The Eastern Conference Finals between the Toronto Raptors and Milwaukee Bucks is now a best-of-3 as the series heads back to Milwaukee for Game 5 on Thursday.
The story of Game 4 was Toronto's bench showing up and Kawhi Leonard gritting through a leg injury to play exceptional defense on Giannis Antetokounmpo.
MORE: Takeaways from Toronto's Game 4 win
What are the biggest keys for Game 5?
Can Giannis solve Kawhi's D?
It's silly to start anywhere else.
For all of the talk of matchups and adjustments which are no doubt important in the margins of an evenly matched series, either of these superstar forwards are capable of single-handedly winning this game.
The major adjustment so far in this series is Nick Nurse opting to put Kawhi Leonard on Giannis Antetokounmpo. After barely guarding the MVP finalists in the first two games, Leonard has taken on the bulk of the defensive assignment which is perhaps the biggest reason Toronto was able to claw back into the series after falling down 2-0.
MORE: Breaking down Kawhi's D on the Greek Freak
How will Antetokounmpo respond? Will Mike Budenholzer opt to post him up more? Will he run more pick and rolls? Will Milwaukee look to run more often? Will he force the issue himself or continue trusting his shooters?
The Raptors made their first big move in Game 3 and the Bucks have yet to respond.
What's the status of Kawhi Leonard's leg injury?
Ever since tweaking his left leg in the first quarter of Game 3, Kawhi Leonard has not looked the same.
Yes, he grinded out 52 minutes in the double overtime thriller.
MORE: "We have a chance to make history."
Though he still played 34 minutes in Game 4, that's about seven fewer than he averaged since the start of the second round series against the Philadelphia 76ers. He didn't look as comfortable offensively as he took just 13 shots, over 10 fewer than he averaged in his previous 10 games.
There's no question he still had his moments. Just ask Giannis.
Danforth Special pic.twitter.com/g8Dc1IZHXv- Toronto Raptors (@Raptors) May 22, 2019
Will we see that version of the attacking, aggressive, posterizing Leonard for a full game on Thursday?
Kawhi Leonard on one leg is still clearly a great player. But if the Raptors are going to steal one on the road, they'll likely need Leonard fully functional on both of them.
Who wins the point guard duel?
This is about more than just Kyle Lowry and Eric Bledsoe, especially if Milwaukee decides to start either Malcolm Brogdon or George Hill in place of Bledsoe.
Regardless of who starts, every point guard on the floor figures to play a pivotal role on Game 5.
For the Bucks, Bledsoe's shooting woes have become a significant problem as he's shooting just 24% for the series and is 2-19 from beyond the 3-point line. The Raptors are helping off of him and leaving him wide open, something he's not been able to take advantage of. Through four games, Bledsoe is 1-16 on shots with no defender within even six feet.
Mike Budenholzer said after Game 4 that they need him to be better. Milwaukee has a pair of guards off the bench more than capable of sliding into the starting lineup. Though Brogdon and Hill struggled in Game 4, they've both had massive games this postseason and can swing a game. Brogdon scored 20 off the bench in Game 3 and for long stretches was arguably Milwaukee's best player. Hill, meanwhile, scored 24 points in that same game and also dropped 21 on the Celtics in Game 3 of the last round, outplaying Kyrie Irving and effectively ending that series.
For the Raptors, Lowry's aggression sets the tone for the team as a whole.
In Game 1, Toronto's All-Star guard got going early, finding his shooting stroke to connect from deep and give his team an early advantage. Lowry kept this play up throughout the series opener, finishing with a 2019 postseason high of 30 points although it ultimately wasn't enough.
While he didn't replicate his Game 1 performance in Game 4, he came pretty close, scoring 18 of his team-high 25 points in the first half. Even when Lowry's shot isn't falling, his playmaking, leadership and scrappy effort plays do wonders for his team. That, among many other reasons, is why Lowry is still able to have a positive effect on the Raptors when he isn't scoring, but Toronto can't win without some offence from its starting point guard.
Fred VanVleet is coming off his best performance of the 2019 postseason and should he follow that with another solid output in Game 5, Toronto would be in great shape. More on him and the second unit later…
Which Marc Gasol shows up?
In Games 1 and 2 of the series, the Raptors starting centre struggled, posting averages of just 4.0 points (on 15.0% shooting), 8.5 rebounds, 3.0 assists and 1.5 blocks.
Once the series shifted back to Toronto, it was a completely different story.
Gasol was a key component to the Raptors wins in Games 3 and 4, posting averages of 16.5 points (on 52.4% shooting), 8.5 rebounds, 7.0 assists and 3.5 blocks.
It's deeper than just the numbers, but the eye-popping differences between Gasol's production in the first two games of the series versus that in the next two games is a good starting point for understanding why the momentum of the series has swung.
In the Raptors convincing Game 4 win to tie the series, Gasol almost quietly scored 17 points (on 6-for-11 FG, 3-6 3FG), dished out a team-high seven assists, pulled down five rebounds and blocked two shots.
Offensively, 10-year veteran's value as a playmaker is not to be understated - it unlocks another dimension of the Raptors offence and makes things increasingly difficult for the Bucks 'D'. As a scorer, Gasol's willingness as a perimeter shooting threat means Bucks bigs must leave the lane which, in turn, frees up movement within Raptors offence; if his defensive matchup camps in the lane, he'll make them pay, as evidenced by his shooting 7-for-14 from beyond the arc in Games 3 and 4.
If Toronto gets the Gasol from its two games in Game 5, its chances to leave Milwaukee with a win become that much greater.
Which bench comes to play?
Up until Game 4, the Milwaukee's reserves had outscored Toronto's second unit and did it by a pretty significant margin.
|Game 1||22 PTS (8-23 FG), 18 REB, 9 AST||12 PTS (5-15 FG), 5 REB, 3 AST|
|Game 2||54 PTS (19-37 FG), 20 REB, 11 AST||39 PTS (16-32 FG), 18 REB, 10 AST|
|Game 3||54 PTS (19-33 FG), 16 REB, 6 AST||27 PTS (10-33 FG), 13 REB, 9 AST|
|Game 4||23 PTS (8-26 FG), 18 REB, 11 AST||48 PTS (18-41 FG), 22 REB, 11 AST|
While Game 3 ultimately ended up as a loss for the Bucks, it was a bit of an anomaly given how uncharacteristic of a night the Bucks starters had. After being outscored in the first three games, it was the Raptors three-man second unit that stepped up on the offensive end when it was needed most in Game 4.
MORE: Raps proving they're more than just Kawhi
Fred VanVleet looks to have emerged from a postseason-long slump while Serge Ibaka and Norman Powell have set the tone with their energy and aggression in a number of spots.
Offensively, Powell has paced the second unit, averaging 17.0 points while shooting 47.5% from the field and 40.9% from beyond the arc in Games 2-4. His ability to provide scoring off the bench has allowed Nick Nurse to confidently rest members of the starting unit, namely Leonard.
While it's difficult to imagine the second unit replicating such a dominant offensive effort as it did in Game 4 when the series moves back to Milwaukee, Toronto's reserves must stay on top of the things it can control.
MORE: Day after birth of son, VanVleet delivers
Effort, defence and rebounding are three things that travel and can be sustained regardless if shots are falling or not. Those will be the keys for the Raptors second unit in Game 5.
Milwaukee, on the other hand, will need its reserves to get back on track in the familiar confines of Fiserv Forum. Malcolm Brogdon, who is averaging 12.6 points per game this postseason since returning from injury, scored just four points on 2-for-11 shooting in Game 4.
On the defensive end, Brogdon and Ersan Ilyasova made a number of defensive errors that lead to great looks for the Raptors, who failed to fully take advantage.
A combination of defensive lapses, a poor offensive output from reserves and Toronto knocking down more of its open looks would spell trouble for Milwaukee as it looks to regain control of the series.