With 2:18 left in the third quarter of Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals, Milwaukee Bucks forward Ersan Ilyasova trudged to the free-throw line. After he made his first shot to put the Bucks up 14, Mike Budenholzer subbed Giannis Antetokounmpo out of the game, hoping to grab his superstar a quick breather while the team was sitting on a sizable lead. Ilyasova made the second free throw after Giannis checked out, and at that point, according to Inpredictable, the Bucks had a 92.7 percent chance of pushing the series to Game 7. Alas, that did not happen.
Antetokounmpo ended up sitting for only 17 seconds, but those 17 seconds proved costly. Giannis re-entered the game only after Kawhi Leonard secured an and-one on an up-and-under floater. That innocuous floater was the start of a spectacular 26-3 Raptors run that thrust Toronto into position to capture its first NBA Finals bid, further validating both last summer’s trade for Leonard and the years of tinkering Raptors president Masai Ujiri has done with his team.
The run spanned seven minutes and 42 seconds of game time and contained a seemingly endless number of thrilling plays. It started with Leonard’s and-one, but there was also Antetokounmpo swatting Pascal Siakam at the rim, only to see Serge Ibaka score on the offensive board; Leonard drawing a three-shot foul, making the first two free throws and missing the last, only to grab his own offensive rebound and head right back to the line; the Raptors running the same Spain pick-and-roll play three times in a row to open the fourth quarter and getting 7 points out of it; Fred VanVleet continuing his white hot post-baby shooting with a stepback three in isolation; and finally, Kyle Lowry picking Khris Middleton’s pocket on the drive, pushing the ball up the floor, and dropping it back to Leonard for a monster left-handed dunk.
All told, Toronto went 10 of 14 from the field and 4 of 6 from the line during this stretch. Ibaka and VanVleet combined to shoot 5 of 5 and scored 11 of the team’s 26 points, while Leonard totaled 10 to go with six rebounds. Lowry didn’t shoot even once, but he assisted on four of the seven baskets Toronto scored while he was on the floor, and had the aforementioned crucial steal. Meanwhile, the Raptors’ defense locked down the Bucks in the halfcourt, much as they had for most of the past few games. Milwaukee shot just 1 of 9 from the field and 0 of 6 from three during this stretch.
By the time the Raptors were done with their burst, they had raised their win probability from 7.3 percent all the way up to 88.0 percent, per Inpredictable. Curiously, a decent chunk of that win probability was accumulated with Antetokounmpo on the bench. Toronto sliced the aforementioned 3 points off the lead before he checked back in late in the third; but even after they cut the lead to just 5 points by the end of the quarter, Budenholzer elected to have Giannis on the bench again — taking his sixth rest of the game — to open the fourth. Antetokounmpo finished the game plus-3 in 41 minutes, meaning the Bucks were outscored by nine during the seven minutes he was out. Budenholzer stridently maintained during his postgame press conference that playing his star more minutes was not the answer, but I guess we’ll never know.
By the time Giannis re-entered a minute and a half into the fourth period, the game was tied. A few minutes later, the Raptors had built an 8-point lead. Milwaukee made a final push and turned it into a back-and-forth, one-possession game for a few minutes, but the Bucks lost Leonard (seriously) on a crucial out of bounds play with around three minutes left, and he nailed a corner three to push the lead to 5 points.
Milwaukee, the best defensive rebounding team left in the playoffs, was then let down by one of its strengths at the most important moment of the game.1 The Bucks gave up four backbreaking offensive rebounds in the final 2:12 of the game. Siakam grabbed arguably the two most important ones: He corralled the ball after Giannis made one of the most incredible blocks you’ll ever see on a Leonard drive to the rim and calmly put the ball in the hoop to extend the lead again; and he then grabbed his own rebound off the bottom of the rim with 10 seconds left in the game, robbing Milwaukee of a chance to secure the board and an opportunity to tie it up. Leonard grabbed two off the offensive glass as well, with the second essentially icing the game as he beat several Bucks to the ball off Siakam’s missed free throw with 7.0 seconds left.
Turning the Bucks’ strengths into weaknesses was the foundation of Toronto’s four straight wins to capture the series. Antetokounmpo, the likely league MVP, was limited to just 30-of-69 shooting in Games 3 through 6, thanks to the individual exploits of Leonard and the timely help of, well, everyone else. Milwaukee’s vaunted 3-point attack fell by the wayside without as many transition opportunities to fuel it. The Bucks’ elite help defense was neutralized at times as well, both by the Raptors pinging the ball around the perimeter and by their orchestrating switches so that Leonard or Lowry or even VanVleet could isolate against one of Milwaukee’s bigs, who were thus removed from help position.
The Raptors will surely probe for weaknesses where they can against the defending champion Warriors in the NBA Finals, but they’ll also have to do an even better job of mitigating their opponent’s strengths. Golden State knows a thing or two about double-digit comebacks in the conference finals, having just completed three in a row to sweep the Blazers, and of course has also won three of the past four titles. We don’t yet know if or when Kevin Durant will return to the floor, but the Warriors have been reminding us for the past couple weeks that they are still pretty damn good without him.
Toronto is the best defensive team the Warriors will have had to face during these playoffs, though, and by a not-insignificant margin. The Raptors had the league’s fifth-best defense during the regular season; Golden State’s three prior playoff opponents ranked 19th (Clippers), 18th (Rockets) and 16th (Trail Blazers). The Raptors also have Leonard, who at the peak of his powers is the best perimeter defender on the planet, and who has looked like the best all-around player in the league for much of these past few weeks. It takes more than just a singular star to dethrone the Warriors, but you’ve certainly got a better shot with one of those guys on your side.2 That’s exactly why the Raptors made the bold push for Leonard in the first place.
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