Kawhi Leonard was not going to be his usual dominant self.
He had played 52 minutes in a double-overtime win for the Toronto Raptors in Game 3. Given that the Eastern Conference Finals was played every other night, the Raptors superstar needed time to recover.
Down 2-1 in the series, the Raptors needed to win Game 4. Going down 3-1 to the Eastern Conference-leading Milwaukee Bucks, with Game 5 on the road, created an insurmountable deficit.
In front of a raucous Scotiabank Arena crowd, the Raptors supporting cast carried the team to victory, defeating the Bucks 120-102.
“We stepped up for him,” Lowry said after the game. “He’s given us a lot through these playoffs. A couple of games where we can give him a chance to not have to do as much and carry the load as much — he got down to 34 minutes tonight. I wish he would have played less than 30.”
Leonard finished the game with 19 points on 6-of-13 shooting. The Bucks were focused on limiting Leonard’s impact, often double and triple-teaming him whenever he touched the ball.
With the Raptors down 12-5 early in the first quarter, head coach Nick Nurse called a time out. After that, the Raptors changed their overall level of play. Their intensity ramped up, thanks to Kyle Lowry sinking a three and drawing a foul. But on the defensive side, the Raptors started clogging the shooting lanes in the paint, limiting Giannis Antetokounmpo’s ability to blow by the defenders in transition.
The Raptors bench supplied the team with the offensive production throughout the entire game. Norman Powell, Serge Ibaka, and Fred VanVleet combined for 48 points compared to the Bucks bench scoring just 23. Unlike in the previous series against the Philadelphia 76ers, Ibaka had not found his place in the series against the Bucks. In the previous Game 3, he only played 14 minutes, scoring five points.
In Game 4, however, Ibaka showcased his physicality and aggressiveness on both ends of the floor. Whether it was hustling inside the post for offensive rebounds to emphatic slam dunks or converting mid-range jumpers, the Raptors big man shined against the length and size of the Bucks.
“He was amazing,” centre Marc Gasol said of Ibaka. “He grabbed the ones he had to grab. It’s like a calculated risk. You have to be smart with it I think he’s really smart with it. He has great instinct.”
With Lowry leading the Raptors in scoring with 25 points, the execution from the guard play continued from the bench players. While Lowry was sitting, Powell and VanVleet were effective running the transition Raptors offense and defending the guards of Milwaukee. VanVleet, who had struggled all playoffs long to score, found his game with 13 points on 5-of-6 shooting from the field and a perfect 3-of-3 from beyond the arc. Powell was continuing an excellent series of his own, using his speed and athleticism to drive to the basket in transition.
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“We wanted to change the narrative coming home,” Powell said. “We wanted to come out with a lot of juice, be the aggressors, be more physical and take the game to them.”
Six Raptor players had double-digit points in their Game 4 win. It laid the groundwork for the rest of the playoffs, where the depth of the Raptors proved to be the blueprint that allowed the franchise to achieve championship aspirations.