake is running onto the court screaming at the officials, bothering players or getting in the way of the actual play, he’s a fan who is showing his passion much like those who sit higher up and don’t always get on camera. Sure, he shouldn’t have special privileges and the Raptors will probably tell him to avoid massaging Nurse’s shoulders in the future but Milwaukee shouldn’t be concerned about what he does.
If Drake did this during road games, then that’s a different story and if security at Scotiabank Arena doesn’t feel the need to do something about then the opposing team shouldn’t concern themselves about it. Maybe their front office can talk to Masai Ujiri about his Global Ambassador instead of complaining to reporters about since they didn’t lose the game because of it.
What’s a person to think when the Raptors hand Drake a diamond-encrusted custom OVO jacket worth $550,000?
Did he need it? Is it useful? Could that money have been put to better use?
The jacket is a special thank you to the team’s biggest booster, of course; with its 235 hand-set diamonds, it’s also an advertisement for Diamond Foundry (lab grown, environmentally friendly gems) and an excellent example of wretched excess.
But it’s all over the news!! If the Raptors had said thank you with something useful — a $550,000 contribution to a children’s charity, let’s say — it would never have made as big a splash.
This jacket burnishes the cult status of Garrison Bespoke* and adds to Drake’s aura, him of the million dollar outfit recently written up in Vogue magazine.
It seems simple: let your best defender, the wiry and long-armed tank who is built like an ox and is a two-time Defensive Player of the Year, guard the other team’s best player.
But that comes at a cost. As we’ve seen throughout the entire playoffs, the Raptors have struggled to manufacture points when left to anyone outside of Leonard to create. It takes a ton of energy to carry the offensive burden each and every night. Emptying the tank on one end leads to running on fumes at the other. It’s why for the first two games in this series, Nick Nurse opted not stick Leonard onto Antetokounmpo.
Down 2-0, he didn’t have much of a choice.
Starting in Game 3, Leonard has taken on the bulk of the assigment. After guarding him just 13% of the time over the first two games of the series, drawing the assignment fewer times than both Pascal Siakam and Serge Ibaka, Leonard has been the primary defender guarding Antetokounmpo on 47% of possessions. Throw in all of the times he’s helped after getting switched off and that number climbs even higher.
Kawhi Guarding Giannis
MatchupsPct of Matchups
The results speak for themselves beyond winning both games in Toronto.
In Games 3 and 4, the Bucks offense has an offensive rating of 110.7 whenever their MVP hopeful is matched up against anyone other than Leonard. That number plummets to 88.0 whenever he’s checked by Leonard.
Giannis himself is a completely different player. Against everyone not named Kawhi Leonard, he’s 9-14 from the field with 10 assists and eight turnovers.
Against Kawhi? Just 5-19 with only two assists and four turnovers.
For the first time this series, the Raptors legitimately looked like the better team on the court for the entire game. In Games 1-3, the Raptors had their moments but the Bucks throughout looked to have control.
In Game 4, though, the Raptors took them behind the woodshed. Despite Kawhi Leonard being relatively quiet due to a leg injury with only 19 points, Toronto dominated from the second quarter on and grew the lead to as much as 20 in the fourth quarter.
It was easily Milwaukee’s worst game of the postseason since Game 1 in the conference semi-finals against the Boston Celtics and was definitely a humbling experience as the Bucks now have to win two out of three to move on.
It has taken little time for Kawhi Leonard to become a legend in Toronto. His skill on the court has undeniably taken the Raptors to new heights and the city is on a high from the energy that the NBA superstar has brought to the team. However, Toronto knows all too well that come July 1, 2019, Kawhi Leonard will once again be a free agent. It seems like everyone in the city is now participating in a collective effort to keep the all-star in the 6ix.
Simon Mass, CEO of The Condo Store Realty Inc. is prepared to gift Leonard a multi-million-dollar penthouse in downtown Toronto if the player agrees to re-sign with the Raptors. A representative for the brokerage confirmed to Narcity that Kawhi will get to choose between several lavish penthouse condos at the Four Seasons, St. Regis or Carlton Residences in Toronto.
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