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Five thoughts on last night’s Game 4: Raptors 120, Bucks 102

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The Raptors finally looked like the Raptors we saw in the second half of the regular season, and the Eastern Conference Finals are now a best-of-three.

NBA Playoffs 2019: Five thoughts Game 4 recap: Toronto Raptors 120, Milwaukee Bucks 102, Kawhi Leonard John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

Ball movement, cutting, hitting open shots, and limiting opponent transition opportunities. Switching heavily on defense, and turning defense into offense. That sounds like your 2018-19 Toronto Raptors, right? The team that won 58 games, the second-most in the entire league? They’d been MIA for most of the the past three weeks, popping up here and there — Game 5 against Philadelphia, the first half of Game 1 against Milwaukee — but the full package was back on display last night for a full 48 minutes.

The end result: A runaway win and a 2-2 series tie.

Some thoughts:

Game 1 Redux

Last night’s game felt very Game 1-ish for the first half: the Raptors got contributions from across the roster, Kyle Lowry was red hot and scoring well, and the double-big lineup was effective. But, despite a 13-0 spurt that bridged the first and second quarters, the Bucks kept hanging around, getting back within six, within eight...

Only this time, they never took control of the game back. The Raptors’ bench stayed strong, the defense never let up, they kept getting key rebounds, and a couple of bounces went their way. And the proverbial gut-check time at the start of the fourth quarter belonged to the Raptors bench, who slammed the door shut. (Yes, you read that right — and you better believe I’ll have more thoughts on that!)

Once again, Lowry set the tone early, and when it came time to relieve the bench late and seal the deal, there he was, hitting a three, assisting on a Kawhi Leonard three, and scoring a driving layup. By the way, with the amount of texts I keep sending my wife that include some combination of the words “Kyle,” “Lowry”, “KLOE” and various heart-related emojis, she’s going to start getting jealous.

Don’t worry Kyle. I won’t let her come between us.

Load Management Sharing

I enjoyed the way Nick Nurse managed his substitutions last night. He made sure to get Kawhi Leonard and Marc Gasol — who played a zillion minutes on Sunday, numbers approximate — out early, for Norman Powell and Serge Ibaka, who had much fresher legs. Leonard’s minutes matched Giannis Antetokounmpo’s closely in the first half, a smart move considering how effective Leonard was at slowing Giannis down on Sunday.

Most important of all, though, the Raptors finally got real offensive contributions from multiple players. Six players scored in double figures, including all three subs, meaning Leonard could focus on defense — where he was superb — not scoring, and the Raptors could withstand an off night from a foul-plagued Pascal Siakam and yet another poor shooting night from Danny Green (who was once again solid on defense, although he found himself switched onto — and overpowered by — Giannis a few too many times for my tastes).

Can the team keep it up? Perhaps; perhaps Green and Siakam will have “on” nights and Powell, VanVleet and/or Serge will regress. Or perhaps one game where he didn’t have to shoulder the entire load was enough to put some juice back into Kawhi’s legs and he’ll be able to dominate the rest of the way.

Or, maybe, all things turn the Raptors way, Kawhi dominates, Green, Leonard, and Powell shoot the lights out, Siakam controls the transition game, Ibaka controls the paint, Gasol and Lowry remain aggressive and the Raptors win the next two by 30. Hey, it could happen!

Nick Nurse, Gamblin’ Man

Just how the heck did the Raptors survive opening the fourth quarter of the most important game of their season with a line up of Marc Gasol, Serge Ibaka, Norman Powell, Fred VanVleet and Danny Green? And not only survive... but actually build their lead? With Giannis on the floor!?

Sometimes you need a little luck. Consider this: The Raptors opened the quarter with the ball and as you might expect with that lineup, their first offensivee resembled the pile of leaves that you raked in October and discovered rotting in the backyard after the snow thawed in April... it was disgusting. And resulted a Norman Powell turnover.

But Fred VanVleet stole Nikola Mirotic’s outlet pass and got himself a layup.

After a Gasol miss and another Powell bad pass, on the next Raptors possession, which resembled the chocolate bar that fell out of your bag, and you couldn’t find it at lunch, and you went out to your car after work, and there it was, melted all over the passenger seat of your car because it was a 35-degree Toronto summer day... it was disgusting. It resulted in a Fred VanVleet three-point heave with no time on the shot clock, that went off glass, hit rim three times and dropped though, while Ibaka was being fouled by Antetokounmpo, resulting in a four-point play.

Crazy. But like I said... sometimes, you need a bounce or two to go your way. Without them, that whole stretch could’ve backfired on Toronto, but, I guess that’s why they call it gambling!

Are the Bucks (Finally) Tired?

You could argue that these last two games were Milwaukee’s first real tests of these playoffs. Sure, they got beaten (easily) by the Celtics at home last series, but they didn’t seem too worried — and proceeded to win the next four rather easily. Sunday’s double-OT Game 3 was the first time they had to play high-leverage crunch time minutes, and certainly the first time they had to play actual extended minutes. It was Giannis’ first time in these playoffs playing more than 39 minutes (he reached 44 before fouling out); Same for Khris Middleton and Brook Lopez.

The Bucks also had extended rests following each of their first round series, and let’s not forget the first two rounds also feature extra off days between games — despite those short series, the Bucks had four two-days-off-between-games scenarios in the first two rounds. This series has been (and will continue to be) every other day.

Does this ultimately matter? Probably not; these guys are pro athletes, if this workload is really making a difference, you can bet their bodies are adjusting and their pro chefs and pro trainers are adjusting their meals and workout regimens as we speak to get them ready for Game 5.

There’s Nothing Like the Love the Crowd Has or an Airball Free Throw

When Giannis airballed a free throw in Game 3, the sarcastic roar from the crowd was about as loud as you’ll hear a crowd get.

Or so I thought, until last night, when Giannis airballed another one and the crowd went nuts, like Kawhi Leonard had just hit another miracle game winner or something. I absolutely loved it.

(True, part of me feels like we really shouldn’t take such glee in the failure of others, but then again... it’s all in good fun, right? And hey, if you don’t wanna get jeered, hit the rim on your free throws!)

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Can the Raptors win on the road? They’re 3-2 on the road this postseason, and were the league’s third-best road team in the regular season (behind Golden State and... Milwaukee). So it’s certainly possible... just like it’s possible Milwaukee can win Game 6 here in Toronto.

In other words, this series is far from over.