The Raptors blew out the Bucks in Game 4 to even up the Eastern Conference Finals at 2-2. As recently as last Saturday, that felt like an almost impossible turn of events, and yet here we are.
What’s more, the way the Raptors got to their win was very different than what they’ve come to expect of late in these playoffs. Let’s dive in.
Counting on the Bench
This is a section that I write a few times each series, each time lamenting how much the lack of depth is killing the Raptors, how Serge Ibaka’s inconsistency is problematic, how Norman Powell is either a complete disaster or a second Kawhi Leonard on any given night, and how Fred VanVleet has given the Raptors absolutely nothing on offense the entire playoffs.
It’s nice to have a change of pace.
The three key bench players were absolutely phenomenal in this game. Norm wasn’t particularly efficient, but still managed decent volume production, scoring 18 points and grabbing five rebounds in 32 minutes (admittedly on 22 used possessions). But raw scoring is really what they need from the bench, and even a slightly below 1.0 points per possession rate is a massive improvement from any of them compared to the usual performance. Great to see Powell continue his much improved play this round.
Serge rebounded from a weak performance, and on the boards was where he did most of his damage. He grabbed 13 rebounds, four on the offensive glass, and that helped him put up 17 points on only 10 used possessions. The Raptors really took advantage of the rebounding game in this one, especially with Ibaka on the court — in those minutes, the Raptors grabbed 48 percent of their own misses, and 82 percent of Milwaukee’s, dominating the glass on both ends. That sort of scoring punch and presence on the boards is a huge boost for the Raptors.
Fred VanVleet finally had a good scoring night, going 5-of-6 from the floor and hitting all three of his long range shots. Overall he posted 13 points on seven used possessions, and threw in six assists to boot. I referenced last game how easily VanVleet’s on-court numbers could swing if he simply started hitting shots. That’s not all that happened here, but making those shots was a lot of it.
And those on-court numbers are really all that matters in the playoffs for the Raptors — just win your minutes. Everyone does that every game, you take home the championship. So, how did the bench’s newfound success translate to the scoreboard?
Player | Minutes Played | On-Court Net Rating
Leonard: 34 MP, +27 RTG
Lowry: 34 MP, +6 RTG
Powell: 32 MP, +45 RTG
Gasol: 31 MP, +5 RTG
VanVleet: 25 MP, +49 RTG
Green: 25 MP, +21 RTG
Ibaka: 24 MP, +51 RTG
Siakam: 23 MP, +4 RTG
Net Rating (RTG): team point differential per 100 possessions
Good on the bench. Their efforts paid off big time in this one.
Shooting Woes for... Milwaukee?
Again, usually this section is where I bemoan the Raptors’ lack of ability to hit an open three. Instead (although they did shoot only 34 percent from three in this one), let’s take a look at the Bucks’ shooting.
The Bucks have been largely getting up a lot of shots from three, to the tune of 41 per game, but have also shot only 30 percent from three. This from a team that shot 35 percent from distance in the regular season is not a huge outlier, but it is certainly low.
Still, are the Raptors merely getting lucky? Are they lucky to even be tied in this series? Or is there more at play here?
Well, let’s take a look at their splits based on how contested the Bucks’ shots have been. Over the first three games of the series, of the 129 three point attempts the Bucks had, 80 were considered wide open, while 49 were some variety of contested (defender within six feet). The Bucks are indeed cold on their wide open threes, shooting only 31 percent on those shots, after they shot 36 percent on uncontested threes in the regular season.
But perhaps a bigger factor is how good a job the Raptors are doing contesting the Bucks’ shots. The Bucks have shot only 27 percent on contested threes — and this could be noise, but unlike with wide open shots, there is some effect of the defense here. This could well keep up even if the uncontested threes regress to their mean, which would help keep the Bucks’ overall shooting suppressed.
Let’s take a closer look at who was getting those wide open threes in the first three games. After all, there’s a wide open three and then there’s a wide open three. Different players have different expected values on an open shot.
Player | Wide Open 3’s | Wide Open 3PT%
Mirotic: 7 3PA, 29%
Lopez: 18 3PA, 28%
Brogdon: 17 3PA, 47%
Middleton: 6 3PA, 17%
Bledsoe: 13 3PA, 8%
Giannis: 9 3PA, 22%
The Raptors have been daring the guys they don’t believe are really threats from downtown to prove it. Brook Lopez has fallen short, while Malcolm Brogdon, who is coming back from an injury, has been on fire. Meanwhile, Eric Bledsoe and Giannis Antetokounmpo have both settled for jumpers that the Raptors are all too happy for them to take. And note what a great job the Raptors have done on the two most dangerous shooters on the team — Nikola Mirotic and Khris Middleton haven’t gotten free beyond the arc at all. Even if those two were to heat up on open shots, on this low a volume it wouldn’t make that much difference.
So we come to Game 4, where we saw even better perimeter defense from the Raptors. The Bucks only managed to get up 35 three point attempts last night after putting up 44, 41 and 44 in the first three games. And lo and behold, another poor shooting night, hitting on only 31 percent of their shots.
The Raptors are doing a great job defensively, leveraging a strategy that has been attributed to the Bucks for most of the year — allowing open shots to select opponents who are less likely to punish you for it, while contesting on long range shots on their opponents’ better shooters.
He Did It Again
Kawhi Leonard is doing an unbelievable job defending Giannis, and did it again in Game 4.
In the 34 possessions Kawhi was primary defender on Giannis, he put up seven points (on 3-of-7 shooting), with one assist against two turnovers, and one made free throw. The Bucks scored 31 points on those 34 possessions, good for an offensive rating of 91 points per 100 possessions.
In his other 32 possessions, he registered 18 points (on 6-of-10 shooting), five assists and four turnovers, making six free throws. The Bucks scored 39 points on those 32 possessions, good for an offensive rating of 122 points per 100 possessions.
At a certain point, this isn’t Giannis having bad games. This is one of the premier defensive players in the league directing his attention to Giannis.
It’s also a bit of an ace in the hole for Nick Nurse. If this series starts going the wrong way again, and the Raptors are in a situation where they need to ask their stars to go the extra mile, he can assign Leonard to Giannis full time, rather than half-time, and likely scuttle the Bucks’ offense. There are difficulties with coverages — the Raptors would need to be quick in transition, and avoid switching on Giannis plays, which could have its own pitfalls. But even giving Kawhi the primary assignment has already swung this series.
If the defense continues, and the Raptors keep hitting shots at an acceptable rate (or, better yet, catch fire at some point and hit above 40 percent from three like they did for the last couple months of the regular season), winning this series could be a real possibility.