Playoffs 2019 East Finals: Bucks (1) vs. Raptors (2)
Leonard stars in Raptors' Game 3 adjustments
Raptors use their best defensive option to change direction of East finals
TORONTO — Kawhi Leonard has grown into one of the best offensive players in the world, a machine that ranks second in this postseason in scoring (32 points per game), with an ultra-efficient true shooting percentage of 65.5 percent (third-best among players with at least 50 postseason field goal attempts).
But what makes Leonard truly special is how good he can be on both ends of the floor … in the playoffs … having played more than 50 minutes … while hobbled by a leg injury … and with his team’s season on the line.
The Toronto Raptors are still alive in the Eastern Conference finals, having escaped with a 118-112, double-overtime victory in Game 3 on Sunday. They’re still alive because Marc Gasol finally made the shots the Milwaukee Bucks have been daring him to shoot all along, because Pascal Siakam had his best game of the series, and because Fred VanVleet and Danny Green hit timely buckets on a night in which they shot a combined 2-for-20.
But mostly, the Raptors have a chance to even this series in Game 4 because Leonard was the better of the two superstars on the floor. And he was just that, in part, because he was defending the other one.
Through the first two games of the series, Pascal Siakam has been the primary defender on Giannis Antetokounmpo, with Leonard defending Khris Middleton. Antetokounmpo hadn’t exactly gone wild in the first two games (totaling 54 points and 11 assists), but the Raptors needed to change something. That came on first possession of Game 3 with Leonard guarding Antetokounmp, Siakam shifting over to Eric Bledsoe and Kyle Lowry on Middleton.
Things didn’t stay that way all game long. The Raptors switched often and couldn’t worry about matchups when defending the Bucks in transition. No matter who the initial defender is, guarding Antetokounmpo is always a five-man job, with the other four needing to be ready to help on Antetokounmpo’s relentless attacks to the basket.
“One man can’t guard him,” Leonard acknowledged. “It takes the whole team.”
But in regard to 1-on-1 defense, Leonard is the best that the Raptors have. The adjustment worked as the Bucks scored just seven points on their first 13 possessions of Game 3 and only three of their 26 first-quarter shots came in the restricted area.
“We wanted to take a look at it early to see how it looked,” Nurse said of the Antetokounmpo-Leonard matchup. “It looked pretty good, so we stuck with it.”
Leonard played Antetokounmpo tighter than the Kia MVP favorite had been defended in the first two games.
“He was up and not giving him quite as much runway to get flying off of,” Nurse said. “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.”
The Bucks punished the Raptors with a few transition 3-pointers and eventually got to the basket. But their 112 points on 120 possessions was their second-worst offensive output of the postseason.
Antetokounmpo, who entered Game 3 averaging a postseason-best 15.1 points in the paint per game, finished with just 10 points in the paint on Sunday. It wasn’t his lowest total of the postseason, but it was a low mark considering the season-high 45 minutes that he played before fouling out on the Raptors’ first possession of the second overtime. The 8.1 points in the paint per 36 minutes were Antetokounmpo’s third-lowest output in his 84 games this season.
Leonard, meanwhile, scored a game-high 36 points despite suffering an apparent left leg injury less than three minutes in, either on the take-off or the landing of a fast-break bucket after one of Milwaukee’s 20 turnovers. He looked hobbled for the rest of the night, but a hobbled Kawhi Leonard is still the best that the Raptors have.
“Obviously, he wasn’t moving very fast,” VanVleet said. “But if he’s out there, he’s good enough.”
And he was, seemingly, all the Raptors had offensively late in the game. When they couldn’t get him the ball in the post against Malcolm Brogdon, he had to go out to the perimeter to get it. Most of the iso-ball stuff didn’t work, but all the work the Raptors’ did defensively eventually allowed them to break through in the second overtime.
With the Raptors up one and a little more than three minutes to go, Bledsoe got a switch onto Gasol and attacked. Danny Green came from the weak side to help, leaving Brogdon wide-open in the corner. That’s where Bledsoe was looking to go with it, but Green got his hand on the pass, Leonard picked up the loose ball, and raced down the floor for a lefty dunk over Nikola Mirotic.
Three possessions later, Toronto’s lead was back to one point when Middleton got a switch onto VanVleet. Leonard came over to double and deflected the pass. Brogdon was the first to get to the loose ball, but Leonard snatched it away from him and took it the other way for another dunk.
“His defense was probably the biggest key of the game,” Nurse said of Leonard. “Offense was hard to come by there for both teams for a while, and any time you can get a steal and a breakout, it’s a huge momentum play.”
In 568 career games prior to Sunday, Leonard had never played more than 46 minutes. He played 52 minutes and eight seconds in Game 3, and the Raptors needed every last bit of it.
They’ll need more in Game 4 on Tuesday, and they’ll have to hope that Leonard can recover in the next 48 hours.
“Fifty-two minutes and it’s in the playoffs,” Leonard said, “so you definitely feel it. When you play 30 minutes, you feel it still. You just got to not worry about it, get my treatment and move on to the next one.”
There was always going to be a next one. But Leonard and the Raptors have made sure that Game 4 won’t be the last one.
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