– by Adesina O. Koiki
A Lot of Sports Talk editor-in-chief
TORONTO — Fred VanVleet felt an inordinate amount of pressure the on the eve of the Toronto Raptors’ latest “biggest game in franchise history” showdown, but almost every perimeter shot he ended up swishing through in a starring role to lift his team one step closer to a first-ever NBA Finals appearance also turned out to be belated birthday presents to the newest addition to his growing family.
VanVleet rejoined the team today after his partner gave birth to their new baby boy last night and looked none the worse for wear, scoring 13 points and dishing six assists as the Raptors’ bench dominated on its way to a 120-102 win over the top-seeded Milwaukee Bucks, tying the Eastern Conference Finals series at two games apiece. Norman Powell scored 18 points to lead the charge from the reserves while Serge Ibaka chipped in with 17 points and 13 rebounds, all while star forward Kawhi Leonard, who had 19 points in the game, started the game slowly as he appeared to be noticeably bothered by the leg injury he suffered two nights ago.
“I want [the bench] to come in and hold their own defensively and execute the defensive schemes, and I just didn’t see many problems there,” said Raptors head coach Nick Nurse. “You know, they were able to guard a bunch of different people. Two of those three guys, Norm and Serge, ended up on Giannis [Antetokounmpo] quite a bit. So chipping in there is good. Serge was great on the glass.
“And I thought both Fred and Norm give us — Fred gives us some play calling, some organization, but they both give us some dribble penetration and then some shooting too.”
Specifically, what VanVleet brought to the floor tonight was even more astounding on two fronts; He came into the game on an extended funk, shooting just 25.6 percent from the field in the 2019 playoffs before Tuesday, and also came into Toronto on a red eye after becoming a father a second time over. VanVleet kept news about his latest journey into fatherhood a secret but, like his game tonight, it was going to become headline news before too long.
“Everybody could feel it was a better game and more so than that, I wasn’t going to tell you guys but just having my son yesterday, was I think more of the hugs I was getting,” said VanVleet, who made five of his six shots from the field. “Guys were kind of showing me some love for that and, obviously, the last 24 hours that I’ve had has been pretty special.”
At this point last season, the Raptors possessed, undoubtedly, the best bench in the NBA, a major reason Toronto won a franchise-record 59 games. Major reshuffling with personnel during this campaign, including Pascal Siakam’s emergence as a star after being inserted into the starting unit, OG Anunoby’s slow recovery from an emergency appendectomy and the trade-deadline deal for Marc Gasol that sent Jonas Valanciunas and Delon Wright to Memphis, turned that Raptors’ strength into a borderline liability almost 365 days later.
Leonard’s heroics against the Philadelphia 76ers in the last round, culminating with the miraculous friendly bounces off the rim on his game-winning jumper in Game 7, masked those issues long enough before the Bucks exposed it severely during their two wins over the Raptors in this series. The questions about whether the Raptors’ bench could provide anything to prevent another Milwaukee mauling in these playoffs soon abounded.
The frustration from the Raptors’ bench play soon turned into their fuel to reclaim their once-imperious form.
“We have to take it personal. We’re here for a reason. It’s not by mistake we’re here, and we showed during the season what the bench can do,” Ibaka said. “And then when we have a couple games where we can’t really play our best basketball or we can’t really help our team, we take that personal, everybody. We come the next day, we watch film. We stay on the court. We take extra shots, just to try to come back and be better, like we did tonight.”
Both teams got out to fast starts in a first quarter that ended with both teams scoring over 30 points, as Milwaukee hit 55 percent from the field and finding themselves down just 32-31 at the end of the first 12 minutes. But as Toronto’s depth showed off in a positive way, picking up for Leonard as he only had five first-half points, the Bucks’ play slowly deteriorated; Milwaukee went just 6-for-18 in the second quarter to find itself down 10 at halftime, and the Bucks only were able to cut Toronto’s lead into a two-possession advantage one time the entire second half, at 77-71 midway through the third.
“[Toronto] upped their aggressiveness, their activity, and so you have to be sharper with the ball,” said Bucks head coach Mike Budenholzer. “You have to be stronger with the ball. You have to cut harder, screen harder, do all those things, and even though, if the turnovers were lower, I still don’t think we executed and took care of the ball the way we needed to.”
Khris Middleton led the Bucks with 30 points, hitting 11 of his 15 shots, while Giannis Antetokounmpo had 25 points and 10 rebounds. Giannis was 5-of-8 from the field in the first quarter before becoming more of a distributor for the rest of the game, making just four more shots combined (out of nine) in the final three quarters. In the second quarter, Antetokounmpo put up an airball from the free throw line, continuing his struggles from the charity stripe.
Nikola Mirotic was the only other Bucks player who scored in double figures, with 11 points.
“It was disappointing, but I mean, the series is 2-2. It’s not the end of the world,” said Middleton. “They protected their home court just like we did, and I know the fight is going to be a dogfight. First team to two wins. Can’t feel sorry for ourselves that we lost two in a row here. We have to go protect home court and go from there.”