MILWAUKEE – Tied 2-2 in the Eastern Conference Finals, heading back to a hostile environment with a chance to seize the advantage, a chance to reach new heights?
The Toronto Raptors have been here before. Not these Toronto Raptors. Not the Kawhi Leonard-era Raptors. Not Nick Nurse’s club. But it was only three years ago that a team managed by Raptors president Masai Ujiri and led by Kyle Lowry was balanced on this edge, at this stage.
We know what happened then: The Cleveland Cavaliers and LeBron James put their foot on the gas. A message-sending 38-point blowout win in Game 5 in Cleveland followed by a business-like 26-point close out win back in Toronto in Game 6. Season over; no Finals for you.
That was when James gave Raptors Nation a collective head rub, a ‘nice try, good effort’ as Raptors fans that refused to leave the building kept the chanting going long after it was all lost.
Now? As the Raptors return to Milwaukee for Game 5 of their best-of-seven series against the Bucks Thursday night it feels different. Forget squeezing through an open window, if the Kawhi Leonard-era Raptors are going to break through and advance the franchise and the city to the NBA Finals for the first time they need to smash through the front door.
Get Game 5 in front of a rabid home crowd in Milwaukee and then bring it home to Scotiabank Arena and finish the job Saturday night.
Sound like a plan?
Of course the Raptors would sign off on any combination that ends with them progressing out of the East to the NBA Finals against the Golden State Warriors.
For the moment, they have the Bucks reeling. The Raptors have managed to contain Milwaukee’s emerging Superman and presumptive NBA MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo while knocking the Bucks back both with Leonard throwing bombs in double-overtime in Game 3 and then — with Leonard clearly ailing in Game 4 — forcing them into a corner with a flurry of jabs from Toronto’s previously under-performing bench.
Later the Bucks — having cruised through their first 11 playoff starts and the entire regular season without having a glove laid on them — sounded like they weren’t sure what hit them and where the next body blow might be coming from.
"[We] just couldn’t get stops," said Bucks all-star wing Khris Middleton. "I feel like for the most part, from top to bottom, all their guys played well. They shared the ball. They moved the ball. Took advantage of some of our defensive coverages and just made shots."
Now the Raptors have to press their advantage against a young Bucks team that seems as distracted by Raptors superfan Drake’s sideline antics than anything else that happened in Game 4. Antetokounmpo’s agency complained about the crowd control in Toronto after Drake — who has an unofficial title with the Raptors as ‘Global Ambassador’ — was venturing on to the floor from his sidelines seat and mocking the Bucks star for missed free throw.
"I don’t know of any person that’s attending the game that isn’t a participant in the game — a player or a coach — that has access to the court," said Bucks head coach Mike Budenholzer. "There’s certainly no place for fans and, you know, whatever it is exactly that Drake is for the Toronto Raptors. You know, to be on the court, there’s boundaries and lines for a reason, and like I said, the league is usually pretty good at being on top of stuff like that."
One factor the Raptors will be dealing with: It’s not clear to what degree Leonard will be able to recover to full strength in advance of Game 5 after clearly labouring Tuesday night. Even when he rose up to dunk over or through Antetokounmpo at one point he came down gingerly, favouring his right thigh, the same one that caused him to miss 73 games with San Antonio last season, the same one that he appeared to strain after his spectacular full-court sprint and dunk in the second overtime in Game 3.
But even Leonard playing at less than full capacity can work in the Raptors’ favour. Some of the best offensive performances the Raptors have had in the playoffs have been when Leonard’s role decreases — Toronto is 3-0 and +73 in games where his usage rate is below 25 per cent, including in Game 4. Moreover, he showed the way in his defence against Antetokounmpo in Game 3 when he was the primary defender for the majority of the Bucks star’s possessions and in Game 4 he was lifted up by the contributions of his teammates.
Collectively they have turned the athlete that is the closest thing we’ve ever seen to combining James’ ground-eating speed in the open court with Shaquille O’Neill’s ability to overwhelm at the rim into something a little more mortal.
In the regular season Antetokounmpo averaged 7.9 field goals per game in the restricted area on 73.7 per cent shooting, his per game mark setting — unofficially — what is believed to be a modern NBA record, surpassing O’Neal’s best seasons.
Against the Raptors? By doing their best to limit transition opportunities and by loading up on him in the half-court Antetokounmpo has been rendered merely remarkable, rather than devastating.
He’s averaging 6.8 field goals in the restricted area per game (the four-foot semi-circle in the key underneath the basket) and he’s shooting ‘just’ 65.9 per cent at the rim. By forcing him away from the rim his efficiency falls off even more sharply as Antetokounmpo is shooting less than 40 per cent from outside four feet. For the series Antetokounmpo is shooting just 44.9 per cent from the field, a steep tumble from the 57.8 per cent he shot during the regular season.
It could be the Raptors have solved Antetokounmpo — for all his wonderful talent, he’s still a maturing player, with flaws, and manufacturing scoring opportunities outside the paint in the half-court is one of them — or it could be that he’ll figure them out suddenly and impact the series decisively.
If there is a code, Nurse isn’t divulging that he has it.
"I think our code is this: We play with the effort we put in in three of the four games this series and we’re gonna have a really good chance to win," said Nurse on a conference call Wednesday. "We’re gonna put ourselves in a position to win. I don’t think it’s any tricky schemes or fabulous game plan, I think it’s our players playing their butts off, really."
The Bucks, for their part, have the benefit of not only coming home but also coming home with a sour taste in their mouths.
"We got punched," said Budenholzer. "They played really well. So, in that sense, can we go home and get ready for another battle and be ready to go? I totally believe in Game 5 we’ll be ready."
But the Raptors have a reason to believe in a way they probably didn’t three years ago when they were headed back to Cleveland trying to steal a game from James at his peak.
Throughout the post-season they have found different ways to win, both being carried by Leonard and carrying him, as they did in large measure in Game 4. They have survived long enough that their bench has gone from unplayable to thriving. They have seen Marc Gasol grow into a more dominant force by the day, seemingly. Three years ago Lowry badly sprained his ankle at the end of Game 5 and didn’t play in the series again. This time around Lowry is finding a way to excel even with a sprained left thumb Nurse described as "not great… it’s hurt and it’s sore and it causes him a lot of pain."
And yet Lowry put in one of the best playoff games of his career on Tuesday.
It’s cardinal rule at this level of sport to never lift your gaze, to not be distracted from the pursuit of the prize by the prize itself. The Raptors are sticking to it. After the Raptors’ dramatic Game 7 win over Philadelphia, Lowry reminded his ecstatic teammates that they were still only half way to their goal, that the road ahead was long.
That remains the view now, heading into Game 5.
"I know it’s not easy to sit here and think, ‘Oh my God, we could do it’, but I’m certainly not thinking that way," said Nurse. "I don’t see any benefit in doing that. You know, we’ve got to really laser in and focus in on how hard we have to play to beat this team, and how much of a connected effort it will take, a togetherness effort on the road and band together and get a ‘W.’"
Three years ago they couldn’t get one ‘W’ let along two. But even if they’ve been here before they have to know they’ve never been closer to where they’ve never gone.