Here’s 10 takeaways from the Toronto Raptors’ 120-102 win over the Milwaukee Bucks in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Finals.
One - Together: Surviving double overtime in Game 3 was a testament to Kawhi Leonard’s determination, while Game 4 was about the rest of team rallying around him. This was the first time since the first round in which every Raptor that took the floor made a positive impact, and that team-oriented approach easily overwhelmed the Bucks who could only rely on their two all-stars for scoring.
Two - Gutsy: Leonard was clearly hobbled after extending himself for 52 minutes in Game 3. His usual limp was even more pronounced, and he just couldn’t totally impose himself on the game as he normally would. However, Leonard was still effective in a limited role, as he picked his spots on offence, swung the ball dutifully out of double-teams, came up with four steals, made huge defensive plays against Giannis Antetokounmpo and Eric Bledsoe, while also nailing a few jumpers in the third and fourth quarters to keep the Bucks at bay. It must shock San Antonio Spurs fans to see Leonard grit his teeth and play through injury, but that’s what happens when the Raptors prioritize and invest in his health all season.
Three - Balance: The Raptors became entirely dependent on Leonard throughout the playoffs, but it’s easy to forget that the Raptors went 17-5 without Leonard in the regular season. They can clearly operate and even dominate without their best player, but it’s still a work in progress to marry the two. Part of that comes down to every other player bearing a bigger responsibility when Leonard isn’t there to bail them out, and that translates to a more team-oriented approach. Having said that, they still need Leonard at his best to put away the Bucks.
Four - Leader: Kyle Lowry set the tone early with 18 points in the first half, and finished with a team-high 25 points. He was aggressive from deep, opportunistic in attacking the basket, pushed the pace in transition, and was tremendous in all the small margins as he usually is. Game 1 was the exception, but the Raptors almost never lose when Lowry is on his game. Lowry’s aggression is night and day when he’s not deferring to Leonard, and again, it’s on Lowry and Leonard to build more chemistry going forward so they can both be at their best at the same time.
Five - Massive: Don’t look now, but Marc Gasol is starting to win the Brook Lopez matchup. Gasol was efficient from deep, but most importantly, he’s also getting more varied looks that’s activated his playmaking ability. Gasol was able to feed Leonard two easy baskets off a simple high-low action from the elbow, and he also created for Pascal Siakam by posting up on the block and getting to work against smaller defenders in Nikola Mirotic and Ersan Ilyasova. Gasol’s ability to generate offence for his teammates is a huge development, as it takes the burden off Lowry and Leonard to repeatedly break down a set defence.
Six - Hustle: This is exactly the type of effort and energy that the Raptors need from Serge Ibaka. He’s too good to just passively sit back and shoot catch-and-shoot jumpers. Ibaka can get himself going by crashing the glass, getting a few putbacks, and by being a presence around the rim. Ibaka was so eager to make his mark on the game that he fought off his own teammates for loose balls as part of his 17 points and 13 rebounds in 24 minutes. Ibaka needs to carry this approach into every game, especially now that he’s coming in with the second unit. He’s capable of changing the game with just his energy.
Seven - Confident: Norman Powell is not shy whatsoever, as he took a team-high 18 shots including 13 attempts from deep. It wasn’t the most efficient outing, but that’s the right approach for Powell in his role as the go-to scorer off the bench. Regardless of his percentage, Powell’s willingness to take the open shots that are available to him improves the flow of the offence, as that means the Raptors aren’t scrambling around trying to improvise in a short clock situation for a tougher look. Powell’s ability to stretch the floor in transition has also been a huge positive, especially since Siakam was limited.
Eight - Surprise: The much-maligned Fred VanVleet finally had a breakout performance as he poured in 13 points on 5-of-6 shooting that included some massive triples to maintain the Raptors’ advantage. On paper, VanVleet should have an easier time in this series as he has two viable defensive assignments in Eric Bledsoe and Pat Connaughton, and on the other end it’s just on him to make good reads and hit open shots. There’s no reason why VanVleet couldn’t replicate this performance, especially if he can regain some of his confidence.
Nine - Numbers: The Raptors have held Milwaukee to under 32 percent shooting from beyond the arc in four-straight games. It’s tempting to say that the Bucks are due for a better shooting performance, but the Raptors’ defence has also been smart and diligent in running the Bucks off the line. Toronto is selling out against Khris Middleton, George Hill, and Malcolm Brogdon, while the likes of Nikola Mirotic, Ersan Ilyasova, and Brook Lopez are also being rushed and forced to relocate. After that, Eric Bledsoe and Antetokounmpo can have all the open shots they want. Milwaukee will always shoot a high volume, but they are not necessarily a high-efficiency team.
Ten - Maturation: For all the flack the bourgeois Raptors crowd has taken, this was one of their best showings. Scotiabank Arena went nuts each time Antetokounmpo stepped to the free-throw line, and for the second-straight game he shot an airball. Meanwhile, with the frigid weather finally thawing in late-May, there were thousands of fans packed around the block cheering outside the building. That atmosphere, combined with this result, and the performance of his teammates, must be one hell of a sell to Leonard to keep in mind this summer.
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