The Eastern Conference final, which had looked so very bleak for the Toronto Raptors during the first two games in Milwaukee, is now anyone’s call.
With balanced scoring coming from every man on the floor, the Raptors trounced the top-seeded Bucks 120-102 in Tuesday’s Game 4, evening the series 2-2 as it shifts back to Milwaukee. A trip to the NBA finals appears very much up for grabs.
This time it didn’t require heroics from Toronto’s star-powered Kawhi Leonard to get the win. He had 19 points, while Kyle Lowry had 25 and Marc Gasol added 17. But the story of the night was the dominant performance from Toronto’s often-criticized bench, who exploded for 48 points – 18 from Norman Powell, 13 from Fred Van Vleet, and 17 from Serge Ibaka to go with his 13 rebounds.
“The first two games, they brought the intensity to us, and we wanted to change that narrative coming home,” said Powell. “Now we’ve just gotta do that on the road.”
Khris Middleton had 30 points in Milwaukee’s loss, while Giannis Antetokounmpo had 25 along with 10 rebounds.
It was just the second time all season that the Bucks – the team with the NBA’s best regular-season record – had suffered two losses in a row.
“I think this is probably the first night defensively where I don’t feel like we were close to where you need to be to give ourselves a chance, so credit to Toronto,” said Bucks Coach Mike Budenholzer. “But we’re going home, and there are two very good teams. It’s going to be a hell of a series.”
Antetokounmpo had begun the night with a bang – Euro-stepping through a trio of Raptors for a layup, then one minute later exploding for a dunk. He was on his way to an 11-point first quarter, and fans began to boo the lanky Bucks superstar whenever he touched the ball. Their relentless jeering would be rewarded with four missed free throws from the Greek star throughout the night.
There were positive were early signs for Toronto too. Danny Green, who shot 1-for-9 in Game 3 on Sunday, kicked off the Raps’ scoring with a lay-in. Gasol was hitting threes for a second successive game. Lowry scored 12 fast points – including two from deep – and expertly drew Milwaukee big man Brook Lopez into a foul.
The Raps needed that diverse scoring since Leonard began the game 1-of-4 for just three points. Still Toronto led 32-31 when the quarter ended.
Middleton – who had a wonky 3-of-16 shooting game on Sunday – was bouncing back offensively for Milwaukee, in tandem with Antetokounmpo.
Toronto’s bench – persistently scrutinized for its lack of scoring in this post-season – delivered 28 first-half points. Ibaka had nearly amassed a double-double by halftime, delighting as he nabbed some big rebounds from the clutches of Antetokounmpo. Powell was waiting on the perimeter when the defence collapsed on Leonard in the paint, and the trusty reserve delivered with big buckets as the increased confidence oozed from him.
Leonard had only five points by half time, yet the Raps still held a 65-55 lead at the break.
“We rely on him a lot, and he does a lot for us,” said Lowry of Leonard. “When we have a game like this, where everyone steps up, it eases the pressure on him doing so much offensively for us.”
The Raptors megastar would not stay quiet on offence for long, pouring in 10 in the third. Pascal Siakam went on a quick scoring spree, but picked up his fourth foul and had to take a seat.
VanVleet joined in on the barrage of bench points by hitting some big threes – a welcome sight for the Raps after he’d been 1-of-11 in Game 3.
The Raptors constructed a lead of 21 points. Green would have four points on the night, while Siakam would add seven.
Leonard would only need to put in 34 minutes – a relief just 48 hours after he’d played 52 minutes in Toronto’s dramatic double-overtime win. The star was experiencing some fatigue Tuesday.
When asked how he feels, Leonard said after the game: “I feel good. Keep going, keep fighting, we have a chance to make history.”
The Raps kept the personal fouls in check on this occasion – no one fouled out. They were actually able to empty the bench and get everyone into the game. No theatrics at Scotiabank Arena this time. The game was never really in doubt.
Game 5 takes place in Milwaukee on Thursday, with Game 6 on Saturday back in Toronto.
The Golden State Warriors won the Western Conference final in a sweep, and now await the victor of this series in the NBA final.