The Toronto Raptors have done the unthinkable: They have defeated the Milwaukee Bucks, a team that didn’t lose three consecutive games all season, in three straight playoff games to take a 3-2 series lead in the Eastern Conference Finals.
Toronto now has a chance to close out this series at home, hosting the Bucks at Scotiabank Arena with the franchise’s first ever trip to the NBA Finals on the line.
Will the Raptors keep this hot streak going or will the Bucks get things back on track and force a Game 7 in Milwaukee?
With all that in mind, here are five things to watch for in Game 6.
Late in the fourth quarter of Game 5, Antetokounmpo rolled his ankle guarding Kawhi Leonard after a rebound.
With 1:12 on the clock and the Bucks trailing by four points, The Greek Freak had to come off the floor because he was struggling to move with the ankle injury. It’s not ideal to have your best player and potential MVP on the sideline in the final minute of the biggest game of the season, but head coach Mike Budenholzer felt they needed to “get somebody out there that could move and make a shot.”
Antetokounmpo missed an offensive possession where Khris Middleton scored a layup and a defensive possession where Marc Gasol corralled a massive offensive rebound, followed by a pair of free throw attempts that would extend the Raptors’ lead late in the game.
He returned to the contest, hobbling onto the court with 34 seconds to go but Toronto sealed the win shortly thereafter.
At this point in the season, everyone is worn down and playing with some sort of pain, but the Bucks will need a fully healthy Antetokounmpo if they’re going to take Game 6 and force a Game 7 back in Milwaukee.
He’ll surely be suited up and ready to go for Game 6, but his ankle is something to monitor of the course of the game to see if he’s able to move at full speed.
Raptors’ bench breakouts Fred VanVleet, Norman Powell
This same bench that had the team handcuffed in the second round against the Philadelphia 76ers has had three consecutive breakout performances, leading to three Raptors wins.
In Game 3, Norman Powell caught fire with 19 points, four rebounds, three assists and one steal shooting 7-for-13 from the field and 3-for-5 from beyond the arc.
In Game 4, the entire bench stepped up in a big way – Serge Ibaka had a double-double of 17 points and 13 rebounds, Powell went for 18 points with five boards and three assists and Fred VanVleet had 13 points and six assists. But their individual stat lines were not nearly as impressive as their combined plus-78 +/-, with all three players registering a plus/minus of plus-24 or better.
In Game 5, VanVleet caught fire, scoring 21 points on seven made 3-pointers and was a team-best plus-28 +/- to help spark the Raptors to a win.
While you may have never thought that Toronto’s bench would be the reason they’re winning games in the Eastern Conference Finals, the reality is that they’ve figured things out. Ibaka, VanVleet and Powell are playing with confidence, attacking on the offensive end and hustling on the defensive end to make their minutes count.
And with the inconsistency of Danny Green, it’s been a huge help that head coach Nick Nurse can heavily rely on and fully trust guys like VanVleet and Powell to slide into those minutes as a seamless transition.
If the Raptors’ bench can keep this up, they should have no problem closing out Milwaukee in Game 6.
Middleton played the part of an All-Star against the Boston Celtics in the second round. He shot 47.2% from 3-point land and averaged 19.2 points over five games.
Against the Raptors through five games of this series, he’s shooting 41.7% from the field, 33.3% from beyond the arc for a pedestrian 13.6 points per game. And those numbers are generously inflated by a big Game 4.
In Game 4, Middleton found his stroke. He scored 30 points on 11-for-15 shooting from the field, converting four of his seven 3-point attempts. Aside from that one big performance, he’s 14-for-45 (31.1%) from the field and 4-for-17 (23.5%) from beyond the arc, averaging 9.5 points over the other four games.
These numbers are less than ideal for a team that’s in the midst of their worst losing streak of the season, at the very least opportune time. Yes, his assist and rebounding numbers are higher than usual, but Middleton’s value as a scorer means that the Bucks desperately need him to get going.
If Middleton can’t get into a scoring rhythm, the Bucks will need serious help offensively from someone other than Giannis or this will be their final game this season.
Raptors take care of the ball
The Raptors did a fantastic job of taking care of the rock in Game 5. Their six turnovers were the least they’ve had in a game this season and as the game went on, they made the most of each possession.
After turning the ball over four times in the first quarter, they turned the ball over just once in the second quarter and once in the third quarter. In the fourth quarter, they had zero turnovers, making every possession count down the stretch of the biggest game of the season.
The Raptors were 15-3 this season (regular season and playoffs) when committing fewer than 10 turnovers. Over the course of this three-game win streak, they’ve decreased their number of turnovers in each contest.
This isn’t to say you should expect the Raptors to set another season-low for turnovers in Game 6, it’s more to showcase that they’re placing more value on every possession as the games and moments get bigger, and that’s a recipe to keep their season alive.
A chance to make history
Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Finals is the furthest the Raptors have been in franchise history.
In 2016, they fell to the Cleveland Cavaliers in Game 6. This year, they’re guaranteed to set a new milestone for the longest any Raptors’ team has ever played into the season.
A loss would mean they face off in a Game 7 in Milwaukee. A win punches a ticket to their first ever Finals appearance with a shot to dethrone the Golden State Warriors dynasty.
Outside of Scotiabank Arena, “Jurassic Park” was out of control for Game 5 with the team on the road . The fans can feel how close they are to reaching this new height for basketball in Canada, and the Scotiabank crowd will be rocking for their team in Game 6.
If the Bucks can pull off a win in this hostile environment, they’ll exercise their right to the home court advantage they worked so hard for all season. It’s important Toronto closes things out on their own home floor to avoid having to try and pull off another road victory against the team with the second-best home record in the NBA this season.