Experience cannot be overstated. It’s hard to do something well the first time you do it, and though the Milwaukee Bucks have certainly spent countless hours honing their skills on a basketball court, the playoffs are a different game. And as the Toronto Raptors won game five 105-99 in Milwaukee, taking a 3-2 series lead back to Toronto for a potential closeout game on Saturday, the Bucks looked like a team who hasn’t been here before.
The Toronto Raptors have been here before. Not the franchise, but the players who populate the roster. Danny Green, Marc Gasol, and Serge Ibaka are grizzled veterans of countless Western Conference playoff runs. Kawhi Leonard is a Finals MVP. Kyle Lowry has played in 45 playoff games since 2015-16, including a run to the Eastern Conference Finals. Norman Powell’s career highs have come in the playoffs against the Indiana Pacers and Bucks. The Raptors are tested.
The Bucks’ rotation lacks the same veteran savvy that the Raptors possess in spades. Giannis Antetokounmpo has never been past the first round of the playoffs. Likewise for Khris Middleton and Malcolm Brogdon. But even the players who cut their teeth elsewhere are not swimming in playoff experience. This year is Brook Lopez’s first time in the playoffs since 2014-15, when he lost in the first round to the Atlanta Hawks. Eric Bledsoe has only been past the first round of the playoffs once, and it was in 2011-12. None of their rotation players other than George Hill have ever been to the Conference Finals before this year.
The experience gap was perhaps the largest intangible difference in game five, but it didn’t show up until the end of the game. The Raptors rode a two-game winning streak into the game, although they hadn’t yet won a game on the Bucks’ home floor. The Raptors dominated in Toronto, as Leonard became the primary defender of Antetokounmpo. But coming to Milwaukee, it was clear that the Bucks would punch the Raptors with maximum effort coming out of the gate.
The Raptors’ defense wilted in the first few minutes of the game, and Bledsoe exploded out of the gate. He scored nine early, as Antetokounmpo collected three assists, and Milwaukee led 18-4 before five minutes had even elapsed. Pascal Siakam and Leonard both earned two fouls early in the first quarter. Brogdon hit a pair of triples in the first, and Antetokounmpo and Middleton combined for 10 first quarter assists. Toronto’s outlook was bleak.
But the Raptors responded with the same poise that they have displayed throughout this entire postseason. They weathered the punch. The Raptors whittled the Bucks’ lead down to 10 at the end of the first quarter and to three at half. They survived another onslaught to start the third quarter and brought the lead back to three entering the fourth. The Raptors continually survived by forcing the Bucks to play in the half-court, as the slower game gave Toronto an advantage. The binary between the half-court and transition games was pronounced in game five. Per Cleaning the Glass, the Bucks scored 0.83 points per play in the half-court and more than double that in transition, 1.73 ppp. The Raptors scored a better 0.96 ppp in the half-court, but they also were much better in the open court, notching 1.36 ppp there.
And so the game teetered on a dual-bladed scythe. There was always a vicious cycle in the works for one team and a virtuous cycle for the other. If the Raptors scored, the Bucks were forced into the half-court, where they have proved completely unable to score. They missed, which gave the Raptors a great look in transition, which led to the Bucks again plodding into the half-court. The cycle repeated, and Toronto closed the gap. But Toronto had to keep scoring to keep the Bucks on their heels. When the Raptors missed, the Bucks got out in transition, where they were almost guaranteed to score. Then Toronto had to face the teeth of a set defense going the other way. Thus one basket multiplied into many, and the game was one of runs for both teams.
The decisive difference was that Toronto possessed a fair advantage scoring in the half-court. The Raptors can score in the half-court because their superstar, Leonard, is inevitable, undeniable, and irresistible. Whatever ailed his lower body in games three and four seemed to have evaporated, as his burst and explosiveness returned with only two days of rest. He finished game five with 35 points on 25 shots, 7 rebounds, 9 assists, and 2 steals. The assists are a career high.
Early in the fourth quarter, the game had turned, and Leonard sensed the Bucks’ vulnerability. He stole the ball and finished a layup over multiple defenders before hitting a midrange pull-up on the next possession. Minutes later, on consecutive plays, Leonard saw Lopez switched onto him and hit pull-up triples in his eye. The 17-6 run spelled victory for the Raptors and doom for the Bucks.
On the other hand, the Bucks shrank in key moments. Middleton, who has had a difficult time scoring in this series, took another ill-advised 3-pointer. The Bucks were down five with 12 seconds remaining, and Middleton faded away in the corner, airballing the attempt. It was reminiscent of his airballed triple in game 3, where the Bucks were down 96-94 and had nine seconds, but Middleton forced up the miss regardless. Bledsoe and Brogdon combined for a turnover when the Bucks could tie the game with a 3. Leonard scored 15 points in the fourth quarter, more than Antetokounmpo, Middleton, and Brogdon combined.
“I’m not afraid of the moment. I enjoy it,” said Leonard to media in Milwaukee after the game.
It wasn’t only Leonard who was clutch for the Raptors. Marc Gasol collected a key offensive rebound with 30 seconds left, even though Lopez had better position. Following up on an excellent game four performance, Fred VanVleet had one of the best games of his life. He was one of the Raptors’ only constants over the entire 48 minutes, shooting 7-of-9 from deep. His 21 points set a career playoff high. He finished a +28 in a 6-point win, and no other player finished higher than +9, proving that when VanVleet is on, he is a critical ingredient in the Raptors’ success.
VanVleet is also evidence of experience counting for more than team statistics or per game averages. Sure, he’s a young player, but he’s been out of the first round of the playoffs every year he’s been in the NBA. His 30 playoff games are almost as many as the 33 in which both the older Antetokounmpo and Middleton have played. VanVleet rose to the occasion, and he’s now shot 83.3 percent from deep since the birth of his son, Fred Jr. He acknowledged that his formula for success is slightly unorthodox.
“Zero sleep, have a lot of babies, and go out there and let loose,” he told media after the game.
Clutch teams win playoff games on the road. The Toronto Raptors have never been a franchise that wins road games in the Eastern Conference Finals – literally, they’ve never done that once – but as we’ve all known since the Leonard trade, this team is different. The Raptors have an ingredient that the Bucks lack, and it’s been a key difference in this series. The Bucks entered the series with better metrics, a superstar on the verge of winning an MVP, and an 8-1 playoff record. The Raptors were battered after needing seven games to beat the Sixers, and Milwaukee won the first two. But the Raptors dipped into their well of experience, and three games later, they will have a chance to finish the Bucks in Toronto. It’s taken years of playoff experience, and a pair of trades to acquire yet more experience, but the Raptors now have that element they’ve lacked. The Toronto Raptors have never been to the NBA Finals, but they’re now one home win away. All the years of struggle are finally paying off.