The Toronto Raptors have rallied from an 0-2 series deficit to take a 3-2 lead in their Eastern Conference Finals matchup with the Milwaukee Bucks. Few saw this wild momentum swing coming. The Raptors squandered the Kyle Lowry Game in the series opener, got thoroughly dominated Game 2, and only escaped Game 3 in after Giannis Antetokounmpo fouled out 36 seconds into the second overtime.
But here the Raptors are, with a head full of steam after issuing the Bucks their first three-game losing streak all season. What changed for Toronto to turn this into a best-of-three series?
There’s no one thing. It’s a culmination of a few.
Leonard hasn’t been 100 percent. He injured his leg early into Game 3 and just hasn’t looked the same.
But Leonard powered through that injury and still scored 36 points on one leg that night. In Game 4, he scored 19 points even though he labored up and down the court. In Game 5, he dropped another 35 points, along with nine assists, seven rebounds, and two steals. Fifteen of those points came in the fourth quarter, and he also shut down Giannis Antetokounmpo.
This is the reason the Raptors traded the face of their franchise in DeMar DeRozan for an all-world player over the summer, despite him being in the final year of his contract. Leonard was built for championship basketball. Now, his Raptors are one win away from reaching the NBA Finals.
Leonard only had 19 points and one single assist in Toronto’s Game 4 win, but he still led all stars with a net rating of plus-16. Why? Because when Milwaukee’s defense swarmed Leonard, he made the right decision, feeding teammates who made plays against a scrambling defense.
It’s not like the Raptors are inept without Leonard out there on the floor. Toronto went 17-5 in games their All-Star forward missed due to injury or load management during the regular season. Leonard hasn’t missed a game in the playoffs, but this team is equipped to compete at a high level even if he’s not out there on the floor.
“It’s probably one of the biggest pluses that we’ve seen here in the last couple games is that we are functioning very well in the minutes Kawhi’s not out there, and even tonight with Kyle and Kawhi both not out there,” Nick Nurse said postgame. “That’s just again a little bit more the way we played in the regular season.”
3. Bench Mob back
In Game 2, Norman Powell got it going off the bench. He scored 14 points, albeit in a blowout, and that momentum carried back over to Toronto. Role players often perform better at home, and the difference was night and day for a Raptors team that boasted one of the league’s most feared reserve units last season.
But one reserve player took that performance on the road with him. Fred VanVleet scored 13 points in Game 4, then turned in 21 points on 7-of-9 shooting from three-point range in Game 5. The Raptors outscored the Bucks by 28 points in minutes VanVleet played. It was a game he dedicated to his newborn son, and you could tell by the way he stepped up.
Powell scored 19 and 18 points, respectively, in Toronto’s wins in Games 3 and 4. Serge Ibaka scored 17 off the bench in Game 4, too. The Raptors are deep, they always have been. That’s a reason why they now hold a 3-2 series lead in the Eastern Conference Finals.
4. Taking away the straight line
Great players get theirs no matter what. Case in point: Giannis Antetokounmpo still finished with 25 points, 10 rebounds, five assists, and three blocks in Game 4. In Game 5, Antetokounmpo scored 24 points on 9-of-18 shooting.
Nick Nurse called a timeout early into the first quarter of Game 4 after Antetokounmpo got two dunks and a layup in the first few minutes. During that timeout, he said he reinforced the defensive plan to make Antetokounmpo work harder for his shots at the rim.
“We weren’t showing much length, and our gaps were too wide,” Nurse told reporters. “[Antetokounmpo] sees those openings, and he’s punching right through them. We just needed to get down and bend our knees and extend our arms, and get ready to go and get ready to catch the first move and not give him the straight line. We’ve go to make him go out a little bit so it can get to our next help defender.”
This was Toronto’s approach in Game 3, when they held Giannis to just 12 points on 5-of-16 shooting while forcing him to turn the ball over eight times and foul out due to several charge calls. It also worked in Game 5, particularly late in the game. Toronto continued blocking off the lane when he attacked the rim and succeeded in wearing him down. He played nearly the entire fourth quarter but only scored six points in that period.
The Bucks will need to figure something out — maybe put Antetokounmpo in position to attack from the baseline instead of the top of the key? — because Toronto is doing a good job of taking away his lanes to the rim.
5. They went home (for two games at least)
Role players always play better at home. The Raptors didn’t get the lift they needed in Milwaukee, but they flipped that around at home.
Sometimes, it’s just as simple as protecting home court and then stealing one on the road.
In Games 1 and 2, Gasol scored a total of eight points on 3-of-20 shooting from the field. At home in Games 3 and 4, he tallied 32 points on 11-of-21 shooting.
In Game 5, Gasol came up with two key offensive rebounds, including one that drew a foul with 34.7 seconds left and the Raptors up two that thwarted a Bucks defensive stop. He didn’t have his shot going, but he found other ways to contribute.
The Raptors traded Jonas Valanciunas and Delon Wright to pry Gasol from the Grizzlies at the trade deadline, and he was incensed at his own performance in the first two games of this series. Gasol was once one of the best big men in the NBA and still has games where he flashes his brilliance. The better he plays, the better the Raptors are.
Is this the best version of the Raptors?
That’s a question Lowry was asked at the podium following Toronto’s 18-point win over a juggernaut Milwaukee team in Game 4. His answer was telling. The Raptors have another notch they can take it to.
“We could have made more threes and played better defense. I mean, they shot 46 percent from the field,” he said. “They still got some things in transition we can clean up. I mean, no game is ever going to be perfect. I think as a team, we can always get better defensively. We can always shoot the ball better, get better shots.”
They proved this true in Game 5, and Danny Green still hasn’t had a good game in this series. Toronto has stolen the advantage. They are in the driver’s seat for a chance to wrap this thing up at home.
The Raptors still need one more win, but the Bucks can improve. Players not named Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton, who accounted for 55 of Milwaukee’s 102 points, shot just 17-of-48 from the field in Game 4. Nikola Mirotic, Eric Bledsoe, George Hill and Malcolm Brogdon each played poorly in Game 4, and while Bledsoe and Brogdon had their moments in Game 5, Middleton disappeared.
The Eastern Conference Finals is turning out to be the incredible series we expected it to be: a battle for power between two East juggernauts, with the two best players in the conference going head-to-head for a shot at the Warriors’ crown.
The Raptors made their changes. Can the Bucks make theirs?