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Toronto Temperature: Stingy defense and key bench contributions lead the way

The Raptors have picked it up. The centres are playing well, Fred VanVleet is back on track, and the series against the Bucks is tied 2-2. Let’s take the Temperature.

NBA Playoffs 2019 Toronto Raptors Podcast That’s A Rap #30: Post-Game 4 Raptors-Bucks Reaction, Marc Gasol John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

Was that a week? That went by fast. The Raptors played four games in all, with the respective home teams winning through all four contests in the Eastern Conference Finals. Milwaukee took care of business at the Fiserv Forum, squeaking by in Game 1 and winning emphatically in Game 2. The Raptors, almost strangely, followed the same formula at Scotiabank Arena, winning a double-overtime thriller in Game 3, and blowing out the Bucks with a big bench performances in Game 4.

The Raptors are two games away from the Finals. That’s pretty hot. Let’s get right into it and take the Toronto Temperature.

Who’s Hot

Kawhi Leonard’s Defense

Kawhi Leonard had his second lowest point total of the playoffs (19 points) in Game 4 but it in no way spoke to his floor game. He was smothering on defense, recording four steals and two blocks, and he always seemed to be in the right place at the right time, especially guarding Giannis Antetokounmpo.

The way Leonard defends Antetokounmpo is impressive. You almost never see their hips collide. Leonard stays back with his lower half, but keeps his hands active in front. If Antetokounmpo spins, there is no one there to spin off of. If Giannis does an in-and-out dribble or Euro-step, Leonard is right there with active hands. In Game 4, on 31 possessions with Leonard as the defender, Antetokounmpo scored 18.5 points per 100 possessions less than his regular season average.

And just for kicks, Kawhi was just named to the All-NBA Defensive Second team.

The Bigs, Stepping Up

The Raptors’ centres were great in Game 4. Marc Gasol set the tone once again, going 2-of-4 from deep in the first quarter. Unlike Game 2, Gasol was ready to fire away on the catch. You could see his calculus with Pascal Siakam in the post during the first quarter. Gasol’s defender, Brook Lopez, was testing the waters as a help defender, sticking close to Siakam on the post up. Gasol saw this and started lining his shot up. His hands were up ready to receive the pass and he was doing a little toe dance, timing the shot. If Gasol were to get the ball (which he did), you knew it was going up. That type of aggression, along with efficient shooting, has made Gasol indispensable to the Raptors in these playoff wins.

Serge Ibaka was just as effective in Game 4, albeit in a completely different way. Serge brought the old school game, getting physical on the boards. He took down 13 rebounds and most of them were pretty electric. On one play, Ibaka was able to get his hands on a missed three, tipping it right to Danny Green. The attempt missed, but Ibaka was there again to finish the play. It was a rim rocker, for sure, and it provided the spark the Raptors needed. Serge didn’t care, he was just going to play. The Raptors followed.

Playoff Powell and Fred VanVleet

A week and a half ago, Norman Powell wasn’t even in the rotation, receiving a DNP-CD in Game 7 versus Philadelphia. But now, in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Finals, it’s all happening. He took a career high in attempts from three with 13, along with a heat check three in isolation at the end of the third quarter. Playoff Powell! He scored 18 points on 6-of-18 shooting on the game, to go along with five rebounds and three assists in 32 minutes. He was aggressive all night and clearly a worry for Milwaukee’s defense.

This run of extended playing time for Powell started in Game 2. The Raptors were down big most of the game so he got an opportunity, logging 25 minutes and scoring 14 points. Since then, it appears he has earned the trust of Nick Nurse. Heading into Game 5, we can expect to see more mean-mugging from Powell.

Fred VanVleet was just as good too. He scored 13 points on 5-of-6 shooting from he field, and 3-of-3 shooting from deep. He made a number of impressive plays in the fourth quarter. He shimmied George Hill out of his shoes with an in-and-out dribble for a layup, banked in a three (plus the foul), and put in a finger-roll over top of a converging Milwaukee defense. It’s telling that Powell and VanVleet had the two highest plus-minus on the team in Game 4, posting a +29 and +25 respectively.

Who’s Not

Milwaukee’s Transition Attack, Still Scary

The tiniest of defensive decisions can make the difference between Milwaukee setting up in the half court or getting out in transition. If Giannis Antetokounmpo — after Milwaukee inbounds the ball to a point guard — can beat his defender up the court, they are off to the races with a pitch ahead pass. If someone on the Raptors gambles for a steal, they are off to the races. If the Raptors have a moment of indecision finding the right matchups in transition, the Bucks will likely find a bucket. That’s been the story so far this series.

The Raptors are trailing the Bucks in fast-break points this series 96-to-63. And although the Raptors were solid in Game 4 (they held Milwaukee to 13 fast break points), Game 5 is a different animal. The Milwaukee crowd will be loud after every defensive rebound. Whether the Raptors can withstand that burst and keep the game in he half court is crucial. I can already picture Giannis dunking the Milwaukee crowd into a sense of elation. We’ll see. The transition battle remains important.

Pascal Siakam, A Mixed Bag

It has been a strange series for Pascal Siakam. It’s not that he isn’t producing, he is. But for every amazing play, there have been a few stinkers he probably wants back.

In the first minutes of Game 4, Siakam had the ball in the post against Giannis Antetokounmpo. The entire Bucks defense was inching in on the play. Even Eric Bledsoe, who was guarding Kyle Lowry one pass away at the top of the key, was right next to Siakam. The most natural play would have been to kick it out to Lowry, but Siakam instead spun baseline into the gut of Giannis and got striped. Not the best.

But then Siakam would make an amazing play and you would forget all about it. In the third quarter, he attacked from the baseline, zipping to the basket for the reverse layup. “Oh, there’s Pascal. He’s really good.” Later in the game, in the third quarter, Siakam streaked down the court and got a pass from Kyle Lowry, finishing over the top of Khris Middleton for the transition layup — plus the and-one. Another example of spicy Pascal.

The good has more than outweighed the bad for Siakam in these playoffs. But the margin of error gets slimmer with every game. If he can clean up his turnovers (five total in the past two games) and limit his fouls (18 total this series), he will be in good shape going into Game 5.

Danny Green, Still Finding It

With Fred VanVleet getting back on track, Danny Green is only Raptor still shooting below 30 percent this series (he is 6-of-25, a 24 percent mark). And although the process has looked better in the last few games — more confident pump fakes, better flow — it hasn’t translated to results.

For what it’s worth, Green is being featured less versus Milwaukee. During the regular season, he had usage of 13.8 percent. Against Milwaukee, his usage is down to 11 percent. Not a huge shift, but for a rhythm shooter like Green, one could imagine that being a part of more actions is helpful.

Because when Green is in rhythm, like on wide-open three-point attempts, he has been good. This series, on wide open threes (i.e. when a defender is six or more feet away), Green is 3-of-7 from deep. What to make of that is iffy, but heading into Game 5, there is no reason to expect that Green can’t catch fire at any moment. You have to give credit to the Milwaukee defense for contesting and limiting his looks, but every new game presents different shots. Hopefully Green can string a few together.