Milwaukee Bucks, NBA, NBA Playoffs, Toronto Raptors

Role players are defining the Eastern Conference Finals

With the Toronto Raptors scoring a massive 18-point victory over the Milwaukee Bucks on Tuesday night in Toronto, the Eastern Conference Finals are now tied up at two games apiece. For a matchup between the two top seeds in the Eastern Conference, a tight series isn’t necessarily a surprise, but perhaps a little unexpected is the road that has brought us here — what looked to be a star-studded showdown between Giannis Antetokounmpo and Kawhi Leonard has actually been defined by role players.

The Raptors blew out the Bucks in Game 4 not behind the performance of their superstar wing, but instead the unlikely trio of Serge Ibaka (17 points, 13 rebounds), Fred VanVleet (13 points, 5-of-6 shooting) and Norman Powell (18 points). It was, remarkably, the first game in the entire series where Toronto won the battle of the second units — the Milwaukee bench had outscored them 130-78 in the three preceding games. Alongside Marc Gasol’s best performance of the postseason thus far (17 points, 5 rebounds, 7 assists), the Raptors were able to overcome quiet games from Kawhi Leonard and Pascal Siakam and score a crucial win.

This was the kind of performance the Raptors counted on in their quest to win an NBA title. They brought in Gasol at the trade deadline to be the extra piece that would take them over the top, but until Game 4, he’d been largely invisible in the conference finals. Ditto Ibaka, who was meant to be their more physical change of pace in the paint as Gasol’s relief. VanVleet looked like the heir apparent to Lowry after a breakout 2017-18 season, but struggled with injuries and ineffectiveness this year and has shot just 29 percent from the field in the postseason. Without consistent contributions from these players, the burden placed on Toronto’s stars has increased dramatically.

This isn’t an issue exclusive to the Raptors; as a whole, the Eastern Conference Playoffs have generally featured a surprising lack of quality bench play. The most consistent exception, however, has been in Milwaukee, where the Bucks built a veritable game of roulette in which the ball lands on the role player who will drop 20+ on you that night. In Game 1, the lucky winner was Brook Lopez, who broke out of his recent slump to pile up a team-high 29 points. In their Game 2 blowout, it was Ersan Ilyasova’s turn, scoring 17 points and posting a team-high plus-minus of +22. In the double-overtime Game 3 defeat, George Hill, the hero of the Celtics series, answered the call with 24 points.

And then there’s Malcolm Brogdon, Milwaukee’s secret weapon. It’s rare that a team has the opportunity to bring a 50-40-90 player off the bench, but Brogdon’s recent reintroduction to the Milwaukee lineup after missing 21 games has afforded them such an opportunity. Brogdon scored 10 points in 16 minutes in his return to the lineup for the clincher against Boston, and since that point, he’s been fourth on the team in scoring with 13.3 points per night. As a whole, the Bucks have a whopping eight players averaging at least eight points in the series.

Milwaukee’s strength this postseason hasn’t just been that they have perhaps the best player in the league right now — it’s that they’re not solely dependent on said player. While Antetokounmpo has been appropriately excellent, their bulldozing of the Eastern Conference has been led by a collaborative effort across their roster. Against the Pistons, their team true shooting percentage was a borderline inconceivable 62 percent, led by fringe-y bench players Sterling Brown (72 percent) and Pat Connaughton (71 percent). Against the Celtics, it was hot-shooting from Khris Middleton (47 percent from 3) and a quality Brogdon impression from Hill off the bench.

Eight of Milwaukee’s ten wins this postseason have come by ten or more points, and that has benefits beyond mere bragging rights. In the first round against Detroit, the Bucks’ big leads afforded their starters an ample amount of rest; Antetokounmpo exceeded 30 minutes in a game just once in the entire series, playing 31 minutes in his 41-point decimation of the Pistons in the close-out game. Against the Celtics, he exceeded 34 minutes just once. Milwaukee then enjoyed nearly a full week of rest in between each round of the postseason.

The situation could not be more different in Toronto, where the Raptors have been wholly dependent on Leonard (and Pascal Siakam, and Kyle Lowry) performing as well as possible for as long as possible, as they seemed to be getting thinner by the day. With young forward OG Anunoby sidelined since the end of the regular season, Nick Nurse has deployed just a seven- or eight-man rotation for much of the postseason, and poor performances from Powell, VanVleet and Ibaka have forced a heavy workload on all of Toronto’s starters

To his credit, Leonard has held up his end of the bargain as well as anybody could be expected to, but after a grueling seven-game bout with the Philadelphia 76ers, this ultra-short rotation is starting to take its toll. The Raptors’ starting five are all averaging 30 or more minutes in the postseason to this point, led by a whopping 38 for Leonard and 37 for both Siakam and Lowry.

Leonard has been remarkable, but his performance has a clear shelf life; he’s played fewer than 36 minutes just twice since the first round, and the Raptors — with their shorter rotation — have played three more games than the Bucks. The net result? Leonard has played 180 more minutes of basketball than Antetokounmpo this postseason. Compounding that is the fact that Toronto had only two days of rest prior to the Eastern Conference Finals, compared to Milwaukee’s seven. His heroic third quarter helped Toronto secure their lead in Game 4, but his injured leg was a visible issue and he was clearly running on fumes.

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This all changes if the Raptors’ supporting cast can continue to perform like they did Tuesday night. There will be at least two — more likely three — more games in this series, and little remaining time for rest. Tired and injured, Kawhi Leonard may not be able to conquer the Bucks by himself; the Raptors will need more contributions from their unlikely heroes to advance to the NBA Finals.

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