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The Bucks Need To Solve Their Half-Court Offense, And Quickly

In many ways, Thursday’s pivotal Game 5 between the Raptors and Bucks embodied the topsy-turvy nature of this Eastern Conference finals series as a whole. Milwaukee, the winner of the first two games, dominated the early portion of the contest, only for Toronto, which took Games 3 and 4, to come storming back.

But down the stretch, three things broke what had been a stalemate in both the series and the game: the Raptors’ ability, once again, to grind Milwaukee’s fast-paced offense to a halt in the half-court; Leonard’s playmaking reaching new, impressive heights; and Toronto’s knack for repeatedly winning a handful of key 50-50 plays during the final five minutes. Those factors lifted Toronto to a 3-2 lead in the best-of-seven series as things head north for Game 6 on Saturday.

Early on Thursday, it looked like the Bucks might run Toronto out of the gym, with Milwaukee taking an 18-4 advantage before closing the first quarter with a 10-point lead.

But even in winning that quarter, the reality was that the Bucks still hadn’t solved their biggest issue. While Milwaukee generally scored at will when it managed to get out in transition — where Giannis could have his way, Eurostepping around people like a Lamborghini making aggressive lane changes — the club still wasn’t productive enough when forced to run its half-court offense.

According to advanced stats site Inpredictable, Milwaukee’s offense is scoring a dismal 96 points per 100 possessions when forced to take the ball out after a basket in this series — way worse than the 114 points per 100 plays the Bucks get following a defensive board, and way way worse than the 132 points per 100 plays they score after forcing a Toronto turnover.

The Bucks can score in the half-court much of the time, but it has been far more of an uphill climb when Toronto throws down its trump card by deploying neutralizer Kawhi Leonard on Giannis. The Bucks have been almost 29 points less efficient per 100 possessions this series1 when Antetokounmpo is guarded by Kawhi, according to data from Second Spectrum. (There were hints in the regular season that Leonard — a break-in-case-of-emergency defensive option because of all the offensive weight he shoulders for the Raptors — could limit the Greek Freak. According to the NBA’s matchup data, the likely MVP took just three shot attempts in the 31 regular-season possessions Leonard guarded him.)

Milwaukee again got nothing out of Nikola Mirotic, who’s been ice cold this series at just 19 percent (6-for-31) from deep and is a -37 through five games. (The Bucks are +37 in the series with Mirotic on the bench.) It also didn’t help to get a bad shooting night from Khris Middleton, who finished with 10 rebounds and 10 assists but had just 6 points after scoring 30 in Game 4.

By contrast, the Raptors got another great performance from reserve Fred VanVleet, perhaps feeling less burdened now after the birth of his child; VanVleet hit seven triples, all uncontested.

If Toronto comes back from its 2-0 hole to win this series — something that’s only happened five times in 72 tries since the conference finals moved to a best-of-seven format — VanVleet will have played a huge role in the feat. In the last two games alone, he’s hit more threes than he did over his first 15 games of this postseason. And after shooting just 28.6 percent from deep in last year’s playoffs, and 20 percent from three over the first two rounds of this year’s playoff run, he’s hitting better than 52 percent of his attempts (12 of 23) in the Eastern Conference finals.

Speaking of 3-pointers, Kawhi hit five Thursday night, including a couple late, where he punished the Bucks for switching (something they don’t often do) center Brook Lopez onto him at the top of the key.

More noteworthy than Leonard’s triples, though, were the career-high nine assists he logged — every single one of which led to a Raptors’ 3-pointer. (Toronto finished with a franchise playoff record 18 threes on the night.) Those nine threes he assisted are tied for the most by a single player in a playoff game over the last 20 years, according to ESPN Stats & Information Group.2

On some level, that assist total — along with VanVleet’s scoring — is perhaps the toughest box-score stat for Milwaukee to swallow, given that Leonard’s play-making for others was the one area that seemed safest to test. He also finished with 35 points of his own, making him just the sixth player in NBA postseason history to log seven 35-point games before the NBA Finals.

Despite all this, though, the Bucks still had a chance at the end. But Toronto seemingly made every big play down the stretch. Over the last five minutes alone:

  • The Raptors nabbed two offensive rebounds before capitalizing on the extra chances with a Marc Gasol triple, which put Toronto up by 7 points, 92-85, with 4:54 left.
  • VanVleet hit a wide-open 3-pointer that Middleton couldn’t contest because of a great back-screen Gasol set on him during a kick-out pass from Kawhi. The shot broke a tie game with 2:21 left.
  • Kawhi missed a three but then raced in to get his own board while Gasol was grappling with Antetokounmpo. The play resulted in Kawhi getting fouled and getting two free throws out of it.
  • Confusion between Lopez and Malcolm Brogdon on who had VanVleet in the corner. Middleton, guarding Kawhi in a 1-on-1 scenario, pushed Leonard to his left, thinking he had sufficient help behind him at the rim. But because Lopez had moved toward the corner to cover VanVleet, the help wasn’t there, and Leonard got to the line again, where he made one of two.
  • Kawhi missed an end-of-clock jumper, which glanced off the rim and somehow ended up in the hands of Gasol, who was subsequently fouled by Lopez with about 35 seconds left in the game. (It’s worth mentioning here that the Raptors were elite at coming up with loose balls all season.)
  • Down by 3 points, the Bucks blew their last opportunity to tie things up when Brogdon dribbled the ball off his leg, and out of bounds, with just under 27 seconds left.

The result, of course, was the 60-win Bucks — who hadn’t had a three-game losing streak all year, and entered Thursday 33-0 when leading going into the fourth quarter — snapping both those streaks at the worst possible time. Now they’ll head north, with their backs against the wall, while the Raptors seek to make history by clinching a spot in the NBA Finals on their home floor.

Check out our latest NBA predictions.

Footnotes

  1. From 114.4 points per 100 possessions to 85.6 points per 100 possessions.

  2. With Steve Nash, Rajon Rondo, Deron Williams and Blake Griffin.

Chris Herring is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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