Here’s 10 takeaways from the Toronto Raptors’ 105-99 victory over the Milwaukee Bucks to take a 3-2 series lead in the Eastern Conference Finals.
One - Precipice: The Raptors withstood a horrendous 18-3 start by the Bucks, slowly chipped away at the lead, and eventually pulled ahead in the fourth quarter. After winning three straight, it looks very much as if the Raptors have solved the Bucks. Make smart decisions on offense, keep it at a halfcourt pace, build a wall against Giannis Antetokounmpo in the paint, and rush the right shooters (George Hill, Malcolm Brogdon, and Brook Lopez) off the line to limit the Bucks in halfcourt. If the Raptors can do that, and hit a reasonable share of open shots, then the conference is theirs in Game 6.
Two - Experience: Toronto deserves full credit for winning this game, but Milwaukee also choked it away. The veteran Raptors kept their focus down the stretch, whereas the inexperienced Bucks just lost their composure in a tight game. The Bucks gave up five offensive rebounds in the fourth — including instances where Kawhi Leonard got his own miss off a three and a pivotal rebound by Marc Gasol — on top of Malcolm Brogdon losing possession that effectively sealed the result.
Three - Closer: Leonard put the team on his back and scored 15 points in the fourth quarter to put the Raptors on top. The Bucks tried switching, but Leonard drilled two pull-up threes over Lopez. Milwaukee then switched back to the regular assignment of Khris Middleton, but Leonard was able to muscle past him and get to the line. Milwaukee finally decided to just double Leonard outright and not allow him to get any looks, but the Raptors’ supporting pieces hit enough open threes and grabbed enough second-chance points to come out on top.
Four - Balance: The Raptors have struggled all season with blending Leonard’s isolations within the team offense. Tonight was perhaps the best example of both working in tandem, as Leonard finished with a career-high nine assists to go along with his usual 35 points. Leonard made sure to get his teammates easy looks early in the game, before taking over in the fourth. The Raptors can beat any team in the league if they replicate this formula.
Five - Contrast: While Leonard embraced the closer role, Antetokounmpo shied away from it. Antetokounmpo was nowhere to be found save for a fluky three in the fourth, committed two turnovers, and split a pair of free-throws off a questionable block call. If anything, the responsibility to finish the game fell to Brogdon, who did his best but just couldn’t score against an elite defense. Close games will always tend to favor the Raptors, as they actually have a superstar who can create his own shot and hit free throws, while Antetokounmpo’s drive-and-kick game becomes iffy when it matters most.
Six - Glow: The unsung hero from Game 5 was Fred VanVleet, who exploded for 21 points off the bench with seven threes. VanVleet was so locked in that Raptors head coach Nick Nurse even left Kyle Lowry on the bench until six minutes left in the fourth because VanVleet was just coming up with huge plays everywhere. VanVleet hit perhaps the biggest shot of the game with two minutes left in the fourth, as Lopez had just hit a three to tie after Brogdon dove into the crowd to save possession, but VanVleet answered right back with a corner three to push the Raptors ahead for good.
Seven - Senior: Ironically, VanVleet’s two best performances of the playoffs have come after the birth of his second child. VanVleet has been shuttling back and forth from his hometown of Rockford, Ill. during off days to be with his girlfriend in the hospital, and VanVleet has had to subsist off naps to get ready for the games. VanVleet joked after the game that the key to success in basketball was to get “no sleep, have a lot of babies, and let loose.” And for what it’s worth, Fred VanVleet Sr. is shooting 83 percent from deep.
Eight - Immense: Gasol was five minutes away from a scoreless outing, but he delivered when it mattered most. Gasol drilled a 28-foot bomb off a kickout from Leonard that pushed the lead to seven points, and he outmuscled Lopez for a key offensive rebound and stepped to the line to split a pair of free-throws that pushed Toronto ahead by three with 35 seconds to go. On the other end, Gasol was immense as usual in the halfcourt, as he provided great help defense in the paint on Milwaukee’s drives. Gasol’s defense has been pivotal in all three series throughout the playoffs, and the Raptors would not be at this point without him.
Nine - Exhausted: The Bucks might just be running out of options. They can’t get clean looks from deep (shooting 32.3 percent tonight was their best showing in five games) and Antetokounmpo can’t seem to consistently beat two Defensive Players of the Year winners to prop up the offense. Budenholzer made the overdue adjustment to start Brogdon, got a bounceback effort from Eric Bledsoe, and extended Antetokounmpo’s minutes, yet none of it was enough.
Ten - Moment: Not to get ahead of ourselves, but the Raptors are one game away from the NBA Finals against a Golden State Warriors side that will be without Kevin Durant. They will open as underdogs, but that was also the case against Milwaukee. The Warriors will force the Raptors to scrap just about everything they have done defensively up until this point, but the Raptors will have home court and the best player on the floor. The window is finally open for the first time in franchise history.
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