We already know the Golden State Warriors will be the Western Conference representative in the NBA Finals. In the East, though, the right to advance is still up for grabs. With Milwaukee and Toronto having won two games apiece, turning this into a best-of-three set over the weekend, now is as good a time as any to check in on a few key questions that will decide the pivotal Game 5 on Thursday night.
What’s up with Eric Bledsoe?
Remember the halcyon days of the first round, when Eric Bledsoe was crushing it? He averaged 19.3 points, 4.0 rebounds, 5.3 assists, and 2.0 steals in just 27.7 minutes per game. He has been slowly falling apart ever since.
Bledsoe is a pathetic 11-of-45 from the field 2-of-19 from 3 in this series. He has even missed four of his 13 free-throw attempts. He has reached double-digits just once, and it was in a game where he took 16 shots. In Game 4, he was flat-out benched and ended up playing only 20 minutes. Kyle Lowry is destroying him, both on the floor and seemingly in his head.
He’s at the point where, when he’s open outside the arc, he is catching the ball essentially on the drive so that he doesn’t have to let it fly from deep. That is a very, very dangerous place to be as a perimeter player. It’s an especially dangerous place to be when your team’s offensive system depends almost entirely on using four shooters to space the floor around a dominant physical specimen who is at his best when driving to the rim.
There is nothing that would help Milwaukee more than Bledsoe rediscovering his mojo. He’s needed defensively to muck things up at the point of attack. He’s needed offensively to push the pace, to provide a secondary ball-handler alongside Giannis Antetokounmpo, and to be one of several spacers around the middle-of-the-floor action. He doesn’t need to suddenly start shooting 45 percent from 3; but he can’t be going 1-of-5 or 0-of-6 every night as he has been.
How healthy is Kawhi Leonard?
There’s a lot of uncertainty surrounding this one. The closest we’ve gotten to an actual prescription of what’s bothering Kawhi is Lowry saying that he’s been “limited” with an unspecified injury. We clearly know that something is going on with his leg, but what exactly it is and how much it’s affecting him — if at all — is a major unknown.
It didn’t stop him from having a spectacular Game 3 on both ends of the floor or from playing terrific defense on Giannis again in Game 4. But he’s clearly gimpy, and that could present some problems if he can’t move laterally as quickly as he usually can, or if he can’t blow by guys off the dribble, or if he can’t handle quite as big a minute load as the Raptors need him to.
With a flight and a quick turnaround between games, things could get interesting in Game 5.
Can Marc Gasol and Kyle Lowry stay aggressive?
One of the keys to Toronto finally getting going offensively in Game 4 was Gasol’s shooting, passing, and general movement near the top of the key.
After shooting a combined 3-of-20 in Games 1 and 2, Gasol was spectacular during the two games in Toronto. His simply making quick decisions is so, so valuable for their offense. If he’s getting the ball at the top of the key and just holding it, or immediately looking for someone to whom he can hand the ball, things are going to stall out. That’s especially true against the Bucks’ drop style of pick-and-roll defense.
The Raptors got Gasol at the deadline because they needed help in the matchup they expected against the 76ers. Gasol indeed helped them win that series with his defense on Joel Embiid; but his offense is just as crucial in this series as his defense was in that one. He’s the only Toronto big man who can be described as an elite read and react passer, and against this Milwaukee defense, that’s a necessary skill set.
Game 4 was the best of Lowry distilled down into 34 minutes of playing time. It was also a continuation of his being significantly more aggressive probing cracks in the Bucks’ defense, and swinging the ball to the open man. He had only six assists combined during Games 1 and 2, but tallied 11 during the two games the Raptors won at home. The question of what Toronto will get from him going forward is obviously connected to what the heck is going on with Bledsoe, which makes it one of the more important questions remaining.
Do the Bucks need a lineup change?
Bledsoe is not the only Bucks starter struggling badly. Nikola Mirotic is 6-of-28 from 3 during the series, and he is getting hammered on the boards by Serge Ibaka, targeted on defense by everyone, and last game committed several terrible turnovers.
Milwaukee would do well to consider shifting Malcolm Brogdon back into the starting lineup. First of all, that would return the Bucks to the lineup that was the engine of their 60-win season. Second, it would remove a player who is more of a finisher in favor of one who provides more ball-handling. Third, it would replace a player who seemingly has so-so chemistry with Giannis with the player who has the best chemistry with him of any player on the team. And finally, it would remove the weakest defender in Milwaukee’s current starting lineup and replace him with one of the team’s most flexible stoppers, allowing the Bucks to switch more easily along the perimeter.
I’d advocate for the Bucks to dust off D.J. Wilson as part of bench units, given his ability to defend in space, but he seems to have been completely excised from the rotation in favor of guys with more experience. Perhaps simply boosting Giannis’ minutes from the mid-30s into the low-40s would provide a similar benefit. Mike Budenholzer typically likes to give him two or even three rest periods per half, but cutting one of those out so he can spend more time on the floor seems like it might be necessary if the Bucks are going to make it out of this series.