The Bucks and Raptors are tied at two games apiece in the conference finals and a pivotal Game 5 looms on Thursday night. A series that looked effectively decided as recently as Saturday is now close to a toss-up. How did we get here? Where are we going? And what have we learned so far? Here are five quick thoughts to set the table before Thursday night.
1. The Raptors have already exorcised the ghosts of the past. Many would argue that it was the four bounces and Kawhi Leonard's Game 7 buzzer-beater that delivered the Raptors from years of playoff heartbreak and questions about mental toughness and perennial disappointment. That's fine. The Kawhi shot will live forever, and whatever happens through the rest of the Eastern Conference finals or later this summer in free agency, no one can ever take that Game 7 from Toronto. But for all the catharsis of that one moment, I think the broader trajectory of this Raptors playoff run tells a story that's even more impressive.
That story began when the Raptors were down 2-1 to the Sixers on the road, Pascal Siakam was playing hurt, and Toronto found a way to even the series. Then came Game 7. And now, against the Bucks, the Raptors endured exactly the kind of heartbreaking Game 1 loss that doomed them against Cleveland last season, but after being blown off the floor in Game 2, Toronto gutted out an incredible win in Game 3 before dominating in Game 4.
What's most encouraging is that the story isn't about one superstar who changes everything by himself. Kawhi was the hero in Game 7, but over the course of the past week it's been the entire team stepping up. Norman Powell has come back to life. Fred VanVleet just played his best game in a month. Kyle Lowry has been excellent in this entire series. Serge Ibaka has been great off the bench. And on Tuesday Marc Gasol was a big reason the Raptors were able to shred a Miwaukee defense that has been dominant all year long.
At various points over the past few weeks we've seen each of the Raptors' main characters do their part to shed the baggage that has defined this team for years. It's been really impressive. The Raptors may not win this series, but if they lose, it will be because the Bucks are better. No one can question this team's toughness anymore.
2. Eric Bledsoe has not exorcised the ghosts of the past. Bledsoe has been disastrous for the Bucks. He's shooting 13.8% on shots outside of five feet so far in this series. He played just 20 minutes in Game 4. The Raptors are often ignoring him on offense and goading him into jumpshots. It's a return to everything Bledsoe endured in last year's Celtics series and it's a big problem. Bledsoe's issues have made the rest of the Milwaukee offense easier to guard, and as he struggles and forces the team to run with George Hill instead, it costs the Bucks their best on-ball perimeter defender, which makes it tougher to slow down a player like Lowry. "We need him to play better," Mike Budenholzer said this week.
Elsewhere: Nikola Mirotic is not hitting shots on offense, he's getting beaten on the boards, and he's getting repeatedly targeted on defense. The entire Bucks team was a step slow to rotate against the Raptors on Tuesday, and that's part of why Toronto looked so good. Give decent players enough wide open looks, and eventually they'll get in rhythm and be able to knock down contested shots as well. But if the entire team was struggling, it was Mirotic who personified the problems better than anyone. He needs to be better on offense, but if he can't be at least mediocre on defense, the Bucks will have problems playing him.
3. The future of the East is chaos. If I were running the Sixers or Celtics, I would be encouraged by Bucks-Raptors. The Bucks have been incredible all year, but the past two games have exposed some flaws in the supporting cast that's surrounding Giannis for the foreseeable future. The Raptors, meanwhile, have been excellent in their own right, but they were getting run off the floor in Milwaukee six days ago. Bottom line: both of these teams are really good, but both of them are flawed. There will be room for challengers.
The Raptors could lose Kawhi this summer, and the rest of the nucleus is aging. The Bucks could easily lose Malcolm Brogdon or Brook Lopez, and they just sunk $70 million into a point guard who can't stay on the floor in the middle of the Eastern Conference finals. For teams like the Sixers or Celtics, all of this is reason to pause before pressing reset this summer. The Sixers should look at this series and feel better about potentially bringing everyone back for another run. Boston has a hilariously complicated decision to make on Kyrie, but whatever happens there, the Celtics can also confidently conclude that they're not necessarily hopeless if they can find a decent alternative.
The same rationale holds for superstar-less free-agency players like the Nets or Knicks as they go all-in and look to chase a title next season. The gap between the top of the East and the middle is more narrow than it looked for the past nine months. Regardless of what happens over the next few days, the next few years in the East are going to be wild for everyone.
4. Giannis Antetokounmpo is now the most interesting player in the series. At this point, Kawhi has nothing left to prove. We've seen him carry the Raptors offense when necessary, and over the past two games, we've seen him take on the most unstoppable offensive player in the game and leave him looking mortal for the first time all season. It has been a genuinely shocking run of dominance on both ends of the floor. Kawhi will leave these playoffs as a consensus top-five player on the planet, and even that designation might be underselling him.
So now the focus turns to Giannis. He's the MVP. He's the most dominant big man the league has seen since Shaq and he's more focused and motivated than Shaq ever was. He's a safe bet to own the next 10 years in the NBA. The question is whether the rest of this series will turn into a signature moment in which he solves all these Toronto problems by himself—entirely possible—or whether Kawhi and the Raptors can do just enough to slow him down and turn this whole series into something that's eventually remembered as a learning experience.
Giannis was a mess on offense in Game 3 (5-16, 12 points) and while he was better in Game 4 (9-17, 25 points), he was still nowhere near his peak. (For comparison's sake, he went for 32 on 8-13 shooting in Game 3 of the Celtics series, then followed with 39 points on 15-22 shooting in Game 4). The Bucks have had issues in the halfcourt against Toronto's defense. Maybe players like Bledsoe and Mirotic will bounce back and make life easier, but at some point, Milwuakee will probably need peak Giannis to finish this series. Whether he can get to that level against Kawhi and the Raptors is now an open question.
Shaq, Jordan, LeBron, Duncan, Curry—most of the superstars who defined entire NBA eras of the past have dealt with adversity and failure on their way to the top of the league. Maybe this is that moment for Giannis. Or maybe he will come back and spend the next two games showing the world that he's already arrived.
5. Let Drake be Drake. "There’s certainly no place for fans, or whatever Drake is for the Raptors, on the court,” said Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer Wednesday. “There’s boundaries and lines for a reason.” I love Bud, but I disagree. The New York Times is correct here. Let Drake be Drake. Bring back lint roller night for Game 6.
First of all, Drake is franchise quirk that is specific to the Raptors. The Cubs have the ivy at Wrigley, the Red Sox have the Green Monster, the Knicks have 10 million fans who hate themselves, and the Raptors have Drake in $1,200 designer jeans and a hoodie, bouncing up and down the front row like an eighth grade AAU coach. It's ridiculous. It's funny. And more than anything, Drake on the sidelines is typical of what has always made the NBA great. On the one hand, this a sport full of high-stakes drama involving some of the most vivid characters in all of sports. On the other hand, there are constant reminders not to take any of this too seriously.