Bucks still hold trump card as Raptors look to square series

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TORONTO — Relief. That seemed to be the general vibe around the city after the Toronto Raptors narrowly avoided the doom that is an 0-3 deficit in an NBA best-of-seven playoff series.

No team has ever come back from facing those arrears, but on Tuesday night, the Raptors will still have their work cut out for them as they look to avoid falling to 1-3 in the series. Only 11 NBA teams have overcome that daunting predicament, the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers both memorably being the last ones to do so in 2016.

The Milwaukee Bucks will also enter Game 4 with confidence in knowing that they have only suffered consecutive losses once all season, back in early March to the Utah Jazz and Phoenix Suns.

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“There's a competitiveness, I think it's a sign of the character of the group,” Bucks head coach Mike Budenholzer said after practice Monday. “When you have those things, usually, when you lose, you can't wait to get back on the court and play and do things better and find ways to help your teammates and find ways to be there for each other. That's what we've done. That's what we're looking forward to doing tomorrow night.”

Budenholzer highlighted that the matchup changes for the Raptors that worked out in their favour (Kawhi Leonard guarding Giannis Antetokounmpo being the biggest one) were a major factor in deciding the outcome of the game, which makes it all the more puzzling why the Bucks head coach seems committed to maintaining the same starting lineup in Game 4.

Malcolm Brogdon returned to the Bucks’ playoff rotation in Game 5 of the East semis against the Boston Celtics and has played 16, 26, 25 and 37 minutes in each of the four games. He has been a major thorn in the Raptors’ side in the conference finals with timely triples (9-of-20 beyond the arc) and stellar defence across multiple positions while the incumbent, Nikola Mirotic, has shot just 4-of-20 from three-point range. With the Raptors trapping both Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton a lot more in Game 3, the shot-making from the supporting cast becomes all the more critical.

In 10 Game 4 minutes, the starting unit of Eric Bledsoe, Middleton, Antetokounmpo, Mirotic and Brook Lopez was a minus-14. Add the familiarity that Brogdon has with the starting group after playing 1,336 possessions with them (plus-6.3 net rating) before his foot injury, and the Raptors will be happy to see his minutes limited by a bench role.

“No,” Budenholzer stated when asked if there would be a change to the starting lineup. “I think the way Malcolm's playing, I think the punch he's bringing us off the bench, both he and George [Hill], I would say we'll continue to think about it and wrestle with everything, but generally speaking, I think that seems like it's in a good place.”

This isn’t the first time that Budenholzer has projected confidence in his group and preached staying true to who they’ve been this postseason — he did so after the Celtics stole Game 1 on their home floor as well, but one can’t help but wonder if this is keeping the door ajar for the Raptors to square the series. Toronto’s starting unit has won the minutes against its Milwaukee counterparts in two of the three games, and maintaining that advantage holds even greater value if the Raptors can find production from role players not named Norman Powell.

Powell was tremendous with 19 points, four rebounds and three assists off the bench in Game 3, but Danny Green, Fred VanVleet and Serge Ibaka combined to shoot 4-for-29. Each of them had their own big triples — Ibaka just before the halftime buzzer, VanVleet late in the fourth quarter, and Green early in the first overtime — but if the Raptors are going to sustain their forward momentum, they’ll have to hope at least a couple of those rotation pieces can come to the party offensively.

Perhaps the biggest thing going forward for the Raptors is the return to form of Pascal Siakam. Toronto has been at its best this post-season when he has played Robin to Leonard’s Batman, and it spoke volumes that 61 points from Lowry and Leonard wasn’t enough to overshadow Siakam’s 6-of-20 shooting night in Game 1 of this series.

That’s another benefit of having Leonard pick up the primary matchup on Antetokounmpo, as it takes just a little bit off Siakam’s plate after he had the primary role defending the Greek Freak in Games 1 and 2.

“We know Pascal, I’m not saying he can’t guard Giannis, but he was getting some foul trouble,” Green said at the OVO Athletic Centre Monday. “We didn’t keep him in the game. We need him on the floor on offence — to get some pressure off of him on the offensive end of the floor.”

Siakam had 25 points, 11 rebounds, three steals and a block in 51 minutes, and looked far more comfortable attacking Antetokounmpo and identifying gaps in the Bucks’ defence. Some of the space afforded to him was in large part due to Marc Gasol taking and making his three-point looks, and the Spaniard’s aggressiveness will be another key to look out for in Game 4.

One thing’s for certain: the Raptors have yet to put all the pieces together in this series against the Bucks. With everything to play for after a desperately needed win, Toronto has bought itself a bit more time to figure out the ingredients that can help it put it all together.

“I don’t think we have played our best basketball,” Siakam said. “We have played with better energy and focus. Every time they threw a punch at us we kind of responded better for longer periods of time. But I just don’t think we have played our best. It’s part of playoff basketball. We have to find that.

“I think every time we bring the energy and focus - we can still make shots or miss shots - but when we bring that focus and intensity we definitely are tough to beat.”

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