Gritty Defence and Kawhi’s Playmaking Bring Raptors Within a Game of NBA Finals

Kawhi Leonard

Photo:Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

With a gutsy win on the road last night, the Toronto Raptors have beaten the Milwaukee Bucks three times in a row to take a 3-2 series lead, bringing them within one win of their first ever NBA finals appearance.

Pretty good for a team that many labelled an underdog in this series.

The great equalizer for the Raptors in this series has been their elite defence, which is fuelled by arguably the best two-way player in the league, Kawhi Leonard.

Nick Nurse’s decision to make Leonard the primary defender on Bucks’ star Giannis Antetokounmpo not only made it more difficult for the Greek Freak on the catch, it also translated to longer help at the rim.

Instead of smaller defenders — including Kawhi —collapsing on him in the paint, Nurse had the likes of Gasol and Siakem crowding the lane, making it difficult for Giannis to finish or even find his teammates for kick-outs.

Also crucial was the defensive commitment from the entire Raptors team to cut Giannis off above the three-point line. On one play, even Fred VanVleet — who comes up to Giannis’ belly button if he’s lucky — stepped up to slow Giannis down at the three-point line and stayed in front of him on a drive to force a difficult shot that clanged off the front rim.

On offence, Raptors fans finally got a glimpse of how good this team could be when they stop watching Kawhi and allow the offence to run through him. While the Bucks scaled back some of their double teams and blitzes, Kawhi still found a way to collapse the defence on his drives and kick out to his wide-open teammates. He finished with 35 points, 7 rebounds and a career-high 9 assists.

VanVleet, who’d likely get the second star of the game if this were hockey, was the biggest beneficiary of Leonard’s playmaking, cashing in on four of his seven three-pointers off of Leonard assists.

And with the Bucks switching more on screens, Kawhi took advantage of favourable matchups, most notably on two momentum swinging three-pointers he scored overtop of Brook Lopez.

With the Raptors headed back home, where they shoot better and play even stingier defence, they have a great opportunity to close the Bucks out and make Raptors history.

kawhi leonard
Raptors forward Kawhi Leonard (2) draws four defenders as the Toronto Raptors beat the Milwaukee Bucks in game four 120-102 to even up the Eastern Conference NBA Final at two games.
(Photo: Steve Russell/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

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May 22: Kawhi Gets Much Needed Help as Raptors Even Series: Here Are the Keys for Game 5

In what was their most balanced scoring effort in the NBA playoffs to date, the Toronto Raptors laid a beating on the Milwaukee Bucks to tie the Eastern Conference Finals at 2-2.

And Kawhi Leonard needed all the help he could get. After carrying the offensive and defensive load in the previous double overtime win on Sunday — where he limped at various points in the game — he clearly didn’t have the usual pop to his game in this contest.

The Bench

Kyle Lowry led the way with a team-high 25 points, but it was the contributions from the bench that gave the Raptors an extra lift in this game. Serge Ibaka, who finished with 17 points and 13 rebounds, provided a burst of energy off the bench, outworking the Bucks for offensive rebounds and providing a few demoralizing dunks that got the crowd into the game.

Fred VanVleet, who has provided little relief for Kyle Lowry during this post-season run and had missed 16 of 20 shot attempts through the first round, finally showed up. He went 5 for 6 from the field and made each of his three 3-point attempts to finish with 13.

Norman Powell, now affectionately known as Playoff Powell, continued his hot streak against the Bucks with 18 points. While Powell won’t likely get the start in Game 5, look for Nurse to go to Powell early if Danny Green continues his shooting slump.

The Kyle We Love

The Raptors are simply a different team when Kyle Lowry is aggressive and looking for his shot. And you can pretty much tell which Kyle Lowry you’re going to get within the first few minutes of the game. Once again, he’ll have plenty of energy for game five having had extended rest in the blowout on Tuesday. Look for him to outplay the Bucks’ point guards in Game 5 once again.

Kawhi Battled

Clearly tired and banged up, Leonard still had a serviceable game, with 19 points on 6 of 13 shooting. He also attracted just as much attention as he has all playoffs. While he only recorded one assist, he would have recorded plenty of hockey assists as his passes out of double and triple teams often lead to open looks for his teammates.

Gasol Finding His Way

While Marc Gasol struggled offensively in the first two games, he looks to have rounded a corner in these last two wins. Not only did he shoot better from three, he’s emerged as floor general in this series, finding open cutters and shooter with pin point passes. He finished with 17 points and seven assists.

His court vision, also allowed Leonard to score a couple of easy baskets on cuts to the rim, one of which was entirely orchestrated by Gasol, who directed Leonard to the basket with eye contact and a tilt of his head.

As long as he continues his hot shooting from the perimeter, he’ll create plenty of space on the floor and should continue to find his teammates for easy buckets.

Freak Defence 

Unlike previous iterations of the Raptors, there isn’t an obvious weak link on this team defensively. Every player in the rotation can hold their own, right down to an undersized VanVleet, who makes up for his stature with effort, sound defensive principles and quick hands.

Then of course you have Leonard, who reportedly asked to guard Giannis Antetokounmpo a.k.a the Greek Freak in game three, where he was limited to only 12 points.

In game four, they kept Giannis off balance mixing up their coverages, throwing Leonard, Green, Siakem and at times Serge on him. They also met him at the rim with at least one extra defender and often forced the ball out of his hands before he could start his drive from the perimeter.

When he did beat his defender off the bounce the Raptors fouled hard and made him earn it at the free throw line. That strategy could play a big role in game four, where a Giannis dunk can get the crowd in a frenzy and shift momentum in favour of the the Bucks.

Adjustments to Watch Out For

After a stellar shooting performance by the Raptors in Game 4, look for Milwaukee Bucks head coach Mike Budenholzer to pull back on his double and triple teams of Kawhi and stay home on shooters.

The Raptors will have to hope Kawhi returns to form after playing less minutes in Tuesday’s contest. Either way, the Raps will need another team effort against a very good Bucks team at home.

Kawhi Leonard crouches as he watches his game winning shot hang on the rim.
Kawhi Leonard crouches as he watches his game winning shot hang on the rim. (Photo: Rick Madonik/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

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May 13: Lucky Bounce or Not, The Raptors Have Something Special in Kawhi Leonard

Toronto Raptors fans can gripe all they want about squandering an opportunity to close out the Philadelphia 76ers in six games. But you certainly won’t hear anyone complain about the piece of history they witnessed in Sunday night’s Game 7.

With 4.2 seconds left on the clock, Kawhi Leonard hit a buzzer-beating fadeaway jumper in the corner over Joel Embiid that took an excruciating four bounces on the rim to finally fall, giving the Raptors a heart-stopping 92-90 victory.

The usually stoic and understated Kawhi screamed in elation after watching the shot fall from a crouched position beside the Toronto bench.

“I’m a guy who acts like I’ve been there before,” Kawhi said of the celebration. “Whenever it’s a moment that I haven’t really experienced, I’ll try to show some emotion and let it come out. Tonight was one of those nights. It was a great feeling.”

Judging by the video evidence, we doubt he had to “try.”

The shot-heard-around-the-basketball-world was the first Game 7 buzzer beater in NBA history and went a long way in erasing the years of playoff heartbreak experienced by the Raptors faithful.

The difference this year is the generational talent the Raptors have in Kawhi Leonard, who finished with 41 points on 16 of 39 shooting. Through two rounds of the playoffs, Kawhi has led them in both sides of the floor in almost every game, just the kind of performance the Raptors were hoping for when they acquired  the former finals MVP in an off-season trade.

In a series where Raptors role players were painfully inconsistent, Leonard was the one constant, coming up with key bucket after key bucket when the team’s offence fell stagnant.

While the Raptor’s offence will have to improve in the next round against the Milwaukee Bucks, the team’s staunch defence in Sunday’s Game 7 win saw the Raptors collect 10 steals and force two crucial shot clock violations down the stretch. This is a positive they can take into the Conference Finals against the Bucks.

Leonard dominated on defence as well. On Sunday night, he collected three steals and helped slow down Jimmie Butler, who was heating up in the fourth quarter.

Point guard Kyle Lowry chipped in with two steals, including one which led to a fast break basket that gave Toronto a four point lead with 1:15 remaining.

Perhaps one of the only bright spots on offence for the Raptors (other than Kawhi, of course) was the production of Serge Ibaka, who came off the bench to score 17 points in 29 minutes, outproducing the 76ers reserves 17-8 by himself. He also had eight rebounds and nearly matched Philadelphia’s offensive rebound total (5) with four of his own.

Kawhi will need better offensive production from his fellow starters and more relief from the bench players next round, but as long as they continue to defend like they have for much of the playoffs and have one of the best players on the planet, they’ll have a chance to do something special.

As for whether the four-bounce buzzer-beater was lucky or not, the jury is still out. But if you’re a homer, you can chalk it up to the tremendous amount of backspin Kawhi gets on his picturesque jumper.