TORONTO — Nothing in the NBA playoffs goes off as planned.
Lineup rotations can be tweaked and defensive coverages can be refined, but no matter how much preparation has been performed, the crucial minutes of a playoff game are nothing more than a desperate exercise in survival. Every possession is a fire drill, and few of them resemble the inspired plays drawn up on crisp whiteboards by basketball brainiacs when all is at peace.
For the Toronto Raptors on Sunday night, fighting for their postseason lives, unforeseen circumstances were the norm. Kawhi Leonard landed awkwardly in the first quarter with questions swirling throughout the game about his condition.
Their starting point guard, Kyle Lowry, fouled out of the game with more than six minutes remaining in regulation. Their most productive offensive guard in Game 3 was reserve Norman Powell — and he fouled out five minutes later. That left the Raptors with a backcourt of Danny Green and Fred VanVleet, who had shot a collective 2-for-20 on the night. With seven seconds remaining in regulation, Pascal Siakam — a 78.5 percent shooter at the line this season — had an opportunity to secure the win with a pair of free throws but missed both.
Despite the persistent foul trouble, and squandering leads of four points with about 70 seconds remaining in both the fourth quarter and the first overtime, the Raptors leaned on Leonard and a feisty defense to outlast the Milwaukee Bucks 118-112 in double overtime of Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals.
The greater the stakes on a given possession, the less artful the play from both teams. With Lowry on the bench, the Raptors were without their game manager for the final 16 minutes of action. “It was f—ing terrible to watch,” Lowry said of having to watch the game unfold as a spectator.
Meanwhile, Bucks starting point guard Eric Bledsoe struggled during his minutes on the court, as did de facto point guard Giannis Antetokounmpo, who fouled out in the opening minutes of the second overtime. Khris Middleton, who suffered a series of miscues with the game in the balance, also had a forgettable night.
Ultimately, the Raptors won as they’ve typically won this spring — on the shoulders of Leonard. He finished with 36 points, including scoring Toronto’s final three field goals and eight of their last 10 points in double overtime.
“His resilience,” Marc Gasol said. “He didn’t allow his fatigue, his pain, whatever it was that was bothering him — he beat it.”
Leonard has been the one constant for a Toronto team whose individual performers have been variable for the better part of three weeks. The Raptors escaped the Philadelphia 76ers thanks to Leonard’s theatrics a week ago with a 4-3 series win, but the historic shot — the squat, the four bounces and all the rest of it — occurred during a cold-shooting snap that has confounded the Raptors for days.
The two losses in Milwaukee to begin the conference finals exacerbated a tension that’s familiar in a game in which probabilities rule — but not always justly. Coming into Game 3, the Raptors had compiled just a 52.1 effective field goal percentage on uncontested shots since the start of the Philadelphia series after ranking second in the NBA (a 68.1 percent eFG) in uncontested attempts during the regular season.
For the Raptors’ regulars and their coach, Nick Nurse, balancing faith in a team’s longstanding success against the cruelty of recent results is a difficult task in the postseason. How do you respond when a group of players who drained uncontested shots at a higher rate than all but one other NBA team loses that touch over three chilly weeks? Do you make wholesale changes in your rotation and offensive approach even if, as the NBA axiom goes, you’d take those same shots tomorrow night?
On Sunday night, Nurse split the difference. He maintained the Raptors’ usual starting lineup, yet tinkered with the rotation and flipped some defensive assignments. Most prominently, Leonard was handed the hefty assignment of Antetokounmpo — and the results were impressive.
“Kawhi did a great job,” Nurse said. “He was up and not giving him quite as much runway to get flying off of. But so were the other guys that ended up on him in a switch or in different parts of the game. They were all a little bit more locked in. We took steps forward to get physical.”
Antetokounmpo recorded more turnovers than field goals in Game 3 and was only 1-for-9 from the field on possessions for which Leonard served as his primary defender. Leonard wasn’t the only resistance encountered by Antetokounmpo, who saw multiple bodies on catches near the basket. The Raptors helped and recovered with precision, yielding only 10 uncontested looks in the half court in 58 minutes to a team that puts a premium on spacing.
But the most profound difference for Toronto in its first victory of the series was the factor that had been most detrimental in its losses:
The Raptors simply hit their uncontested shot attempts.
In Game 3, the Raptors actually performed worse at finding quality looks at the basket. Their quantified shot probability (a stat by Second Spectrum that measures the quality of shots taking into account both the shooter and the defense) was lower than their marks for Game 1 and Game 2 in Milwaukee.
But for the first time in a good while, the Raptors were their old selves on uncontested attempts: 11-for-21 from the field, with an effective field goal percentage of 66.7, much more in line with their strong regular-season performance.
After the game, Nurse was asked whether the team had adopted a new identity in the playoffs, something more akin to grit-and-grind, the calling card for Gasol’s more rugged, less offensively dynamic Memphis teams. While most any NBA coach would take pride in a team that has established an identity around a stingy defense, Nurse noted that after acquiring Gasol, the Raptors led the NBA in 3-point percentage, a condition that almost seems prehistoric given the events of the past month.
“I still think we’re creating a lot of good shots,” said Nurse, who has been steadfast in his belief that the basketball gods will eventually correct this peculiar disparity, as they began to on Sunday night. “I’m still hoping some more of them go in. I think they will.”
In the meantime, the Raptors narrowed the series and now trail 2-1 — a series can’t be any closer after three games.