The Toronto Raptors are right back in the Eastern Conference Finals after a 120-102 win over the Milwaukee Bucks in Game 4.
Kyle Lowry guided the Raptors home scoring 25 points, while the second unit trio of Serge Ibaka, Norman Powell and Fred VanVleet combined for 48 points on the night.
After struggling in the first three games, Khris Middleton turned in his best performance of the series with 30 points, with Giannis Antetokounmpo adding 25 points and 10 rebounds.
As the series now shifts to Milwaukee for a pivotal Game 5, here's four takeaways from today's action:
Lowry steps up at home
With Kawhi Leonard (19 points) hampered by a leg injury, Kyle Lowry stepped up big for the Toronto Raptors, leading the way with 25 points, six assists and five rebounds.
In a frantic first quarter Lowry set the tone early, scoring 12 of his 25 points in the period on 4-of-5 shooting, finding an answer for every Giannis Antetokounmpo bucket as the Raptors withstood the early Bucks momentum to take a 32-31 lead heading into the second.
Kyle Lowry (@Klow7) posted 25p/5r/6a on 6-11 FG, 10-10 FT for a 167.4 offensive rating - the best he's had in an #NBAPlayoffs game in his career. #MILvsTOR #WeTheNorth- StatMuse (@statmuse) May 22, 2019
📊 https://t.co/9ylygytO7Q pic.twitter.com/GQ7UzPZXRe
Lowry continued to grind as the game wore on, diving for loose balls, battling on the defensive and getting the crowd hyped in the second half as he drew a charge in Antetokounmpo.
The 33-year-old is quietly putting together one of his best post-season series' against the Bucks, with his emotional leadership on court helping lift everyone around him. The Raptors will need Lowry at his best, especially on nights where Leonard and Pascal Siakam are struggling to score.
Toronto's reserves shine
As the postseason began and the rotation became tighter due to OG Anunoby's health, Nick Nurse decided to go with just eight players.
For that reason, the contributions from the three reserves that came in to spell the team's starting unit become that much more important; the bench has been a reason for some of the team's highs and lows this postseason.
Entering Game 4, Toronto's reserves were averaging just 26.0 points per game while Milwaukee's bench was averaging 43.3 points per game.
Game 4 was much different.
The Raptors second unit outscored that of the Bucks 48-23 on the night, receiving huge contributions from its three chief members, all of whom deserve acknowledgement.
Serge Ibaka finished with a 17-point, 13-rebound double-double, bringing Toronto's record to 7-0 this postseason when he scores 10 or more points. Of Ibaka's 13 rebounds, four came on the offensive end, a sign of the energy and boost he brought to the team in 24 minutes of action.
The Raptors outscored the Bucks by 29 points during the 32 minutes in which Norman Powell was on the floor in Game 4. Powell finished with 18 points (on 6-for-18 shooting), bringing much-needed aggression on the offensive end to keep Milwaukee's defence honest.
Perhaps the most encouraging performance was the 13 points and six assists from Fred VanVleet, who has struggled for the majority of the postseason. VanVleet appeared to have emerged from his slump, looking visibly confident as he shot 5-for-6 from the field in 25 minutes of play.
The key for these reserves is their game travelling on the road, where Toronto must win if it wants to win this series; if the reserves can win the bench battle in Game 5, the Raptors have a great chance to take a series lead.
Middleton bounces back
Averaging just 10.6 points per game through the first three games of the series, Khris Middleton bounced back in style with a 30-point performance in Toronto.
Middleton shot a sizzling 11-of-15 from the field, adding six rebounds and seven assists, none better than this curveball to Eric Bledsoe for two.
Khris Middleton puts some English on the dime in transition! #FearTheDeer #NBAPlayoffs- NBA (@NBA) May 22, 2019
📺: @NBAonTNT pic.twitter.com/9rma9pLA1b
The All-Star guard kept the Bucks in the game, with his efficient shooting as his teammates struggled to knock down shots.
While Middleton enjoyed a great offensive game, he told reporters post-game that the Bucks still have plenty of work to do on the defensive end as the series now shifts back to Milwaukee.
"We've got to guard better," he said post-game. "Everybody on their team got whatever they wanted. Everything was easy. That's where my frustration was. We're a better defensive team than we showed tonight."
Khris Middleton was 11-15 FG, 4-7 3P for an 86.7 eFG% in Game 4 - the best by a player with 30+ points in a playoff game in Bucks team history. #MILvsTOR- StatMuse (@statmuse) May 22, 2019
📊 https://t.co/Ye8vFaEERV pic.twitter.com/fnnxzc9EK8
Game 5 is called pivotal for a reason.
In tying the series at two games apiece, the first four games essentially go out of the window as the series now becomes the first to two wins in three tries.
This is more adversity than this Bucks team has faced as it moved through the first two rounds with relative ease, moving past the Pistons in four games and the Celtics in five. This is now uncharted territory for the team and although the series shifts back to Milwaukee, the Bucks could be made to feel a bit uncomfortable with an increase in pressure.
The Raptors are coming off of a highly-contested seven-game series and look to use the experience gained there to its advantage as they must earn a road win in order to win the series. With an opportunity to gain control of the series in Game 5, Toronto must dig deep as it did in Game 4 of the Conference Semifinals in Philadelphia.
When a series is tied at 2-2, the winner of Game 5 wins the series over 80% of the time; the loser of Game 5 in this series isn't necessarily out on hope, but the task becomes increasingly harder when a team drops the pivotal game.