Sports

Scott Stinson: With Kawhi Leonard not at his best, the Other Raptors step up for a massive Game 4 win

TORONTO — The Toronto Raptors saved their season on Sunday night. On Tuesday night, they saved it again, and in the most unlikely way imaginable.

With Kawhi Leonard clearly feeling the effects of some kind of leg injury and moving at times like the Tin Man in serious need of some oil, it was all the other Raptors who reversed the usual story of these playoffs, and carried him to a massive 120-102 Game 4 victory.

Six Raptors scored in double digits, with Kyle Lowry (25) and Norm Powell (18) leading the way on offence, while the entire team put in a tremendous defensive effort, surviving a hot start from the Milwaukee Bucks to hand the 60-win visitors only their second two-game losing streak of the entire season. Entering Tuesday night, the Bucks were 22-1 coming off losses. The Raptors swarmed defensively, particularly against the Milwaukee bench players who had torched them in previous games, and all that effort resulted in a relatively comfortable win. The crowd at Scotiabank Arena was as loud as it has been all post-season, with the notable exception of The Shot, and every time the Bucks made a little run at a lead that was as high as 25 points, the Raptors responded. When Lowry nailed a three-point with seven minutes to go that curb a Milwaukee burst and restored a 19-point Toronto advantage, that felt like it. Each team has now won a close game in the series, and each has a blowout.

“Obviously, it was really good tonight,” said Toronto coach Nick Nurse. “Any time you look down and you have 32 assists, you are doing something right… We just went in with the right mindset.”

The Toronto win, which goes immediately on very short list of biggest in franchise history, sends the series back to Wisconsin tied at 2-2, and puts the pressure squarely on Milwaukee, a team that had gone 10-1 in the playoffs until arriving in Toronto last weekend. The Raptors now avoid a 1-3 hole and the grim prospect of needing to beat the Bucks three straight.

They also need to hope that whatever ails Leonard improves over the next couple of days, before Game 5 on Thursday night. He finished with 19 gutty points and seven rebounds, most of it the result of a fairly remarkable demonstration of determination. They didn’t need him to be his all-world best on this night, but they will if they are going to swipe a game at the Fiserv Forum.

“I think he’s fine,” said Nurse afterward. “He’s tired, like a lot of guys are in this series. He looks OK to me.” This seems like perhaps a bit of gamesmanship on the part of the coach, but to the victor goes the ability to say whatever you want about the health of your best player. “There was one time there that I tried to give him an extended rest, but he didn’t want it. So he must be OK.”

That the Raptors have evened the series is at least something of a surprise after the events of last week in Milwaukee. Toronto dropped a game it should have won to open the series and then was flattened in Game 2, with the Bucks scoring at will for most of the contest. Even after the Raptors’ double-overtime Game 3 win, the home team hadn’t been totally convincing. Milwaukee missed a ton of shots, and they still had Antetokounmpo, one of the toughest people to defend on the planet.

Three games is not nearly enough of a sample size for a definitive answer, but throw in Milwaukee’s 3-1 record against Toronto in the regular season, plus the 10-2 record in these playoffs entering Tuesday against Toronto’s 9-6, and there was enough evidence for at least some kind of conclusion. The Bucks looked to be the better team, by a small margin. They are deeper and have shown the ability to get scoring from all over their roster, while the Raptors other than Leonard have been up and down like a heart monitor in this post-season.

That’s not to say that the series was over before Game 4 tipped off, but it was evident that some combination of things would have to happen for the Raptors to become one of the few teams that were able to pull out a series after falling into a 0-2 hole.


Injured Raptors forward Kawhi Leonard finished with 19 points and seven rebounds in a demonstration of determination.

Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press

Leonard would have to keep being Leonard, which would normally be a reasonable assumption for someone with a playoff resume as good as his, but given the minutes he has played, and his huge impact on offence and defence, it’s also reasonable to assume the guy might be a little pooped.

The Raptors would also need bigger contributions from the non-Kawhi members of the team. Danny Green would have to find his shot, or Fred VanVleet would have to find his, or some combination of players who had some good moments against the Bucks would have to have even more of them.

And, on the other end of the floor, they had to avoid an offensive explosion from the Bucks of the type that overwhelmed the Raptors in Game 2.

That the Raptors have evened the series is at least something of a surprise

All of it added up to a broader looming question for the Raptors, as they headed into Tuesday night. It was also a simple question: Could they play better, while preventing Milwaukee from doing the same?

There were early answers to at least some of those questions on Tuesday night. The Raptors finally had stellar bench play, and from not just one guy but all three of the reserves that Nurse has dared to use in the playoffs when the games were still on the line. Norm Powell hit a couple of early three-pointers on the way to 10 first-half points, Serge Ibaka scored 12 in the half, including on a pair of rim-rocking dunks that sent the arena into mild euphoria. Drake was up and losing his mind from his courtside seats; he has been doing a lot of that lately.

Even more shockingly, Fred VanVleet drilled his first two three-point attempts, after a 1-for-11 performance from the field in Game 3 that, coupled with other recent playoff performances from the former leader of Toronto’s bench unit, was starting to feel like a 1-for-75 streak. He finished the game 5-for-6 and made all three of his attempts from beyond the arc. The Raptors’ bench outscored the Bucks reserves 28-8 in the first two quarters, and 48-19 on the night.

Suddenly, all those things we thought we knew are less certain. The Raptors have won a game when Leonard and Pascal Siakam were great, and one in which most everyone else was. The Bucks did similar things at home. Boom, we have ourselves a series. The Eastern Conference Finals are on.

Postmedia News

Show More

Related Articles

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Close