The Milwaukee Bucks, the best team of the 2018–19 regular season and by far the best team through the first two rounds of the playoffs, find themselves in the deepest of caca following a 105–99 loss to the Toronto Raptors in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Finals. The Bucks will have to stave off elimination Saturday in Toronto without the benefit of their half-court offense, which seems to have dried up and died. May it rest in peace.
Things started out encouragingly for the home team. The Bucks jumped out to a 9–0 lead in the first quarter, and led by as many as 14 points early on. The Raptors fought their way back into it, largely by making some shots of their own to keep the Bucks out of transition, where they are unstoppable. The Bucks still held a narrow lead headed into the fourth quarter, but it’s hard to overstate just how stagnant and one-dimensional Milwaukee’s offense has become over this series, culminating in the fourth quarter of Game 5. They once again stuck to the Ram Giannis Into The Wall offense, even as the returns have gotten more and more feeble. By the fourth quarter of this game Giannis was just chaotically splashing into multiple defenders seemingly on principle and often failing to notice open shooters stationed around the perimeter, even with a thicket of hostile arms writhing between him and the bucket.
Not that the other Bucks were much help. Khris Middleton attempted just nine shots in the game, and made just two of them; the pasty bench trio of Nikola Mirotić, Ersan Ilyasova, and Pat Connaughton combined for three points on five shots over 32 total minutes; Malcolm Brogdon was the only Bucks player who didn’t suffer at least one minutes-long identity crisis in the loss. The Raptors have committed to walling off the paint, sagging extra bodies into Giannis’s path to the cup and forcing the Bucks to beat them with well-timed and accurate passes to and around the perimeter. In order for Milwaukee’s offense to get unscrewed, either the other Bucks need to take some initiative, or Giannis needs to start dishing the rock a little more willingly and a little more accurately. The Raptors are way too sharp defensively for Giannis to wait until after he’s taken all five steps of his average euro-step move before noticing that a good layup isn’t in his immediate future.
This all came to a head in the first six-ish minutes of the fourth quarter, when the Raptors held the Bucks to six points and three turnovers and turned a three-point Milwaukee lead into a seven-point deficit. Kawhi Leonard, who was largely responsible for erasing Middleton from the game, scored 12 points in the run, including consecutive step-back three-pointers over Brook Lopez when the Bucks were a little too willing to concede switches on perimeter screens.
Kawhi had help from unexpected places. Danny Green barely played; Marc Gasol was once again a non-factor on offense; Kyle Lowry could not repeat his offensive heroics from Game 1. Of all people, it was Fred VanVleet who poured in 21 points on insane 7-of-9 three-point shooting in more than 37 minutes off the bench. VanVleet has had a nightmarish playoffs overall, but Thursday night he finished a game-high plus-28, and played every second of the decisive fourth quarter. One of VanVleet’s two misses from deep was a 40-footer at the third-quarter buzzer that had the angle but hit the front of the rim. Game 5 was a very good time for VanVleet to remind everyone why he was considered one of the best reserves in basketball last season.
For all that went wrong for the Bucks, and for as lost and exposed as they appear to be, this was still a very narrow loss, and even during Toronto’s impressive fourth quarter run one or two different bounces could’ve swung this game the other way. Kawhi came within a centimeter of air-balling a bad late jumper with the Raptors up 99–97; Brook Lopez failed to come up with the defensive rebound and was whistled for a foul on Marc Gasol, but only the slightest glances off the rim kept this possession from ending with a shot-clock violation and a Raptors turnover. Eight seconds later, with Toronto’s lead at three points, Pascal Siakam knocked the ball loose from Brogdon and it deflected off Brogdon’s leg out of bounds. 10 seconds after that Kawhi threw a reckless pass over a trap that should’ve been intercepted, then the referees immediately missed Kyle Lowry being intentionally fouled by two Bucks players. That sequence ended with a Siakam dunk, and functionally iced the game.
Had any of these fluky plays gone the other way—and the first two were initially ruled for the Bucks and then overturned on review—this might’ve been the story of Milwaukee holding off a stiff challenge and putting the Raptors right on the brink. Instead the brink is where the Bucks find themselves now, stifled and frustrated and lamenting the late bounces that couldn’t do for them what they recently did for themselves by just running teams out of the gym. The Raptors have a dominating defensive strategy and a superstar whose preferred method of attacking still gets their offense where they want it to go, and those advantages will be all the more significant as the series heads back to Toronto. The Bucks are in big trouble.