Note: Malcolm Brogdon will start for the Bucks.
Could this, for maybe the third time this playoff run, be the biggest game in franchise history? If game three was Toronto’s Waterloo, a close-fought affair that could have gone either way, then game four was the First Gulf War. The Raptors won a fairly bloodless – at least, on their side – 120-102 affair over the Milwaukee Bucks, as every aspect of the Raptors’ gameplan bore fruit.
First and most importantly, the Raptors’ defense continued to resemble a gruesome pit of swarming limbs. Kawhi Leonard – recently named to All-NBA Second Team and All-Defensive Second Team – stymied Giannis Antetokounmpo as well as humanly possible, ‘holding’ him to 25 points, 10 rebounds, and 5 assists. Moreover, Antetokounmpo rampaged of eight points and two assists in the first six minutes of the game, finding easy layups and dunks at the rim in transition. Leonard and the Raptors responded by upping their physicality, picking him up far earlier in the court, and keeping him out of the paint. The Bucks finished with 0.95 points per play in the half-court, which is quite liveable for the Raptors.
On a similar note, the Raptors continued suppressing the Bucks’ long-distance shooting numbers. Without being able to attack the paint at will, Milwaukee just can’t create that barrage of wide-open looks that lets their offense snowball. The Bucks shot 11-for-35 from deep, which is both low accuracy and low frequency. Toronto’s defense is holding up, and at this point, we shouldn’t expect the Bucks to all of a sudden make 20 3s in a game.
Where the Bucks have had great success – until game four – has been in the paint, in transition, and on the offensive glass. Toronto held the Bucks to 40 points in the paint, 13 fast-break points, and 8 second-chance points. All are series-lows, and that they all came in the same game is the reason why the Raptors blew the Bucks out of the building. Toronto’s defense is improving.
On the other side, Toronto’s shooting has finally held up in consecutive games, which feels like maybe the first time that’s happened since the Orlando series. A game after hitting 17-of-38 from deep (37.8 percent), they shot 14-of-41 (34.1 percent), which isn’t world-beating, but is absolutely good enough. Sure, the Bucks defense kind of fell apart in game four, as they weirdly starting helping one pass away from some of Toronto’s best shooters, but Fred VanVleet, Marc Gasol, and Kyle Lowry all got hot in the same game. That’s nothing but great news, and for VanVleet, it is his first great game of the playoffs. VanVleet joined Norman Powell and Serge Ibaka as producing incredibly off the bench. All very positive stuff.
Leonard is hobbled on the offensive end, and that has limited his north-south explosiveness, and his legs on jumpers. (Though he was able to find enough legs to cock that joint back and smoke it on Antetokounmpo. Leonard frequently finds just enough energy for whatever move he attempts, never exerting himself more than necessary.) He only scored 19 points, with his second-lowest usage rate (22.8 percent) of the playoffs. The Raptors picked up the slack around him, and they proved that there are enough sources of offense that Leonard doesn’t always need to isolate and connect from midrange for the Raptors to score. In fact, the offense often scores at higher rates when the ball is in the hands of Lowry in the pick-and-roll or Gasol on the elbows. Toronto’s ability to blend their sources of offense in one of their highest-pressure games of the season is admirable. Nick Nurse is saying that Leonard has improved since Tuesday, with more explosiveness and energy. Again, positive stuff all around.
Toronto will have a difficult time replicating the same level of production in game five. It’s a commonly held belief that role players have a more difficult time playing well on the road, which may not be true, but it’s still unlikely that VanVleet, Powell, and Ibaka will again all play at their best at the same time. At the same time, Oren Weisfeld wrote that the Raptors can sort of shape-shift into any style to beat opponents, so they don’t necessarily need a red-hot bench to beat opponents. But it helps.
When teams are tied 2-2, the winners of games five almost always go on to win the series. So hold on tight, folks. Anthony Doyle has a great dedicated preview here.
Toronto Injury Updates
OG Anunoby (appendectomy) is out. Patrick McCaw remains out (personal). Leonard was severely limited in game four, but he remained the best player in the game. He’s also still not listed on the injury report. Nurse is stressing that he’s improving, but to what extent, we’ll see. Lowry and Siakam remained banged-up, but nothing much to be done there until the offseason. Fred VanVleet was away between games with his family, but he is back and available here.
PG: Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet, Jeremy Lin
SG: Danny Green, Jodie Meeks
SF: Kawhi Leonard, Norman Powell, Malcolm Miller
PF: Pascal Siakam, Chris Boucher
C: Marc Gasol, Serge Ibaka, Eric Moreland
Milwaukee Injury Updates
Donte DiVincenzo (heel) and Pau Gasol (stress fracture) are out. Coach Mike Budenholzer says the Bucks are mulling a starting lineup change, but he isn’t releasing any information before tipoff. If there were to be a change, I would assume that Brogdon would be inserted into the starting lineup for Mirotic.
PG: Eric Bledsoe, George Hill, Tim Frazier
SG: Khris Middleton, Malcolm Brogdon, Pat Connaughton, Sterling Brown
SF: Nikola Mirotic, Tony Snell
PF: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Ersan Ilyasova
C: Brook Lopez, DJ Wilson
- Everything worked for Toronto in game four. Their winningest lineup sported the VanVleet-Powell-Ibaka trio, alongside Green-Leonard, that has been outscored heavily over the majority of the playoffs. They went +10 (best in the game for Toronto) in 5.4 minutes. This fivesome played 11 total minutes in the regular season, losing that time by two points. But if you just look at the VanVleet-Powell-Ibaka trio, they were +12 in 212 minutes (+2.6 per 100 possessions) in the regular season and -10 in 155 minutes in the playoffs prior to game five (-3.1 per 100 possessions). In game four, they were +57.1 per 100 possessions. So don’t expect that to continue.
- Seriously, everything worked. The Raptors played 15 non-garbage time lineups in the game, and three were outscored, two broke even, and 10 won their minutes. That’s evidence that everything went Toronto’s way, so there’s not a ton of useful analysis to be had there.
- Interestingly, Toronto’s worst lineup was the traditional starters. They went -5 in 11 minutes, much of which occurred in the first quarter when Antetokounmpo rampaged into the lane and scored easily at the rim. That they only played 11 minutes together was great because Nick Nurse was able to give bench players extra run to keep his starters’ minutes relatively low. They had played in the high-20s together for several games in the Philadelphia series, so it’s fantastic that Toronto was able to win on the backs of other groups.
- Milwaukee’s presumed best lineup, their starters for the majority of the season, Bledsoe-Brogdon-Middleton-Antetokounmpo-Lopez, only played for 0.8 minutes in game four. They were -3 (just more evidence that whatever Toronto threw at the board was a bullseye). There has been a lot of virtual ink spilled at Raptors Republic at the Bucks’ possible counters to Toronto’s success in games three and four, and starting Brogdon is everyone’s best idea. He is a far better initiator, shooter, and defender than Mirotic. He’s probably better at every discrete skill on the basketball court, except maybe offensive rebounding. Coach Bud poo-poo’d the idea before game four, but after the game he was a little bit less dismissive: “We’re certainly going to look at the film and look at everything, consider everything. We’ve got a couple days between now and the game, and we’ll evaluate it.”
- By raw plus-minus, Brogdon has been Milwaukee’s best player, notching a +26 despite the Bucks only being +6 as a team in the four games. Mirotic has been -26.
- In general, the Bucks could consider shortening their bench. They are, rightfully, very proud of the success they’ve had with all-bench lineups, and how great they’ve been top-to-bottom. But Toronto has far more talent in their top-five than the Bucks have in their bottom-five.
- Per Blake Murphy, Bud wants to keep Antetokounmpo’s in the high-30s, rather than the 40s, so the Bucks may have to continue to run more bench lineups to accomplish that goal.
- Bud continues to say he’s thinking about it, but we won’t know before tipoff. Nick Nurse said the same thing before game three, and then didn’t change the starters, so no certainties either way.
- Congratulations to the entire VanVleet family for the Monday birth of Freddy Jr. VanVleet had his best game of the playoffs on Tuesday, and he attributed some of that to the birth of his son. His teammates were overjoyed, giving him much love when he checked out of the game.
- The Raptors’ offense has been improving, Gasol especially has been a bellwether of Toronto’s success. When he shoots or passes without hesitation, Toronto generally does very well. He can get into trouble when he pump-fakes before a defender has even begun closing out on him, but he’s almost removed that part of his game in the last few. His pump-fake is actually a weapon when he’s made a few triples previously, as he’s great passing out of his drives. The Raps even put Gasol in the post a few times in game four, where he still has some juice left in his fakes.
- This is certainly simplistic, but in the two wins over Milwaukee, Gasol has averaged 16.5 points per game. In the two losses, he averaged 4.0 points per game. That’s a whopping difference. His defense has been relatively consistent, but his ability to score has been an important hinge on which Toronto’s success swings.
- The Raptors have all been consummate professionals so far this playoff run, and that’s worth highlighting. Players have responded negatively to difficult situations in past seasons, but so far the Raptors haven’t showed too much emotion in any circumstances. It bodes well for their ability to rise to increasingly difficult occasions. Let’s look at some examples.
- The Raptors lose game one to Orlando, and media ask everyone and their grandma about the franchise’s cursed history with games one. They laugh it off and then go on to win the next four against the Magic before winning game one against Philadelphia.
- The shot. We all remember how Kawhi Leonard erased 18 years of history with one baseline jumpshot that bounced four times. Media reacted like fans, with press row looking exactly like the full arena beneath us. It was a magical moment. But when we got a chance to speak with players, they emphasized that it didn’t mean anything. It was a cool moment, but it did not represent anything special to them; the real work was yet to come. Personally, the shot was enough for me. The Raptors could have been swept in the Conference Final, and I would have been satisfied with this playoff run. The players had no such limitations in their minds, and top-to-bottom, they emphasized their professionalism. It made for relatively unexciting quotes, but it was revealing nonetheless.
- The team opened the Bucks series with two losses. The first was a game that Toronto could easily have stolen from the Bucks on the road, and the second was a blowout. Media called that first game a lost opportunity, and a wasted Kyle Lowry game, and everything else under the sun. The team had no such doubts, and they went on to even the series by sweeping both games in Toronto.
- Fred VanVleet has struggled so far this playoff run, yet not a single soul in the organization has broken rank. He hasn’t received any criticism, and players and coaches have stood behind him at every opportunity. He came through in game four.
- Refs in this one are Marc Davis, Tony Brothers, and Pat Fraher.
- With the series moving to Milwaukee, and no team yet having won on the road, the Bucks are -7.5. The over-under is 214.5.