Defensive work on Giannis should feed Raptors’ confidence ahead of Game 4

Courtesy NBA TNT Toronto Raptors head coach Nick Nurse comments after the Raptors defeated the Milwaukee Bucks in Game 3.

TORONTO — Near the start of double-overtime in the Toronto Raptors’ must-win Game 3 against the Milwaukee Bucks, Pascal Siakam turned the corner on Giannis Antetokounmpo and managed to draw a blocking foul on the Bucks superstar.

It was his sixth and final of the night, and signalled the opening the Raptors needed to finally take hold of their game and escape with a thrilling 118-112 win at Scotiabank Arena.

After choking away the series opener because they ran out of steam in the fourth quarter, and then seemingly getting blown out right from the opening tip of Game 2, the Raptors not only needed a win to keep their Finals dreams alive, they desperately needed to find legitimate reasons for confidence against a Milwaukee team that’s flat-out looked better in nearly every facet of the game.

Sunday night provided many examples from which the Raptors can find optimism.

Like the fight the Raptors showed when Kyle Lowry fouled out with 6:12 to play in the fourth quarter.

Or the resilience of Siakam to overcome missing two free throws with seven seconds to play in the fourth quarter that could’ve put the game on ice with big plays in the overtime periods, including that blocking foul he drew on Antetokounmpo and a spectacular weak-side block he delivered on Brook Lopez with 43 seconds left in the second overtime.

And even Norman Powell’s strong play that seemed to continue from Game 2 before he fouled out with 1:09 left in the fourth.

These are all building blocks the Raptors can point to and look at with confidence, but the biggest aspect of Toronto’s Game 3 victory it can use as a confidence booster heading into Tuesday night’s Game 4 is the job it did defensively against Antetokounmpo.

Overall, the Raptors did a fine job on the Bucks for the evening, holding them to 37.3-per cent shooting from the field and 31.8 per cent from three-point range while doing an excellent job shutting down Milwaukee’s dangerous transition attack, limiting the Bucks to just six fast-break points in the second half and overtime periods.

The stellar work Toronto did to stymie the Bucks can all be traced back to the job the Raptors did on Antetokounmpo, and more specifically the job Kawhi Leonard did on him.

The biggest adjustment Nurse made from the previous two games of this Eastern Conference Finals and Game 3 was sticking his best player on Milwaukee’s best player as the primary defender, and it paid great dividends.

Antetokounmpo only scored 12 points on 5-for-16 shooting while turning the ball over eight times. He was visibly frustrated all evening long, causing him to pick up fouls he normally wouldn’t and make silly mistakes a player of his calibre simply shouldn’t.

In other words, Siakam doesn’t force Antetokounmpo to pick up that sixth foul without the job Leonard did to first take him out of his offensive rhythm.

“His defence was probably the biggest key of the game,” said Raptors head coach Nick Nurse. “Not only did he just play good, but he made some huge plays with some steals and rip-aways and breakaways.”

And not only individually did Leonard help stop Antetokounmpo, but from a team perspective as well, he appeared to be the catalyst to help give other defenders like Siakam and Marc Gasol the confidence to be equally as effective against the Greek standout.

“[Leonard] was up and not giving [Antetokounmpo] quite as much runway to get flying off of,” said Nurse. “But so were the other guys that ended up on him in a switch or in different parts of the game. They were all a little bit more locked in. We took steps forward to get physical. The other night we were backing away from everything.”

And to this point, the Raptors made a more concerted effort to send hard double-teams Antetokounmpo’s way, normally a risky proposition because of all of the Bucks’ three-point weapons. But when you consider the fact the Bucks were a horrendous 28.2 per cent from outside in Games 1 and 2, it’s not so crazy for Nurse and the Raptors to then dare Milwaukee to hit those open threes Antetokounmpo is creating when he was being met with as much resistance as he was in Game 3.

It’s a strategy that will only work until it doesn’t, but for the time being the Raptors may as well ride this out.

And even more encouraging for the Raptors is the fact Leonard wasn’t only a wrecking ball defensively for them, he was strong offensively as well.

A potential concern for Toronto coming into this series was that if the Raptors were to go with Leonard on Antetokounmpo on defence it might take away from the offensive genius he’s illustrated over the first two round of the series.

A 36-point, five-assist night that saw him go 12-for-13 from the free-throw line should put that to rest and, for now, there should be no reason to believe he won’t be able to carry both loads again in Game 4, even after logging a career-high 52 minutes and an injury scare in the first quarter.

“I have been there before. It’s playoff basketball. You want to win,” Leonard said of playing hurt in Game 3. “I’m good. I’m just going to keep fighting and keep playing.”

And if he manages to keep playing like he did Sunday on both sides of the ball Tuesday night, what was looking like a disastrous scenario for the Raptors will suddenly become one of great possibility.

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