The Milwaukee ‘Bench Mob’ is overwhelming the Raptors

MILWAUKEE — George Hill is demanding to know how this story got told. It’s true, he said. He did, in fact, jump into a chilly lake to save Paul George’s drowning dog a few years ago.

It was back when George and Hill were teammates on the Indiana Pacers. As both a self-identified “fix it” guy and an animal lover, Hill just had to jump in after the pooch when he saw it struggling to keep its head above water.

“I’m just mad the water was so damn cold,” Hill said.

Hill approaches his role on the Milwaukee Bucks much like he did saving the struggling pup: he is ready when called upon and prides himself on his unselfishness. Along with being a proven shooter, those traits made him well-suited for the Milwaukee system.

The Bucks have touted their depth all season long, and Hill, along with the rest of the “Bench Mob,” has often been the difference-maker in the playoffs too. Entering the Eastern conference finals, the Milwaukee bench ranked third league-wide in points per game, third in field goal percentage, first in three point attempts and second in assists.

In a 125-103 Game 2 victory against the Raptors, the Milwaukee bench outscored the Raptors backups 54-39. Milwaukee scored its most points in the first half of a playoff game in the last 20 seasons and heads to Scotiabank Arena for Game 3 with a commanding 2-0 series lead.

“They can compete against other team’s starters,” Khris Middleton said of Milwaukee’s bench.

It’s not the first time this postseason that the Milwaukee bench players have been heavy contributors. Milwaukee owed their Game 3 win over the Boston Celtics to a third-quarter run by their bench; Hill outscored Boston’s reserves 21-16 by himself in that contest.

But in the Eastern conference finals, the disparity between the two teams’ depth has been apparent. Toronto’s starting lineup has struggled to find chemistry, and Kawhi Leonard didn’t get much help in Game 2 as only two other Raptors finished in double figures. It wasn’t much better for Toronto in Game 1, as only three Raptors finished in double figures in the opening contest while Malcolm Brogdon outscored the visiting team’s bench 15-12.

Toronto’s depth was further stretched because starting center Marc Gasol, who has been a matchup target for the Bucks, scored just two points in 19 minutes on 1-of-9 shooting from the field. Pascal Siakam, officially a finalist for this season’s Most Improved Player award, fouled out in 26 minutes and was overpowered by Giannis Antetokounmpo.

The Raptors are relying on Fred VanVleet, Serge Ibaka, and Norman Powell to play strong rotation minutes in this series; forward OG Anunoby is still not close to playing due to an emergency appendectomy just prior to the start of the postseason. VanVleet has struggled significantly, shooting only 28.4 percent from the field in the postseason, while Ibaka is the only reserve averaging more than 20 minutes per game in the playoffs. Powell had a strong Game 2 (14 points, 6-of-9 field goals) but Toronto head coach Nick Nurse hasn’t played him more than 20 minutes since the quarterfinals win against the Orlando Magic.

“I thought their bench guys came in and really…when we kind of clawed back from the bad start, I think we got to 14, 9 right away, then those guys came in and took off,” Nurse said of Milwaukee’s bench.

The Milwaukee bench, by contrast, bounced back from a sub-par performance outside of Brogdon in Game 1. After that game, Hill (0-for-6 field goals in Game 1) sat in front of his locker and explained that it had been a good win despite the “Bench Mob” struggling. From the adjacent locker, wing Pat Connaughton piped up.

“We kind of stunk, but Malcom Brogdon picked up our average,” Connaughton said, cracking a smile.

In Game 2, the “Bench Mob” bounced back and Brogdon, who scored 14 points and made three 3-pointers, again made a big impact to support Antetokounmpo’s team-high 30 points. He wasn’t alone. At one point, Ersan Ilyasova nailed a deep 3-pointer and the entire arena began chanting his name. Usually, that honor is reserved for Antetokounmpo or Khris Middleton.

Hill scored 13 points and grabbed five rebounds while Ilyasova finished with 17 points and a game-best plus-minus of +22. The duo earned themselves a trip to the post-game podium alongside Antetokounmpo. Six Bucks players finished in double figures, and they made up for meager performances from Game 1 star Brook Lopez (six points, 1-of-7 field goals) and point guard Eric Bledsoe (eight points, 3-of-10 field goals).

Those big contributions allowed Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer to play Antetokounmpo just 34 minutes, while Leonard and Kyle Lowry each played 37 minutes or more despite Toronto pulling its starters late in the game. Milwaukee has not only been better than Toronto so far in this series, its key players are staying fresher thanks to its confident second unit.

“Well, the thing is that’s the beauty about our team,” Ilyasova said. “Everybody wants to look at the bench. We have a deep bench and the whole season we rely on each other. Obviously, in this game we kind of learned a lesson from Game 1 and everybody just from the gates was ready, and especially the bench.

“I think the starting five set the tone, and we have to just do the same thing.”

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