The Toronto Raptors have been in this exact spot before: As the East’s No. 2 seed, knotting up the conference finals against a favored No. 1 seed with a Game 4 victory.
Three years ago, Toronto pulled level with the Cleveland Cavaliers with a 105-99 home victory, holding serve in the series. DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry both got loose for the Raptors, but Cavaliers star LeBron James was unimpressed. After leading a Game 5 blowout win back in Cleveland, the four-time MVP famously said: “I’ve been a part of some really adverse situations and I just didn’t believe that this was one of them.”
That line, a shoulder brush-off in spoken form, epitomized James’s mastery over the Raptors. During his career, James eliminated Toronto in three consecutive postseasons from 2016 to 2018 and compiled a dominant 12-2 record. Cleveland’s 2018 sweep led the Raptors to embark on an offseason overhaul by trading DeRozan and firing Coach Dwane Casey.
While the 2-2 series tally might be the same as it was in 2016, Toronto’s 120-102 victory over the Milwaukee Bucks on Tuesday was a statement game that should shake Giannis Antetokounmpo and company. After narrowly escaping with a double-overtime thriller in Game 3, Toronto responded by running Milwaukee off the court two nights later. The Bucks, having lived a charmed existence for the entire regular season and the first two rounds of the playoffs, suddenly find themselves in what James would call an “adverse situation.”
Milwaukee’s team defense, the league’s best during the regular season, crumbled Tuesday. Six Raptors players finished in double figures, feasting on poor rotations and flat-footed reactions.
Lowry led the way with 25 points and the Raptors beat the Bucks at their own game by registering more assists, hitting more three-pointers, winning the rebounding battle and getting far better bench production. In a sign of Toronto’s healthy offensive balance, Kawhi Leonard, who was apparently dealing with an injured leg for the second game, only needed to score 19 points in 34 minutes.
“We’ve got to guard better," said Khris Middleton, who led Milwaukee with 30 points. "Everybody on their team got whatever they wanted. Everything was easy. That’s where my frustration was. We’re a better defensive team than we showed tonight.”
Milwaukee’s offense came up short too, despite Antetokounmpo rebounding from a rough Game 3 showing to post 25 points and five assists. The Bucks connected on just 11 of their 35 three-point attempts in Game 4, marking the sixth straight playoff game they’ve failed to reach their regular-season benchmark of 35.3 percent.
There were scapegoats aplenty. Starting point guard Eric Bledsoe continued his dreadful series, shooting just 2-7 from the field in 20 minutes. During the East finals, he’s now shooting 24.4 percent overall and 13.8 percent from outside five feet. Back-up guards George Hill and Malcolm Brogdon, who delivered standout performances earlier in the series, both fell flat, too. The result? Antetokounmpo found himself operating in a packed paint throughout Game 4.
“We’re going to need Bled,” Bucks Coach Mike Budenholzer said. “Eric has been great for us. His defense. His ability to attack. We need him to play better. We need the group to play better. All three of those guys — Malcolm, George and Eric — weren’t as good as we need them to be.”
Budenholzer was noncommittal on the possibility of a starting lineup change, telling reporters that his current starting five “has been great,” but adding that he would “evaluate” his options before Game 5.
With his half-court offense consistently struggling over the last two games, Budenholzer should consider reinserting Brogdon back into his opening lineup to add another ball-handler, perimeter threat and plus defender. The third-year guard was a full-time starter before suffering a foot injury in mid-March, and his presence could force Leonard to expend more energy defensively in his limited state and further stretch out Raptors center Marc Gasol, who played brilliantly in Games 3 and 4.
Unlike James, who never seemed to sweat the Raptors, the Bucks’ post-game comments betrayed their healthy respect. “It’s going to be a hell of a series,” Budenholzer said, his voice hoarse. Middleton promised that Game 5, set for Thursday, will be a “dogfight.”
Antetokounmpo’s Bucks are the rare title contender to appear out of thin air. After losing in the first round last year, their 60-win season and 10-2 start to the playoffs gave them the glean of a team of destiny.
But they’ve existed in a protective cocoon all season thanks to their new-found success and small-market home. The Golden State Warriors have been pushed, prodded and dissected by critics for five years in a row, and Raptors like Lowry have heard every insult imaginable during their previous disappointments.
Game 4′s ugliness — not just the loss, but the lack of intensity — puts the Bucks in their toughest spot all year: For once, they fell badly short of expectations. For just the second time all season, they responded to a loss with another loss rather than a bounce-back victory.
“There’s no pressure,” Antetokounmpo insisted after Game 4. “There’s no pressure. We have to take care of home. That’s our job. I don’t think there’s pressure. We’ve got to go out there and have fun. Play good basketball. Be us.”
When James claimed the Raptors didn’t represent true adversity, it was easy to believe him. Antetokounmpo, on the other hand, has his hands full.