Those miscues and missed chances would have turned the Raptors into a herd of scapegoats had they fallen short in a contest in which the Bucks repeatedly gifted them opportunities.
Milwaukee opened with a lackadaisical first quarter and proceeded to shoot blanks all night, hitting just 14 of their 44 three-point attempts. Giannis Antetokounmpo committed eight turnovers, tying his career-high, and scored just 12 points, his lowest total of the postseason. Eric Bledsoe, a perpetual X-factor, struggled from the field for the third time in three games.
As the second overtime commenced, the stakes were clear: Either Toronto would find a way to gut out a home victory to pull the series to 2-1, or it would face a harsh reckoning.
The Raptors secured their reprieve through good fortune and great defense. Early in the second overtime, Siakam drove hard to his right and ran into Antetokounmpo, who was sliding into place to take a charge. The bang-bang foul was Antetokounmpo’s sixth. Milwaukee’s star left the game with no obvious reaction, even as Drake, the rapper and Raptors superfan, waved him off the court.
From there, Toronto reasserted control by locking down Milwaukee’s compromised offense. Leonard poked away a steal and raced in for a dunk. Siakam soared high to block a shot well above the rim, leading to another Leonard basket on the other end. Finally, the discombobulated Bucks stalled out with a back-court violation.
Leonard’s late-game flourish capped a spectacular night in which he played through an apparent leg injury to log a career-high 52 minutes and score a game-high 36 points on 25 shots. On the defensive end, Leonard made Antetokounmpo uncomfortable for the first time in the series.
Nurse opened Game 3 by assigning Leonard, his best defender, to guard Milwaukee’s MVP finalist instead of Siakam, who had previously handled those duties. The two-time defensive player of the year largely succeeded in keeping the MVP finalist from barreling down the paint by playing him tightly and hounding his dribble. Antetokounmpo’s turnovers came in all manners: rushing, forcing, making the wrong read, and suffering momentary lapses of concentration.
“[Leonard’s] defense was probably the biggest key of the game,” Nurse said. “He made some huge plays with some steals, rip-aways and breakaways."
Leonard’s presence also encouraged Antetokounmpo to try to beat Toronto’s defense with the pass. His choices produced seven assists but also put the game into the hands of his supporting cast. Milwaukee starters Bledsoe, Khris Middleton and Nikola Mirotic combined to shoot a dreadful 9-43, turning Nurse’s adjustment into a winning chess move.
“They were double-teaming [Antetokounmpo] a lot,” Bucks Coach Mike Budenholzer said. “They were putting a lot of bodies at him. He’s making the right read and we’ve probably got to shoot it a little bit better. We’ve got to drive it a little bit better. Maybe we can create more space for him. We’ll look at all those things."
This was a signature two-way performance from Leonard, who labored after finishing a layup in the first quarter. Milwaukee’s defense made him work, but he pounded his way to 13 free throw attempts, added nine rebounds and five assists, and put the game away following Antetokounmpo’s foul-out.
“I’m not thinking, ‘I’m down 2-0’ at the time,” Leonard said. “It’s just playoff basketball. You have to be in the moment and lay it all on the floor. Once you do that, you can live with the results.”
If only it had been that easy. Siakam, whose two missed straight free throws with 7.4 seconds left in regulation enabled Milwaukee to force overtime, embodied Toronto’s range of emotions during and after the frantic endgame.
“Those are shots that you practice and you think about every day,” he said. “At that moment, you’re kind of mad at yourself. My teammates did a good job of calming me down. After that, we’re in this together. I’ve got to do everything to make sure our team comes out with a win. It was a hard victory but we’re going to take it.”
The question now for Toronto is whether Game 3′s winning formula is sustainable and repeatable. Leonard will have just one off day to recover from his 52 minutes and grueling burden. Marc Gasol, an up-and-down presence throughout the playoffs, must repeat his stellar performance of 16 points, 12 rebounds and seven assists. The Raptors also got 25 points from Siakam and 19 off the bench from Norman Powell, two complementary options whose quality of play rose considerably in front of their home crowd.
If the Raptors were grateful to have cheated death, Budenholzer’s message to the Bucks was straightforward. The coach said Milwaukee had been “right on the cusp of winning” despite not playing well, and seemed to be banking on improved shooting from Antetokounmpo’s supporting cast.
If the Bucks can find ways to free Antetokounmpo from Leonard, or to take better advantage of cutting lanes that open up when the Raptors send double teams, their superstar and their balanced offense should return to form. If not, they can win with defense too, especially if Leonard is still lagging in Game 4.
Milwaukee’s steady confidence owes to its history of strong bounce-back performances, posting a 20-1 record after losses during the regular season. Following their only previous loss of the playoffs in Game 1 against the Boston Celtics, the Bucks responded with a 21-point victory in Game 2 and closed that series in five games.
Antetokounmpo, at the center of Toronto’s attention, hardly sounded bothered after his tough outing.
“We could be up 3-0," he said. "We didn’t play well. I never expected it to be easy. Usually when we face adversity and we lose a game, we come out and play way better.”