There’s an old expression that if things were easy, they wouldn’t be worth doing, and in that context, boy does last night’s Raptors victory feel earned. Everything about these first three games against Milwaukee has felt like a struggle, and nothing more so than the final few minutes of regulation and the two overtime periods last night: with two key players fouled out, and with a hobbling Kawhi Leonard playing 50-plus minutes, the Raptors scratched and clawed and hung on... until finally, they had a lead when the buzzer sounded and they escaped with possibly their hardest-earned victory of this postseason.
Will it change their fortunes in this series, which Milwaukee still leads 2-1? Too early to tell, but you have to start somewhere. On to the thoughts.
A Kawhi-et Appreciation
You’ll forgive the bad pun but what else to say about everything Kawhi Leonard did last night? Once again, Leonard barely got enough help from the rest of the team, and did everything he could to will the Raptors to victory, and once again, it was (barely) enough.
And almost all of it came after Kawhi did something to his left leg. On his first bucket, a fast break layup, Kawhi either jumped or landed awkwardly, or bumped into official Ed Malloy — it was hard to tell, but I’ll choose to blame Ed, because why not — and came up with a limp. He brushed it off post-game, but it didn’t seem quite right the whole rest of the game... he didn’t quite seem to have the same lift in his shots, and bricked a couple of clutch jumpers at the end of the first OT where he couldn't get the separation he normally does.
Of course he still made huge play after huge play, especially on defense, including an awesome steal at the end of the first OT, and this brilliant sequence in the second OT:
KAWHI STEAL AND SLAM #WeTheNorth | #NBAPlayoffs pic.twitter.com/sFidYbPVWa— NBA on TNT (@NBAonTNT) May 20, 2019
And he guarded Giannis Antetokounmpo almost the entire night! Giannis only scored 12 points on 16 shots and although he was huge on defence — 23 rebounds and four blocks — he was unable to affect the game the same way on the offensive end, and Kawhi deserves a ton of credit for it. Leonard finished with 36 on 25 shots, and hit 12-of-13 from the free throw line.
All in all, it was just a brilliant performance by Kawhi.
Pascal’s Redemption Block
Pascal Siakam had what I’d call an up-and-down night last night. The numbers were there: 25 points on 18 shots, 11 rebounds. He was aggressive at points, he hit two of his five three point attempts, and his defense was excellent the entire night — I’m pretty sure he guarded everyone on the Bucks roster at one point or another. On the other hand, he was timid at points, failing to attack one-on-one matchups, and he looked downright terrified of Giannis at times.
Most notably, of course, were the two missed three throws at the end of regulation. This unfortunate moment had the opportunity to define this entire night for him; those would have sealed the win, and unfortunately, they sent the Raptors to two OTs instead.
Thankfully Siakam made up for it in the second OT, first by drawing Giannis’ sixth foul; then with this sensational block on Brook Lopez:
WHEN THE SPICE HITS YA pic.twitter.com/NrTiad8xWO— Toronto Raptors (@Raptors) May 20, 2019
And then finally by hitting two free throws that put the Raptors up six.
Siakam has had his ups and downs this post-season, and that game may have showcased them in microcosm. But you can’t question his defensive effort, and... that block, man. That was huge.
Doing it Without Kyle
Normally, I have nothing but love for my man Kyle Lowry, especially his giant... basketball brain. But his fifth foul last night was one of the dumbest things I’ve ever seen him do and I’m still angry about it.
With nine minutes to go in the fourth quarter, Lowry missed a three pointer, and the Bucks, as they do, quickly took it the other way. The Raptors’ defense was scrambling and Lowry elected to foul Giannis on the perimeter to ensure the Bucks couldn’t generate an advantage.
If Lowry had two or even three fouls? Fine. But when he has four? He can’t take that. Even if you have to give up an easy two, that’s better than the alternatives: Lowry sitting out with five; Lowry playing tentative with five fouls; or Lowry fouling out.
You know what happened: Lowry sat out another three minutes, then came back, then immediately fouled out... then the Raptors played six minutes of regulation and 10 minutes overtime without him. And with the way Fred VanVleet’s been struggling, this was like the Raptors losing two players at once! They survived, but that was a supremely dumb foul by Kyle.
Freddy and Danny, Where you Guys At?
I really thought Nick Nurse’s decision to start the fourth quarter with both Fred VanVleet and Danny Green was criminal. So much so, I thought head of security John Altilia should have escorted him from the court right then and there. The pair were a combined 0-for-10 and were each a -6 at that point in the game.
Yeah, I know both Kyle Lowry and Norman Powell were in foul trouble, and you had to get Pascal Siakam some rest too. But did you have to play them both... together... for the first four minutes and 49 seconds of the most important quarter of the season!?
Of course, both Powell and Lowry proceeded to foul out that quarter, so both Green and VanVleet ended up playing even more time in the frame and the entirety of both overtimes. And... they continued missing shots. Fred missed his first two of the fourth before hitting his only shot of the night with three minutes left (to his credit, a huge, tie-breaking three) before missing two more in regulation and two more in OT. Green missed two in the fourth, then hit his only shot of the night with three minutes left in the first overtime (also a huge, tie-breaking three). And both were solid on defense, I’ll give them that much.
But that’s the absolute least you can expect from those two guys — solid D and one shot apiece when there is almost literally no one else left to play. Getting a 2-for-20 from your starting two-guard and backup point guard, both of who are excellent shooters, is just not gonna cut it.
Live In the Moment
I’m sure I’m not alone in this, but, sitting in the arena last night, after seeing Pascal Siakam miss those two free throws, I really can’t express the dread I felt. I didn’t want the game to go to overtime... and, honestly, I really just didn’t want to be there anymore. This is no indictment of the team, who were fighting hard despite losing their floor leader and despite getting nothing from two key players. It’s no indictment of the crowd, which was fantastic (especially considering it was the Sunday night of a long weekend), and it’s no indictment of Pascal, for whom I just felt tremendous empathy for missing those two free throws.
I just thought they were going to lose. I didn’t see a way to win, not without Kyle and with Kawhi playing at like 70% and Fred and Danny being negatives and our playoff saviour Norman Powell long gone. I thought it was going to be five minutes of misery and Brook Lopez mean mugging and I wanted it to be over and I wanted go home and write this column and eat a tub of ice cream and watch Game of Thrones and go to bed.
And that was at the end of regulation! Multiply that by about 20 for the end of the first overtime period.
And I’m mad at myself for it. Not just for not having faith in my team, and for falling into the “sad Raptors fan” stereotype, but for breaking one of my own rules: to try and live in the moment, to just try and remember to enjoy and appreciate things as they happen.
Honestly, every experience I've ever had as a Raptors fan prior to this season told me this game was going to be a loss from the last two minutes of regulation, and yet somehow...— Anthony Doyle (@Anthonysmdoyle) May 20, 2019
I mean, what a game, right? How could I be annoyed at that? Shame on me for failing to appreciate it.
When Giannis fouled out, I had a glimmer of hope, but it wasn’t until Kawhi’s first dunk of the second OT — the left-handed flush on the 2-on-1 with Pascal — that I finally felt that jolt of energy that brought me back into the moment.
GET OUT THE WAY! pic.twitter.com/ZClji2sdai— Toronto Raptors (@Raptors) May 20, 2019
The man has saved our season, twice now, and he may have saved my basketball soul last night, too.
Can the Raptors do it again tomorrow night? It may not seem like it; they barely escaped this one. But if they can limit the Bucks’ transition threes, get a little something from Fred and Danny, and keep Kyle and Norm on the floor, they’ve got a damn good chance of sending this series back to Milwaukee tied 2-2.