TORONTO – The Toronto Raptors had won the double-overtime slugfest that was Game 3, and with that they had saved their season, but going into Tuesday's Game 4 there was a whole new set of problems on the Raptors' shoulders.
Namely, their two biggest stars, Kawhi Leonard and Pascal Siakam, weren't quite right. They were tired, certainly. Kawhi had played 52 minutes in Game 3, and he lingered in the postgame locker room for what seemed like hours on Sunday night, getting treatment. Siakam had played 51 minutes, and he looked absolutely spent when he sat at a podium on an off day, talking with reporters. More to the point, Kawhi was limping in parts of Game 3 and Game 4, some sort of leg injury he apparently suffered at the beginning of Game 3, and Siakam was only a couple weeks removed from a calf injury, which could be one explanation for the first couple games of this series where he was far less impactful than usual.
Certainly, head coach Nick Nurse would lean on his two stars. But could his stars deliver?
Read the box score and the answer was a resounding no. Kawhi scored only 19 points, his second-fewest of the postseason, while Siakam scored seven points, his fewest of the postseason.
And the Raptors were the very best version of themselves.
From the elite defense that was led by a Kawhi who seemed to be playing the game on one leg to the crisp ball movement that was the best we've seen from Toronto in these playoffs, the Raptors leaned on everyone else – the supporting cast that has frequently been absent these playoffs – to assault the Bucks in a resounding 18-point victory.
Thought Marc Gasol struggling the first two games of this series in Milwaukee? Well, the two games in Toronto had Gasol as the fulcrum on offense and the mastermind on defense. His aggressiveness to shoot the ball in both games – including 17 points on 3-of-6 3-point shooting in Game 4 – set the tone for the Raptors.
Thought Kyle Lowry was a shrinking violet come playoff time? He had one more game that upended that narrative, coming out of the gate as the most in-control player on the floor and ending up with 25 points (on 10-of-10 from the free-throw line), six assists and only one turnover.
Thought the Raptors' bench was overmatched by the Bucks' superior depth? Three bench players – Fred VanVleet, Norman Powell and Serge Ibaka – combined for 48 points, and might have been the single biggest difference between these Raptors and the overmatched ones we saw in Milwaukee's Game 2 blowout.
"This was third game of playoffs where everyone stepped up," Lowry said afterward. "This was one of the nights we knew Kawhi was going to be limited, so we had to come out and be aggressive for him. The great thing about having him on your team is that he still gets all the attention (even when he's limited). That's the benefit of having a superstar like him on your team."
Part of the problem for the Raptors during their semifinals series against the Sixers, and in parts of this series, has been that they've been way too Kawhi-reliant. If you hadn't watched the Raptors all season, you would have thought this was a team with one superstar and just a bunch of guys alongside him. What the real Raptors are – what the Raptors were in Game 4 – is a team with one superhero, one Batman, and a bunch of versatile players who can move into the role of Robin.
What Game 4 might have done was flip the entire narrative of this series.
The narrative coming in was that the Bucks are so deep – 10 guys deep – that Giannis can be brilliant but do so in limited minutes. The Raptors had made it this far through individual brilliance. At times, in these playoffs, you wondered whether Kawhi was too-deferential teammates even wanted to shoot the ball.
On Tuesday they were forced to. And maybe being forced into playing team basketball with Kawhi and Siakam both tired and potentially hurt was the best possible thing for them. On the other side, the Bucks bench hardly contributed, with the reliable Malcolm Brogdon scoring only four points on 11 shots and George Hill only managing five points on two shots.
"It's probably one of the biggest pluses that we've seen here in the last couple games," Nurse said. "We are functioning very well in the minutes Kawhi is not out there – or even tonight with Kyle and Kawhi both not out there. That's just a little bit more like we played in the regular season. We have to be able to function without them sometimes. Anytime you look down and we got 32 assists you know we're doing a lot right."
The momentum may have swung their way after eking out the double-overtime win in Game 3 and blowing out the Bucks in Game 4, but the odds are still stacked against the Raptors. The Bucks still have home-court advantage, and one of the toughest home atmospheres in the NBA. They still have Giannis, who you can't hold in check for too long. They still are the much more rested team.
But what the Raptors showed us on Tuesday night is that this team at their best is about more than just one MVP-level player. And that's the sort of statement the Raptors needed to make – not just to their fans, but to themselves.