“The Toronto Raptors are two wins away from the NBA Finals”
When Matt Devlin uttered those words after a Game 4 walloping of the Milwaukee Bucks that evened the Eastern Conference Finals at two games apiece, I felt the crushing weight of nearly 25 years of Raptors fandom begin to roll off of my shoulders. Of course as a Raptors fan, that weight immediately began to calcify around my ankles, not yet ready to leave the body. The grip of Raptors failures both in the distant and not-so-distant past feels like it will never truly release the tormented fan base until the team wins a championship; but with Toronto being this close to the pinnacle of the NBA season, we should allow ourselves to bask in the glorious glow of this incredible accomplishment.
And what an accomplishment this series and playoff run has been! Kawhi Leonard is a Raptor. The defense has been suffocating and championship-level. The offense, though sputtering for larger spurts than one would like, is alive and kicking. Moreover, Kyle Lowry continues to show the world that he is much, much better than most will ever give him credit for.
With momentum in hand and a chance to take a 3-2 series lead that could give them a chance to finish the Bucks off at home in six (positive thinking everyone), the Raptors are returning to Milwaukee to bring themselves one step closer to their ultimate goal.
Here are the details for Game 5.
Where to Watch:
Sportsnet, 8:30 PM EST
Toronto - Kyle Lowry, Danny Green, Kawhi Leonard, Pascal Siakam, Marc Gasol
Milwaukee - Eric Bledsoe, Khris Middleton, Nikola Mirotic, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Brook Lopez
Toronto - OG Anunoby (appendectomy - out), Patrick McCaw (personal - out)
Milwaukee - Donte DiVincenzo (heel - out), Pau Gasol (foot - out)
Nick Nurse and the Raptors know that Milwaukee is going to make adjustments after losing two straight games for only the second time this season (!!!) and it could very well come in the form of a starting lineup change at the point guard position. Mike Budenholzer has some serious thinking to do after watching Eric Bledsoe be an absolute atrocity on offense and Nikola Mirotic be his mirror on defense. Bledsoe is shooting a ghastly and playoff worst 27 percent from the field and only managed to barely crack the 20 minute mark in Game 4 while George Hill and Malcolm Brogdon saw 27 and 28 minutes respectively.
When not building whole houses made of bricks from beyond (which the Raptors are actively encouraging), Bledsoe is chunking long two-pointers and straight-up layups as he seems to be prioritizing getting contact as opposed to actually focusing on making his shots. His defensive and hustle statistics remain above average, but the Bucks have two options playing behind Bledsoe that are much better offensive options and are no slouches on the defensive end either. Does Coach Bud dare disrupt the chemistry of the (record-wise) best team in the league by subbing out his starting guard a game after said point guard swiftly and silently left the locker room? Time will tell.
As for Mirotic...
Mirotic allows Powell to just walk right into the three-point shot. Too easy. pic.twitter.com/Ova9OPw4jB— Bucks Film Room (@BucksFilmRoom) May 22, 2019
I mean, what adjustment can you make if your players think this is passable defense?
Legs and Thumbs
According to Nick Nurse, Kawhi’s leg is not a concern and he won’t be forced to miss any time with the hobble that has left has left him limping after dunks. While it’s all well and good to take Nurse’s word for it, watching Kawhi limp around has left large lumps in Raptors fans’ throats. With his injury history, it’s incredible easy to feel that way as a fan, but I implore you to watch Kawhi in the aftermath of the limp on the defensive end. It’s almost as if he’s not hurt at all! After getting demolished in Game 2, Nurse made the adjustment of putting Kawhi on Giannis and here’s a little snippet of how that has affected The Greek Freak:
FG% outside of the restricted area: 14%
FG% when guarded by Kawhi: 30%
Turnovers to Assists when guarded by Kawhi: 5 to 3
So long as Kawhi doesn’t have to be the entirety of the offense, his ailment shouldn’t drag down his game.
As for the other important Raptor not playing at 100 percent, Nurse painted a bit of a bleaker picture, describing Lowry’s hand as “not great”. After putting up 25 points, six assists and five rebounds in the Game 4 win, it’s once again difficult to be too worried about Lowry’s health. His pain hasn’t stopped him from taking big charges, pushing the pace, leading the team in assists every game and shooting an amazing 10-10 from the free throw line. And yet, the worry is there all the same for both of these guys. Their situations will definitely be one to keep an eye on Thursday night.
After a double overtime thriller in Game 3 and a beat down in Game 4, it would seem as if the Raptors have figured out the formula to beating this Bucks team.
Outside of, you know, actually making their three point shots at a league average rate, Toronto has found a way to carve out a penthouse condominium worth of space in Giannis’ head by throwing an all-time great defensive player on him in Kawhi Leonard and suffocating him when he gets to the FT line with other all-time great defensive players in Danny Green and Marc Gasol. Now, leaving space for the drive-and-kick would normally be a death-knell defensive tactic against a team that employs as many excellent shooters as the Bucks do, but the Raptors just so happen to be absolutely locked in on their defensive rotations.
Giannis, who has 12 turnovers over his last two games, has struggled to make passes through the arms of the Raptors and when he does manage to sneak a pass through, the Raptors have done an incredible job of rotating hard to shooters and leaving the not-so-great shooters to fire away at will. Couple that with hard-nosed, dedicated rebounding and the bench showing life and we’ve once again got ourselves a series.