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NBA Playoffs 2019: Bucks face moment of truth on defense after Raptors flip the script in Eastern Conference finals

TORONTO — If Game 4 of the Eastern Conference finals were scripted, it would have felt like Toronto Raptors fan service. A tired and banged-up Kawhi Leonard dunked on Giannis Antetokounmpo, but only had to play 34 minutes and attempt 13 shots. They tied the series on Tuesday on the strength of their balanced attack, as if they were issuing a direct response to everyone who held up the Milwaukee Bucks as a deeper, more cohesive, less superstar-reliant team.

Raptors guard Fred VanVleet said the Raptors know the narrative is that they are “Kawhi Leonard and the backup singers,” and this victory shows how much success they can have when everyone is involved. They would have taken a win any way they could get it, but this way was particularly satisfying. 

The Bucks were less pleased.

“We didn’t really take away one thing from them,” Milwaukee forward Khris Middleton said after the 120-102 loss. “For the most part, I feel like they got anything they wanted, from the paint to the blocks to the midrange to the 3s.”

At times, Games 1 (a close win) and 3 (a close loss) were concerning for the Bucks. The opener featured Kyle Lowry looking more comfortable than he had at any point in the second round, and Toronto had 28 assists on its 40 baskets in Sunday’s double-overtime marathon. But this was an avalanche. “From top to bottom, all their guys played well,” Middleton said, lamenting that “everything was easy.” VanVleet shook off a shooting slump and looked like one of the league’s top reserves, which he has been for the better part of the last two seasons. Lowry pushed the pace, got to the free throw line and never let Milwaukee off the hook. Marc Gasol picked the defense apart, Serge Ibaka hit the offensive glass and Norman Powell was a madman.

This was the Raptors at their best, aesthetically speaking. It was equal parts impressive and alarming, as Milwaukee typically does not allow teams to be their best. The Bucks had the NBA‘s most stingy defense in the regular season, and it has been even stingier in the playoffs. Last Friday, they held Toronto to 39 points in a half by owning the paint, sending help to Leonard and rotating like crazy. To their coach, Mike Budenholzer, it must seem like that happened years ago. The question now is whether or not they will look that imposing again. 

“I don’t feel like we were close to where you need to be to give ourselves a chance,” Budenholzer said.

It was the type of loss that makes people scream about D.J. Wilson’s lack of playing time. Far too often, Milwaukee looked slow, with the Raptors taking advantage of the attention being paid to Leonard and the limitations of Nikola Mirotic, Ersan Ilyasova and Brook Lopez. It can’t be called the Bucks’ first playoff test — they were shaky in Game 1 of the second round and responded beautifully — but Toronto’s offense has been much more dangerous than Boston’s over the course of the season. Before making adjustments, Budenholzer said the coaching staff will have to figure out the degree to which Milwaukee’s approach against Leonard caused problems.

“They got to good spots,” Budenholzer said. “They shared the ball. They passed it. They made open shots. They made some high-degree-of-difficulty shots. So that’s a bad combination.”

Antetokounmpo said the Bucks need to “keep doing the same thing” in order to limit Leonard’s shots. If that is what they do, the rest of the Raptors will continue to let it fly

“This team helps off everything, they’re leaving Serge and Marc all the time, they’re over-rotating,” VanVleet said. “They’re leaving Norm — he had a big game last [game], they’re still going under him this game. They’re sticklers in the way they play defense and we’ve gotta take the same shots.”

Milwaukee’s nightmare scenario in what is now a best-of-three series: It can’t consistently get stops and score in transition, and the Raptors have renewed belief they can get to the NBA Finals by emphasizing cutting, spacing and purposeful ball movement. If Game 4 fostered a greater sense of trust, they will make it even more difficult for the Bucks to keep up. 

A less scary way to look at it: Milwaukee played one terrible defensive game, like Toronto did in Game 2, so you can flush the game tape. The other two were close, and there is no guarantee that the Raptors can repeat this performance on the road. The conference finals aren’t supposed to be easy, and bouncing back is a part of the Bucks’ identity. Tuesday was only the second time all season they lost two straight games. It is possible that all their defense needs is a tweak or two and more oomph.

Hours before Game 4, guard Malcolm Brogdon said that they were resilient because of their hunger to make the most of their talent. They’ve had what he called “tough seasons” before this, and “this year we’ve realized we have a special team.” The Raptors, however, played like a special team at Scotiabank Arena, taking much of the pep out of the top seed’s collective step. “We got punched,” Budenholzer said. It is unclear what the counterpunch will look like. 

Game 5 is on Thursday. Time to buck up.

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