After Game 3’s end-of-days marathon, the Raptors had to know they’d need more from every player on the roster not named Kawhi Leonard. That’s not to say others on the team weren’t tired too, but Toronto’s squad likely knew it had to respond in kind after Kawhi kept their season alive on Sunday night. As Game 4 against the Bucks carried on, it was clear Leonard was definitely not at 100 percent — but it was also clear he didn’t have to do it all on the night.
Instead, it suddenly felt like a stroke of genius for Kyle Lowry to, say, foul out with so much time left in Game 3, and for Toronto’s bench to play poorly for long stretches of the playoffs, both in this series and earlier on, so as to sock away some minutes on the bench. Maybe they had all just be trying to keep themselves fresh for exactly this situation.
And why not, it was Lowry’s 25 points on 11 shots (plus 10-of-10 on free throws) that paced the Raptors throughout their 120-102 Game 4 victory over the Bucks. On top of that, Toronto benefited from perhaps the strongest game they’ve gotten from their bench (non-blowout edition) too. In fact, as the contest went on, as Giannis Antetokounmpo was air-balling free throws, Malcolm Brogdon was labouring to get to the rim, and a whole lot of shots were hitting front rim, something else became clear as well: both teams were now tired, the game — and perhaps the series — was turning ugly. And no one is better at grinding out ugly wins than the Toronto Raptors.
In that sense, Kawhi fit right in. After his 52-minute masterpiece on Sunday night, Leonard was slow to assert himself on offense, and largely unable to get any easy shots. Credit to Milwaukee’s defense, sure, but it was clear he couldn’t go all-out for the entire game. That’s not to say he was useless out there — Kawhi’s utility on defense is still high, and he still managed to get in a couple of monster plays in at the rim (including a dunk on Giannis). But Leonard put in only a modest 19 points (on 6-of-13 shooting) with seven rebounds, plus four steals in just 34 minutes. Fortunately for the Raptors, they didn’t need Leonard to be superhuman tonight, just present and alert. Done and done.
The rest of Toronto’s production came from Lowry, who was everywhere again; along with Marc Gasol and his strong 17-7-5 line, including three 3s; and a delightful run from the Raptors’ bench trio of Fred VanVleet, Norman Powell, and Serge Ibaka. That latter group has had almost a comical lack of success as a unit in the playoffs, with the Raptors routinely giving up leads, indeed giving away entire games, whenever they hit the floor together. Not so in Game 4. They helped spark a 13-0 run across the first and second quarters. Then continued to fend off the hard-charging Bucks in the second half. And when Toronto gambled with the group to start the fourth quarter against Giannis, it all could have gone very wrong. Instead: it went very right.
In those minutes, with the Bucks hoping to shrink Toronto’s long-held lead — one they claimed in the first and never gave up — the Raptors’ bench decided not to break. VanVleet completed some plays at the rim and banked in a three, Ibaka continued to be huge in the paint (he actually drew a foul on Fred’s banked three), and Norm continued to just straight up torture the Bucks. He has to now be so firmly planted in the psyche of the entire Milwaukee metropolitan area I’m not sure they’ll ever recover. Toronto’s lead got as big as 20 and the rest of the quarter was spent riding the wave of that energy.
On the night, Powell finished with 18 points, five rebounds, and three assists. His shooting wasn’t always great, at 6-of-18 from the field Norm could have been a bit more selective. Then again, it’s easy to respect Powell’s extended heat check confidence. VanVleet, meanwhile, upturned the nightmare run of his post-season by rediscovering his shot tonight and actually making good plays at the rim. VanVleet finished with 13 points, on 5-of-6 shooting including 3-for-3 from three, and six assists. And last but not least, Ibaka once again did his monster power forward thing: a 17-13 double-double, with four offensive boards.
It’s not overstating it to say that Toronto’s bench play was the difference. The Bucks, fresh and powerful in Games 1 and 2, now look like they’re stuck in the same mud as some of the Raptors. Milwaukee’s depth is no joke, but Toronto has rediscovered theirs, which suddenly gives them options on offense. What’s more, the trend of the Raptors’ fearsome defense pushing the Bucks into ugly shots again and again just keeps going too. Yes, it’s possible the Bucks could blow open Game 5 in the comforts of their own home. But Toronto could just as easily turn it into another slog for them.
If we’ve learned anything else by watching the Raptors in this post-season, and really, while watching the Raptors forever, they live in that slog. It certainly feels like they’ll be ready. And hey, Kawhi got a bunch of rest on the night too. Chalk that up as another bit of smart thinking.