Poised and prepared: 3 wins in a row has Raptors on the brink of the finals; can wrap the ECF up Saturday at home.
Ten – Moment: Not to get ahead of ourselves, but the Raptors are one game away from the NBA Finals against a Golden State Warriors side that will be without Kevin Durant. They will open as underdogs, but that was also the case against Milwaukee. The Warriors will force the Raptors to scrap just about everything they have done defensively up until this point, but the Raptors will have home court and the best player on the floor. The window is finally open for the first time in franchise history.
It may end up the story of the series, that the Bucks finally adjusted and the Raptors were able to execute against those adjustments. At the other end, the Bucks really haven’t been able to do the same. Both teams entered the series with a strategy to throw multiple bodies at the opposing star and sell out to protect the paint, daring supporting pieces to make them pay. Toronto has won that mutually agreed variance gambit so far. It’s largely related to the Raptors figuring out the offensive end. The Bucks have struggled mightily scoring in the half court for the bulk of the series, and that’s been on heavy display in Toronto’s three wins. On Thursday, the Bucks scored more than double the points per possession in transition than they did in the half court, and through that lens, it’s not surprising that the Raptors getting a bit of offence going carried over to the other end.
What might be most remarkable about Leonard’s night as a passer is that he committed just one turnover. In fact, the Raptors committed only six as a team, the fourth-lowest number of any team in any game this postseason. They had only two after the first quarter, completely derailing Milwaukee’s deadly transition game. Antetokounmpo can’t suck defenders to the middle of the floor on the break and kick out to shooters if the Raptors are already back and set on defence. To further protect against that, the Raptors went back to a more conservative offensive-rebounding approach. Leonard scoring 35 points on 29 shooting possessions didn’t exactly hurt, either.
And then, of course, Leonard was a big part of the half-court defence, as well. Earlier this week, he was named All-Defence second team, a perch he maybe didn’t achieve on merit in his 60 regular season games but one he exceeds at his best. He may be the league’s best defensive player at his peak, depending on how you value Draymond Green’s exquisite do-everything, be-everywhere genius in contrast to Leonard’s smothering drive defence and magnetic paws in passing lanes. Leonard drawing the bulk of the Antetokounmpo assignment has been another key tactical shift in a very good series for Nurse, and as of yet Antetokounmpo and the Bucks have not been able to figure it out.
That’s not necessarily an indictment on Antetokounmpo, who described himself as “pissed” after the performance. He has been anything but bad, scoring 24 points again in this one. He hasn’t taken over in the past three games, and some may begin to criticize him for that. There is a point at which making the right play needs to tilt toward making the play, and Antetokounmpo hasn’t remained consistently aggressive outside of fast breaks.
It feels unfair to highlight that in what’s been a very good series for him overall. But a battle between the two best players in the Eastern Conference leading the two best teams was framed exactly that way, and the ancillary battles — Lowry outplaying Eric Bledsoe, the Raptors’ shooters being a bit better on open looks, Brogdon and VanVleet having breakouts, the benches each taking a game — have mostly fallen within the expected range. In a series this tight, which superstar is less of this earth might wind up the difference, and Leonard has been exceptionally non-terrestrial.
VanVleet’s frantic week was the perfect opposite of the calm Leonard exhibits in all things, seemingly, but never more than in the guts of a pivotal playoff game with 17,400 fans in full roar and chaos all around.
Leonard has been dealing with his own issues — primarily exhibiting signs of significant fatigue and possibly even injury — since his epic 52-minute hero’s walk in Toronto’s double-overtime Game 3 win when a loss would have almost certainly spelled the end of the Raptors’ dreams of an NBA Finals appearance.
His teammates picked him up in Game 4 and when Leonard took to the practice floor for the Raptors’ shootaround Thursday morning he was laughing and kidding with team’s training staff, looking perfectly at ease and not at all like an athlete worried if their body might be withering under the load just when he’s needed most.
Later in the day Leonard was honoured as a member of the all-NBA second team — a remarkable accomplishment given injuries limited him to nine games last season.
He’s only been better since the playoffs started. While VanVleet’s ability to deliver some support at crucial times loomed even larger considering the Raptors shot just 37 per cent from the floor for the game, it was Leonard who navigated the ship home, helping turn around a 75-72 Bucks lead at the end of three quarters by scoring 15 of his game-high 35 points in a fourth quarter explosion that included three of his career-high nine assists.
Sometimes you can only look on in wonder. The last time the Raptors played Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Finals it was against the Cleveland Cavaliers, who had LeBron James. It did not end well.
Now it’s the Raptors with the ultimate difference maker, and guess what? It makes a difference.
“It’s really different when you have a guy, when you’re with him every day and you’re witnessing it all,’ said Raptors head coach Nick Nurse when asked to assess ‘Playoff Kawhi.’ “I certainly remember he’s been unbelievable in the playoffs with the Spurs, as well, but you’re not as close to it … I can only state that he’s been really good, and it seems like he’s — I don’t know, it doesn’t look like — he gets stronger as the fourth wears on.
Giannis Antetokounmpo was plenty aggressive, but still looked like he was having issues against Toronto’s defense. He ended with 24 points, six rebounds and six assists on just 9-18 shooting. He needs a career game on Saturday to save his team’s season.
Khris Middleton was completely stymied as a shooter with only six points, but stuffed the box score in other ways with 10 rebounds and 10 assists. Malcolm Brogdon bounced back from his game four with 18 points, 11 rebounds and six assists. Eric Bledsoe started out aggressive and ended with 20 points, but on just 6-14 from the field.
Kawhi Leonard was an absolute monster for the Raptors in all facets of the game, going for 35 points, seven rebounds and nine assists. He shot just 11-25, but made plenty of timely threes including 5-8 from deep. Fred VanVleet translated his hot streak from north of the border, going for 21 points including 7-9 from deep.
Stat that Stood Out
41.9% to 32.9%. What else could it be. Despite the Raptors shooting well worse than the Bucks from the field (45.2% to 36.9%), their prolific 3-point percentage kept them in it the whole game to give them the unfortunate victory for Bucks fans everywhere.
The final frame of Game 5 was all about Kawhi. Despite all the worry about his legs and whether he had any juice left, Leonard would not be denied in the fourth quarter. Again and again the court was cleared out and he’d go to work, and again and again he’d find some way to generate something for Toronto — free throws, an open three, a jumper, something, anything. Heading into the series, the Bucks were a mountain, one that felt impossible to scale; Kawhi didn’t attempt the climb tonight, he just set about tearing apart the foundation stone by stone. And it worked.
Now, a personal aside: I tweeted early in the game, when the Raptors were on the ropes, that it sucked to wait all day for Game 5 only to watch it all come undone so quickly. In that moment, I was fully ready to concede the whole contest and just mentally prepare for another climb back to a Game 7. I had another tweet draft ready to go saying as much but thought better of letting it loose. Still, why not feel this way? It’s happened before; the Raptors never make things easy. We know all of this already, and I’m positive many of you felt the same way in that moment.
Which, of course, is what makes this all feel so surreal. The Raptors were down 2-0 to a team that had not lost three games in a row all season. They were not favoured to win this series — and with good reason. The odds were already stacked against them. And after five minutes of this Game 5, with the entire season seemingly on the line, it felt like they were about to do the typical Raptors thing and give it all away. Right up until the moment they didn’t. In truth, I should have known better by now.
But here’s what else I know: the Raptors are heading to Toronto for Game 6, just one win away from the NBA Finals. Unbelievable.
Consider: In Sunday’s double-overtime win in Toronto that got the Raptors back in the series, VanVleet played 31 minutes, including the final 16 as the primary point guard with Lowry fouled out and quarterbacked the win.
On Monday, with longtime girlfriend Shontai Neal due to give birth any minute to the couple’s second child, VanVleet got on a morning flight back to his hometown of Rockford, Ill., and was there for the birth of his first son, Fred Jr. that evening.
He was then back on a flight Tuesday in time for Game 4 where he had 13 points in 25 minutes. On Wednesday he flew to Milwaukee on the team charter and then made the 90-minute drive back to Rockford.
He then spent the night in Rockford with his growing family, was given shootaround off and drove back to join the Raptors at the team hotel Thursday afternoon. A quick nap and he was back at the arena getting ready for Game 5.
A quick tabulation as he got dressed for his post-game podium appearance revealed VanVleet figured he slept a total of 15 hours in the past five days. “I’m a pretty good napper,” VanVleet said.
Six days ago VanVleet was hearing how his minutes, as sparse as they were, should have been going to someone else.
It’s been a rather rapid turnaround in public opinion since then.
Their defence, which has been excellent for most of the postseason, locked in during the second quarter, holding Milwaukee to 17 points on 6-of-22 shooting.
Their offence wasn’t pretty, which has also been an ongoing theme throughout the playoffs, but they hung around until the fourth quarter when Kawhi Leonard took over. The superstar forward scored 15 of his game-high 35 points in the final frame, as Toronto pulled away in the last few minutes.
Unlike 2016, the Raptors showed resiliency in the face of adversity and, unlike 2016, they had the best player on the floor.
“He’s a God,” an anonymous Raptors staffer said of Leonard after the team took its 3-2 series lead with a 105-99 win on Thursday.
“The game he played tonight – 35 [points], [career-high] nine [assists], seven [rebounds] – was a pretty good game,” Kyle Lowry said. “On the big stage. On the road. Superstar. Superstar.”
Leonard’s experience showed in Game 5, as it has for most of the series. This is his fifth career trip to the Conference Finals. For Milwaukee’s superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo and most of the Bucks core, this is uncharted territory. They’ve never been this deep into the playoffs before. They also haven’t faced much adversity this year. They were mostly healthy, up until late in the season, and only lost consecutive games once going into this series.
“Experience helps a lot,” Leonard said. “You know, just from my input, I’ve been here before. I’ve been to The Finals, and it’s pretty much nothing new that I’m seeing out there. You’ve just got to have fun with it and enjoy it. Like I told them tonight, we were down 10, I told them to enjoy the moment and embrace it, and let’s have fun and love it. This is why we’re here.”
From the moment training camp opened in the fall, the Raptors were running into roadblocks. The addition of Leonard meant the team finally had its superstar, but was he healthy and did he want to play in Toronto? Lowry came to camp less than thrilled about the trade of his best friend, DeMar DeRozan. Long-time starters had to be sold on new roles coming off the bench. They had to overcome injuries and build chemistry on the fly thanks to Leonard’s load management nights and a big mid-season trade.
In many respects, the Raptors are beating the Bucks with the brand of scrambling, quick-to-collapse/quick-to-recover defense that had become Milwaukee’s calling card. With Leonard taking the lead, Toronto accounts for Bucks superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo with multiple bodies, help coming from all directions — weak side, baseline, perimeter.
Points off turnovers, 2019 Eastern Conference finals
Asked for the principles guiding their fluid rotations, Lowry told ESPN, “Play f—ing hard, send bodies, then rotate. It’s not science. It’s understanding the rotations, who’s going, where they’re going and knowing who’s going to help and get out. It’s tough to do, but you have to do it in this situation.”
In Game 4, we saw the collective intelligence of Toronto’s core on the offensive side with smart ball movement, heady misdirection and timely passing. In Game 5, that high IQ was evident in a masterful execution of the defensive game plan.
For 48 minutes, every Raptor on the floor moved decisively to plug gaps. In the final 20 minutes of action, the Bucks generated only three uncontested shots in the half court — an alley-oop catch by Antetokounmpo and a couple of pull-up jumpers off the dribble by Eric Bledsoe. The first is unstoppable, the other two tolerable.
“The rotation comes from wherever,” Lowry said. “We talk and communicate — ‘Go, go, go.’ Marc will say, ‘K-Low, you go.’ Kawhi, Danny, Freddie. Everyone is talking. You hear the communication, you hear the professionalism, you hear everyone with an understanding of what’s the next move, who’s going where, who’s taking responsibility.”
This is entirely by design. Through a series of trades over the past year, the Raptors have populated their roster with two former defensive players of the year in Leonard and Gasol; three more All-NBA Defensive Team honorees in Lowry, Danny Green and Serge Ibaka; a spidery young stopper in Pascal Siakam; a bulldog in VanVleet; with Norman Powell no slouch for a wing of his size. There’s not a weak defensive link on the roster, no one who can’t be trusted with a help decision.
The Raptors now look like not only more than the sum of their parts after appearing stylistically fragmented so often this season but also precisely the sum of their years of experience.
“Serge (Ibaka), Kawhi (Leonard), Kyle, they’ve all been talking to us, Marc (Gasol). Just staying focused on the task at hand, enjoying it, playing together, sticking together and going to battle for one another,” Norman Powell said. “I think that’s what’s been really important. After the first two games, Serge talked to us during film, before coach showed us the clips, about what happened in (Oklahoma City when his Thunder won the Western Conference finals despite going down to 2-0 against the Spurs). Even today, he talked about it more. Kyle and Kawhi talked about what they’ve been through and the continued work (that’s needed) when you go on these runs. … Every game is going to be different. But when you’re playing hard and leave it out there, you can live with the results.”
During this playoff run, there are several times the Raptors could have folded: Game 4 in Philadelphia, when they blew a big lead in Game 7 against the 76ers, after they were clocked in Game 2 in Milwaukee and, especially, after the Bucks forced a pair of overtimes with Lowry and Powell fouled out in Game 3.
Likewise, Game 5 presented tons of those opportunities. The Bucks scored 18 of the game’s first 22 points over the first five minutes, with the Raptors turning the ball over three times. They turned the ball over just three more times in the 43 minutes that followed. The Raptors missed five of their first six 3-pointers, all of them open, but kept stepping into them — well, except for Gasol, at least until it really mattered — and wound up with 18 makes, eight more than the Bucks.
All the while, the defence stayed attached. It has been the theme the entire series: If the Raptors could keep the Bucks from scoring in transition, they have had a very difficult time getting reliable offence in the half court. The Raptors won a huge road game against the league’s best team despite shooting just 36.9 percent. You do not do that without a hell of an ability to focus. The Raptors were able to turn some of their turnovers into mere missed shots, and some of those missed shots into makes.
Leonard was everything the Raptors needed, every time they needed it, and the result was another unbelievable game in a postseason full of them. He finished with 35 points on 11-for-25 shooting, including a 5-for-8 mark from 3-point range and 8-for-9 at the foul line—his seventh outing of 35 or more in these playoffs, making him just the 11th player ever with that many in a single postseason run. He totaled a career-high nine assists—all of which led to 3-pointers, meaning Kawhi directly accounted for 59 percent of Toronto’s offensive output in Game 5. And he also had seven rebounds, two steals, and only a single turnover in 40 minutes of work. All while guarding one of the most unguardable players in the world.
This was it: the opportunity for two of the best basketball players on the planet to write the next chapter in their stories, to assert their primacy in the Eastern pecking order, to burnish their bona fides as the kind of superstar who can tilt the highest-leverage games there are through peerless skill and sheer force of will. This was the moment. Leonard seized it.
“I’m not afraid of the moment,” he told reporters after the game. “I enjoy it.”
It wouldn’t be entirely fair to say that Antetokounmpo shrank while Leonard soared. After a somewhat disconnected and passive start that saw him look more to distribute the ball than to continue sledgehammering his way into the teeth of a Raptors defense loaded up on his drives, Antetokounmpo ratcheted up his aggression and effectiveness late in the second quarter and carried it over into the third, keying a 14-2 run that gave Milwaukee a 12-point lead just over four minutes into the second half. He finished with 24 points on 9-for-18 shooting, six rebounds, six assists, and a block in 39 minutes.
But as respectable as the final tally looks, Antetokounmpo was clearly not the primary force in the biggest game of the Bucks’ season thus far. He continued to look at least somewhat flustered by the Raptors’ combination of length and strength on the ball—Leonard, mostly, but Pascal Siakam, Serge Ibaka, and Gasol also put in shifts trying to slow down his surges. And he also seemed bothered by timely, active help defense, which often influenced him into getting off the ball or trying to feed a teammate for a pressure-release 3-point shot. Once again, Milwaukee’s marksmen misfired; Khris Middleton, Malcolm Brogdon, Eric Bledsoe, Brook Lopez, and Nikola Mirotic combined to go 5-for-22 from beyond the arc in Game 5.
“He couldn’t wait for the playoffs to get here,” Nurse said. “He’s played a lot of minutes, and he’s banged-up and he says, ‘Everybody is banged-up. But I want to play and I’m going to play and I’m ready to play.’ I, again, give him a lot of credit for that.”
That’s now three consecutive Raptors wins in the series against the Bucks, who didn’t lose more than two straight all season. Toronto has been better, but after Game 2, Nurse decided to make Leonard the primary defender on Antetokounmpo. Since then, Antetokounmpo hasn’t had it easy, even with 24 points. He’s not dominating in the paint, going 6-for-12 on shots at the rim.
“As impressive as his offense is — and it’s impressive — I get more impressed when he’s down there guarding and making plays and blocking shots and flying in for rebounds,” Nurse said. “My favorite thing is when he just decides once or twice a game to just go take it from somebody and go the other way. Those are huge momentum plays, and that’s impressive to me.”
Leonard — one of three players on the Toronto roster who has played in the Finals — also brings his quiet, poised leadership to the Raptors.
“Experience helps a lot,” he said. “You know, just from my input, I’ve been here before. I’ve been to the Finals, and it’s pretty much nothing new that I’m seeing out there. You’ve just got to have fun with it and enjoy it. Like I told them tonight, we were down 10, I told them to enjoy the moment and embrace it, and let’s have fun and love it. This is why we’re here.”
He’s making his case for NBA’s best player, too.
“I know that I put the work in,” Leonard said. “I can live with the results because I’m having fun and I’m putting my all out on the floor.”
The Raptors deserve credit for how they’ve turned this series around. After trying to run with Milwaukee in the first two games, Toronto has committed to playing at its own pace over the last three. Even when the Bucks raced out to a 14-point lead early in the first quarter, the Raptors methodically chipped away as opposed to pushing the ball and trying to play fast. The patience paid off, as the Bucks couldn’t score as effectively when their transition and semi-transition opportunities went away.
At the same time, the decision to put Kawhi on Giannis has been incredibly effective. Giannis isn’t having an awful series, but he hasn’t been able to dominate. Defensively, the Bucks are packing the paint and daring the Raptors to shoot, but Toronto is hitting its outside shots, while Milwaukee can’t hit at the same rate on the clean looks created from Giannis collapsing the defense. Kawhi’s effectiveness in slowed-down games is on the other end of the spectrum of Antetokounmpo, who needs a more open floor to play his best.
As the teams head to Toronto for Game 6, the ball is in the Bucks’ court to adjust. Putting Malcolm Brogdon in the starting lineup Thursday didn’t do enough to move the needle. Whether it’s placing more of an emphasis on the three-point line as opposed to the paint defensively, or finding a new wrinkle to incorporate Giannis into the halfcourt offense, the pressure is on Mike Budenholzer to find an answer—otherwise Milwaukee’s season will almost certainly come to an unceremonious end.
Since falling behind 2-0 in this series, the Raptors have now strung three games together, relying on a smothering half-court defense and the relentless greatness of Kawhi Leonard, who delivered a 35-point, nine-assist, seven-rebound game Thursday all while keeping Giannis Antetokounmpo relatively quiet.
“The game he played tonight — 35, nine and seven — was a pretty good game. It’s a pretty good game on the big stage and on the road,” Lowry purposefully understated. “Superstar. Superstar.”
Leonard, who had been fighting leg injuries in each of the last two Toronto wins, looked healthier Thursday, particularly late. He scored 22 of his points in the second half, and in the fourth he scored 15 — more than any two Bucks players in the last quarter combined.
“I’m not afraid of the moment,” Leonard, a Finals MVP with the Spurs, said. “I enjoy it, and this was our workout for the summer. You’ve just got to go out and shoot the ball, I guess. That’s my mindset.”
It’s a steadiness that helped the Raptors’ dearly in a pivotal Game 5. After losing two straight, just their second losing streak of the entire season, the Bucks jumped out fast thanks to the wave of emotion that rolled through their home crowd.
Within five minutes, the Bucks led by 14. After Toronto came back, Milwaukee threw another punch, pushing the lead to 12 in the third quarter. But the Raptors clawed their way back into contention before VanVleet shot them back over the top.
“He oozes the confidence that spreads to the other guys,” Raptors coach Nick Nurse said. “Again, he just stepped into the shots that were there tonight, and he was probably due to get hot in these playoffs. It’s been probably a long time coming. Great game by him, though. Great game.”
And now, even if just for a night, he can get some rest.
The new part was the number “9” in the assists column. In 570 career games (regular season and playoffs combined) prior to Thursday, Leonard had never recorded as many as nine assists. That he did it in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals on the road and against the league’s No. 1 defense says a lot about Leonard as a big-game star.
That, given his star status, he had never had nine assists before just as much about his history as a playmaker. Leonard may be the most complete player in the game right now, but his passing can still get better. It doesn’t come naturally to him.
In regard to making his teammates better, Leonard is certainly not LeBron James. And you can even say that Antetokounmpo, still emerging as a superstar himself, has been better at reading the defense and finding open shooters. In the regular season, Leonard recorded assists on just 12.2 percent of his possessions, the fifth lowest rate among 35 players with a usage rate of 25 percent or higher. And his assist rate has actually been lower (11.7 percent) in the playoffs.
But over the last two series, Leonard has been the focus of the Philadelphia and Milwaukee defenses. At times, he has tried to score through multiple defenders. And often, because his teammates weren’t willing or able to do much offensively themselves and because he was scoring so efficiently, he was probably right to force things.
Leonard forced little on Thursday. He drove into the teeth of the Bucks’ defense, saw where the help was coming from, and made the right play.
“We keep stressing that in this series and in the last series, too,” Nurse said. “When you’ve drawn two, you’ve done your job. You’ve got to find the guy who’s open.”
Winner: Fred VanVleet
They say having a child changes everything, and I imagine that’s true. I just never thought “everything” included a shooting stroke. On Monday, Fred VanVleet welcomed his second child, Fred Jr., into the world. (I couldn’t find a picture; I guess just put the Snapchat “baby” filter on VanVleet and pretend the chin strap is gone. I hope.) (On second thought, Fred Jr. being born with a beard would be iconic.) Then, on Tuesday, VanVleet scored 13 points in Game 4. Thirteen points may not sound extraordinary, but it was the most VanVleet’s contributed since the opening game of the playoffs against Orlando—14 games ago. “Slump” doesn’t seem quite strong enough for the way he’d been playing before having his son.
“It gives you a little perspective, I guess, on life,” VanVleet said Tuesday. “Had to sit at the hospital all day, had a lot of time to think, obviously a plane ride back. It just changes the way you’re looking at things. You are not so down on yourself about everything.”
VanVleet continued his, um, rebirth in Game 5. He finished with 21 points and scored a career-high seven 3s on nine attempts, and all in all, the Raptors bench outscored the Bucks by 20 points, 35-15. Game 4 was the first time in a long time that Toronto’s reserves topped their counterparts, and repeating that on Thursday gave the Raptors a chance to close out this series at home in Game 6. This VanVleet showing up Saturday is imperative to clinch the series, especially if Marc Gasol and Danny Green—a combined 1-for-9 from the field and 1-for-7 behind the arc—carry their offensive performances over to another game. Kawhi Leonard needs another shooter to back him up; his right- and left-hand men, Kyle Lowry and Pascal Siakam, also struggled from deep (4-for-15). Dad-mode VanVleet is the man for the job, as he has, you know, recently been reacquainted with cleaning up other people’s shit.
It was Leonard’s back-to-back 3-pointers with 8:30 and 7:57 left in the fourth quarter that gave Toronto an 85-81 lead. Those were two of the 18 3’s the Raptors made while attempting 43 of them — typically the kind of number the Bucks like to shoot, and what wound up being two more shots than the Raptors attempted inside the arc all night.
And, even more than his shotmaking, it was Leonard’s ability to guard Antetokounmpo — not to mention his even-keeled demeanor — that has shifted the series in Toronto’s favor.
“We have one of the least emotional guys in Kawhi Leonard, but he’s emotional when he needs to be,” Lowry told ESPN. “We’ve all kind of just … when our superstar is a guy who stays [level] … he’s our guy, he’s our superstar.
“He never gets too up, he never gets too down, he misses games, he didn’t play games. And when he didn’t play, we went about our business. When he did play, we went about our business. And we just have to go out there and play.”
Part of the reason why Leonard was able to carry the Raptors home was because Fred VanVleet, for a second straight game, stepped up. VanVleet, who had his second child the day before Game 4, put up 21 points off the bench, going 7-for-13 from the field — including 7-for-9 from 3-point range.
He now has gone from shooting 7-for-44 overall and 3-for-25 from 3-point range over a 10-game span from the start of the Eastern Conference semifinals against the Philadelphia 76ers through Game 3 of this series to going 12-for-19 overall and 10-for-12 from 3-point range over the past two games.
“I guess,” VanVleet said with a smile, when asked if having his child had changed things. “Zero sleep, have a lot of babies and go out there and let loose.
“[You] keep just trusting the work, and trusting your craft, and knowing that, at some point, they’re going to drop.”
Best player in the series
How many times have the Raptors, with a better team, lost in the playoffs because the best player in the series — otherwise known as LeBron James — was always on the other side? Well, now it’s the Raptors, finally, who have the best player in a deep playoff series. His name is Kawhi Leonard, and we’re seeing the difference that top-end talent makes at this level.
This is no disrespect to Giannis Antetokounmpo, who I think will rightfully win the MVP this season, but Kawhi is on another level. The guy looks like he’s playing on one leg and he’s still defending Giannis, getting to whatever spot he wants offensively and drilling 3-pointers all over the place. Kawhi finished Game 5 with 35 points, nine assists and seven rebounds on 5-of-8 from 3.
These back-to-back 3s, for my money, were the two biggest shots of the game, taking Toronto from a two-point deficit to a four-point lead late in the fourth. They never lost the momentum again.
Powell shot the corner three extremely well this season, hitting 47% from that area. He’s continued that trend in the playoff, shooting 47% on corner threes through 15 games.
If the Bucks are going to continue to guard the Raptors the way they have been through the first four games of the series then Powell’s shooting is invaluable.
In Game 4 he took 13 triples – the Raptors probably don’t need him to launch that many on a per game basis, but five of those attempts came from the corner and that’s around the number he should be ready to shoot going forward.
When Leonard has the ball, the Bucks have made it a conscious effort to show him as many green jerseys as possible. With Powell on the floor and willing to take the corner three, it will force Milwaukee to make a decision on how many bodies they throw at Leonard and where on the floor those bodies are coming from.
Powell’s three-ball threat was a weapon that just didn’t show up as often against the 76ers. It’s not that he shot the ball poorly – he went 50% from three for the series – the matchup just didn’t allow him to play consistent minutes. He’s getting the minutes now, and so far it’s paying off for the Raptors.
Leonard may not be the league MVP, but he snatched the game into his massive hands with 35 points, nine assists and seven rebounds, hitting 5-of-8 triples in 40 often-agonizing minutes.
He’s been playing through a leg injury that often produces a limp, or at least a ginger walk in the locker room, and teammates will only speak of admiration for the former NBA Finals MVP without revealing specifics.
Ujiri tried his best to keep his composure following the game, exchanging fist bumps with every player who passed through the hallway en route to the locker room. His contained poise mirrored the play of the roster he constructed, the Raptors surviving a first-quarter 18-4 blitz from an energetic Bucks team.
When the Bucks looked up minutes later, they realized their opponent wasn’t broken or shaken up by the ghosts from a Game 2 rout — or from a franchise history that has seen more postseason disappointment than triumph in recent years.
“I’ve been here before, and it’s pretty much nothing new that I’m seeing out there,” Leonard said. “Like I told them tonight, we were down 10, I told them to enjoy the moment and embrace it, let’s have fun and love it. This is why we’re here.”
More pointedly, this is why Leonard’s here. Ujiri saw a chance to acquire an otherworldly talent and didn’t flinch a year ago, even if it meant trading mainstay DeMar DeRozan and the commitment DeRozan gave to the franchise and the city.
Ujiri took the criticism with the belief it would all pay off, giving Leonard a quiet environment and care for a body that was battered along with a reputation that had been slightly bruised.
Rick Horrow is in Milwaukee for Game 5 between the Bucks and Raptors and discusses the economic impact the Eastern Conference Finals is having on the City.
In the clash between the two best players in the conference, perhaps lived experience becomes the biggest differentiator. Despite being drafted only two years apart; Leonard has a ring and a Finals MVP trophy that will turn five years old next month; Antetokounmpo won a playoff series for the first time last month. In a way, the next phase of Giannis’s career is beginning now, when expectation has finally met reality, and his own career expands beyond his own season-by-season comparisons and begins connecting with the legacies in the annals of NBA history. Postseason reputations are built on adversity. Antetokounmpo hadn’t found much in his first two playoff series wins. He’s up against it now. For the first time since Game 1 of the Celtics series, Giannis has left traces of doubt. Kendrick Perkins, on FS1, thinks he’s “getting exposed” by Kawhi. Leonard has been the primary defender on Antetokounmpo for 94 possessions thus far in the series (mostly in games 3 and 4, when Raptors coach Nick Nurse made the adjustment to stick Kawhi on Giannis full time). He has held Giannis to 7-for-23 shooting (30.4 percent) from the field in those instances.
Giannis has rightfully been billed as the new LeBron-size existential question for the Eastern Conference to figure out, but what, exactly, does that mean to Kawhi? Leonard is one of less than a handful of present-day stars who have defeated LeBron James in a playoff series—and all the others play for the Golden State Warriors. In Kawhi, Giannis has found his first true postseason rival; one who, through no effort of his own, has given Antetokounmpo’s arc a bit more clarity. To be LeBron, Giannis will have to overcome a player who’s beaten him. All the while, we’ll be waiting for his playoff moment; the Bucks returning to form and winning the next two games convincingly could be enough, but a magisterial Game 7 performance would be legend-making.
First three-game losing streak of the season for the Bucks. What a turnaround by Toronto. A home game to make the Finals. Wow.
— Zach Lowe (@ZachLowe_NBA) May 24, 2019
“Coming into the league undrafted, that whole thing translated to my marketing deals. I signed a merchandise deal with Adidas where they provided some gear and game stuff but nothing crazy,” VanVleet said. “The top of those companies, they have the LeBrons, the Kyries, and they have signature lines.
“They weren’t going to give Fred VanVleet a signature line — for good reason — so I just made my own.”
VanVleet saw Lowry’s “KL” and decided he could do the same thing too. He grabbed a notebook and started trying to find the best way his initials could be combined into a workable logo.
“It was mostly all bad ideas,” VanVleet said. “I have no artistic ability. You’d be surprised how hard it is to get an F and a V to make something that looks any type of cool. I was trying cursive F’s. It was bad.”
VanVleet finally got something figured out, sent it to a friend who worked as a graphic designer and boom, like Michael Jordan and LeBron James, Fred VanVleet had himself a logo.
Now three years into his career, VanVleet’s line — complete with a “Bet on Yourself” slogan — is making him real money, enough to pay a handful of employees. You can buy shirts, hats, shorts, jackets and pants featuring his logo.
Did I miss anything? Send me any Raptors-related article/video to [email protected]