At the half of Tuesday’s Game 4, TNT analyst Shaquille O’Neal was narrating a Raptors’ highlights package. Every reference was to “this guy” or the other “this guy.” You know, “that guy.”
When a co-panelist suggested analysis works better when you use the players’ given names, O’Neal replied, “I don’t know their names. I’m not Canadian.”
It’s a dumb thing to say on one level, and a … no, actually it’s just a dumb thing to say. But you get the gist. Aside from Kawhi Leonard, no Raptor had consistently distinguished themselves in this series.
It was getting easy to mix up your Fred VanVleets, your Danny Greens and your Marc Gasols – just another guy terrified to take a shot, and usually missing when he did.
The supporting cast had been so consistently inconsistent that you had convinced yourself that the only way Toronto could win this was Leonard going full Hercules each and every night. And that, in turn, was beginning to look impossible.
Leonard hurt himself in Game 3, then shrugged away questions about it.
Before the game, Toronto coach Nick Nurse didn’t sound terribly confident in Leonard’s ability to physically peak.
“Looks good. So far. We’ll see.” Afterward, he didn’t sound any more confident.
“He looks, uh, um, okay.” If you overheard a doctor talking about you that way, you’d probably call yourself an ambulance. Pre-emptively.
But on a night Leonard was going at half-speed (still a lot faster than most), everyone else finally showed up.
“It helps when guys who haven’t made the shots they normally make come in and make those shots,” Norman Powell said later. Norm Powell – future coach of the year/motivational speaker.
After weeks of drift, Powell resubmitted his application for cult status in Canadian basketball circles. He played the same number of minutes as Leonard, took more shots and made just as many baskets.
Just one series ago, this guy wasn’t warming the bench, he was putting a butt-shaped groove in it. Now he’s Robin to Leonard’s Batman. He wasn’t the only one.
This may have been the first time this entire playoffs that we have seen the Raptors, as an aggregate, operating at the peak of their powers.
Toronto’s shortened bench in particular was tremendous – 48 points vs. the Bucks’ 23.
As a result, the Raptors didn’t steamroll Milwaukee. They trash-compacted them, steadily applying pressure throughout the game until the Bucks popped in the fourth quarter. It finished 120-102.
This was only the second time this season that the Bucks have lost two games in a row. Giannis Antetokounmpo was once again proven human. Whatever mental advantage Milwaukee enjoyed just a couple of days ago is gone.
Part of the Bucks’ mystique – if that’s the right word to describe a team that hasn’t yet accomplished anything – is their imperturbability.
So it struck you when Milwaukee’s Khris Middleton – who had foolishly guaranteed a win on Tuesday – wandered across the court to bodycheck Kyle Lowry as he came out of the backcourt. This was with less than two seconds left in the half. Suddenly, a no-hoper from half-court became a couple of free throws. It was a little thing, but a telling thing. At least for one evening, Milwaukee was starting to combust.
“We didn’t really take away one thing from them,” Middleton said later. “It’s not the end of the world.”
Nobody said anything about the end of the world. Nobody said anything about anything. The question that prompted that answer was a small, technical one.
“It’s going to be a hell of a series,” Milwaukee coach Mike Budenholzer said afterward.
Note the future tense.
After Game 2, the NBA cognoscenti agreed that a Milwaukee-Golden State NBA final was problematic because it wouldn’t start until May 30th. What would these two clubs do with so many days off? Would it affect the quality of play? And would Shaq have enough time to learn everyone’s names?
Things look a little different now.
On paper, Milwaukee is still in control. They have two of three games at home, and they have Giannis. But the tone emanating from the Buck is new. If not quite scared, they sound prepared to be so.
Toronto’s already dealt with this sort of self-doubt in recent weeks. At points, they’ve been beaten down, literally and figuratively. It’s been a while since anyone believed in them. They managed to plug through that.
Now it’s the Bucks’ turn to put themselves on the couch. It’s a bit late in the post-season to start this sort of thing.
On Thursday, we’ll see if their auto-therapy results in some sort of breakthrough.
Because if not, it may be time to start talking about a Cinderella story in a town that hasn’t had one of those in a very, very long time.