Probably the huge Kawhi Leonard dunk as part of the 26-3 run in the clinching Game 6, right?
Here’s the thing, though, that massive moment in Raptors history doesn’t happen without one key element: Outstanding defence.
In fact, the four-game turn around that began in that fateful double-overtime Game 3 doesn’t happen without the Raptors putting the clamps on the Bucks and their MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo.
Here’s some food for thought: In that four-game reverse sweep, the Raptors held the Bucks to only 41.9 per cent shooting and 101.8 points per game, while limiting Antetokounmpo to 43.5 per cent shooting from the field and 20.5 points per game.
Putting this into context, during the 2018-19 regular season, Antetokounmpo averaged 27.7 points on 47.8 per cent shooting, while his team averaged 118.1 points on 47.6 per cent shooting.
That was some damn good work done by the Raptors, and, at the time, the defensive turnaround was mostly credited to the adjustment coach Nick Nurse made to put Leonard as the primary defender on Antetokounmpo, and then have Marc Gasol sag back as a rim protector and brick wall waiting to meet the Greek superstar should he get past the first layer of Toronto’s defence.
This proved to be a brilliant, series-shifting tweak by Nurse that was also only thought to be possible because the Raptors did have Leonard and Gasol, a couple of all-world defenders, to help execute it.
As such, coming into Tuesday night’s matchup against Milwaukee, one of the main points of curiosity was how Toronto would defend the league’s best team once again, but this time without Leonard – obviously – and Gasol, who unlike during their first encounter this season way back on Nov. 2, was unavailable as he recovers from a hamstring injury.
The Bucks boast the third-best offence in the league this season, and Antetokounmpo is actually enjoying an even better year than before.
Surely, this meant the Raptors’ defence would crumble without either Leonard and Gasol available, right?
Actually, no, surprisingly enough.
Though they ended up falling 108-97, the Raptors held Milwaukee to only 108 points on 38.1 per cent shooting Tuesday, marks far lower than the 120 points per game on 48.3 per cent shooting the Bucks boasted prior to Tuesday’s game at Scotiabank Arena.
And it gets even more encouraging when you consider that the Bucks only had one truly good offensive quarter: The third when Milwaukee scored 34 points on 10-of-18 shooting. If you remove that frame from the equation, the Bucks only shot 33.3 per cent from the field Tuesday, a shockingly low rate for one of the best shooting teams in all of basketball.
So, it would appear no Leonard and Gasol is no problem for Nurse’s defensive scheme.
“Our defence was good enough. I think we’ve established that on a nightly basis. Our defence was good enough tonight,” said Fred VanVleet. “The offence wasn’t. Sometimes when the offence ain’t good, you give up more points.”
And that’s exactly what happened, with Toronto only shooting 35.2 per cent from the field, including attempting a franchise-record 52 three-pointers but making only 18 of them.
Nurse lamented his team’s offensive struggles after the game, citing his team’s performance right up to the final two minutes of the second quarter as a particularly strong stretch that they just couldn’t sustain.
“We were incredible for 22 minutes,” Nurse said. “There was hardly a bad possession. Right? They were shooting their balls all over the place. Tough shots. (On) defence, we were active, all over the place.
I would say that when we play these guys, or play Golden State, you’ve got to score with them, right? I think our lack of scoring all of a sudden that takes a little bit of juice out of your defence, and I think that was probably the case tonight. You start missing shots and you start losing a little defensive energy, and then your defence isn’t as good either because your offence made it that way.”
Yes, that the Raptors weren’t able to make an adjustment offensively against Milwaukee’s defence is probably their chief concern after Tuesday’s game, and is something they’ll need to be mindful of for next time, but another issue to look out for was what happened defensively in that third quarter.
As positive as Toronto’s defence was overall, the third proved problematic for the Raptors mainly because it looked as though Antetokounmpo may have figured out something against the Raptors’ scheme against him.
For most of the game, Antetokounmpo didn’t seem particularly dominant on the offensive end, scoring 19 points on just 5-for-14 shooting – he did collect an absurd 19 rebounds – but they all came on the defensive glass. More important than his scoring and shooting, however, was the game-high eight assists he dropped, with four, alone, coming in that third quarter.
This has to terrify not just the Raptors, but the rest of the league as a whole as it’s an indication of growth for Antetokounmpo, whose only real weakness as a player can be his bull-headedness at times to force the issue, something the Raptors’ scheme against him is partially predicated on.
Seeing him pass the ball the way he did Tuesday – particularly in the third – was definitely a new wrinkle Nurse will have to consider.
“I’ve tried to be mature and not force stuff as much as possible,” Antetokounmpo said.
But on the flip side of this, another major part of the Raptors’ scheme is to get the ball out of Anteokounmpo’s hands, and in that sense, they were just as successful with the likes of OG Anunoby, Chris Boucher and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson executing the game plan as they were with Leonard and Gasol.
As the old cliché goes, the NBA is a make or miss league. Offence will come and go depending on the day. Something that generally isn’t volatile, however, is how teams play defence.
And the Raptors should feel good about how they do on that end.