Fired-Up Raptors Thoroughly Flatten Bucks, Draw Even In Eastern Conference Finals

Photo: Gregory Shamus (Getty)

For the first time in this series and just the second time in these playoffs, the Milwaukee Bucks were roundly outclassed Tuesday night and fell convincingly, 120–102, to the Toronto Raptors to even up the Eastern Conference Finals. The Raptors grabbed a slim first-quarter lead and spent the rest of the game extending it, until at last the final four minutes of the game became garbage time. It wound up being this kind of night, in Toronto:

As was the case in Toronto’s overtime Game 3 victory, the Raptors did a better job of distributing shots among their rotation guys, taking some of the burden off of the capable shoulders of Kawhi Leonard. Kawhi still did his thing, more or less—19 points on the usual diet of bruising drives and midrange pull-ups—but on a series and playoff low 13 total shots. Partly this was a function of the Raptors pulling away in the fourth quarter and Kawhi playing just 34 minutes, the fewest he’s played since the Orlando series. Kawhi was also a little bit quicker to just make a simple pass to an open teammate, something he hasn’t always been especially eager to do in these playoffs:

But mostly it had to do with Toronto’s defense suffocating Milwaukee’s Giannis-centric attack, and then treating every stop as a chance to push forward in transition, before Milwaukee’s long and dominant defense could get situated. For as sharp as these two teams are, both are vastly more dangerous offensively when they’re on the run and attacking a retreating defense than they are in the half court. Toronto seized the advantage in that exchange by walling off the paint, cleaning up the defensive glass, and pushing the tempo at every opportunity. That aggression was across the board—even Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet dropped in layups, something that each of them can sometimes seem constitutionally opposed to even attempting.

Toronto’s defense was tremendous, for the second game in a row. Sunday they locked in and held the Bucks to a 93.3 offensive rating, a number that is more than 11 points lower than that of the stingiest defense from this regular season (the Bucks). Their defense wasn’t nearly so dominant Tuesday night—it allowed the Bucks 106.3 points per 100 possessions—but it still pinned the Bucks well below their usual lights-out efficiency, and the Raptors did a better job of converting stops into defensive rebounds and quick offensive chances. The defensive effort plus the up-tempo scoring plus Giannis’s very poor free throw shooting whipped the lunatic Toronto crowd into a frenzy, which seemed to propel the Raptors onward.

That the Raptors held serve across two games at home is less notable than precisely how they did it, fiercely holding off the Bucks in Game 3 and then storming out and wiping them off the court in Game 4. That progress points to a long series with no clear favorite, which could and should be a lot of fun! Of course, on the other hand, that means the dreaded Warriors will be resting and healing while their two potential Finals opponents bloody each other up over the next week, proving once again that the arc of the moral universe may be long, but it bends inexorably toward the freaking Warriors never losing another Finals series during any of our lifetimes.

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