It took everything the Toronto Raptors had to get their first win of the Eastern Conference finals, which also begs the question: How much do they have left in a bid to even their series against the Milwaukee Bucks on Tuesday night?
If the Bucks can take any positives from just their second postseason loss in 12 games, it was that the Raptors needed double overtime to defeat them with Giannis Antetokounmpo having an off game on the offensive end of the floor.
Antetokounmpo finished with 12 points on 5-of-16 shooting and committed eight turnovers, which overshadowed his 23 rebounds, seven assists, and four blocks. He struggled some being guarded by Kawhi Leonard, but the “Greek Freak” was not the only player who failed to deliver his best game for Milwaukee.
Starting guards Khris Middleton and Eric Bledsoe each went 3 for 16 from the field and finished with a combined 20 points and as many assists as turnovers (8). They were bailed out by superb games off the bench from George Hill and Malcolm Brogdon, who combined for 44 points while making seven of Milwaukee’s 14 3-pointers.
“Me, Bled (Eric Bledsoe) and Khris (Middleton) had 11 field goals made out of (48),” Antetokounmpo told The Athletic. “At the end of the day, we didn’t have our best game. Obviously, our team is special and even though their leaders had a bad night, they were able to send this game to double overtime.”
Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer has been trying to gradually incorporate Brogdon back into the flow after he missed the first eight games of the postseason with a plantar fascia injury that also sidelined him the final 13 regular-season games. But the third-year guard is making it challenging for Budenholzer to leave him on the bench after averaging 14.7 points off the bench in his first four playoff contests.
“I think the way Malcolm is playing, I think the punch he’s bringing us off the bench, both he and George — I would say we’ll continue to think about it and wrestle with everything, but generally speaking, I think that seems like it’s in a good place,” Budenholzer said Monday while noting he is trying to find time for Brogdon and Middleton to play together and have both defend Leonard.
Antetokounmpo was held below 20 points in just one other playoff game this season, and he bounced back with a 41-point effort to help Milwaukee complete a sweep of Detroit in the first round. The Bucks went 8-4 in the regular season the game after the All-Star forward was held below 20 points, with Antetokounmpo recording three 40-point games and 10 double-doubles while shooting 62.2 percent.
He averaged 28.8 points, 12.1 rebounds, and 5.2 assists in those contests, with one of them a 43-point, 18-rebound effort in a 123-116 home loss to the Raptors on Jan. 5.
“I think he will be aggressive. Again, I think looking at the film, they’re putting a lot of attention on him. I think he’s making a lot of good decisions, a lot of good reads,” Budenholzer said. “We’ve probably got to play a little better around him to make it harder for them to do that.
“When everybody is playing well, then Giannis plays well. I think, again, he’s passing well. He’s making good reads. I think he’ll continue to do that. If it’s 12 points or 40 points, he just wants to win.”
Milwaukee is 4-1 on the road in the postseason, averaging 118.8 points despite shooting only 33.2 percent from 3-point range. The Bucks have compensated for those perimeter shortcomings by averaging 23.0 points from the foul line.
Leonard put together a performance for the ages, scoring eight of his 36 points in the second overtime to lift the Raptors while also totaling nine rebounds, five assists, two steals, and a block in 52 minutes. He also flustered Antetokounmpo throughout Game 3 on the defensive end, earning plaudits from Raptors coach Nick Nurse.
“He did a really good job on him,” Nurse said of Leonard on Monday before spreading his praise. “I think he was just into him a little bit more. But so were the other guys. I said that after the game last night. There were guys that we were just getting down. I know you’re asking me about a specific matchup, but that was going on all over the floor.
“We were up into guys. They were trying to break us down off the dribble. We were sliding and catching the first move. We were chesting them up a little bit and staying in front. If anything bad did happen, there was usually some reliable help there to make them try to make another play.”
Pascal Siakam continued his breakout postseason with 25 points and 11 rebounds for his fourth playoff double-double, which also exceeded his combined totals of the first two games of this series in which the forward had 23 points and seven rebounds in Milwaukee.
Leonard’s heroics also helped Siakam avoid what would have been a devastating hangover effect of a loss after he missed two free throws in the closing seconds of regulation that would have sealed the victory and a potential game-winning 3-pointer after the Bucks tied it.
“Obviously, if I could have saved Kawhi from playing an hour of basketball, I would have,” Siakam said Monday. “At least I tried, but it happened. You’ve got to move on from that.
“I think just at that moment, just being there, it hurts. It’s tough, but you’ve got to try to make yourself understand that it’s okay and that there’s still a game to play and you’ve got to continue to play. I think that’s what I tried to do with the help of my teammates too.”
The Raptors are counting on a better performance from Kyle Lowry, who had 11 points and five assists while fouling out midway through the fourth quarter. Marc Gasol will likely provide some help for Leonard on the defensive end, but the veteran center also had a standout offensive game with 16 points, 12 rebounds, seven assists, and five blocks.
Unlike the Celtics from the previous round, the Raptors are throwing constant double teams at Antetokounmpo as opposed to cheating in help defense with the second defender. Toronto’s defenders are also trying to attack Antetokounmpo when he tries to dribble as opposed to letting him find a rhythm on the bounce when Milwaukee uses a flat 1-4 to let him create his own shot.
But the Bucks star also sent out a warning if the Raptors continue to sic Leonard on him on the defensive end.
“In Game 4, if they have Kawhi on me, I gotta make him defend,” he told The Athletic. “If he guards me, he’s gotta work. I gotta make him work as much as possible so he can spend a lot of energy defensively, so he’s not as effective offensively.”
The series will return to Milwaukee for Game 5 on Thursday night.
(Kawhi Leonard photo courtesy Nick Turchiaro/USA TODAY Sports)
(Giannis Antetokounmpo photo courtesy Tom Szczerbowski/USA TODAY Sports)