The Toronto Raptors now lead the Eastern Conference Finals against the Milwaukee Bucks, 3-2.
Thursday night’s matchup marked a three-game winning streak by the Raptors against the No. 1 team in the Eastern Conference to take a series lead. Kawhi Leonard & Co. now have the chance to close out Giannis Antetokounmpo back in Ontario for Game 6 on Saturday.
Much of Toronto’s success against Milwaukee in Game 5 was predicated by the same thing that got them through Games 3 and 4. Defense was incredibly important for the Raptors, who again collapsed on Antetokounmpo and pressured the shaky Bucks shooters into poor shots at the arc. Milwaukee shot just 32.3 percent from the 3-point line. Once again, both Eric Bledsoe and Malcolm Brogdon struggled, combining to go 4-of-13 from deep.
Antetokounmpo had a better shooting night then he had in Game 4, but he scored just 24 points to go with six rebounds and six assists. The Greek Freak was not the same kind of impact player that he was in the first two games, and Nick Nurse forced Milwaukee to rely on its supporting cast yet again.
BIG thing to watch tonight’s Game 5:
Can Giannis Antetokounmpo overcome Kawhi Leonard’s defense?
Giannis is shooting just 34.6% this season with Kawhi guarding him. Nick Nurse gave him that assignment starting Game 3, completely changing the series. pic.twitter.com/QI5pBS8M6m
To that end, Khris Middleton had just six points on 2-of-9 shooting, although he did grab 10 rebounds and 10 assists. Milwaukee’s bench was awful for the second game in a row — Nikola Mirotic and Ersan Ilyasova scored zero points on five shots in 20 minutes.
Much to the delight of Raptors fans, Toronto’s supporting cast rose to Leonard’s level. Pascal Siakam, who didn’t shoot well, scored 14 points with 10 rebounds and three blocks. Kyle Lowry had a solid playoff performance of 17 points on 4-of-11 shooting to go with seven rebounds and six assists.
Most surprising was Fred VanVleet, who played 37 minutes off the bench to the tune of 21 points — all from 3-point shots. VanVleet has been uneven this postseason, but Danny Green had such a poor outing on Thursday (he scored zero points as well) that it was necessary to play VanVleet heavily. Thankfully for Toronto, it worked out.
As a team the Raptors limited turnovers to just six, shooting an incredible 41.9 percent from the 3-point line thanks in large part to Leonard and VanVleet.
The momentum has shifted significantly in this series, and it has much to do with the coaching changes that Nurse has made to pinpoint the inequities in Milwaukee’s lineup. It also seems like the Bucks have gone cold at just the wrong time, and coach Mike Budenholzer will need to come up with some serious strategy to be able to combat Toronto and stave off elimination. The series heads back to Ontario for Game 6 on Saturday at 5:30 p.m. when the Raptors can close the series at home at Scotiabank Arena for their first-ever NBA Finals berth.
The Raptors beat the Bucks in Game 5, 105-99.
Giannis Antetokounmpo, Marcus Smart headline All-Defensive teams
This voting could foreshadow a tight Defensive Player of the Year race. The three finalists for that award – Rudy Gobert, Paul George and Giannis Antetokounmpo – each received a high majority of votes, but not unanimity, at their positions. Or Gobert could just cruise to another victory.
I have no major complaints about the selections. I would have put Danny Green (who finished fifth among guards) on the first team, bumped down Eric Bledsoe and excluded Klay Thompson. I also would have give second-team forward to P.J. Tucker (who finished fifth among forwards) over Kawhi Leonard. Here are our picks for reference.
P.J. Tucker came only one voting point from the second team. If he tied Kawhi Leonard, both players would have made it on an expanded six-player second team.
Leonard hasn’t defended with the same verve this season. He remains awesome in stretches, particular in the playoffs. But his effort in the regular season didn’t match his previous level. Defensive reputations die hard.
It’s a shame Thaddeus Young received only two second-team votes. My general rule is you can complain about a lack of votes for only players you picked, and I didn’t pick Young. But he came very close to P.J. Tucker for my final forward spot, Young had a stronger case than several forwards ahead of him.
James Harden got two first-team votes. Did someone think they were voting for All-NBA? Stephen Curry also got a first-team vote. Kyrie Irving and Damian Lillard got second-team votes. Nikola Jokic got a second-team vote. Kevin Durant got a few second-team votes. There’s plenty of All-NBA/All-Defensive overlap with other frontcourt players. There could easily be an incorrectly submitted ballot.
But that still leaves a second Harden first-team vote with no other plausible explanation. Someone must really love steals, guaring in the post and absolutely no other aspects of defense.
Jordan Bell got a second-team vote at forward. He’s a decent defender, but someone who played fewer minutes than Dirk Nowitzki, Bruno Caboclo and Omari Spellman this season. Bell also primarily played center. Weird.
Toronto vs. Milwaukee: Five things to watch in the Eastern Conference Finals
Last offseason, both the Toronto Raptors and Milwaukee Bucks each made one big move — and that’s why they are here, ready to face off in the Eastern Conference Finals starting Wednesday night.
The Milwaukee Bucks fired coach Jason Kidd — now an assistant with the Lakers — to hire Mike Budenholzer and asked him to bring the team into the modern era. He got buy-in from Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton then did just that — the result was Bucks finished with the best defense and fourth best offense in the league in the regular season. The Bucks are long and rotate quickly on defense, with an emphasis on protecting the paint. On offense, they space the floor with shooters and let Antetokounmpo go to work. The result is a title contender.
The Toronto Raptors traded fan favorite and franchise icon DeMar DeRozan and brought back Kawhi Leonard with the idea he was the guy who could get them over the hump in the playoffs. Leonard was impressive in the regular season, but come the playoffs has been everything the Raptors hoped — he has been the best player in the East. Leonard has been methodical in getting to his spots and hitting his shots on offense, while reminding everyone he is the best perimeter defender in the game. If you have any doubts about how he’s playing, go ask Philadelphia.
Which move pays off with the trip to the Finals? How will the outcome of this series impact the summer free agencies of Leonard and Middleton? Those questions will be answered starting Wednesday night in Milwaukee, here are five things to watch during this series.
1) Can the Bucks slow Kawhi Leonard? Can the Raptors slow Giannis Antetokounmpo? Both Leonard and the Greek Freak are going to get their points. They are too good not to. The question is simply, can they be slowed, made a little less efficient? Doing so would be a big step toward winning the series.
Don’t expect to see Antetokounmpo and Leonard matched up on each other much, except during crunch time late in a close game. They matched up little when these teams met in the regular season, and that makes sense on a few levels, starting with the physical toll of running the offense then defending an elite player on the other end. It would just wear guys out.
In the regular season meetings between these teams, the Bucks had some success on Leonard. Middleton was the primary defender and Leonard shot just 40.7 percent against him (using NBA tracking data). However, the Raptors’ offense was still close to its average efficiency because of free throws and other guys stepping up. The Bucks have been a better defensive team in the playoffs than the regular season (where they were the best in the NBA), the role players may struggle to find space to shoot, Leonard needs to get them rolling and be more of a playmaker than just pure scorer. But he needs to get buckets, too.
Toronto struggled to slow Antetokounmpo. Pascal Siakam got the assignment most of the time, but the Greek Freak averaged 27 points per game in the meetings with a 66 true shooting percentage, plus he grabbed 15.3 rebounds a game. Numbers right at his season averages. Leonard did do a good job getting Antetokounmpo to give the ball up when he was on him in limited minutes, something the Raptors could try for key stretches late.
2) Which team’s “others” will step up and make plays? The stars are going to get theirs, but which one of them will get the most help?
Antetokounmpo got plenty of help in the second round — five other Bucks averaged double-digit points. Middleton averaged 19.2, but the big boost was George Hill giving the team 14.2 points per game off the bench. Another huge key is that Middleton and Hill both shot a little better than 47 percent from three — the Bucks offense is about transition and spacing, but to make that work the threes have to fall. They did against Boston.
One Buck who could have a bigger impact this series is Malcolm Brogdon, who returned from a plantar fascia issue midway through the Boston series. He was a critical starter for them in the regular season, he will open this series coming off the bench (Nikola Mirotic will still start) but should play a significant role.
The bigger question is will Leonard get help? He did not consistently against a good Sixers defense — in Game 7 Leonard took 39 shots because he was the only one willing to consistently pull the trigger.
That can’t happen this series, a hesitant Toronto shooter will find a long Milwaukee defender in his face fast. The Bucks had the best defense in the NBA this season and have allowed 6.7 fewer points per 100 possessions in the playoffs. The Bucks have shut down teams that tried to isolate against them these playoffs, something Leonard and the Raptors like to do. Toronto needs to find a varied offense.
All season — led by Marc Gasol and Kyle Lowry — the Raptors have been unselfish and have passed up good shots to try to get great ones. Do that against the quick and long Bucks and that shooting window goes away. The Bucks defensive scheme leaves Brook Lopez and Antetokounmpo back more to protect the paint, and with that they give up a lot of above-the-break threes — Gasol has to take those when he gets them. And hit them. Same with Lowry. And Danny Green. And every other Raptor. The windows to shoot will be small and the Raptors need to take them, hesitate and all will be lost.
It appears OG Anunoby will be out for most if not all of this series as he recovers from an appendectomy. That’s a blow, he’s the kind of “3&D” wing Toronto could really use.
3) Watch the pace: Faster is better for Milwaukee. In Game 1 of their second-round matchup, Boston was able to grind Milwaukee down. The game had 99 possessions, and the bottled-up Bucks scored just 90 points on their way to a 22-point loss (pace stats via Cleaning the Glass).
The rest of the series was played at an almost 106 possessions per game pace and the Bucks swept them all.
Milwaukee thrives in transition. When Antetokounmpo gets up a head of steam any defender is helpless. The Greek Freak is averaging 7.4 fast break points per game these playoffs, the most of any player. Toronto can play with some pace (they were 15th in pace during the season, middle of the pack, but very efficient in their transition offense) however, they have been five possessions a game slower in the playoffs and that needs to continue. In this series, the Raptors need to slow the game down and grind it out. Toronto just showed it can win that kind of series beating Philadelphia, and Leonard is at his best in the halfcourt.
That means Toronto needs to make its shots more often, not turn the ball over, and get back in transition defense. Slow the game down, take away the easy buckets. Sounds easy enough, but go ask the Celtics how easy it is to execute against the Bucks.
4) Kyle Lowry vs. Eric Bledsoe. This may be the bellwether matchup and tell us about how the “others” are performing. These two players are the spark plug point guards who can help set the tone for their teams on both ends of the floor. Both teams need their top three to outperform the other’s top three, and this is the head-to-head matchup in that group.
Based on the regular season, that could be good for Milwaukee. Lowry shot 23.3 percent and was 1-of-20 from three against the Bucks this past season, plus he sat out the one meeting between the sides where Toronto won. Bledsoe, in particular, was a good defender on Lowry and held him scoreless when matched up this season.
Lowry simply has to do better or this series will be short.
5) Does experience on this stage matter? The Bucks have not shown any signs of the playoffs being too big a stage for them yet, but now the pressure mounts. Will it show?
The Raptors hope so.
The experienced Raptors — with Leonard, Gasol, Lowry — have players who have taken part in 116 Conference Finals games. They know what this level feels like, how to handle the pressure and execute.
The only Buck to go this far is George Hill, from his time with the Spurs and Pacers. That’s it. This is all new to Milwaukee.
The question is, will it matter?
Three things to watch in Game 7s between Nuggets-Blazers, 76ers-Raptors
Two Game 7s with much more on the line than trips to the next round.
Toronto and Philadelphia both went all-in on winning this season, gambling on big time free agents to be who could put them over the top, and if they did then those stars may want to stay. The Raptors have Kawhi Leonard, Philadelphia has Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris. Plus, Sixers coach Brett Brown may need to win to hold on to his job.
Denver and Portland see themselves as the teams who have got next in the West, franchises poised to rise up as Golden State fades away. A trip to the Western Conference Finals would be validation, fall short and there will need to be some soul searching.
The NBA has got the drama on Mothers’ Day, but what is it going to take to win those games? Here are three things to keep an eye on.
1) Will the Raptors knock down their threes and give Kawhi Leonard some help? Leonard has been the best player in the East this postseason, a beast that justifies both the Raptors gamble on him and the way they managed his minutes — or, more accurately, let him manage his own minutes — during the regular season. Leonard has averaged 33.7 points with a 67.7 true shooting percentage, plus 10.2 rebounds and 4.2 assists a game against Philadelphia this series.
Toronto’s defense has more and more been to throw multiple defenders at Leonard, trying not to let him beat them.
Which puts the pressure on everyone around Leonard — Pascal Siakam, Kyle Lowry, Danny Green, and Marc Gasol. Philly’s defense is willing to give up threes, and when Toronto has hit them it has won. The above foursome has shot 38.3 percent from three in Toronto’s wins and 26.2 percent in the losses (on almost the same number of attempts).
For all the crazy things that can happen in a Game 7, the goal is still simply to put the ball in the basket. If the Raptors can do that from three, they will win. If they miss, particularly early on, it could lead to….
2) Will Ben Simmons get some early transition buckets, start playing downhill, and be a force in Game 7?Joel Embiid is the lynchpin for everything in Philly — he is +80 through six games in a series where his team has been outscored by 17 points overall. Embiid is the Sixers’ rock. Jimmy Butler has been Philadelphia’s best player and their go-to pick-and-roll ball handler in this series, and he has been brilliant (and endeared himself to Sixers fans).
However, Ben Simmons may be the bellwether. He got early opportunities in Game 6 in transition where he is most dangerous, that got him confident and aggressive, and from there he went on to 21 points on 9-of-13 shooting. He led the blowout Game 6 win.
“We just missed so many shots early and they were just playing off the rebound so often,” Raptors coach Nick Nurse said after Game 6. “They were getting the rebound and pushing it out on us, and we didn’t do a great job in transition.”
Jared Dudley was not wrong, Simmons can fade into the background in the halfcourt. With Butler dominating the ball, Simmons slides into the dunker position and can see very few touches from there. Then he gets passive on offense, and it spirals.
If Simmons is getting out in transition early and being aggressive, it’s an excellent sign for Philadelphia.
3) Is Rodney Hood the third scorer Portland needs to win?Damian Lillard is going to get his, he’s one of the best scorers in the sport — and he’s clutch. He was made for Game 7s. Which is why Denver is going to work to get the ball out of his hands, and this is why C.J. McCollum has been so critical for Portland in this series.
However, Portland will need scoring from a third source to win on the road, and that may be Rodney Hood. He had 25 points on 8-of-12 shooting in Game 6 and was the MVP of the night. He’s had a few games like that these playoffs, having found a role on this Portland team that eluded him in Cleveland and Utah last season.
If Hood gets going again, Portland has a chance.
Denver vs. Portland has been the tightest of second-round series and what separates the teams in this game — Paul Millsap having a good night, Nikola Jokic diming guys up, Lillard going off, Hood having a night — may come down to the slightest of things. This has been the most entertaining second-round series, in part because neither team can really stop the other, but if one side finds just a little defense that may be the deciding factor.
Sixers’ Simmons, Butler, Embiid dominate, blow out Raptors to force Game 7
Ben Simmons played in Game 5 on Tuesday, there is proof right in the box score. Yet if you watched the game he was hardly noticeable. Not coincidently Philadelphia got blown out on the road.
In the first minutes of Game 6, you could not miss Ben Simmons — he was aggressive, attacking downhill, imposing himself on the game. Philadelphia’s defensive energy had Toronto missing shots, and that gave Simmons a chance to get out in transition, where he is at his best. Simmons was 4-of-5 shooting with 5 assists in the first quarter alone.
That set the tone.
“[Simmons] was our bell-ringer tonight,” Sixers coach Brett Brown of his star, who finished with 21 points.
Jimmy Butler was the best player on the floor, scored 25 on the night, had eight assists, and played with the kind of grit and determination that endears him to Sixers faithful. “He was all over that game,” Brown said.
Joel Embiid was +40 in 36 minutes (and the Sixers were -29 in the 12 minutes he sat)— just his presence on the court changes things for the Sixers on both ends.
Philadelphia blew out Toronto in Game 6, 112-101 (a score that was not indicative of the 20+ point Sixers lead for much of the game) to even the series 3-3.
The winner-take-all Game 7 is Sunday in Toronto, 7 p.m. Eastern (up against the penultimate Game of Thrones episode, both may see some blood spilled).
It’s a game with more than just a trip to the Eastern Conference Finals against Milwaukee on the line — free agent decisions by stars such as Kawhi Leonard, Jimmy Butler, Tobias Harris and more could be impacted by the outcome.
Which Philadelphia team will show up for that game?
Throughout this series — and even going back to Game 1 of the Brooklyn series — this team has been up-and-down. Part of that has risen and fell with Joel Embiid’s health, but Simmons effectiveness, and how well the role players have performed, has been a roller coaster as well.
Often that is tied to pace — when the Sixers get to run then Simmons gets going and other things open up. Make the Sixers take the ball out of the basket each time and the dynamic changes.
“We just missed so many shots early and they were just playing off the rebounds so often,” Raptors coach Nick Nurse said. “They were getting the rebound and pushing out on us so often, and we were not doing a great job in transition.”
If the Sixers team that showed up Thursday night appears on Sunday Philadelphia has a good chance of advancing.
As it has every game, Toronto got a good night from Kawhi Leonard, 29 points on 9-of-20 shooting, however, this was not one of his elite nights. Pascal Siakam added 21 points and played well.
That’s about it. Every other Raptor shot a combined 40 percent and had little impact on the game Kyle Lowry was 5-of-11 for 13 points, Danny Green was 2-of-8 from three, Serge Ibaka was 3-of-10, Marc Gasol 3-of-8.
Toronto’s role players have been much better at home and they need to continue that trend Sunday.
One other thing to watch: Late in the game, Embiid picked up a flagrant foul when a push of Marc Gasol (in an attempt to establish rebounding position) resulted in a hand flying up and catching the Raptor big man in the face. Inadvertent or not the NBA has handed out Flagrants for those kinds of plays all season. That gives Embiid three flagrants these playoffs, one more and he gets a one-game suspension (if his next one is a Flagrant 2 he sits two games).