If you told someone who didn’t watch basketball that the Raptors owned a top ranked offense in the NBA, they’d think you were insane. For much of today’s Game 4 showdown with the Bucks, the biggest game of the season, the Raptors were all over the place. Their three-point shooting? Out the window. Ball movement? Non-existent. Bench scoring? Forget it. Heroic play from their All-Star backcourt? A toss-up for stretches. Make no mistake, this was an ugly game for Toronto. Fortunately, they specialize in ugly games. The Raptors beat the Bucks 87-76 to tie their first round series at 2-2. Now, exhale.
For the game, the Raptors shot 41 percent from the field, and 22 percent from 3. For most of the first half, only DeMar DeRozan could find the bottom of the net. Sure, he was losing his man on defense an awful lot (be it Tony Snell, Khris Middleton, or anyone else in the vicinity). But finishing with 33 points (on 12-of-22 shooting), 9 rebounds, 5 assists, and 4 steals, buys a man a lot of forgiveness. And besides, the rest of the Raptors’ defense, when the team’s optimal lineups were in play, held Milwaukee to 37 percent shooting from the field, and 24 from deep. Like I said, it was an ugly game.
After the Bucks’ adjustments in Game 3 saw them blow Toronto off the floor, Raptors coach Dwane Casey responded in kind. He opted to start Norman Powell in place of Jonas Valanciunas, a surprising move. (Everyone figured P.J. Tucker would start in place of the corpse of DeMarre Carroll.) But wouldn’t you know it: Powell was extremely active and productive. Norm finished with 16 points, 4 rebounds, and 4 assists; most importantly, he shot 3-of-3 from deep (they were the only field goals he managed to hit, but not from lack of trying to demolish the rim). The Raptors absorbed threes like a man dying of thirst finally getting his hands on a full canteen. It gave them life.
As the game wore on, Kyle Lowry began to take the presence of the Bucks as an insult — as he should have right from the jump. Lowry overcame a slow start, including an atypical moment where he shrugged off a wide open three, to power the Raptors down the stretch. He finished with 18 points and 4 assists. Despite only shooting 2-of-8 from 3, Lowry’s play made a huge difference, particularly in his fearless drives to the basket, his confidence rising after each make.
The rest of the Raptors were useful in specific ways, but largely an open disaster. Carroll should never play again in this series. Serge Ibaka, shooting 4-of-16, didn’t have the range. P.J. Tucker’s defense was again superlative, but he contributed only 1 rebound to the proceedings. Cory Joseph should lose his minutes to Delon Wright, who himself was not much of a factor (a block on Matthew Dellavedova was his only standout moment). And finally, Valanciunas, the man who was deposed from the starting lineup, was once again worked over by Greg Monroe (14 points, 9 rebounds) and run off the court for long stretches, but he also shot 5-of-5 from the field and finished with 12 points. He was the only bench player on the Raptors to score. (We’re sending a search party out for Patrick Patterson, by the way.)
Did the Raptors barely survive a game in which the Bucks two best players, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton, were not in top form? It’s a fair stance to take, despite the obvious energy the Raptors were exerting to try and stop them. Giannis had a mere 14 points, on 6-of-19 shooting, while turning the ball over 7 times. He was an unholy terror at times (I mean, look at this), but also got called for some frustrated offensive fouls. Middleton meanwhile can still carve up the Raptors, but he only shot 4-of-13 for 10 points, while grabbing 11 rebounds. Fortunately for the Raptors, it appears as though Malcolm Brogdon has turned back into a rookie, and while Thon Maker, all knees and elbows, is threatening, he makes mistakes. The rest of the Bucks — outside of Monroe — were not all that dangerous.
The real question for the Raptors is one of confidence — who has it? How will they use it? And will it work? With the Bucks becoming increasingly frenzied as they gained their confidence, the Raptors were stricken. At the end of the half, Lowry stopped a Brogdon alley-oop attempt to Giannis that would have sent the people of Milwaukee into ecstasy. It wasn’t an obvious turning point — the game was tied, and would stay close for awhile afterwards — but it was the kind of play the Raptors needed. When DeRozan and Lowry are cooking like this, a lot can be overcome — bad shooting nights, disappearing teammates, wonky lineups, the works. As has been the case all season, when they believe they can do it, their teammates believe they can do it; and of course, we then do too.
In the brief post-game interview, DeRozan was asked about his performance this afternoon relative to Game 3’s outright disaster. How does a player play that badly — zero points from the field, no assists, contributing with just free throws — and bounce back? DeRozan gave his cool, confident response. “It won’t happen twice. Never happen twice.”
Let’s hope that’s true, as the Raptors head back to Toronto.