Jeff Zillgitt, USA TODAY
Published 1:49 p.m. ET May 25, 2019
What I’m Hearing: Matt Velazquez of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel discusses the Bucks’ collective mindset as they head back to Toronto facing elimination in Game 6.
TORONTO – A week ago, the Milwaukee Bucks were up 2-0 in the Eastern Conference finals and looking like a good bet to reach the NBA Finals.
Today, the Toronto Raptors are up 3-2 with Game 6 at their home arena. They have a chance to finish the Bucks and reach the Finals for the first time in franchise history.
“Again, I stress this is a great team we’re playing, the same team we played in Games 1 and 2 and double overtime in Game 3,” Raptors coach Nick Nurse said. “We’ve had to play really super hard and super well to get any victories. So we’re focusing our thoughts on the first part of that, playing super hard.”
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Just as the series took a turn after Game 2, the Bucks can change the complexion of the series with a win tonight (8:30 p.m. ET on TNT) on the road.
“We certainly feel like we have what it takes to win the next two games,” Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said. “(Thursday) night was kind of a one- or two-possession game. At times, we were really good and had double-digit leads. Both teams, I guess we’ve blown each other out once each, and the other games have been pretty close. We need to go win, whether it be a close game or something different. We need to win Game 6, and obviously you go to a Game 7, both teams have to win it. We certainly feel like we can do that.”
Here are five keys to Game 6.
He has been fantastic throughout the playoffs and has taken over in this series. It’s important to remember he’s a Finals MVP. He’s scoring, rebounding and defending, and when the Bucks force the ball out of his hands, he’s making the right plays and teammates are making shots. He’s not known as a playmaker, but as long as Leonard, who learned how to pass out of the double-team with San Antonio, continues to play like this, Milwaukee has a difficult task.
Antetokounmpo hasn’t been bad in this series. He just needs to be better. But this is also a learning experience for Antetokounmpo, who has never played this deep into the playoffs. He’s not the first young star to get to this point and struggle. It took Michael Jordan several tries to figure out the Detroit Pistons, and it took LeBron James a few deep playoff runs before he learned what was necessary to win.
“Giannis, it’s so impressive what he does and how important he is,” Budenholzer said.
In the past three games – all Raptors wins – Milwaukee shot 42.5% from the field and scored just 100.6 points per 100 possessions. Nurse called for tighter defense, better closeouts and more physical play. He’s gotten it.
Toronto has been successful with its double teams on Antetokounmpo. They have forced him into turnovers, and they’re rotating fast enough to cover shooters.
The Raptors made eight more threes than the Bucks in Game 5, and that’s a difference maker. Fred VanVleet has rediscovered his shot since the birth of his son, making 10-for-12 3-pointers in the past two games, including 7-for-9 in Game 5. The Bucks’ 3-point woes are an issue. In the past three games, the Bucks have shot 31.8% on 3-pointers, including 19% in the fourth quarter.
The numbers don’t look good for the Bucks. Nikola Mirotic is 19.4% on threes in this series. Eric Bledsoe is 15.4%, Ersan Ilyasova 23.1% and Khris Middleton 33.3%.
Toronto shot 38% on threes in its three victories, including 42.9% in the fourth quarter.
Yes, the starters need to play well. But reserves have had an impact on this series. In Milwaukee’s two wins, its bench outscored Toronto’s 76-51. Since then, the Raptors’ reserves have outscored Milwaukee’s 110-92.
Nurse figured out in Game 2 that Norman Powell could be effective in this series, and VanVleet’s shooting in the past two games has given Toronto a huge lift.
Budenholzer moved Malcolm Brogdon into the starting lineup for Game 5, and if he keeps that starting lineup, Milwaukee will need better play from Mirotic, Ilyasova, George Hill and Pat Connaughton.
Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Jeff Zillgitt on Twitter @JeffZillgitt