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Kawhi’s Defense Kept The Raptors’ Season Alive

If Toronto defies the odds and reaches the NBA Finals after trailing the Bucks 2-0, the Raptors’ Game 3 effort Sunday, and Kawhi Leonard’s effort more specifically, will have been the catalyst for it all.

Nick Nurse and his club appeared to be hellbent on making things more difficult for Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo, doing what they could to speed him up when he caught the ball near the block and primarily deploying Leonard, the two-time defensive player of the year, on him.

The result: Antetokounmpo, the likely NBA MVP, finished with an underwhelming 12 points on just 5-of-16 shooting, despite playing a season-high 45 minutes, along with seven assists and a whopping eight turnovers. The defensive resistance keyed Toronto’s double-overtime win — a season-saver given that a Raptors’ loss would have put the team in a 3-0 series hole heading into Tuesday’s Game 4.

“[Kawhi’s] defense was probably the biggest key of the game,” Nurse told reporters afterwards.

Sunday’s matchup data paints a jarring illustration of just how successful Leonard was in limiting Antetokounmpo. The Bucks star was effective enough, shooting 4 of 7 for 10 points, when being defended by someone other than Leonard, according to the ESPN Stats & Information Group. But when Kawhi took on the unenviable task, Antetokounmpo shot just 1 of 9 (11 percent) for 2 points — his worst showing against a single defender over the past three postseasons.1

Stopping Antetokounmpo, whom Leonard guarded more than twice as often as any other Raptor did, was only a chunk of what Kawhi contributed on the night. Despite laboring at times, he logged 52 minutes — a franchise playoff record — and poured in a game-high 36 points (including 8 in the second overtime while the Bucks, as a team, scored 9 in that frame). The showing was Leonard’s 10th 30-point game this postseason, making him the fourth player in the past decade — after LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Kobe Bryant — to accomplish that feat in a single playoffs.

Still, for how badly Toronto needed each and every point, Leonard’s defense was likely even more valuable. Milwaukee was just 3 of 18 on shots when Leonard was the primary defender Sunday. Even when Toronto changed the defensive look it threw at Giannis and the Bucks, the adjustment appeared to keep Milwaukee off-balance for stretches.

The Raptors opted to double-team Antetokounmpo when he was near the block, a shift from what they did earlier in the series. They did this three times Sunday after doing it only once during the first two games combined. The first two doubles resulted in Antetokounmpo turning the ball over. The second one flustered Antetokounmpo so much that he jumped to make a pass before realizing no one was open and flung the ball to no one in particular.

That pressure appeared to pay dividends a bit later in the game, too, when Antetokounmpo got whistled for a pair of traveling violations off the catch, perhaps antsy reactions to the double-teams he’d seen earlier in the contest.2 (Before Sunday, Pascal Siakam had been defending Giannis far more than any other Raptor.)

None of this is to suggest that Antetokounmpo didn’t impact the game in other ways. Yes, he was 2 of 7 at the line, and he fouled out during a tie game with 4:24 left in the second overtime, but he also finished with 23 boards and four blocks. The Raptors shot 34 percent while Giannis was on the floor, but they connected on a blistering 59 percent of their shots while he was on the bench, according to NBA Advanced Stats. Largely because of that, Toronto outscored the Bucks by 9 in the 13 minutes Antetokounmpo sat — something the Raptors, who lack Milwaukee’s depth, hadn’t been able to take advantage of earlier in the series.

A handful of other factors Sunday are worth watching heading into a pivotal Game 4 on Tuesday. Toronto finally got production from Siakam and Marc Gasol, both of whom played poorly to begin the series. That happened as a handful of the Bucks’ other starters — All-Star Khris Middleton, Eric Bledsoe and Nikola Mirotic — went scoreless in the two overtimes and shot a combined 9 for 43 (21 percent) in Game 3.3

Arguably the biggest thing to focus on, outside of individual matchups, was that the Raptors were able to hold the Bucks’ transition game in check. Milwaukee had 26 transition points through the first three quarters, according ESPN Stats & Information, but then Toronto clamped down, surrendering just 5 more during the fourth quarter and the two overtimes combined. (In the two games the Raptors have either won or kept close this series, they’ve held Milwaukee to a reasonable effective field-goal rate of 56 percent or worse in transition, per Second Spectrum data. By contrast, the Bucks had an effective field-goal rate of 92.3 percent in the Game 2 rout.)

But make no mistake: Leonard’s defense on Giannis slowed the Milwaukee star down and helped get Toronto on the board. And if that defensive performance proves to be repeatable, we could be looking at a long series instead of one that almost moved to 3-0 on Sunday.

Check out our latest NBA predictions.

Footnotes

  1. Among defenders against whom he’s taken at least five attempts during a playoff game.

  2. In fairness, though, it’s a little hard to tell with Giannis, who led the NBA in traveling violations in the regular season, according to NBA Miner.

  3. Milwaukee got solid play from George Hill and Malcolm Brogdon, who scored a combined 44 points off the bench, while Raptors reserve Norm Powell had another great performance, with 19 points of his own.

Chris Herring is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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