After the most convincing win and significant momentum shift of the Conference Finals, the Toronto Raptors look the part of an NBA Finalist.
When the Raptors fell behind 2-0 in the Eastern Conference Finals, all evidence from the regular season looked to have been confirmed. The Bucks were the best team in the NBA all season, and through two games, looked appeared even mightier than their historic regular-season production painted them. Giannis Antetokounmpo backed up a likely MVP campaign with dominant play on both ends and the Raptors, great as they were all season, were just a cut below the Bucks. Still, the idea that the Toronto “had to have” Game 1 if they were to make the Conference Finals competitive was an overreaction, even at the time. Much can change over the course of a series, and the most significant shift of the series occurred Thursday night, as the Raptors outlasted Milwaukee, 105-99, in the most convincing win of the series to date.
The flaws that prevented Toronto from keeping pace in Games 1 and 2 — an unreliable supporting cast, too heavy a reliance on Kawhi Leonard, the lack of an answer for Giannis Antetokounmpo — became sources of life in Game 5. Fred Van Vleet, who neared the verge of unplayability early in the series, stepped into seven made 3s for 21 points and offered steady two-way play in both second units and Toronto’s closing lineup; Kyle Lowry, for the second straight game, was behind so much of what Toronto did well; Pascal Siakam compensated for an inconsistent offensive game with stellar work on the glass and on defense. Leonard, meanwhile, capably managed a load of 40 minutes and 25 shot attempts on his way to 35 points and nine assists — all while serving as Antetokounmpo’s primary defender.
The Raptors won with their discipline, committing only six turnovers and seven shooting fouls while sustaining the necessary diligence and effort required to slow Antetokounmpo. All five defenders boxed out, and the ball moved crisply off of swing passes or drive-and-kicks — the sorts of passes that formed the basis of Toronto’s offense. If a dribble-drive didn’t produce an immediate shot attempt, it spurred the next movement within a possession, which stretched Milwaukee’s defense enough to create fissures for Leonard, Lowry or Siakam to attack. And when plays stalled, Leonard was there to pick up the slack.
Leonard was immutable, as he’s been all playoffs, even against a defense that maintained its effort and focus for virtually the duration of the game. Khris Middleton played painstaking defense on him, fighting over screens and matching his physicality in the post, and it hardly mattered. Leonard found whatever advantage he needed to create space against every defender the Bucks showed him, overpowering smaller players in the post and turning corners against slower ones on the perimeter. Even in a first half that felt relatively quiet, Leonard coasted his way to 13 points on 5-of-10 shooting. He had his best passing game of the playoffs, and maybe of his entire career. It wasn’t just that Leonard drive-and-kicked his way to a career-best in assists, it was the manner in which he found his teammates within the flow of the offense — more naturally than ever before. While Leonard still missed the occasional open pass or read, he appeared more willing to yield to the offense’s momentum. When help defenders arrived to impede his drives, he intuitively kicked to open shooters.
By and large, however, this was a defensive affair. Neither offense could find much traction early, particularly in the halfcourt. Milwaukee scored just 0.674 points per play in the halfcourt in the first half, per Cleaning the Glass, and by game’s end, the Bucks had still managed less than a point per possession in those situations. Much of that came down to cold shooting, but Toronto sent its help from the right places and limited the Bucks’ best shooters. The Raptors nabbed six steals (including two by Leonard) and constantly showed Antetokounmpo extra bodies. Their activity was disruptive enough to cause Milwaukee to consider their decisions a beat longer than is normal, which made Toronto’s length all the more disruptive.
The Bucks, meanwhile, fell victim to a second-half surge of their own design. All season, Milwaukee has been content to concede 3s at the expense of protecting the rim, and approach was no different Thursday night. Toronto struggled to even find shots at the rim, and when they did, Antetokounmpo or Brook Lopez was often there to smother any attempt (Antetokounmpo was the game’s most impactful defender). Early on, the strategy paid off; Toronto shot just 8-of-24 from deep in the first half (the Bucks were only 5-of-16). Eventually, however, both teams’ luck turned. The Raptors earned 31 free throws and 43 3-point attempts, while a whopping 15 percent of their shots were corner 3s, per Cleaning the Glass. Some of their 42 percent mark from distance had to do with an unsustainable 7-of-9 showing from Van Vleet and unguardable bombs from Leonard late. But against a defense primed to surrender open jumpers, role players and superstars are bound to heat up, and the Bucks cannot afford it happening again.