TORONTO — It’s not clear what the injury is, and there has been no word from the Toronto Raptors. But Kawhi Leonard is most certainly dealing with some sort of leg ailment in these Eastern Conference finals. The most clear indication of that was a pronounced limp after he dunked on Giannis Antetokounmpo on the Raptors’ second possession of the third quarter Tuesday night.
Given how much the Raptors have depended on their star in this postseason, a hobbled Leonard, coming off a career-high 52 minutes in Game 3, would seemingly be a harbinger of doom. But the Raptors of Game 4 were not the Raptors of the conference semifinals, when contributions from the Toronto supporting cast were few and far between.
Those Raptors, in the second half of a desperate Game 4 win in Philadelphia, basically went six deep. Those Raptors had just seven guys see the floor in all of Game 7, with Norman Powell getting DNP’d with the season on the line.
The Raptors that won this Game 4 by a score of 120-102 were carried by their bench. With Leonard limited and the team desperate to avoid a 3-1 hole in the series, Powell (18), Fred VanVleet (13) and Serge Ibaka (17) combined for 48 points and we’re heading back to Milwaukee for a pivotal Game 5 on Thursday.
At this time of year, you take the wins any way you can get them. But a comfortable victory that comes with good execution and effort on both ends of the floor is nice, no? And it’s obviously a lot more reassuring to know that you have eight guys, instead of five or six, that you can count on to make plays and shoot with confidence when the call comes their way.
“It’s just a different series,” Raptors coach Nick Nurse said of the fluctuation play of his bench. “And it’s been really interesting for me to see how things change so much from series to series.”
From game to game, really. VanVleet gave the Raptors important minutes when Kyle Lowry fouled out of Game 3, and he did hit a big shot late in the fourth quarter of that overtime victory. But he still entered Game 4 having shot a brutal 6-for-42 (including 3-for-24 from 3-point range) over the last nine games.
On Tuesday, VanVleet drained a catch-and-shoot 3-pointer just eight seconds after checking in for the first time. He would go on to shoot 5-for-6, connecting on all three of his shots from beyond the arc, including a bank shot from the right wing when everything seemed to be going right for the Raptors early in the fourth quarter. He added six assists on a night that the Raptors had 32 assists on their 41 buckets, their second highest rate of the postseason.
Early in that Philadelphia series, Toronto was better offensively when they didn’t move the ball, because Leonard was so efficient shooting off the dribble and his teammates weren’t shooting with any confidence. But the way the offense looked on Tuesday, with everybody getting touches, is likely more sustainable, even against the league’s No. 1 defense. And despite the injury (and fatigue), Leonard was still able to get into the paint. He had a team-high 14 drives in Game 4, according to Second Spectrum tracking.
“The great thing about having him on your team is he still gets all the attention,” Lowry said of Leonard. “We fed off of that — drive, kick, swing. He gets in the lane, kick out. That’s the benefit of having a superstar like him on the team.”
But while the Raptors were still feeding off Leonard, they knew they needed to support him more than they had been. In fact, they didn’t run a single action for Leonard until their 12th possession of the game. And while the other starters did their part — Lowry finished with a team-high 25 points and Marc Gasol drained three 3-pointers (making him 7-for-14 from beyond the arc over the last two games) — it was the bench that really turned things up.
Powell, the guy who played just four total minutes in Games 4 and 7 against Philadelphia, has emerged as a difference maker in this series. He has totaled 51 points over the last three games, shooting 5-for-10 on corner threes and providing some much-needed juice off the dribble.
“There’s some speed we need there with Norman,” Nurse said. “There’s some athleticism we need there with Serge. And there’s some ball handling and running the club with Fred that we need.
“It’s really them playing up to their capabilities.”
Ibaka grabbed a game-high 13 rebounds in just 24 minutes, and also hit what was probably the biggest shot of the night. With about three minutes left to go in the second quarter, the Raptors had gone through five straight scoreless possessions and the Bucks had cut what was a 10-point deficit down to four. Ibaka set a ball screen screen for Kyle Lowry and then popped out for a 20-foot jumper from the right side of the key. He drained it and Milwaukee never got that close again.
The points from the bench were nice, but just as important was getting stops on the other end of the floor.
“First of all,” Nurse said, “I want them to come in and hold their own defensively and execute the defensive schemes, and I didn’t see many problems there. They were able to guard a bunch of different people.”
Playing well on both ends of the floor, the reserves pushed the game in the right direction. Powell was a plus-29 in 32 minutes, VanVleet a plus-25 in 25, and Ibaka a plus-24 in 24. Those are the three best single-game plus-minus marks in this round of the playoffs.
The trio was playing so well that, with his team up 13, Nurse dared to begin the fourth quarter with Leonard, Lowry and Pascal Siakam all on the bench. And instead of the lead shrinking, it grew to 20 points before a pair of Khris Middleton buckets forced Nurse to call timeout with 7:23 to go.
After playing 52 minutes in Game 3, Leonard played 34 on Tuesday. Siakam went from 51 minutes in Game 3 to just 23 in Game 4. And the pair combined for just 26 of the Raptors’ 120 points.
The Bucks are betting that the Raptors can’t pull off another performance like this.
“We want the other guys to take shots,” Antetokounmpo said. “We’ve got to keep being aggressive defensively on Kawhi, try to limit his shots. But at the end of the day, if guys come off the bench they knock down shots, we’ve got to live with it. We’re doing our job.”
The Raptors, meanwhile, hope this is just the beginning.
“The biggest part is for our team to see how much success we can have when we play that way,” VanVleet said. “It’s not about me as an individual. Those same shots, if they go in, great, if they don’t, we gotta keep taking them. I think that just trying to build on what we did as a team offensively, is the biggest part. Individually, that stuff comes and goes.”
It’s now a three-game series to see who’s going to The Finals. The Bucks have two of the remaining three games at home, but the Raptors have led for 61 percent of the minutes over the first four. And they now have some life off of what looked like a very shallow bench just 10 days ago. In addition to more firepower, a deeper bench creates more versatility.
“One minute you say, oh, man, our big lineup is the answer,” Nurse said. “Then maybe a couple, seven days later, it’s not. It’s the smaller lineup or some faster guys out there that’s the answer. That’s been interesting to see.
“But each game is its own entity … Let’s see if those guys can bring that same pop and focus, determination on the road.”
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