Kawhi Leonard #2 of the Toronto Raptors with the ball looks at the basket before the Toronto Raptors vs Brooklyn Nets NBA regular season game at Scotiabank Arena on February 11, 2019, in Toronto, Canada (Toronto Raptors win 127-125) (Photo by Anatoliy Cherkasov/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

The Toronto Raptors came back from a 2-0 series deficit to beat the Milwaukee Bucks in six games in the 2019 Eastern Conference Finals. That secured a finals berth for the first time in franchise history. A lot happened in those six games, and both teams showed strengths and weaknesses. Let’s take an in-depth look at the series.

2019 Eastern Conference Finals Recap: Milwaukee Bucks vs. Toronto Raptors

Milwaukee Bucks vs. Toronto Raptors: Series Overview

The Toronto Raptors were fresh off of a miraculous series victory against the Philadelphia 76ers. The Milwaukee Bucks had just wrapped up a “gentleman’s sweep” of the Boston Celtics. Widely favored to win the series, the Bucks established their dominance early, with back-to-back wins at home.

The first game was one the Raptors could have — some would argue should have — won. They let the game slip away in the fourth quarter and lost by eight points. The second game was hard to watch for Raptors fans, as it ended in blowout fashion — 125-103 in favor of Milwaukee. 

This series, the Eastern Conference Finals matchup of the Milwaukee Bucks vs. Toronto Raptors, looked to be all but over. Then, the Raptors won a double-overtime thriller. Then, they blew out the Bucks in Game 4 to even the series. And then, the impossible: the Raptors stole home court advantage from the Bucks in a Game 5 victory in Milwaukee.

That three-game skid represented the first such stretch for Milwaukee this season. On Saturday night, the Toronto Raptors came back from down by as many as 14 points in order to secure the franchise’s first-ever appearance in the NBA Finals. 

Fans were in tears. Those lucky enough to be inside witnessing history live, the many at home, and the thousands that lined up for blocks, hours before the game started, to watch the game with the crowd on the big screen outside of the Scotiabank Arena in what’s come to be known as “Jurassic Park”.

Weak Points for the Milwaukee Bucks

The Milwaukee Bucks did a lot well against the Toronto Raptors in this series. At the same time, there were some key points that contributed to their eventual loss. Khris Middleton struggled, despite the production of those around him.

Free Throw Shooting

This doesn’t apply to every member of the Bucks. It doesn’t even apply to any of them outside of Giannis Antetokounmpo. The Greek forward is known as the “Greek Freak” for his other-worldly athleticism, length, and size. Because of those features, he got to the free throw line a whole lot. He averaged a league-high 11.2 free throw attempts per game in the playoffs.

Against the Raptors, he shot 55.5 percent from the charity stripe. In a crucial Game 3, Antetokounmpo shot 28.6 percent from the line. Had he hit just one of his seven free throws in that game (it went to double overtime), the entire outcome of the series could have been different.

The MVP-candidates inability to consistently sink free throws made him a liability in some situations. That was a weak point for the Bucks that the Raptors did not fail to exploit, fouling Antetokounmpo and sending him to the line, where he’s uncomfortable, rather than allow an easy bucket.

Khris Middleton’s Lack of Production

Outside of Antetokounmpo, the Bucks have several very strong role players and a number-two guy in Khris Middleton. Throughout the series, Milwaukee saw role players George Hill, Malcolm Brogdon, Brook Lopez, and Ersan Ilyasova have strong games. Middleton struggled for more or less the entirety of the series.

Excluding a strong Game 4 appearance (30 points, seven assists, six rebounds) which was negated by a blowout loss, the All-Star forward averaged 10.4 points on 32.7 percent shooting from the field. The Bucks needed way more than that out of him.

Holding Leads

The Bucks led for much of this series. In both Game 5 and 6, they led by double-digits in the third quarter. Allowing the Raptors to go on runs to get back in it killed their chances of winning both games. Momentum in basketball is hugely important, and the Bucks allowed the Raptors to gain too much of it down the stretch in important games.

Weak Points for the Toronto Raptors

Despite the series win, the Raptors definitely struggled at times against the Bucks, Danny Green particularly.

Danny Green’s Disappearing Act

Danny Green went to Toronto as a throw-in in the deal that sent Kawhi Leonard to the Raptors. He exceeded expectations and had a marvellous year, shooting 45.5 percent from deep, good for second-best in the league. 

Against Milwaukee, Green disappeared. There were signs of it in the Philadelphia series, but Green missed a lot in the Eastern Conference Finals. The shooting guard went without a three-pointer in the last three games of the series. Overall against the Bucks, he was 17.3 percent from deep. In order to have a hope of winning in the Finals against the Golden State Warriors, the Raptors need Green to find his stroke.

Making Open Shots

This got better as the series progressed. Missing so many open shots almost killed the Raptors in their bout with the 76ers. Early in this series, it looked as though it would be their downfall. However, the defense was able to propel runs and get the offense flowing better. Considering once again that their NBA Finals opponent is the red-hot Warriors, Toronto may not get away with that.

Strong Points for the Milwaukee Bucks

In the Milwaukee Bucks vs. Toronto Raptors series — the matchup between the juggernauts of the East — the first-seeded Bucks did a lot well.

Role Player Production

We knew Giannis Antetokounmpo was going to have himself a series. Guys like Brogdon, Hill, Ilyasova, Lopez, Eric Bledsoe, and Pat Connaughton did their best to support him. They did a splendid job, putting together runs next to their star, and maintaining leads with him off the court. 

Strong Start

The Bucks got off to a really strong start. With Game 1 and 2 both going their way, they could have easily won the series. A convincing Game 2 win went a long way in building team confidence and momentum heading to Toronto. Had just a few things gone their way, (winning Game 3 and/or more free throws dropping) the Bucks could have been the team celebrating a finals berth right now.

Strong Points for the Toronto Raptors 

Some key factors that the Raptors struggled with against Philadelphia contributed to their victory against Milwaukee. Bench production, winning on the road, Kyle Lowry, and, of course, Kawhi Leonard, were all huge for the Raptors in this series.

Winning on the Road

It was widely stated prior to the series that the Raptors would most likely need to steal home court from the Bucks in order to come away with a victory. They did just that, winning a key Game 5 in Milwaukee in comeback fashion to take a 3-2 series lead. Since Milwaukee had home-court advantage, the Raptors needed at least one win on the road to advance. Game 5 was that game.

Bench Production

Against the 76ers, the Raptors’ bench struggled greatly. Serge Ibaka, Fred VanVleet, and Norman Powell all failed to produce for head coach Nick Nurse. That forced the minutes’ load to fall on the starters, particularly Leonard. In this Milwaukee Bucks vs. Toronto Raptors series, the bench stepped up. 

Powell had huge performances throughout the series, averaging 12.3 points per game, compared to 8.6 over the course of the season. VanVleet led the comeback charge in Game 5, draining seven of his nine three-point attempts. In Game 6, he maintained his hot streak, dropping four of his five attempted triples. Ibaka had a solid series overall, highlighted by a 17-point, 13-rebound double-double in Game 4.

Kyle Lowry’s Strong Series

Kyle Lowry is doubted by most fans and media heading into the postseason every year. In the biggest playoff series of his career, the 33-year-old point guard and longest-tenured Raptor averaged 19.2 points, 6.5 rebounds, and 5.2 assists per game. He shot 47 percent from three-point range. And, as always, he brought the intangibles — the hustle, the heart, and the willingness to put his body on the line for the sake of victory. 

Lowry’s contributions were huge in this series. Raptors fans showed their appreciation for the All-Star, with “Lowry” chants ringing out throughout the Scotiabank Arena when he held up the Eastern Conference Finals trophy after the Game 6 win.

Kawhi Leonard’s Strong Series

Kawhi Leonard, despite being held in high regard throughout the league, was also doubted to some degree. Just like his point guard. After he sat out the majority of the 2017-2018 season, there were concerns about Leonard’s health, and even his willingness to play in Toronto coming into this year. Those concerns were gone very quickly.

Even then, people saw him as being a tier below Stephen Curry, LeBron James, Kevin Durant, James Harden, and Antetokounmpo. After his performance in this postseason for the Raptors, he has reached top-three status on most people’s lists. 

Against the Milwaukee Bucks, the Toronto Raptors’ Leonard did everything he’s been doing offensively this postseason with 29.8 points per game. His defense on Antetokounmpo was smothering, limiting the MVP-candidate to the best of his — or anyone’s — ability. 

In Game 6 against Milwaukee, Leonard showed up in a big way. He scored 27 points — low for him — but grabbed 17 boards, two of which came on the offensive end in clutch situations. One of those two came off of a missed Pascal Siakam free throw attempt to effectively seal the game. Appreciate him while you have him, Toronto fans. Regardless of his decision this summer, he’s taken your team to the greatest heights that it has ever reached — the NBA Finals. 

Looking Ahead for the Milwaukee Bucks and Toronto Raptors

The Milwaukee Bucks, with this loss to the Toronto Raptors, head back home to contemplate their next moves. They still have a very good team, but many of their best players are set to become free agents. Luckily, they have Antetokounmpo locked up long-term. Will they keep the same core going into next season, or try to build around the Greek Freak with the wealth of top-tier free agents becoming available from teams across the league this summer?

As for the Raptors, they have a few days to enjoy this series win. A few days to bask in the glory of history being made for their franchise. On Thursday, they see the Golden State Warriors in the first game of the 2019 NBA Finals. They will attempt to dethrone the defending back-to-back champions in the upcoming seven-game series.

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3 COMMENTS

  1. […] The Eastern Conference Finals against the second seed Toronto Raptors would be the biggest test for the Bucks. Game 1 was close but the Bucks prevailed, while Game 2 was a blowout win. Following that, Raptors head coach Nick Nurse adjusted by putting Kawhi Leonard on Giannis. A back-to-back defensive player of the year, Leonard made life hell for Giannis, stalling the engine that drove the Bucks. Along with the resurgence of Kyle Lowry and a hot shooting streak from Fred VanVleet, the Raptors won the next four games to advance to the Finals. For perspective, the Bucks hadn’t lost more than two games in a row all season. In the end, they lost to an equally excellent team with an equally elite superstar player. […]

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