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Date Title Author
Apr 22, 17 Post-game news & notes: Raptors take back control with Powell adjustment, DeRozan bounce-back Blake Murphy
Apr 22, 17 Raptors-Bucks Game 4 Reaction Podcast – Advantage Toronto Zarar Siddiqi
Apr 22, 17 Quick Reaction – Raptors 87, Bucks 76 Gavin MacPherson
Apr 22, 17 DeMar DeRozan Post-Game on TNT: “It won’t happen twice” Zarar Siddiqi
Apr 22, 17 Pre-game news & notes: Norman Powell starts, Jonas Valanciunas to bench Blake Murphy
Apr 22, 17 Raptors 905 vs. Rio Grande Valley Vipers: Series Preview Blake Murphy
Apr 22, 17 Gameday: Raptors @ Bucks, Game 4, April 22 Blake Murphy
Apr 21, 17 Practice news & notes: Antetokounmpo is ‘not bad’ and also ‘really good’ Blake Murphy
Apr 21, 17 Ripping Off Our Rookies: A Lament Katie Heindl
Apr 21, 17 Game 3 Mailbag: Starting lineup changes, Stackhouse, Archie is bad, and more Blake Murphy
Apr 21, 17 The Talking Raptors Hotline Barry Taylor
Apr 21, 17 Where’s the Ball Movement? Cameron Dorrett
Apr 21, 17 Delon Wright Highlights in Game 3 vs Bucks Zarar Siddiqi
Apr 21, 17 FULL-COURT STRESS: Raptors Buck-le Under Game 3 Pressure Mike Nelson
Apr 20, 17 Post-game news & notes: Raptors get ‘asses busted’ in an ‘ambush’ they expected Blake Murphy
Apr 20, 17 Raptors-Bucks Game 3 Reaction Podcast – WTF was that? Zarar Siddiqi
Apr 20, 17 Quick Reaction: Raptors 77, Bucks 104 Anthony Doyle
Apr 20, 17 Halftime Thoughts – Raptors/Bucks Game 3 – We’re getting killed (including Halftime Podcast) Zarar Siddiqi
Apr 20, 17 Raptors 905 D-League Finals schedule released Blake Murphy
Apr 20, 17 Pre-game news & notes: No Jurassic Park viewing party for Game 3 Blake Murphy
Apr 20, 17 Shootaround news & notes: Raptors looking to take home-court back Blake Murphy
Apr 20, 17 Personalized Mantras for Every Raptor to Repeat in Game 3 Katie Heindl
Apr 20, 17 The Team On His Back Gavin MacPherson
Apr 20, 17 Epic Mid-Morning Coffee – Thu, Apr 20 Sam Holako
Apr 20, 17 Hello! Jack Armstrong has a t-shirt line RR
Apr 20, 17 Gameday: Raptors @ Bucks, Game 3, April 20 Blake Murphy
Apr 20, 17 Playing Craps with the Raps RR
Apr 19, 17 Raptors 905 punch ticket to finals with 2-0 sweep of Maine Blake Murphy
Apr 19, 17 Practice news & notes: Not gonna be a picnic party Blake Murphy
Apr 19, 17 Delon Wright gives Raptors well-timed boost in Game 2 Blake Murphy
Apr 19, 17 Jerry Stackhouse wins D-League Coach of the Year Blake Murphy
Apr 19, 17 What Comes After Anthony Doyle
Apr 19, 17 The Lowry ‘Forcing’ Shots Game Louis Zatzman
Apr 19, 17 Morning Coffee – Wed, Apr 19 Sam Holako
Apr 18, 17 Post-game news & notes: Lowry bounces back, Raptors land on logical closing five Blake Murphy
Apr 18, 17 Raptors-Bucks Game 2 Reaction Podcast – Lowry, DeRozan, Ibaka comes up clutch Zarar Siddiqi
Apr 18, 17 Quick Reaction: Bucks 100, Raptors 106; Series tied 1-1 Cameron Dorrett
Apr 18, 17 VIDEO: Bismack Biyombo interviewed at Raptors-Bucks Game 2 Blake Murphy
Apr 18, 17 Pre-game news & notes: Serge Ibaka to play despite ankle sprain Blake Murphy
Apr 18, 17 Edy Tavares named D-League Defensive Player of the Year Blake Murphy
Apr 18, 17 Raptors to pick 23rd in 2017 draft Blake Murphy
Apr 18, 17 Afternoon Coffee – Tue, Apr 18 Sam Holako
Apr 18, 17 Shootaround news & notes: Ibaka a game-time call, Antechnikounmpo rescinded Blake Murphy
Apr 18, 17 Breaking Down the Most Important 5 Minutes of Game 1 Cooper Smither
Apr 18, 17 Gameday: Bucks @ Raptors, Game 2, April 18 Shyam Baskaran
Apr 18, 17 Talking Raptors Podcast – S4 E16 – Game 1 Nick Reynoldson
Apr 17, 17 Practice news & notes: Ibaka sits with ankle sprain, Raptors looking to kick-start ‘old Regal’ Blake Murphy
Apr 17, 17 Game 1 Mailbag: Let’s try to talk through this Blake Murphy
Apr 17, 17 The Power of Two Anthony Doyle
Apr 17, 17 Mid-Morning Coffee – Mon, Apr 17 Sam Holako
Apr 17, 17 Game One and Passing Blame Matt Shantz
Apr 17, 17 Raptors Weekly Podcast – In a very dark place Blake Murphy
Apr 16, 17 C.J. Leslie, teflon Raptors 905 blow out Maine in series opener Blake Murphy
Apr 16, 17 Practice news & notes: Lowry has to be more aggressive (or “force shots”) Blake Murphy
Apr 16, 17 Comment Thread – April 16 Blake Murphy
Apr 16, 17 VIDEO: Kyle Lowry says he’ll “have to force shots” Blake Murphy
Apr 16, 17 Another series, another hole the Raptors have dug themselves Blake Murphy
Apr 15, 17 Raptors-Bucks Game 1 Reaction Podcast – Kyle Lowry needs to be much better Blake Murphy
Apr 15, 17 Post-game news & notes: This “abysmal” Game 1 thing again Blake Murphy
Apr 15, 17 Quick Reaction: Bucks 97, Raptors 83; Bucks lead series 1-0 Anthony Doyle
Apr 15, 17 Pre-game news & notes: “The pressure is the same, the expectations are different” Blake Murphy
Apr 15, 17 Raptors-Bucks Series Preview Hub & Poll Blake Murphy
Apr 15, 17 Gameday: Bucks @ Raptors, Game 1, April 15 Blake Murphy
Apr 14, 17 Raptors-Bucks Series Preview: Film Room Primer Cooper Smither
Apr 14, 17 Practice news & notes: New additions fitting in, Tucker sick, Raptor fans a factor Blake Murphy
Apr 14, 17 Raptors-Bucks Series Preview: Outside perspectives Blake Murphy
Apr 14, 17 Raptors-Bucks Series Preview: Q&A with the enemy Blake Murphy
Apr 14, 17 Raptors-Bucks Series Preview: Raptors Republic Roundtable Blake Murphy
Apr 14, 17 We’re hosting an AMA on Reddit at 10 a.m. Blake Murphy
Apr 14, 17 Raptors Weekly Extra Podcast, April 14 – Bucks series preview Blake Murphy
Apr 13, 17 Canadian broadcast schedule for Raptors-Bucks released Blake Murphy
Apr 13, 17 Practice news & notes: Raptors can’t lean on experience alone; won’t go soft on Giannis Blake Murphy
Apr 13, 17 Playoff Mailbag: Rotations, matchups, scheduling, (…and the murder of Jason Blossom) Blake Murphy
Apr 13, 17 Raptors 905 vs. Maine Red Claws: Series Preview Blake Murphy
Apr 13, 17 Raptors, Leafs announce round one schedule for Jurassic Park Blake Murphy
Apr 13, 17 Brady Heslip is doing more than just shoot Vivek Jacob
Apr 13, 17 11 things to know about Raptors vs. Bucks Blake Murphy
Apr 13, 17 Powell and Caboclo lead Raptors to victory in season finale Blake Murphy
Apr 13, 17 Raptors-Cavaliers Reaction Podcast – Bruno sets career high Blake Murphy
Apr 12, 17 Raptors-Bucks schedule released with 5:30 Saturday start; Raptors 905-Maine schedule, too Blake Murphy
Apr 12, 17 Raptors will pick 23rd-25th in 2017 NBA Draft Blake Murphy
Apr 12, 17 Quick Reaction: Raptors 98, Cavaliers 83 Vivek Jacob
Apr 12, 17 VIDEO: Jonas Valanciunas hits a three Blake Murphy
Apr 12, 17 Pre-game news & notes: Cavs rest big 3, DeRozan and Ibaka sit, both teams add 905ers Blake Murphy
Apr 12, 17 Closing the Gap? Gavin MacPherson
Apr 12, 17 Wanting the Cavs in Round Two Matt Shantz
Apr 12, 17 Gameday Raptors @ Cavaliers, Apr. 12 Tamberlyn Richardson
Apr 11, 17 Report: Cavaliers to sign Edy Tavares from Raptors 905 Blake Murphy
Apr 11, 17 Raptors to face Bucks in first round of playoffs Blake Murphy
Apr 11, 17 Threes a Crowd Anthony Doyle
Apr 11, 17 All Roads Lead to Cleveland Alex Gres
Apr 11, 17 Bucks or Pacers: Who would you rather see in round one? Blake Murphy
Apr 10, 17 Off-day news & notes: Cavaliers taking focus off 1-seed, resting Monday Blake Murphy
Apr 10, 17 Should DeMar DeRozan Make An All-NBA Team? Spencer Redmond
Apr 10, 17 Raptors, Leafs announce plans for Jurassic Park during playoffs Blake Murphy
Apr 10, 17 10 Tips for Getting Raptors Playoff Tickets Katie Heindl
Apr 10, 17 Raptors run back same formula to win 50th, clinch top-3 seed Louis Zatzman
Apr 9, 17 Raptors-Knicks Reaction Podcast – 50 wins and the 3rd seed Blake Murphy
Apr 9, 17 Quick Reaction: Raptors 110, Knicks 97 Shyam Baskaran
Apr 9, 17 Pre-game news & notes: Knicks sit Anthony and Porzingis as Raptors visit Blake Murphy
Apr 9, 17 Gameday: Raptors @ Knicks, Apr. 9 Andrew Thompson
Apr 8, 17 Raptors 905 sweep Canton Charge with major statement in Game 2 Blake Murphy
Apr 8, 17 Off-day news & notes: What to keep an eye on, April 8 Blake Murphy
Apr 8, 17 Pelicans sign Axel Toupane, dent 905 championship hopes Vivek Jacob
Apr 8, 17 Raptors hold on to top Heat in playoff dress rehearsal Blake Murphy
Apr 7, 17 Raptors-Heat Reaction Podcast – Heat provide playoff simulation Blake Murphy
Apr 7, 17 Quick Reaction: Heat 94, Raptors 96 Gavin MacPherson
Apr 7, 17 Pre-game news & notes: Raptors won’t repeat 2015’s seed-seeking Blake Murphy
Apr 7, 17 Raptors Playbook: Ram Pick and Roll Blake Murphy
Apr 7, 17 Quest To Find Toronto’s Ultimate Raptors Bar Goes Downtown Barry Taylor
Apr 7, 17 Gameday: Heat @ Raptors, April 7 Gavin MacPherson
Apr 7, 17 Raptors Weekly Extra Podcast, April 7 – One week to go Blake Murphy
Apr 6, 17 Why I want the Raptors to meet the Hawks in the first round Scott Hastie
Apr 6, 17 The New Norm-al? Matt Shantz
Apr 6, 17 Kyle Lowry keys comeback victory in glorious return to lineup Blake Murphy
Apr 6, 17 Talking Raptors Podcast – E15 S4 – Welcome Back For Real Nick Reynoldson
Apr 6, 17 Raptors-Pistons Reaction Podcast – Lowry drops 27 and 10 in return Blake Murphy
Apr 5, 17 Quick Reaction: Raptors 105, Pistons 102 Anthony Doyle
Apr 5, 17 Toupane’s record night lifts Raptors 905 to 1-0 series lead over Charge Blake Murphy
Apr 5, 17 Pre-game news and notes: Kyle Lowry returns vs. Pistons Blake Murphy
Apr 5, 17 Jakob Poeltl’s Year One Development Is Showing Great Signs Spencer Redmond
Apr 5, 17 Gameday: Raptors @ Pistons, April 5 Blake Murphy
Apr 5, 17 VIDEO: Stephenson upsets Raptors, apologizes; Tucker reacts Blake Murphy
Apr 5, 17 The Lance Stephenson Game Louis Zatzman
Apr 5, 17 Betting on the Raptors to Win the East RR
Apr 5, 17 Raptors-Pacers Reaction Podcast – Meltdown in Indiana Blake Murphy
Apr 4, 17 Quick Reaction: Raptors 90, Pacers 108 Vivek Jacob
Apr 4, 17 Pre-game news & notes: Tucker returns as Raptors visit Pacers Blake Murphy
Apr 4, 17 Bebe, It’s Cold Outside Cameron Dorrett
Apr 4, 17 Raptors 905 vs. Canton Charge: Series Preview Blake Murphy
Apr 4, 17 Gameday: Raptors @ Pacers, April 4 Alex Gres
Apr 3, 17 VIDEO: Kyle Lowry talks return to (partial) practice Blake Murphy
Apr 3, 17 Kyle Lowry a partial participant in practice, and what his return could mean Blake Murphy
Apr 3, 17 Trying to Control Destiny Anthony Doyle
Apr 3, 17 The Big Picture: Featuring Season 2 of Blue Jays Republic Mike Nelson
Apr 3, 17 Raptors Cruise to Another Easy Victory Gavin MacPherson
Apr 3, 17 Raptors Weekly Podcast – It’s all coming together Blake Murphy
Apr 3, 17 Raptors-76ers Reaction Podcast – That was easy Blake Murphy
Apr 2, 17 Quick Reaction: Sixers 105, Raptors 113 Shyam Baskaran
Apr 2, 17 Pre-game news & notes: Tucker sits with sore knee, Lowry doesn’t necessarily have to practice before return Blake Murphy
Apr 2, 17 Gameday: 76ers @ Raptors, April 2 Blake Murphy
Apr 1, 17 Raptors clinch home court in first round Blake Murphy
Apr 1, 17 DeRozan & Valanciunas Huge Quarter Help Lead Raptors Over Pacers Spencer Redmond
Mar 31, 17 Raptors-Pacers Reaction Podcast – DeRozan did it again Blake Murphy
Mar 31, 17 Quick Reaction: Pacers 100, Raptors 111 Cameron Dorrett
Mar 31, 17 Raptors 905 ends regular season with 123-103 win over Delaware Scott Hastie
Mar 31, 17 Pre-game news & notes: Valanciunas provides seeding perspective Blake Murphy
Mar 31, 17 An exclusive sneak peak of what’s in the “Raptor’s Favourite Things” auction baskets Katie Heindl
Mar 31, 17 Don’t Forget About Me Anthony Doyle
Mar 31, 17 The Isolation Moves of an Isolation Team Louis Zatzman
Mar 31, 17 Where the Ceiling is the Roof for Toronto Matt Shantz
Mar 31, 17 Gameday: Pacers @ Raptors, March 31 Blake Murphy
Mar 31, 17 Raptors Weekly Extra Podcast, March 31 – 905 playoff preview & draft look ahead Blake Murphy
Mar 30, 17 Siakam and VanVleet help Raptors 905 to 7th consecutive win Blake Murphy
Mar 30, 17 Raptors Mailbag: Fighting for playoff seeding, Wrestlemania glory, and truth in Riverdale Blake Murphy
Mar 30, 17 Hornets heat up late, snap Raptors’ winning streak Blake Murphy
Mar 29, 17 Raptors-Hornets Reaction Podcast – Shit happens Blake Murphy
Mar 29, 17 Quick Reaction: Hornets 110, Raptors 106 Anthony Doyle
Mar 29, 17 Pre-game news & notes: Lowry progresses to shooting, Carroll returns Blake Murphy
Mar 29, 17 Raptors Playbook: Drag Screens Cooper Smither
Mar 29, 17 P.J. Tucker: Origins – Birth of a Madman Alex Gres
Mar 29, 17 Gameday: Hornets @ Raptors, March 29 Blake Murphy
Mar 28, 17 From Woodstock to Wellness Andrew Thompson
Mar 28, 17 Raptors Coaching Staff Deserves A Lot Of Credit For Recent Stretch Spencer Redmond
Mar 28, 17 Talking Raptors Podcast – S4 E14 – Welcome Back Nick Reynoldson
Mar 28, 17 The Win-Ross Column: Terrence Went Down Swingin’ Mike Nelson
Mar 27, 17 Raptors-Magic Reaction Podcast – Made for Open Gym Blake Murphy
Mar 27, 17 Quick Reaction: Raptors 131, Magic 112 Vivek Jacob
Mar 27, 17 VIDEO: The Terrence Ross tribute package Blake Murphy
Mar 27, 17 Will Sheehey out for season with dislocated elbow Blake Murphy
Mar 27, 17 Pre-game news & notes: Ross returns, Lowry non-update, Carroll sits again Blake Murphy
Mar 27, 17 DeMar DeRozan named Eastern Conference Player of the Week Blake Murphy
Mar 27, 17 Toronto Tough Katie Heindl
Mar 27, 17 In Praise of Fred VanVleet Cameron Dorrett
Mar 27, 17 Punching a playoff ticket: the home stretch awaits Shyam Baskaran
Mar 27, 17 Gameday: Magic @ Raptors, March 27 Matt Shantz
Mar 27, 17 Raptors Weekly Podcast – Peeking at the playoffs Blake Murphy
Mar 26, 17 Raptors use defence to cruise to fifth-straight win Scott Hastie
Mar 26, 17 Raptors-Mavericks Reaction Podcast – Routine win makes 5 in a row Blake Murphy
Mar 25, 17 Quick Reaction: Raptors 94, Mavericks 86 Spencer Redmond
Mar 25, 17 Raptors clinch 4th consecutive postseason berth Blake Murphy
Mar 25, 17 Tavares blocks franchise-record 12 shots in win, but 905 lose Sheehey Vivek Jacob
Mar 25, 17 Wil Sheehey leaves Raptors 905 game with injured arm Blake Murphy
Mar 25, 17 Pre-game news & notes: Ibaka returns, Carroll sits with back soreness Blake Murphy
Mar 25, 17 Gameday: Raptors @ Mavericks, March 25 Gavin MacPherson
Mar 24, 17 Jordan and Heslip navigate 905 past Bayhawks Vivek Jacob
Mar 24, 17 Raptors hitting stride as they streak towards post season Tamberlyn Richardson
Mar 24, 17 Finding His Way Anthony Doyle
Mar 24, 17 Raptors shake off slow start, avenge woeful loss to Heat Blake Murphy
Mar 23, 17 Raptors Weekly Extra Podcast (with Heat reaction) – Everything is awesome Blake Murphy
Mar 23, 17 Quick Reaction: Raptors 101, Heat 84 Alex Gres
Mar 23, 17 Pre-game news & notes: Ibaka serves suspension, Whiteside will play Blake Murphy
Mar 23, 17 Predicting The Raptors Playoff Rotation Warren Kosoy
Mar 23, 17 Gameday: Raptors @ Heat, March 23 Blake Murphy
Mar 22, 17 Edy Tavares dominates Drive in another blowout win Vivek Jacob
Mar 22, 17 Serge Ibaka suspended for 1 game Blake Murphy
Mar 22, 17 Are the Raptors Tough? An Investigation Cameron Dorrett
Mar 22, 17 Raptors Playbook: Horns Reverse Cooper Smither
Mar 22, 17 March Madness – Part 3: The Raptors’ Sweet Sixteen Mike Nelson
Mar 22, 17 Raptors recall Pascal Siakam as Serge Ibaka suspension looms Blake Murphy
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Post-game news & notes: Raptors take back control with Powell adjustment, DeRozan bounce-back

DeMar DeRozan was embarrassed. In the day-and-a-half since he put up the first field goal-free game of this postseason career, DeRozan was steadfast in his belief that he’d have a bounce-back in Game 4. He’s had off nights, of course, but it’s rarely happened for extended stretches, and DeRozan’s assertion that he’d be in for a big game Saturday – “A different side of me” – was borne of a cool, steely confidence. His career to this point has been built on self-belief, and his ability to fight through adversity is so pronounced that it literally manifests itself in his new shoe.

His belief in himself didn’t make those outside of the locker room any less fraught with nerves and anxiety. His offensive performance, though, eventually spoke for itself. DeRozan would finish with 33 points on 12-of-22 shooting and a perfect 9-of-9 at the line, and he’d add nine rebounds, five assists, and four steals. He certainly wasn’t at his best defensively outside of the ball-hawking and rebounding (that late strip!), but overall, this was about as good a performance as the Raptors could have expected from him. Broken brilliance, as it were.

“It won’t happen twice,” DeRozan said on the floor as the game ended.

Opinions will vary on whether playing a major part in a Game 4 victory “makes up” for having an equally large hand in a Game 3 loss. This is part of a larger philosophical question about the Raptors’ approach and need to be punched in the mouth in general – as Josh Lewenberg of TSN points out, the Raptors are now 7-2 in playoff games following a double-digit loss over the last two years, which is great. It also means they’ve lost by double-digits nine times in 24 games, which almost seems impossible for a team that won two series in that time.

“I’ve always said, we play better with our backs against the wall,” head coach Dwane Casey said. “It’s a tough way to live but I love our team’s resilient personality. I wish we wouldn’t just have to have a stinker before we played that way, but if we can consistently get everybody at their potential level, I think we’ll be in good shape.”

Obviously, the inconsistencies of DeRozan and Kyle Lowry have been a big part of that in the postseason, and Saturday was the rare time both players turned in a strong performance together (Lowry was really good in the second half, DeRozan in the first and again late). It goes without saying, but the Raptors need more of that to close this series out.

At this point, that’s probably not worth dwelling on whether or not they’ve atoned (or whatever) for earlier shaky outings. Whether they should have been in this spot or not, DeRozan and the Raptors answered the call and even the series at 2-2, taking back home-court advantage as the series now shrinks to a best-of-three. The Raptors will be favored by Vegas, FiveThrityEight, BPI, and historical precedent from here, which is encouraging. It’s less encouraging that the Raptors have so consistently had off nights to bring the best out of themselves – and Milwaukee should play much better in Game 5 (Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton aren’t combining to shoot 10-of-32 with 11 turnovers again, however good the defense) – but if DeRozan’s promise that Game 3 won’t happen twice holds true, and if the Raptors, you know, maybe hit a three or two, the Raptors might be back in good shape.

Norman Powell swings another playoff series, and other adjustments

Casey teased an overdue change to the starting lineup between Games 3 and 4, and when the announcement came, it was a bit surprising: Norman Powell was set to start, with Jonas Valanciunas moving to the bench. After the game, Casey half-jokingly declined to give reasons for why Powell was chosen to start, but he had previously talked up a need to help the offense more than the defense.

The move worked out. Powell played 34 minutes, chipped in 12 points and four assists, and was a plus-15, tied for the best mark on the team. His aggression attacking from the weak side when the Bucks overloaded on Lowry and DeRozan was useful, and he ran some nice baseline actions to work as a distributor or secondary scorer. Powell’s made his name on the defensive end, though, and it was there that the change seemed to have more of an impact, with the sophomore proving paramount in helping limit Khris Middleton to a 4-of-13 shooting night with four turnovers.

“I thought Norm stepped in and carried his load,” Casey said. “I thought he played really well. I thought defensively, he had leverage, he got into his body…I just thought he did a good job.”

Powell has now played a major role in swinging two first-round playoff series, helping pull them from the brink. That he didn’t have a role earlier in this series is perhaps frustrating, but at least a little understandable – he struggled after the All-Star break, by his own admission, and Delon Wright’s play early in this series limited minutes at the two-guard. But Casey was adamant that Powell would have a place at some point, and it’s clear the coaching staff has faith in Powell responding as a break-glass-in-case-of-emergency option. He played really well here, and while it wasn’t the starting lineup change I was expecting (though I did call him the series’ X-factor before Game 1), this worked out well. Powell may now have the greatest ratio of playoff impact to regular season impact of any player ever not named Robert Horry.

Valanciunas was just fine in his Greg Monroe role, too, and even closed out the game thanks to some strong play down the stretch. The Raptors did a better job finding Valanciunas on the short-roll and on dump offs, and while the Lithuanian only grabbed five rebounds and had four turnovers in his 22 minutes, he added 12 points on perfect shooting and was less of an issue defensively coming off the bench.

“I thought he handled it really well. It’s tough for a guy that’s started every game he’s been physically ready and able to play,” Casey said. “To understand, this isn’t the playoffs, and it isn’t anything you did wrong…He had the proper attitude, the proper disposition. He was a pro.”

What’s more, the Bucks trapped the Raptors’ ball-handlers a little less aggressively opposite Serge Ibaka in the starting lineup, so everyone seemed to benefit from this change (the Raptors also set a lot of their screens much higher, which freed up some space vertically. They were also smart in attacking the same big repeatedly (specifically Monroe), as Milwaukee’s system can be exhausting for big men having to trap and recover on multiple possessions in a row.

I’d expect the starting lineup to stay the same for Game 5, though DeMarre Carroll’s leash has to be incredibly short given P.J. Tucker’s consistently larger role and impact. Tucker was incredible defensively down the stretch, and the Raptors have been at their best defensively (93.1 defensive rating versus 110.1 when he sits) when he’s on the court in this series. (You won’t at all be surprised to learn that Carroll and Cory Joseph have the worst net ratings on the team, by far.) As long as Tucker’s playing the bulk of the minutes and closing games, there’s not too big a gripe to be had, but the Raptors’ best foot forward involves Tucker on the floor.

Injury Updates – Patterson is apparently fine

Patrick Patterson went unused in the second half but was apparently available. The rotation Dwane Casey rolled with worked out, in that the fourth quarter lineups were tough to find fault with and the Raptors won, but his absence late in the third quarter, in particular, was strange. He didn’t have the best eight minutes in the first half, he just represents such an obviously useful piece on the defensive end in this series. Casey said Patterson going unused was not related to a sore big toe from Game 2 or anything else, and that he was there if needed.

Lineup Notes

  • The Raptors’ new starters were actually a -1 in 15 minutes, so while Powell was good, there’s still something to figure out there. That this lineup had literally never played a minute of game action together before may suggest a learning curve, but the Raptors don’t have the luxury of time for that kind of thing, so more changes should remain on the table.
  • It’s a bit odd considering Serge Ibaka was the Raptors’ best player through three games of the series, but Toronto was at its best with a fivesome that didn’t include him tonight. THe closing group of the starters with Tucker and Valanciunas in place of Carroll and Ibaka were a +8 in 11 minutes.
    • The starters with Valanciunas in place of Ibaka, without the Tucker-Carroll swap, were also a +8 in three minutes.
  • The Tucker-Patterson-Ibaka trio once again only playued a minute together. Naturally, they were a +4.
  • The Bucks only used seven lineups here, one of the lower totals I can ever remember seeing. Their starters were a -6 in 21 minutes, close to the maximum you’ll see a single unit playing together in a game.
    • The starters with Monroe in place of Thon Maker were -9 in four minutes.

Assorted

  • Bucks fans at Bradley Center chanted “Bucks in six” as the game ended, which I got a kick out of. Yeah, they’re the underdog and they just lost an ugly one, but that’s the kind of confidence and energy that the fan base for an upstart team should be bringing. The energy the last two games has been very reminiscent of the Air Canada Centre circa the Brooklyn Nets series.
  • I would have given anything for DeRozan to read Antetokounmpo’s stat line for petty revenge.
  • A classic Caseyism on coaching criticism: “One day you’re the statue, the next day you’re the pigeon.”
    • This doesn’t bring up an interesting point for Game 5, though, in terms of coaching criticism. Jason Kidd hasn’t really had to answer too much for his choices since the Bucks more or less went according to plan in taking two of the first three, save for the Michael Beasley/Mirza Teletovic and Spencer Hawes tweaks. They were a bit more conservative against smaller Raptors lineups here, but it wasn’t a fundamental change in approach. Kidd will now be tested as a between-game tactician. He probably left Tony Snell (or Middleton) off the floor too long as Toronto pulled away in the fourth, and if the Raptors continue playing small and switching just about everything, Milwaukee’s going to have to work to find better looks for Antetokounmpo, who struggled being forced into more jumpers in this one.
  • This is an actual sequence that happened:

  • Game 5 goes Monday back in Toronto. The regular recap comes at 9 tomorrow, and Cooper or I will have some video work for 11, and then it’s Raptors 905 time, with the D-Leaguers tipping off Game 1 of the finals at 8 p.m. in Rio.
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Raptors-Bucks Game 4 Reaction Podcast – Advantage Toronto

Host William Lou is once again joined by Zarar Siddiqi to break down Game 4 – sorry for the audio quality but Will’s on a phone.

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Quick Reaction – Raptors 87, Bucks 76

Toronto 87 Final
Box Score
76 Milwaukee

A
N. Powell34 MIN, 12 PTS, 4 REB, 4 AST, 0 STL, 3-7 FG, 3-3 3FG, 3-4 FT, 1 BLK, 0 TO, 15 +/-

Shouts to Norm for always staying ready. It’s asking a lot of a guy who was barely in the rotation for the last month or so to come in and start a must-win playoff game but he was more than up to the task. His shooting was crucial, he was decisive on offense and he played solid defense.

D
D. Carroll20 MIN, 2 PTS, 6 REB, 0 AST, 2 STL, 1-6 FG, 0-3 3FG, 0-0 FT, 0 BLK, 0 TO, 4 +/-

At this point I’m not sure why he even plays. He’s overmatched athletically, not providing much spacing and doesn’t have the offensive skills to compete with this Bucks team.

B+
S. Ibaka26 MIN, 10 PTS, 8 REB, 1 AST, 2 STL, 4-16 FG, 0-5 3FG, 2-2 FT, 3 BLK, 1 TO, 0 +/-

His shot wasn’t there but without his first half defense the Raptors probably fall behind pretty big early on. With Valanciunas out of the starting lineup he had to pick up the slack on the boards and was up to the task while defending the rim well against the Bucks early onslaught.

B+
D. DeRozan40 MIN, 33 PTS, 9 REB, 5 AST, 4 STL, 12-22 FG, 0-1 3FG, 9-9 FT, 0 BLK, 4 TO, 15 +/-

This is one of those performances that’s difficult to grade because he did carry the offense in the first half but he’s also the main reason Tony Snell just lit up the Raptors. With Giannis struggling the Bucks strategy seemed to be to run DeRozan through screens until he messed one up – which he often did – but his positives definitely outweigh his negatives today. He recovered very well from a shook performance in game 3 and made a few shots that looked impossible.

A
K. Lowry43 MIN, 18 PTS, 4 REB, 4 AST, 1 STL, 8-17 FG, 2-8 3FG, 0-0 FT, 1 BLK, 0 TO, 15 +/-

It took a while for him to get there, but it’s no coincidence that the Raptors started to pull away when he returned to form. He played too passively on offense in the first half but was everywhere on defense, then added some pressure on offense for good measure in the second half.

B+
P. Tucker28 MIN, 0 PTS, 1 REB, 0 AST, 0 STL, 0-2 FG, 0-2 3FG, 0-0 FT, 0 BLK, 0 TO, 7 +/-

This may be the best zero field goal, 1 rebound performance I’ve ever seen. He did a great job of executing the game plan when he was on Giannis and while he didn’t come away with a lot of steals or rebounds his active hands made it difficult for the Bucks to run their offense and secure loose balls.

A
J. Valanciunas22 MIN, 12 PTS, 5 REB, 0 AST, 1 STL, 5-5 FG, 0-0 3FG, 2-2 FT, 0 BLK, 4 TO, 11 +/-

The pick and roll defense was a little shaky at times but when it was Valanciunas was also freeing Lowry up with solid screens and scoring inside. When he was in the game the Raptors generally maintained or increased their leads.

C
D. Wright11 MIN, 0 PTS, 3 REB, 1 AST, 1 STL, 0-0 FG, 0-0 3FG, 0-0 FT, 1 BLK, 1 TO, -6 +/-

He had some very nice minutes on defense but all you have to do is go under screens to completely neutralize his half court offense. He’d be able to contribute more if the Raptors were getting out in transition but I don’t think that’s going to happen much this series.

B
P. Patterson8 MIN, 0 PTS, 1 REB, 1 AST, 0 STL, 0-2 FG, 0-0 3FG, 0-0 FT, 0 BLK, 0 TO, 2 +/-

He didn’t really play much, perhaps due to a lingering issue with his toe. Hard to grade him when he barely played and it wasn’t due to being terrible so he gets the default B.

D
C. Joseph8 MIN, 0 PTS, 0 REB, 0 AST, 0 STL, 0-3 FG, 0-0 3FG, 0-0 FT, 0 BLK, 2 TO, -8 +/-

He’s really struggled with running the offense so if he’s not playing lockdown defense he doesn’t contribute much, tonight was one of those nights. He could be a good partner for Lowry as a secondary ball-handler and floor spacer but he probably shouldn’t play with DeRozan alone anymore.

B+
Dwane Casey

With his job likely on the line he threw caution to the wind and seemed ready to try anything. It paid off for the most part, though it seems like he dodged a few bullets with some of the lineups he threw out there; generally a lineup featuring Joseph, DeRozan and Valanciunas without Lowry is a disaster but it kind of worked tonight. You know that Kidd is going to have something different for game 5, hopefully Casey can keep this up.

Things We Saw

  1. The Bucks are really targeting DeRozan with their offense. If there is nothing available for Giannis or Middleton initially their second action is usually something off-ball involving DeRozan, hoping that it will result in an open look for one of their shooters. The Raptors in general and DeRozan specifically need to be sharp when negotiating screens, it’s been killing them all series.
  2. The Raptors went away from DeRozan as a pick and roll ball-handler for the most part, trying to get him in one on one situations to negate the impact of the Bucks length and quickness. It worked really well, he was able to shots that were slightly less contested and he had more control over where they came from with only one defender to worry about instead of a swarm of Bucks.
  3. Aggressive Kyle Lowry returned for the 2nd half of this game. While his defense was very aggressive for the entire game he passed on great looks in the first half and mostly looked to get DeRozan the ball in his spots and kick out to shooters when driving. It’s no coincidence that the Raptors looked much better in the second half with Lowry putting constant pressure on the Bucks at both ends of the floor. If he continues to play like that the Bucks will have a lot of trouble winning another game in this series, they just don’t have a guard skilled enough to handle Lowry on either end of the floor.
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DeMar DeRozan Post-Game on TNT: “It won’t happen twice”

DeMar DeRozan spoke to TNT after the Raptors tied the series at 2-2 in Milwaukee, and was asked about his strong Game 4 follow-up after struggles in Game 3, and the Raptors guard was succinct in his response.

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Pre-game news & notes: Norman Powell starts, Jonas Valanciunas to bench

“We’ll make changes.”

That head Toronto Raptors head coach following an embarrassing Game 3 loss to the Milwaukee Bucks that’s been called everything from an ass busting to embarrassing to an ambush to much, much harsher things. Casey was never going to tip his hand in terms of lineup specifics, but all eyes are on what, specifically, those changes will entail (and whether or not they’ll even come). We’ll find out shortly.

That the Raptors are struggling out of the gate in games is not surprising, even if the starting five makes some sense on paper. It’s a long-held problem for the Raptors, with two-plus years of starting slowly and relying on the bench and elite fourth-quarter performance to come back in games. Just because it’s mostly worked doesn’t mean it’s the right approach, and our pal Joseph Casciaro shares just a mind-boggling stat: There have been 33 lineups used for 300 minutes or more over the last two years in the NBA, and the two Raptors groups that qualify rank 31st and 33rd. Two of the bottom three, and nothing higher!

Some of that is due to injury and unfamiliarity, but it’s remarkable that the Raptors, despite being very good, don’t have commonly used lineups that are effective. Casey gets an unfair rap for some things, but the rigidity with ineffective groups and the apparent unwillingness to play his best fivesomes more is a warranted criticism. Again, these starters should work in a vacuum, so it’s hard to fault the six-game experiment, but they’re not working. The Raptors can’t afford another slow start, and this group doesn’t fit opposite the Bucks starters. A change has to be coming.

Oh, and the entire direction of the franchise is probably riding on the outcome of this game.

The game tips off at 3 on TNT (Marv  Albert, Brent Barry, Jennifer Hale) and Sportsnet on TV and on Sportsnet 590 on radio. You can check out the full game preview here. Your officials are Danny Drawford, Brent Barnaky, and Ron Garretson.

Required reading
Here’s what you need ahead of Game 4, assuming you haven’t been keeping up.

Raptors updates
Let’s look at some potential starting lineup changes before we hear official word.

KL-CJ-DD-DC-SI – The group the started the second half in Game 3. It’s trading size for ball-handling and shooting, but I’m not a fan. There’s just not enough length here, and it leaves DeRozan or Joseph on Middleton, which is completely untenable.
KL-DD-PJ-SI-JV – The change people have been clamoring for in comments/mentioned for a few weeks now. It improves the defense on Antetokounmpo with only small sacrifices in shooting and weak-side playmaking.
KL-DD-PJ-DC-SI – This one avoids removing Carroll and keeps multiple options for Middleton and Antetokounmpo on the floor, there’s decent spacing, and DeRozan can guard Snell.
KL-DD-PJ-PP-SI – My preferred choice, it’s definitely their best defensive lineup opposite the Bucks’ length and it’s one of their spaciest looks. Since the deadline, this has felt like their best lineup, and with their backs against the wall, they should put their best foot forward.
KL-DD-DC-SI-JV – If they don’t make a change, I’m afraid our comments section will melt. Also, if they do this, they better at least be willing to try Ibaka on Antetokounmpo to get DeRozan onto Snell. And it better have a very quick hook.
KL-NP-DD-DC-SI – An extra wing defender and weak-side attacker but without the spacing some other options provide, and a big bet on Powell contributing after a long stretch of a minimized role.

Check back for an update before tip-off.

UPDATE: Norman Powell will start with Jonas Valanciunas moving to the bench, according to Michael Grange of Sportsnet. This is a pretty surprising move given how little Powell’s been used in the series, but the logic is there. He might be the team’s best defensive option on Khris Middleton, and he’s the type of aggressive attacker that can take advantage of Milwaukee over-loading the strong side when the ball swings around. But Powell’s been used little and has struggled since the All-Star break, especially shooting, and the Bucks will dare him to beat them. He’ll try, and he’s the Raptors most aggressive, decisive attacker, so that could help. It’s not the move I would have made, but if anyone will get up for the moment, it’s Powell. It’s worth a shot, and the Raptors can pivot quickly if it doesn’t work out. It also lets Valanciunas line his minutes up with Greg Monroe, a more reasonable defensive matchup for him.

Side-note: This lineup has literally never played together.

UPDATE II: The team confirmed the starters.

PG: Kyle Lowry, Cory Joseph, Delon Wright, Fred VanVleet
SG: Norman Powell
SF: DeMar DeRozan, P.J. Tucker, Bruno Caboclo
PF: DeMarre Carroll, Patrick Patterson, Pascal Siakam
C: Serge Ibaka, Jonas Valanciunas, Jakob Poeltl, Lucas Nogueira
TBD: None
ASSIGNED: None
OUT: None

Bucks updates
The Bucks probably aren’t going to change a heck of a lot here until forced. Michael Beasley (literally my favorite player ever, by the way) jumped Mirze Teletovic in the rotation to strong effect, Spencer Hawes has been handed an iPad to constantly refresh InfoWars at the end of the bench, and the only big question left facing Milwaukee is who they may close with if the game gets tight. Jason Kidd made some nice minor adjustments in Game 3, but it was nothing groundbreaking, and he went up against an inexplicably poorly executed game plan. Kidd deserves credit for the system and preparedness and getting so much out of the young players on the team. His rotations, however, have been fairly straightforward, and he’ll probably follow course in Game 4.

PG: Malcolm Brogdon, Matthew Dellavedova, Gary Payton II
SG: Tony Snell, Jason Terry, Rashad Vaughn
SF: Khris Middleton, Michael Beasley
PF: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Mirza Teletovic
C: Thon Maker, Greg Monroe, Spencer Hawes, John Henson
TBD: None
ASSIGNED: None
OUT: Jabari Parker

Pre-game news and notes

  • Per Dwane Casey, P.J. Tucker not playing in the second half of Thursday’s game was because it was a blowout by the time he would have come up for substitution, not because of a health or gameplan issue, per Eric Koreen.
  • More Casey on the starting lineup change: “Strategically there are some things that will help us, match-up wise, what we need to do better offensively. There’s strategically things we need to do better that the changes hopefully will help. It’s nothing personal, it’s nothing anyone has done, it’s a specific skill set that we need.”

Assorted

  • Bruno Cabcolo and Pascal Siakam will almost surely be assigned to Raptors 905 following  the game and meet up with the D-Leagues for Game 1 of their championship series on Sunday.
  • Jurassic Park is open again today after lightning forced a closing in Game 3. Maybe it’s return will bring some positive energy with it. or something. In any case, it’s a beautiful day, so those attending will have some goof weather as they share in anxious misery

The line
Game 1: Raptors -7.5 (Series Raptors -350) (Bucks 97, Raptors 83)
Game 2: Raptors -8 (Series Raptors -165) (Raptors 106, Bucks 100)
Game 3: Bucks -1.5 (Series Raptors -225) (Bucks 104, Raptors 77)
Game 4: Bucks -2.5
Series: Raptors +130 (implied probability of 43.5 percent)

Confidence has grown in the Bucks since the Game 4 line opened with them as 1.5-point favorites, pushing to Bucks -2.5 as of the writing. The over-under has nudged down from 195 to 194.5, and it’s been within a three-point window of that number all series. It’s at the same time encouraging, I guess, that the Raptors are only moderate underdogs but are underdogs at all. Road playoff games are tough. For the series, this remains within shouting distance of a pick-em, with the Vegas line suggesting a probability somewhere between FiveThirty Eight and ESPN BPI, and a shade more optimistic for Toronto than the historical precedent. Lose and fall behind 3-1, and the Raptors will be in a position that only eight of 77 teams who have tried have been able to dig out of. Win, and it’s home-court advantage in a best-of-three, a fine place to be in however ugly the path.

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Raptors 905 vs. Rio Grande Valley Vipers: Series Preview

Photo credit: MattAzevedo.com

While the parent club Toronto Raptors look to squander a high seed and home-court advantage for the third time in four years, things are moving along much better a little down the Gardiner, where Raptors 905 are two wins from bringing a championship to Mississauga. Despite a road paved by adversity in the form of injuries (Will Sheehey) and call-ups (Axel Toupane, Edy Tavares), the 905 haven’t missed a beat, not only making it to the D-League Finals, but running Canton and Maine off the floor with emphatic 2-0 sweeps to get there. Now, one of the more unlikely sophomore seasons for a team is on the verge of culminating in a championship. Standing in the way are the Rio Grande Valley Vipers, who couldn’t pose much starker a contrast in style.

The Format: In an interesting D-League wrinkle, the team with home-court advantage hits the road for Game 1 of each series before returning home for Games 2 and 3. With a best-of-three format, the D-League’s aim is to minimize travel, and that presents an unusual playoff format that has players and coaches a little split. The 905, with the best road record in D-League history (21-4), are supremely confident heading into another team’s arena and taking a game. If they do, they’ve got two chances to close out at home. Lose that first game, though, and suddenly you find yourself desperate, backs against the wall before you’ve even enjoyed the spoils of your home-court advantage.

The Schedule, How to Watch, and a Ticker Discount!): The 905 open on the road Sunday before returning home for games Tuesday and, if necessary, next Thursday.

Game 1: Raptors 905 @ Rio Grande Valley Vipers  Sunday, April  23, 8pm, ESPNU/Facebook Live
Game 2: Rio Grande Valley Vipers @ Raptors 905 – Tuesday, April 25, 7pm, ESPNU/Facebook Live
Game 3*: Rio Grande Valley Vipers @ Raptors 905 – Thursday, April 27, 7pm, ESPNU/Facebook Live
* – if necessary

And yes, that deciding Game 3 could potentially overlap with elimination games for the parent club of both teams. Because of course. (Game 2 also overlaps with a potential Maple Leafs Game 7, and Leafs Game 4 did a number on the 905’s attendance in an earlier round, so they may have to “create our own energy,” in the words of Jerry Stackhouse.

Raptors Republic readers can use the promo code REPUBLIC905 for a discount on playoff tickets (if this link doesn’t work at any point, the code should still work at check out).

Season Series: The 905 and Vipers met just once this season, with the 905 taking a 104-93 decision at Hershey Centre on Feb. 27. Here’s the recap from that one. C.J. Leslie turned in a really strong performance and the 905 withstood a ridiculous 24-and-15 outing from Kyle Wiltjer.

The Tale of the Tape: The 905 nearly drew Oklahoma City here, which could have turned the finals into some Pat Riley Knicks style of basketball, pitting the league’s two best defensive teams (by a wide margin) against each other. Instead, it’s a tale as old as time, and a tale as new as the Rio-OKC Western Conference Finals: The unstoppable force against the immovable object. We’re talking an elite defense, one within a hair of the best efficiency in the league, one that grinds out games and smothers an opposing offense into submission, up against a supernova of an offense, the best in the league on a per-possession basis, one that ratchets up the pace and is by no means shy about letting shots fly from anywhere despite not being particularly stocked with shooters. How good was the Vipers’ offense? Consider this: They had the league’s second-worst defense and still managed to trail only the 905 in net rating.

There really couldn’t be a better contrast of styles for a heavyweight title fight.

NBA Assignees: There’s going to be a fair amount of NBA content in this series, which should make for a more interesting matchup. NBA teams have the option to assign players to the D-League for the postseason, and there are good arguments in favor of doing so, even if it does take some opportunity away from full-time D-Leaguers or limit the NBA side early in the postseason. For the 905, it’s been a steady up-and-down of with six different assignees this year, while the Vipers have had even heavier involvement. While the 905 have gotten 72 games from NBA players, the Vipers have had 106. The Vipers have had just as much success in terms of call-ups, too, graduating Gary Payton II and Troy Williams to the NBA. The Vipers will have three assignees here, the 905 two.

Kyle Wiltjer, Rockets assignee: Some CanCon coming at you! The sweet-shooting big man has hit 37.9 percent of almost 10 3-point attempts per-game, with a trigger so quick it might make even Brady Heslip think twice. In 22 games, Wiltjer’s averaged 20.5 points and 6.4 rebounds for Rio, and he’s a big focal point of their offense as a pick-and-pop weapon with Isaiah Taylor. He’s somehow dialed that offense up even more in six playoff games, taking 12.7 (!!) threes per-game and averaging 23.5 points and 8.5 rebounds. Pascal Siakam will probably be tasked with Wiltjer out of the gate in games, but it will take a team effort to chase him off the line without conceding the lane to Taylor.

Chinanu Onuaku, Rockets assignee: The second-round pick has had a Bruno Caboclo-like season, spending almost all of it with Rio. In 43 games, he averaged 13.6 points, 10.6 rebounds, and 1.6 blocks while shooting 62.8 percent from the floor. Rio even had him step out and take a couple of threes! His offensive role in the playoffs has basically consisted of entirely offensive rebounds, but he’s a big defensive piece for them and has 16 blocked shots in five playoff games. He’s also a decent free-throw shooter for a big, so the 905 don’t have the option of hacking him to slow the Vipers’ attack down late.

Isaiah Taylor, Rockets assignee: Taylor impressed so much with Rio during the course of the season that the Rockets inked him to a three-year deal in late February just to make sure nobody else plucked him away, then continued to play him with the Vipers outside of four brief NBA appearances. Undrafted out of Texas, Taylor now has the ball plenty with Rio, averaging 21 points and six assists during 25 regular season games and 19.6 points and 7.4 assists in five playoff outings. Don’t let his cold playoff shooting fool you, either – Taylor had a 63.7 true-shooting percentage in the regular season and can really turn the defense against itself with a pull-up three if they over-shade Wiltjer.

Bruno Caboclo, Raptors assignee: Caboclo is getting his first taste of real postseason experience since his days in Brazil, a nice learning experience. The 21-year-old is yet to really refine himself as a weapon at the offensive end of the floor, but he showed in a clinching victory Wednesday that he’s making some real progress. He’s also shooting 33.1 percent on 4.6 threes per-game with the 905, so Rio will at least have to be aware of his quick trigger. Defensively, Caboclo has taken great strides. With a stronger build and improved awareness, Caboclo’s become a plus team defender and a quality check on the perimeter. He’s averaging more than a block and steal, and he’s gotten much better in help-and-recover scenarios and identifying opportunities to help the helper, the former standing as a serious necessity against the Vipers. He should continue to see a big role in the neighborhood of 30 minutes with a banner on the line.

Pascal Siakam, Raptors assignee: Siakam has been dominant whenever he’s been assigned. After spending the first half of the season starting for a 50-win NBA team, perhaps that’s not surprising. But Siakam also spent a long stretch on the bench without much D-League time, and so it’s been encouraging to see him hit the ground running as a two-way force at this level. In five regular season games, he averaged a team-high 18.2 points, 8.6 rebounds, 2.6 assists, 2.2 steals, and 1.6 blocks, and he’s even hit 6-of-12 from long-range. It was a small sample of time, but he led a very good 905 team in PER, and the 905 outscored opponents by a team-best 24.8 points per-100 possessions with him on the floor. He’s mostly kept rolling in the playoffs, averaging 14.2 points, seven rebounds, two assists, 1.8 steals, and one block over four games, though he’s yet to nail a three and his advanced metrics have struggled.

Fred VanVleet, not assigned: It does not appear that VanVleet will be assigned for the finals. He’s yet to play a playoff game due first to Kyle Lowry’s injury and then because the Raptors wanted to keep 13 active players for the postseason, so short of the Raptors meeting their demise Monday, VanVleet doesn’t figure to be available to Stackhouse and company.

Depth Charts and Key Non-Assignment Players: Both Ed have lost multiple players to NBA call-ups, thinning the most out but not slowing their momentum. There remains a lot of borderline NBA talent in this one.

Gary Payton II and Troy Williams, Bucks/Rockets: The Vipers saw intriguing defensive prospect Gary Payton Jr. earn a rest-of-season deal with the Milwaukee Bucks, while the Rockets themselves plucked Troy Williams from Iowa after he was waived by Memphis. Neither the son of Dwane Casey’s favorite player nor the D-League Slam Dunk Champion will appear here.

Darius Morris, Vipers: An NBA veteran of four seasons with five different franchises, Morris finally committed to a full season in the D-League to try to fight his way back. He hasn’t earned the call, but the 26-year-old has made his case, averaging 20 points and 6.4 assists with a 57.7 true-shooting percentage. To be completely honest, the Vipers go how their trio of assignees go, but Morris has really picked things up in the playoffs, averaging 25.3 points, 8.3 assists, and two steals. The 905 won’t worry too much about his outside shot, but he does take it freely, so they’ll have to navigate the space they give him carefully and understand that trade-off.

Chris Johnson, Vipers: Another experienced vet, the 26-year-old Johnson as played for five teams over four NBA seasons and spent nearly all of last year with the Utah Jazz. In his fourth go-round with the Vipers, Johnson is averaging 13.5 points, 6.2 rebounds, and 1.9 assists, and while those numbers might seem muted in this offensive system, he’s super-efficient in his low-usage role. You can only gameplan for so many players at once, and Johnson does well filling in around the edges for Rio.

Edy Tavares and Axel Toupane, Cavaliers/Pelicans: The 905 lost their two best players to call-ups, a major win for the organization but initially an apparent hit to the team’s title chances. They’ve just kept rolling, though, even with Will Sheehey and Negus Webster-Chan also unavailable and the roster down to 10. C.J. Leslie and Yanick Moreira are seeing more important time in Tavares’ stead, and Toupane’s absence has made E.J. Singler an even more important piece.

Brady Heslip, 905: Only once in D-League history has a player drained more threes in a season than Heslip did this year. With the ball in his hands more as a point guard and a number of neat pet plays to get him clean looks (elevator doors, swoon), Heslip has a permanent green light and hasn’t been hesitant to use it. He hit 41.8 percent of his 9.1 (!) 3-point attempts per-game in the regular season and is 15-of-37 in four playoff games. His skills as a point guard have improved since the beginning of the season, too, and while Heslip still needs some help at the defensive end, he was able to post the second-best net rating among regulars (plus-14.6). That mark (plus-39!!) is the best on the team in the playoffs, too, with Heslip transitioning to his new bench role seamlessly.

E.J. Singler, 905: Stackhouse’s favorite player, even though he knows he’s not supposed to say it, Singler’s played his role exceptionally well this year. Capable of manning multiple positions (he even played some center late last year) and an important secondary ball-handler in the offense, Singler’s contributions sometimes go unnoticed beyond his threes. In a down shooting year, Singler’s still hit 35.5 percent of his long-range looks, and he’s picked a good time to heat up (10-of-23) in the playoffs.

Prediction: 905 in 3.

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Gameday: Raptors @ Bucks, Game 4, April 22

Well. How’s everyone feeling? After laying a complete egg in Game 3 on Thursday night, the Toronto Raptors have to turn around and try to save their opening-round series against the Milwaukee Bucks less than 48 hours later. It’s not even just the series on the line, with a looming 3-1 hole to large to expect to come back from. It might be the entire core on the line here, with memories of Masai Ujiri’s post-deadline gauntlet dancing around.

There’s some hope, though. It’s only 2-1, and Milwaukee still has to win twice more, including once in Toronto if the Raptors can even things up in Game 4. The Raptors are still at 37 percent to win the series on FiveThirtyEight and 50 percent on ESPN’s BPI, and higher-seeded teams down 1-2 have still gone 45-77 in NBA history. That’s all great, but Raptors fans would be forgiven for wanting to see it before they put their faith in a bounce-back again, especially after the team turned in a performance they themselves graded anywhere from “ambush” (Casey) to “ass kicked” (Tucker x3) to “ass busted” (Lowry) to “snapped into that ass like a Slim Jim” (that last one may have been me).

The Raptors have no choice but to come correct here. Kyle Lowry called it a must-win, and while that’s never literally true for any non-elimination game, it’s very, very difficult to imagine this team bouncing back to take three in a row if they’re broken again here in Milwaukee.

The game tips off at 3 on TNT and Sportsnet on TV and on Sportsnet 590 on radio.

To help recalibrate the series and gain some Milwaukee perspective, we reached out to Mitchell Maurer of BrewHoop, who was kind enough to help us out.

Blake Murphy: The Bucks more or less punched the Raptors right in the mouth on Thursday. A 27-point blowout kind of takes away some of our ability to analyze outside of maybe the first half, and for my purposes, that makes the game kind of useless. Not to mention frustrating, disappointing, and depressing. The worst part is that this was entirely expected, and the Raptors talked it up for two days heading into Game 3. I guess my question is, knowing the Bucks a little better, is Game 3 the sort of performance that can build confidence and momentum for them in the series? Or is it more likely there’s a bit of a let-down coming off of such a high? What’s your confidence level like for the entire series now?

Mitchell Maurer: The Bucks would be wise to be cautious going forward, but I would be shocked if their collective confidence wasn’t at an all-time high. In some ways, their confidence should be through the roof, and while they’re saying all the right things to the media, it’s hard to know how they’re going to follow up the shellacking they put on the Raps in Game 3. The fanbase has embraced the unexpected success and many (including me) are furiously erasing their previous series prediction, and some are using #BucksInSix non-ironically! Personally, I still expect Toronto to show up and impose their will on the series, since they’re the better team. Then again, I said that after Game 1…and Game 2…

Blake Murphy: The Raptors changed their starting lineup in the second half of Game 3, putting Cory Joseph in place of Jonas Valanciunas to add another ball-handler and some shooting. The Valanciunas move I’m mostly fine with, and we talked before the series about what he might look like in the Greg Monroe role. But to me, starting Patrick Patterson or P.J. Tucker in that spot would have made far more sense. Is there a potential Raptors starting unit you think the Bucks would be worried about, or are hoping the Raptors don’t turn to?

Mitchell Maurer: This decision by Dwayne Casey baffled me. I spoke at-length with ESPN’s Eric Nehm a few days ago about this exact topic, and we agreed that Toronto’s guard depth was ill-equipped to deal with Milwaukee’s length. You already have Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan dominating the ball; why would you want to add another cook to their kitchen? Our “suggestion” was to start Patterson, because he has the size and footspeed to at least have a chance of keeping up with Giannis on defense, which would also allow Ibaka and Tucker (two plus-defenders) to use their talents to stifle Milwaukee’s supporting cast (Middleton, Monroe, Brogdon, et al). Additionally, moving Valanciunas to the bench is problematic for the Raps because he’ll be playing against Greg Monroe (who’s large) more often than Thon Maker (who is not). If I wanted to beat Milwaukee’s length, I would start Lowry / DeRozan / Tucker / Patterson / Ibaka, and I would give everyone the green light to shoot from outside the arc whenever comfortable. That might sound crazy, but this Bucks defense really is vulnerable to giving up open looks, even when they’re as locked in as they were in Game 3.

Blake Murphy: After Game 2, it looked like the Raptors maybe had the Bucks considering a shift to a slightly more conservative trapping attack to combat Toronto’s 3-point shooting. Jason Kidd paid it a bit of lip service, but it never really felt earnest. Instead, the Raptors adjusted for them and just regressed as passers. With the Bucks up 2-1, DeRozan and Lowry struggling in some games, and the rebounding playing much closer to a draw than Milwaukee could have anticipated, there’s no way Kidd mixes things up, even if the Raptors drop 110 or something in Game 4, right? This is who they are and how they’ll win or lose?

Mitchell Maurer: Jason Kidd has drawn ire from the Milwaukee fanbase for his (alleged) lack of flexibility when it comes to his schemes, especially on defense and especially this season. When the Bucks were losing games, the “obvious” conclusion was that Kidd was using an outdated strategy that was unable to contain modern NBA offenses. Now that the Bucks are winning (and winning because of their defense), the #FireKidd movement has dissipated (or at least gone underground), and Milwaukee is very enthusiastic about…well, everything. Of course, part of why this series has gone the way it has is specifically because of the matchup, even if few of us expected these results. Toronto has a very conventional rotation with players filling conventional roles, and Milwaukee is weird from top-to-bottom. You can “expect the unexpected” as much as you want, nothing is going to prepare the Toronto defense for having to defend a point guard that is taller than your center. Milwaukee got to the playoffs by virtue of their overall zaniness, and there’s no way Kidd changes course now.

BrewHoop also had some questions for us.

Mitchell Maurer: Your first question was about the Bucks’ level of confidence moving forward. But there’s two teams in this series, so let me ask this: on a scale of 1 to “shook”, just how rattled are the Raptors?

Blake Murphy: They have to be pretty rattled. For years now, the team has kind of been protected by this veil of being able to bounce back from anything. They hadn’t lost three games in a row in forever. They led the league in double-digit comebacks in back-to-back years. They came back from 0-1 series holes twice last year. And so on. The issue with having that fortitude and resiliency is that it’s only there until it’s not, right? Resiliency is not a fact, and confidence in your ability to constantly fight through adversity is fluid. That’s been the scary thing about the entire way the Raptors have succeeded the last few years – so much of the success has been predicated on soft skills (chemistry, culture, resiliency), but what are they when those things are stripped away or challenged even further? The Raptors bounced back from 0-1s, sure, but not 1-2s, and not defeats of that magnitude. I don’t imagine they’re broken just yet, but I’m very interested to see how they respond to their own lack of response now that their no-shows are snowballing

Mitchell Maurer: The Bucks have been getting contributions from all over the roster, and nearly every player has surpassed expectations thus far. What about the Raptors? Even considering the highly-visible struggles from Toronto’s pair of All Star guards, how has the rest of the team done so far?

Blake Murphy: Uhh, Delon Wright has been pretty good. Seriously, it’s a really troubling sign when a guy with 54 NBA games and 78 playoff minutes under his belt has been maybe your brightest spot. But who else has come through? Jonas Valanciunas has been a complete non-factor in a matchup that could have helped swing the series. The team is shooting 34.2 percent outside of the paint and 33.8 percent on threes despite the torrid Game 2. Serge Ibaka has probably been the team’s best player, and it’s great that he’s playing well, but that kind of underscores how bad it’s been at the top. There’s really not a lot to be excited about here so far. I’m sorry I don’t have a better answer for you than the team’s third point guard being decent.

Mitchell Maurer: Milwaukee’s defense has been vulnerable to the three-pointer for most of Jason Kidd’s tenure as head coach. Does Toronto have enough shooting to find these gaps in the Bucks’ armor? Who hasn’t launched enough shots so far?

Blake Murphy: I don’t think it’s the shooting that’s that much of an issue. The Raptors hit threes at an OK clip during the season, and the return of Lowry helps in that regard. Threes are high-variance by nature, and while the Raptors have a couple of particularly inconsistent shooters (namely, Carroll and Patterson), you have to trust those shots when they come. The issue has been that outside of maybe 35 minutes of Game 3, the looks have been late, rushed, and desperate. The ball movement is at the root of the poor shooting and the offensive struggles as a whole, and despite it being an obvious point of emphasis against the Bucks, the Raptors have actually done worse in that regard for the series (their assist rate and assist-to-pass percentage are both below their regular season marks). In Game 3, they had 11 assists on 33 potential assists. That’s not a great conversion rate, to be sure, but only 33 potential assists is remarkable, especially with only four secondary assists (they had zero of those in Game 1). Shooting is going to come and go, and the team has to just trust that (playing spacier lineups with an extra wing or forward, as they appear set to in Game 4, should help a bit). They can put themselves in a much better position by moving the ball, though, and it wrinkles the brain that they regressed in this regard.

Mitchell Maurer: As we go into Game 4, is this low-key one of the most important playoff games in recent Raptors history?

Blake Murphy: I wouldn’t even say it’s low-key. Masai Ujiri was very clear at the trade deadline that he acquired Tucker and Ibaka to give the Raptors’ core a fair, fighting chance to see what they can do. He also said that he doesn’t think it makes sense to spend into the tax for a team that’s going to lose in the first round. Losing this series would mean three first-round eliminations in four years as the higher seed, with the one exception being a conference finals run in a weak year where they barely got through each of the first two rounds. They’ll take a very holistic look at everything – their players, their cap situation, the lay of the East, and so on – but it’s very difficult to see a loss to Milwaukee meaning anything but significant changes. Considering this has been the best extended run in franchise history and it’s sustainability is being questioned here, Game 4 is pretty damn huge.

Raptors updates
Dwane Casey made it sound as if a starting lineup change is coming, and it better. You can go a couple of different ways, though I wouldn’t go the way they went in Game 3 and start Cory Joseph. Start P.J. Tucker in place of DeMarre Carroll, start Patrick Patterson in place of Jonas Valanciunas, do both, or do something else weird. It’s not even that the incumbent starters can’t survive, because it’s a fine fit on paper, but they’ve gotten out to terrible starts in five of their six games together. You don’t have the benefit of an expanded sample in the playoffs. The Raptors simply can’t afford a slow start here, and they need to try something new. I’d be going Lowry-DeRozan-Tucker-Patterson-Ibaka, my closing lineup, right out of the gate, but until we hear at tip-off, we’ll keep the depth chart the same here.

PG: Kyle Lowry, Cory Joseph, Delon Wright, Fred VanVleet
SG: DeMar DeRozan, Norman Powell
SF: DeMarre Carrol, P.J. Tucker, Bruno Caboclo
PF: Serge Ibaka, Patrick Patterson, Pascal Siakam
C: Jonas Valanciunas, Jakob Poeltl, Lucas Nogueira
TBD: None
ASSIGNED: None
OUT: None

Bucks updates
There’s a general feeling that you don’t change what’s working, but Jason Kidd has tinkered in his rotation and probably won’t hesitate to do the same again here. Playing Michael Beasley over Mirza Teletovic worked well, as did cutting Spencer Hawes from the rotation entirely. I’d expect that to continue, and it will be interesting to see whether Kidd would ride with Thon Maker again in a closing scenario, if it gets to it. The main rotations should be something close to what you’ve seen now, and the Bucks have the flexibility to pivot in a number of ways if they can’t dictate their game once again.

PG: Malcolm Brogdon, Matthew Dellavedova, Gary Payton II
SG: Tony Snell, Jason Terry, Rashad Vaughn
SF: Khris Middleton, Michael Beasley
PF: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Mirza Teletovic
C: Thon Maker, Greg Monroe, Spencer Hawes, John Henson
TBD: None
ASSIGNED: None
OUT: Jabari Parker

The line
Game 1: Raptors -7.5 (Series Raptors -350) (Bucks 97, Raptors 83)
Game 2: Raptors -8 (Series Raptors -165) (Raptors 106, Bucks 100)
Game 3: Bucks -1.5 (Series Raptors -225) (Bucks 417, Raptors 39)
Game 4: Bucks -2
Series: Raptors __ (implied probability of __ percent)

The Bucks are two-point favorites, a slightly higher line than Game 3. What’s interesting here is that the only significant line change came after Game 2, Toronto’s win, when it shifted far more than normal home-court advantage would suggest for Game 3. Even after a blowout, it’s holding mostly steady. The market’s not going to through out a season of data based on narrative or a bad game. It’s at the same time encouraging, I guess, that the Raptors are only moderate underdogs but are underdogs at all. Road playoff games are tough. The over-under is at 195, right around where it’s stayed for most of the series, give or take.

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Practice news & notes: Antetokounmpo is ‘not bad’ and also ‘really good’

Raptors Republic is not traveling with the Toronto Raptors for the first round of the playoffs, which means we weren’t at practice on Friday. Luckily, some on the beat were kind enough to pass along what was said at the afternoon session, anyway, so a thank you to them, and now a shift in format, with a quick smattering of quotes.

We have a hot take from Kyle Lowry.

Excuse Lowry’s over-reaction to just three games, but he is on to something here. Giannis Antetokounmpo is having a pretty great series against the Toronto Raptors, averaging 23.7 points, 10.3 rebounds, 4.7 assists, two steals, and a block while shooting 55.8/42.9. It’s been fairly ridiculous, and the most startling thing about that stat line is that so much of his impact on the game isn’t even captured in the box score. Antetokounmpo is drawing two, sometimes three defenders, his cuts are turning the heads of multiple players, and his presence alone makes life much, much easier on the Bucks.

This is how it’s supposed to work with Milwaukee focusing so much attention on the Raptors’ stars, too, with three big exceptions: Lowry and DeMar DeRozan don’t defend like Antetokounmpo, Antetokounmpo doesn’t have to go up against Antetokounmpo, and the threat of Antetokounmpo in transition is scrambling possessions well into the shot clock, even when the Raptors defend well. The Raptors are only scoring 0.9 points per-possession when Antetokounmpo is on the floor. Not to beleaguer the point, but Antetokounmpo’s been great, the Raptors haven’t had much of an answer yet, and they’re not even playing well on their own side of things to even match up.

Antetokounmpo is going to take over the NBA sometime in the near future. It’s unfortunate to be on the wrong side of what appears to be a coming-of-age series in progress.

Are the Raptors worried?

“I’m chilling,” Lowry said. “New day. I didn’t sleep too much last night but I’m alive now and ready to get back to practice and get better and learn from the challenges we have come across in this series, and try to come out in Game 4 and get a win.”

Seriously, somebody please put “I didn’t sleep too much last night but I’m alive now” on my headstone when this series kills me. The quote is what it is – Lowry trying not to over react, trying to downplay any amount the Raptors may be rattled, and it may actually just be how he feels. Part of what helps the Raptors bounce back after terrible outings may be an ability to erase it quickly and come out fresh. At the very least, they have to remain confident.

“Nah, I don’t think confidence gets shaken,” DeMar DeRozan said. “If you’re a competitor, you can’t wait to get back out there and redeem yourself. I think that’s where we’re at, that’s personally where I’m at, more so than ever. Just get back out there, give ourselves another opportunity to tie this thing up.”

Head coach Dwane Casey isn’t losing confidence, either, though he conceded that he and his staff coached a bad game.

“We didn’t coach a good game, we didn’t play a good game, it’s all of us together. We’re all in it,” he said. “One game and it’s back to 2-2. It’s not about confidence. It’s about coming out here and playing with a purpose and force that you gotta have this time of year.”

They’re saying what they’re supposed to say. Nothing else was to be expected. You’ll take what you’ll take from it, as always in these situations.

On potential changes

DeRozan: “At this point, we’ve got to be willing and ready for whatever. If it’s going to be something that’s going to help, if it’s something going in a positive way, we have to be all for it.”

Casey: “We’ll see. You always have to evaluate where you are as a team, what they’re doing, how they’re matching up. We’ll make our decision tomorrow before the game.”

Lowry: “Coach is going to make his decision and ultimately we have to go with his decision. He is going to try and do things and put us in a better position to be successful so for us all we can do is roll with what they tell us to do. They put together a game plan and sometimes a game plan is what we follow and sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t.”

Well, that’s certainly a quote from Lowry.

DeRozan is embarassed

Some good, honest stuff here from DeRozan on the loss:

“It’s frustrating, you don’t want to go out and lose the way we did,” he said. “We just got to use it as motivation, man. It’s embarrassing to lose like that, especially in the post-season, to play like that on both ends.”

And on the first playoff game of his career without a field goal:

“Tremendously personally. Like I said, it won’t be the outcome tomorrow,” he said. “Things happen, there’s a side of me that’s gonna come out after I feel like I let my team down and every individual out there feels the same way. It’s going to be a different team tomorrow.”

It better be.

Notes

  • Reasons for hope: The Raptors are still at 37 percent to win the series on FiveThirtyEight and 50 percent on ESPN’s BPI. The higher-seeded teams down 1-2 have still gone 45-77 in NBA history, so they win more than a third of the time. The Raptors are early 2-point underdogs in Game 4, though. Be an optimist at your own discretion.
  • Reasons for doom: You see Game 3?
  • Sorry this is so quick. I’m not there, the quotes are exactly what you’d expect, and, well, you’ve probably read enough about that one by now anyway. We’ll be back at 9 a.m. tomorrow with the full game preview.

And here’s one to send you into your weekend:

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Ripping Off Our Rookies: A Lament

My heart felt like a sneaker thunking around in a dryer for most of the 1st, some of the 2nd. By the half it felt stretched, thin, my pulse racing but racing away from me, like some spooked horse, getting quieter and quieter as it pounded off for greener pastures. But my heart finally broke at Fred Van Vleet, put in with the rest of the Raptors’ rookies with three minutes to go in the game.

‘Cause unlike the rest of the rookies and the relief lineup of the Bucks, all standing around with arms hanging and eyes blinking as the shot and game clocks counted down, Fred was stretching, straining, reaching for the ball held aloft in one hand by Michael Beasley. He curled low and around Beasley at the waist, trying one side then the other, his eyes never leaving the ball until it arched toward Thon Maker who sunk it like a dagger into the Raptors’ closed casket.

Van Vleet was hungry and rested and ready, Nogueira was hungry, rested and ready, Poeltl, Wright, Powell—hungry, rested and ready. These guys took some of the sting from the preceding 48 minutes because even in understanding that they were coming out for the rinse cycle of the last 3 minutes of a total wash, they came out with energy, experimentation and communication that put our pros to shame. Bebe went up for an assisted dunk! He missed it and Poeltl casually slipped the rebound in, sure, but they were trying something.

There’s a mountain of small losses in last night’s game, we all know that, but the one that seems to me the most concentrated bummer is how we have these hungry guys, ready, waiting and willing, just languishing on the bench. Norman Powell, for the four minutes in total we saw him last night, was the same guy who pushed plays and turned entire games around in last year’s playoffs. And can you imagine the physicality Bebe could play with, if he was only honed a little more on his offensive game? For a team that says it puts so much stock in its prospects and training of rookies, it really seemed a glaring opportunity missed that none of them could be moved into earlier rotations, to jiggle the reins a bit and see if Casey could force a reaction that wasn’t coming from relentlessly riding DeRozan, or subbing in Corey Joseph for JV after the half. Moves that had as much of an effect as tossing a Frisbee at a tornado.

The Raptors aren’t known for being a particularly nimble team in their plays, and don’t always have the creativity on court that comes in watching more finely tuned teams when they get pressed. Our dudes don’t much tend to make things look easy, as much as they make it look like running uphill, through a swamp, on a moonless night.

Green guys can be a liability but why not try to harness a little of their energy and unpredictability, take a page out of (and I can’t believe I’m writing this) Kidd’s book and let Van Vleet’s tenacity, or Bebe’s upbeat endurance, crackle through the rest of the team on contact like the chain reaction he got when he used Thon Maker to juice up his already charged Bucks.

Because it’s wasteful, what’s happening. Watching these guys wither on the bench when all it can take to get on a run sometimes is a slight shift in feeling. It was clear to anyone watching that the rudder of the Raptors had torn off sometime in the first few turnovers of last night’s game, and that neither Lowry nor DeRozan knew how, or wanted, to give any direction. Their frustration was palpable but with Kyle reverting into some shadow version of his Rockets’ past and DeMar looking lost even in the middle of his teammates, it gets more and more obvious there’s a problem with channeling their anger into something that turns games around. And maybe that’s straight-up not their job, maybe they aren’t going to get good at it and it should fall to somebody else we haven’t had a chance of seeing shake things up yet.

Shy of Casey warging into someone’s body there was nothing he could do either, save for scream himself hoarse on the sidelines while his ghost ship of lost guys sailed into a Bermuda triangle of rotational issues. At that point why wouldn’t you try something a little desperate, a little wild, to shore up your crumpling starters and sharpen those toothless plays? Frankly I would be happy if I never saw another pick and roll again.

There’s enough analytical and gut-based speculation on whether or not Toronto still stands a chance in this series to last you ‘til Saturday, so I’ll spare you my own two cents. But whatever happens it’s the last three minutes of last night’s game, those hungry rookies with their whole hearts practically sprouting legs and putting on shorts to finish what was already a smoking crater of a loss that will stick with me going into next season. If we’re already ripping off our own best potential, then what is the point of meticulously building a team over all these years? Put plainly: Let them play, what the hell else do we have to lose?

@wtevs

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Game 3 Mailbag: Starting lineup changes, Stackhouse, Archie is bad, and more

I had said I was only going to fire up the #RRMailbag when there were two days between games. I couldn’t help it here – I’m risking my own sanity and mentions because it really, really felt after Game 3 like we could use some group therapy.. We’ll try to do more mini-mailbags when time allows during the postseason, but I’m skeptical there will be time/room for one of the 7,000-word mammoths given that, you know, the series might be over Monday (I joke, kind of). You can find all of the previous editions of the mailbag here, if, for whatever reason, you wanted to read old mailbags.

Before we go ahead: A reminder that we have a Patreon page at patreon.com/RaptorsRepublic. If you appreciate the content we produce, want to support RR, and have the means to do so, any contribution is greatly appreciated and will help us continue to do what we do (and try to do even more). You can also follow me on Twitter for, uhh, tweets, and on Facebook for all of my writing/podcasting/radio stuff. Validate me. You can also ask me questions at any time using #RRMailbag, and I’ll be sure to include them in the next mailbag, no matter how long between.

Alright, let’s get this money.

I can! Although because of time constraints I’m opting for a shorter mailbag (I posted a call for questions and then quickly deleted it). I would have loved to just leave it open all day and see how many (and how extreme) come in, but doing so would have meant not posting this until Saturday morning ahead of a 3 p.m. tip-off. So here’s a somewhat abbreviated mailbag, at least by my standards.

Because people feel the need to vent (my mentions were a mess last night), because people seem to enjoy the mailbags, and because even though these take forever to put together, it’s easier in terms of energy investment than writing 1,200 words on Game 3 that nobody will read and just skip to the comments on or doing a video breakdown on the eight or so minutes of game that actually mattered. Also, I love you all.

You don’t lose by 27 points in a pivotal playoff game without plenty of blame to go around. It’s on Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan for doing a worse job against a very similar Milwaukee defensive approach and lacking defensive energy. It’s on DeMarre Carroll and Jonas Valanciunas for continuing to contribute to the slow starts by kind of just being there. It’s on the bench for bringing no spark whatsoever outside of Delon Wright and, later, Norman Powell for a bit. It’s a telling sign when even P.J. Tucker is complicit. And, of course, the slow starts have to eventually fall on not just the players for playing poorly, but on the coaching staff. There are just so many fingers to point here. Most seem to be zeroed in on Dwane Casey (we’ll get to some of that with later questions), which is fine, but you really can’t hang a performance that embarrassing on any one pillar of the failure.

When a sophomore with 50 games of NBA experience and 50 minutes of playoff experience is your best player in a crucial playoff game, everyone is wearing this.

Come on, you didn’t think we’d get through a mailbag without the captain of the mailbag team, Why Is DeMarre Carroll Still Starting, did you?

Casey made it sound after Game 3 like changes to the starting lineup were coming. He made it sound like the starters would have a short leash after Game 1, and they responded with a plus-5 in Game 2, but were a disaster again on Thursday. Through three playoff games, they have a -20.6 net rating in 31 minutes. In three regular season games together, that mark was -25.2 in 40 minutes. We’re still talking about incredibly small samples, but the Raptors don’t have the benefit of waiting for the sample to expand. They can’t trot out a five-some that’s been run off the floor in five of their six appearances together.

On Thursday, that meant starting Cory Joseph in place of Jonas Valanciunas in the second half, which was confusing. I get why they did it – more ball-handling and shooting – but over real minutes, that group is much too small for Milwaukee’s starters, and it means a point guard on Khris Middleton. (Side note: Why the Raptors have been hesitant to put Carroll on Middleton and Serge Ibaka on Giannis Antetokounmpo so that DeRozan can hide out a bit on Tony Snell, I’m unsure. I know some commenters disagreed when I suggested that alignment in a pre-series mailbag [I didn’t communicate the cross-matches very well, mind you], but it’s clear at this point that neither Joseph nor DeRozan can check Middleton. Anyway.) So they’re going to try something, though I don’t think Joseph is the answer (more on that in the questions to follow.)

As for Carroll, he was kinda far down the list of things that went wrong in Game 3, but he hasn’t been able to hang with Antetokounmpo (shocking), and if he’s not switching on to Middleton, what are we really doing here? He spaces the floor a bit better than P.J. Tucker, is a slightly better playmaker, and starting him keeps Tucker as the defensive quarterback on the second unit, but he has the worst net rating of any Raptor in the series and is the most obvious one-for-one switch. I was willing to have some patience with this decision since the starters fit together OK on paper and because I thought the Raptors might change the individual matchups. It’s now running thin. Carroll probably shouldn’t start Game 4 if Valanciunas is also starting – one of those spots has to change, at least.

It is concerning, perhaps, for the Tucker-over-Carroll crowd that Tucker drew a DNP in the second half despite no indication of injury.

Jakob Poeltl has had a nice series and offers some length and range, but I think if you pull Valanciunas from the starting lineup, the idea is to get more versatile and switchy. Poeltl is a nice defender and he’s going to be a good piece, but the benefit of Ibaka at the five is that you can switch a lot of action on and off the ball and throw multiple guys at Antetokounmpo and Middleton. Poeltl is kind of just a half-measure as a change defensively, and he’d present a downgrade on offense (he’s a savvy offensive rebounder and a better passer than Valanciunas in those 4-on-3 situations, but he’s not quite the screener Valanciunas is, and the Bucks would respect the threat of his rolls even less). I think the move is downsizing to add that element of versatility on defense, and to goose the spacing a bit.

It might seem weird to cape for Lucas Nogueira in a question right after conceding that Poeltl has been good, but I’m still a little surprised Poeltl was the backup center in this series instead of Nogueira. Okay, I’m not surprised. Nogueira was playing great and then hit a cold spell at the worst possible time, as Ibaka came in to eat backup center minutes. In the time since, Poeltl has played steady enough to give Casey little reason to change course. He’s also a fairly inconsistent player who Casey probably doesn’t know what he’s going to get from night to night.

But Nogueira’s the Raptors’ longest defender and best rim protector, and he would have a defensive use against any non-Greg Monroe center the Bucks threw out there. More than anything, though, it’s Nogueira’s ability to take advantage of Milwaukee’s traps that could be huge. Not only was the Brazilian fourth in screen assists per-minute this season, he’s also the team’s best passing big in those 4-on-3 scenarios that develop underneath the trap, as well as their best lob threat on the dive. There’s a reason basically every advanced metric (or even not-so-advanced) thought highly of Nogueira’s play this year, and even when you qualify for the caveats of playing opposing bench units or mostly with Lowry or whatever, the Raptors were pretty good with him on the floor.

I don’t think they’ll start him. It’s just too drastic a change, and the best move still appears to be Ibaka at center. But Nogueira should get a look if things go awry again. I don’t mean that as any disrespect to Poeltl, either – it’s a floor versus ceiling debate, and if Toronto stumbles out of the gates again, Nogueira might be able to provide a spark. (If he doesn’t, well, you change course quickly.)

I kind of beat around making an actual answer on a starting lineup in the earlier questions because I knew this one was coming. That’s the starting lineup I’d roll with. It’s the one they closed Game 2 out with (a plus-2 in the toughest minutes of the series), and one that’s made plenty of sense as a closing group since Tucker and Ibaka were acquired at the deadline. I know the starting lineup is perhaps overstated and you have to manage minutes and rotations over 48 minutes, but at this point, you really can’t afford another bad start, and this is their best five in this series. Moving Ibaka to the five allows you to switch across three, even four positions, let’s you put DeRozan on Snell instead of Middleton, gives you multiple Antetokounmpo options at once, all while really spacing the floor out on offense to help punish Milwaukee’s traps.

(The Tucker-Patterson-Ibaka trio got rolled as part of a DeRozan-and-bench lineup Thursday, but they had a +7.5 net rating in 72 regular season minutes, and they’re one of only three Raptors trios with a positive net rating in 24 minutes or more so far in this series. They make a ton of sense together on paper.)

The bench gets a little thin like that, but the team could then match Valanciunas’ minutes to Monroe’s, Carroll gives the second unit a bit more spacing than they’d have otherwise, and Joseph isn’t overextended starting and having to guard much bigger wings. This setup probably means no Poeltl/Nogueira and you maybe have to choose just one of Wright/Powell (likely Wright given how the series has gone, but you can make a case for Powell in four-around-one bench units, or if you’re of the belief Carroll should lose his rotation space entirely), but that’s fine if you’re getting out to better starts. I know a starting lineup change carries a bunch of trickle-down with it, some psychological/ego management elements, and throws everybody, including the coaching staff, out of sorts. You just have to put your best foot forward in a Game 4 the team is already calling a must-win

There are a handful of reasons, namely that the NBA has made it more difficult for defenses to defend like that over the years. You can’t hand-check like in the Michael Jordan years, and the Knicks had a lot of players known for that kind of defense and style (it was a Jeff Van Gundy special, and those Knicks were some of the best defenses of all time when adjusting for era. And, it’s important to note, Carter still averaged 22.8-7.2-3.4-1.4-1.2 with 7.2 FTA in that series (despite the loss, Jordan averaged 27.4-8.8-4.6-2.0-0.6 and 7.6 FTA and shot nearly 50 percent in the Jordan Rules series). You just can’t beat up on players as much now, and our memories tend to exaggerate just how effective those strategies were. Plus, it’s not like mauling him would help at all in transition – he covers the whole court in four strides, and you’re going to rack up fouls.

Side-note: Timeless Vince Carter is my favorite thing. He would have been the best player on the Raptors last night.

In terms of Antetokounmpo coverage, a lot of their issues have come from attention issues – Valanciunas being flat-footed in semi-transition, Carroll dying on a screen, even Tucker helping in the wrong direction with his back to his shooter. His impact has been way more pronounced than even his box score line would suggest, because everything Milwaukee gets flows from the attention he’s drawing. The answer is mostly “execute better” and “stop losing focus,” which is extremely frustrating since there aren’t as many tactical changes to point to. (As I wrote about last night a bit, this is one of the most frustrating things about a blowout – you lose a lot of the learning value from a game, because you get like 12 minutes of being sonned, and then it’s all garbage time.) Anyway, I thought in Game 2 they did an OK job getting under Antetokounmpo’s legs and bodying him up a little better, but that was for, like, a half. It’s part of the reason I want the starting lineup change.

Antetokounmpo is awesome. Truly one of the 10, maybe even five, best players in the NBA right now, at 22. It’s remarkable to see him embrace the moment like this and make the Raptors look like the less experienced team. Sucks from a Raptors perspective, sure, but there’s a strong chance the NBA is watching Antetokounmpo take the leap this year.

Look man, Bruno Caboclo’s season is about two things: Winning a D-League Championship and being deployed as a Kevin Durant stopped in the NBA Finals. He’s doing his part for the former and the 905 are just two wins away. It’s on the Raptors to put him in a position for the latter, otherwise they don’t deserve him, anyway, and it’s time to blow it up and build around Caboclo.

If they do it, it would be because they’re evaluating the space the team exists in as a whole, not just looking at his playoff performance in the games that stand out (and remember, he shot poorly in the first two rounds last year but was still very good in every other area). I’m not saying re-signing him will be the right call necessarily, but the team’s not just going to look at playoff FG% and make their call from that. They’re going to measure what the team would look like without him, what the point guard succession plan would look like, what the team’s floor and ceiling is without him, how else they could use that money and roster spot, what the lay of the East looks like, and whether being just good for a few more years is worth it in terms of stabilizing the Raptors as a long-term non-joke versus risking backsliding out of the playoffs. You also have to consider what Lowry walking does for your chances of keeping the other free agents. There’s just a ton that will go into their decision, whatever it ultimately is, than “CHOKER!”

If you let Lowry walk, though, you’re saying that this core can’t win together. They’re not better without him than with him, not without the requisite offseason flexibility to add a comparably good player. That means you’re not pushing forward with this same group less Lowry and expecting the same results. Joseph is among the best backups in the NBA and Wright and VanVleet are both quality pieces, but Lowry’s been a top-15 player in the league over the last three years.You’re taking a step back if Lowry walks. The fans that are packing his bags for him need to accept the reality of what deciding to let Lowry go says about this core and how the Raptors are best off moving forward.

(All of this, of course, depends on Lowry even wanting to stay, which I’m skeptical about if they lose in the first round.)

This requires it’s own full column, but if they lose as a higher seed in the first round for the third time in four years, and their only success in that span included two incredibly narrow seven-game victories in a weak year, you probably need to take a long, realistic look at whether this core is worth going deep into the luxury tax for. I don’t really feel like writing the eulogy column in the middle of the series, but I can’t see the logic in re-upping this same group if they’re out in the first round again.

Joshua, this next paragraph is not about you and your reasonable question: I am shocked at the number of people on Twitter, in my DMs, in my emails, etc of late who know Jerry Stackhouse’s coaching style and effectiveness so intimately. Considering the 905 are averaging about 3,000 in attendance, their Facebook Live feeds don’t even average 1,000 most games, and our traffic suggests not a lot of people care all that much, it’s wild that so many have gotten to know Stackhouse so well through the standings page. (I’m being an asshole here, but people constantly turning any 905/Stackhouse positive into a Raptors/Casey negative is exhausting. I’m not here to tell you how to be a fan, but at least ask like Joshua if you haven’t actually been watching games or reading about the team.)

Here’s the deal with Stackhouse: He’s done a fantastic job with the 905 this year. Every player on that team raves about playing for him, how much they’ve learned, how much they’ve bought in to the all-for-one concept even if it means fewer minutes and less touches. He works them to the bone, but they’re an exceptionally well-prepared group mentally, and almost to a man, guys have taken big strides, particularly as defenders. Not only that, but the 905 accomplished a bunch of goals beyond just being good this year – Caboclo has improved a great deal, two players earned NBA call ups, and those who don’t stick around the NBA or D-League are going to be in good positions to cash in overseas this summer. And through the call-ups and injuries, the 905 have just kept rolling. They lost their two best players and another key rotation piece and are undefeated in the playoffs. Stackhouse and his staff deserve a great deal of credit for this year.

At the same time – and this isn’t meant to be negative, it’s just realism – it’s difficult to project from here. The 905, prior to the call-ups and even now, were one of the most talented teams in the league, blessed with incredible depth to the point that they found Jarrod Uthoff a new home just to do right by him mid-season (he’s now a Dallas Maverick). The 905 also use a fair bit of what the Raptors use, and though they’ll call some things differently and tweak elements based on personnel – Stackhouse has put more of an individual stamp on the system than Jesse Mermuys before him – it’s tough to know exactly how much credit should fall at the feet of Stackhouse from a tactical perspective. It certainly can’t be called a weakness, to be clear, but extrapolating from a really good D-League season to the NBA is pretty noisy.

No D-League head coach has ever gone directly from a D-League bench to an NBA head coaching job without a stop as a top NBA assistant, and Stackhouse doesn’t have a great deal of experience yet. Some teams would probably want him to do a year as a No. 1 or No. 2 assistant before giving him the nod. There are exceptions, of course, like Jason Kidd going player-to-coach, and Stackhouse is definitely the kind of name and personality who could blaze a new path. I really don’t have much doubt that Stackhouse will be a good NBA coach at some point, and I think he could probably step in for a young, developing team now and make a difference.

Asking him to take over Casey’s job on a playoff team, without a stop between, is a much bigger leap, and it would probably cost you Rex Kalamian and Nick Nurse in the process. If the team loses in the first round and decides to take a step back in the short-term? I think it becomes a conversation. But please, I can’t stress this enough: This is not me saying Stackhouse couldn’t or won’t be a good coach on a quality team right away, it’s just too big an extrapolation from one D-League year to know with any certainty.

I guess I could see why it would rub the Orlando Magic or Milwaukee Bucks wrong, but come on, Bismack Biyombo is Lucas Nogueira’s father. The NBA has to be loose with players rooting on their own families. (I don’t think it’s an issue – he’s close with the guys still, the Magic aren’t in the playoffs, and he’s not a free agent for it to look like tampering. Plus, Dad.)

Absolutely he is. Major character, anyway. Let’s run it down: Archie slept with his teacher, bounced between multiple girlfriends, the girl next door is there whenever he decides he wants that, he’s good at football and turned down the captaincy, he gets to play his music, got built a sound lab at home, got special tutoring and help from a teacher and the Pussycats, has a very supportive father, has the most supportive group of close friends, is the most popular kid in school, and gets to do whatever he wants by teenage standards. And we’re supposed to root for this guy? If he’s not the show’s namesake, he reads like the villain in every other series/movies. Not only that, but we’re supposed to feel BAD for him? Why? Because the teacher went away? Because his parents are separated? Because the music school guy correctly pointed out that his music is actually bad? Come on, now.

Archie is dangerously close to bumping Ted Mosby as captain of The Ted Mosby All-Stars for lead characters nobody actually roots for and only exists as a device to further the plot and other, more likable characters to orbit around.

As a reminder, if you appreciate the content we produce, want to support RR, and have the means to do so, we’ve started a Patreon page at patreon.com/RaptorsRepublic. Any contribution is greatly appreciated and will help us continue to do what we do, and try to do even more.

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The Talking Raptors Hotline

You guys do anything last night?

The Talking Raptors podcast has launched into the late 20th century and setup the Talking Raptors Hotline! This is a place where fellow Raptors fans can leave their thoughts on anything Raptors related. It’s sort of like talk radio except it’s voicemail and there’s no limits which usually leads to a lot more swearing.

Each week on the podcast we feature messages left by Raptors faithful dealing with anything from postgame reactions, nickname suggestions, podcast commentary or whatever. Below are a few samples. Again, there’s some salty language so adjust your speakers accordingly.

Feel free to hit us up when you’ve got something on your mind, 877-207-8611.

Big B recently checked in to give some background on the relationship between DeMar DeRozan and Master P.

Last night’s game against the Bucks didn’t go too well and fans didn’t hold back.

The greeting at the hotline is done by the voice of Talking Raptors, Monty Scott. Aaron from New Jersey and Brendan from Philadelphia had different opinions when it came to the format.

There’s been a surprising amount of rap left at the hotline. Alex from San Francisco has dropped a couple fire tracks and even introduced the guys to Quidditch

It’s all happening! Hit us up and let us know your thoughts on anything Raptors related. Now let’s all drink moonshine and forget Thursday night ever happened. Let’s go Raptors!

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Where’s the Ball Movement?

The Raptors aren’t dead yet. If you find yourself pacing the hallway at work this morning, replaying the worst game in franchise history just remember Toronto is down one game. They were embarrassed, humiliated, routed, crushed, overpowered and conquered but even a thesaurus can get tired describing the hurt the Bucks put on last night. Still, there’s a lesson to be learned in any great defeat and Thursday’s Deer-on-Dinosaur violence is no different. Toronto needs to move the ball.

One glance at the team leaders from last night tells you all you need to know about Toronto’s inability to create shots. The Raptors handed out just 11 assists on 24 field goals. Cory Joseph led the team with three assists and was surpassed by the likes of Malcolm Brogdon (9), Khris Middleton (7) and Giannis Antetokounmpo (4). Even Greg Monroe dished out three helpers in the winning effort while Kyle Lowry finished the night with two.

The Raptors were always going to be challenged by the Bucks in this series but everyone’s fears came to full fruition last night when Milwaukee’s length dictated Toronto’s offence. The great advantage in having the ball in your hands should be the ability to conduct the play. The Raptors failed to make the Bucks change anything in their defence last night. The Raptors seemed content to run high-screens and camp out at the three point-line. With zero dribble penetration courtesy of another erratic Kyle Lowry performance and a down-right confused Cory Joseph, the Raps were left to toss up bricks from deep. Toronto finished a dismal 6-22 from beyond the arc and just 24-71 from the field overall thanks to a lack of ball movement.

Perhaps we should have seen this coming. Just like the “ambush that was expected”, so too were the Raptors’ struggle with moving the ball. During the regular season Toronto finished with an assist ratio of just 14.6 percent. For those keeping track, that’s a .1 percent improvement over the Phoenix Suns, who finished dead last in the same category this season. Perhaps this telling number was overshadowed by Toronto’s 6th ranked offensive rating during the year, or the far-too-leaned on excuse that Kyle Lowry missed a large chunk of the season.

Regardless, Toronto was stuck running the same version of their offence that kept them alive based almost solely on DeMar and Kyle’s ability to hit shots. When those shots didn’t fall thanks to an actual long team employing playoff-level defence, the Raptors panicked. They got stuck watching an iso-play unfold instead of cutting off the ball, creating a second pass to expose the weak side or even taking it hard to the basket. Those seconds of indecision were magnified last night, especially against a team as long as the Bucks. The amount of times Middleton, Antetokounmpo or Brogdon recovered to deny the high-screen will be playing on repeat in the Raptors’ minds leading up to Saturday afternoon.

Toronto’s biggest advantage was supposed to be their experience. It’s clear that the Greek Freak is the most talented player in this series, and any notion of him or the rest of this young team experiencing nerves was quickly wiped away in Game 1. Now the Raptors look like the inexperienced unit. They were overwhelmed repeatedly just trying to set up their offence, let alone execute it. While a large chunk has to fall on Casey the players themselves need to step up and trust each other. At least Casey recognizes what needs to change:

“It’s moving the basketball. The basketball will find the right person, and that’s what we’ve got to do,” Casey said. “That’s what (the coaches) have to sell the guys on: You have to move the basketball. You’re not going to dribble around them, you’re not going to outrun them or out-quick them, but the ball can beat speed and quickness. That’s what we did in Game 2, and that’s what we have to get back to. (Doug Smith)

While the theory is nice, we watched the practice explode last night. Toronto was either unable or unwilling to share the rock, or simply unprepared. The most concerning aspect from last night is the lack of time Toronto has to fix it. They need to improve from a team with the second-worst assist ratio percentage in the league to one that is capable of passing around some of the rangiest defenders in the NBA.

The Raptors have the experience to tie this series and make it a three game set with home-court advantage, but can they trust each other?

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Delon Wright Highlights in Game 3 vs Bucks

Nah, I’m not trolling. Game 3 sucked but there was a slight positive in the play of Delon Wright. I’ve done us all a grand favor and compiled it. Unfortunately, it’s from the Bucks feed but hey, it is what it is.

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FULL-COURT STRESS: Raptors Buck-le Under Game 3 Pressure

Raptors 77, Bucks 104 | Boxscore | Quick Reaction | Post-Game News & Notes | Reaction Podcast

Just, wow. Where to even begin…

For starters, I’m going to assume some of you can relate to my own experience. The setting: immediately after the first quarter buzzer.

As I stepped out onto my 6th floor balcony to decompress and attempt to figure out whether or not what I just witnessed actually took place, I noticed an elaborate setup across the street (a mobile media crew of sorts) that was projecting the game onto the facade of an old storage warehouse. Now, normally I would have enjoyed such a genius idea, but when you add an onslaught of pouring rain and howling winds to the equation, reliving the first quarter highlights (even though I could hardly make out which player was which from my vantage point) came with an otherworldly type of vibe. I got chills for the wrong reasons; perhaps the Basketball Gods were trying to tell me something.

Which got me thinking: (Note: I’ll be rehashing/venting about the actual game shortly.

If there’s one thing this entire fan base can agree on (though brainstorming such a topic doesn’t exactly amount in a long list to choose from), it would be the fact that there’s never a dull moment being a part of it, at least as far as the last four years are concerned.

Still, much like the Raps’ failure to show up for work yesterday, an outright debacle (or should I say: an example of how a team’s effort level can give the middle-finger to its fans) tends to transpire every once in a while. And considering the action coming into Game 3 set the stage for must-see basketball theatre, it’s a damn shame we didn’t get our money’s worth ended up getting robbed. In case your fandom is extremely casual, take your pick of the most visible:

(A) Kyle Lowry having to respond to his critics, and doing so emphatically. (B) Serge Ibaka and P.J. Tucker reminding everyone why each of them represented a perfect fit in the first place. (C) The fear of Giannis Antetokounmpo becoming all too real. (D) The Jekyll-and-Hyde nature of this squad rearing its ugly (though at times prosperous) quarter-to-quarter head.

Hold up, though, before we break Game 3 open, it’s only right to also include a few aspects that were flying under the radar:

(A) Despite this matchup offering the biggest regular season rebounding edge among all possible playoff opponents, the Raps only held a minuscule 87-83 advantage over the first two games.

(B) Remember how the Bucks were thrown under the bus on draft night after “reaching” for Thon Maker at 10th overall? His defensive presence alone has people scrambling to cover up their previous assessment — including plenty of Raptors fans. As you all know, Jakob Poeltl went a pick before Maker, and even his though his future is bright, I can’t be alone when wishing the year was 3017 and time travel was a viable option.

(C) Nobody wants to bring it up cause the storyline will only gain steam if the Raps (knock on wood) make an early exit, but it’s interesting nonetheless. With Jerry Stackhouse taking home the D-League’s Coach of the year honors this week, his profile only heightens that much more. Which at the same time, means he’ll be getting plenty of interest around the league for either a top assistant job or quite possibly even the keys to a team regardless if he’s truly ready.

Food for thought, though: Has Masai’s master plan always included Stackhouse eventually taking over as T.O.’s bench boss? Well, let’s just say the spotlight under Dwane Casey and Jason Kidd’s intriguing rotation battle might just have more meaning than meets the eye. Post-Game Update: Feel free to bump this up the pecking order of storylines.

But even with the aforementioned backdrop in place, there’s too many rotation/adjustment unknowns to pinpoint how a playoff matchup will unfold. However, that doesn’t mean Game 1 can’t be summed up by saying the Raps simply tried to erase a deficit too quickly by hoisting up three after three and then running out of time before getting the chance to rectify their mistake. In the same but opposite breath, you could also say that the three-ball was their Game 2 savior. Can it be all so simple? It can be when the power of it is so apparent. But it also speaks to how one-dimensional they can become in any given game regardless of the outcome.

As for what directly caused last night’s abysmal performance: Well, did the Bucks’ length and athleticism combination in nearly every player on the roster finally morph into an unstoppable force? Was Milwaukee’s defence that stifling? Or, was it a prime example of how things can go haywire at a moment’s notice? I mean, the Raps seemed so intimated by the Bucks’ transition game that they were leaving opportunities for offensive rebounds on the table just to get back quicker.

I’ll take door number three but for an added reason, as it just translates into a lack of preparation and the look of a disinterested demeanor.

The first quarter created an undisciplined monster that continued throughout the game and could never catch up. The defense was scrambling like the month was November, communication (at either end) was essentially nonexistent, and the Bucks’ faithful let every outsider know that they shouldn’t underestimate how much of an impact a hungry crowd can make.

In the moment, the Raps became a discombobulated mess. In the big picture, the Bucks looked eerily similar to what the Raps once were. Wait a minute… would that mean the Raps have become the 2017 version of the 2013 Brooklyn Nets? Yes, bad joke.

A few stats from that 1st quarter:

Raps: 22.2 FG%, 3 assists, 4 boards, 0 threes, 0 bench points.

Bucks: 66.0 FG%, 11 assists, 13 boards, 4 threes.

Now, Milwaukee also managed to put up such an opening eruption without getting to the line. Which does bode well for history not repeating itself on Saturday afternoon. Not to mention the fact that the odds of Giannis hitting from downtown with the same regularity are also slim. Fingers crossed anyway, cause if that element of his game is now going to surface with consistency, Raptors fans discussing draft prospects in a week’s time is just an inevitability.

Somehow, however, Toronto managed to register more fast break points (19-6), more rebounds (40-36), and 11 more free-throw attempts. I’m still undecided if that miraculous fact actually makes this game that much more depressing, but at least there’s something on paper to counter the Raps’ 27.3 FG% (FOR THE GAME!), the Bucks 29-11 back-breaking edge in assists, and the troubling way DeMar DeRozan lethargically put up a goose egg in the field-goal column.

This game goes beyond stats, though, and a conversation between Matt Devlin and Jack Armstrong during the broadcast illustrated a great point.

First, Devlin recited a Casey quote:

“We have to come to play with our identity and meet their intensity, which we know will be there early.”

Jack then responded with his own two cents:

“Not only meet their intensity, exceed their intensity. You’re the hunter tonight, you’re on the road.”

Armstrong summed up what I can only imagine an entire country was thinking. As for that Casey quote, what’s more telling than a team falling embarrassingly flat when they supposedly “knew” what they were in for.

In some ways, T.O. could stand to channel some of that Brooklyn team’s physicality, cause that department needs to improve in a hurry. The Refs are letting these two teams duke it out, and that’s a good thing in the grand scheme — if only the regular season was the same way. Problem is, so far this is a one-sided fight and there’s minimal signs that the Raps will all of a sudden start throwing the first punch.

In the end, this was the kind of game that made one contemplate whether or not we’re blinded by past success. And to that point, just how much can a previous season that featured an Eastern Conference Finals appearance carry over to the next.

On the flip side, there’s still time to get their act together. Lowry will once again have to quiet the negative noise, but we should all be used to K-Low and the rest of this squad excelling after they get taken down a notch. With that said, let’s not abort the mission just yet. Especially when the mainstream has their sights set on #KingVsFreak in round two.

The Grizzlies don’t play until 8pm on Saturday night. Perhaps David Fizdale is available for a pre-game motivational speech.

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Post-game news & notes: Raptors get ‘asses busted’ in an ‘ambush’ they expected

First, the good news:

Okay, now that we’ve got that out of the way, the bad: The Toronto Raptors turned in another disaster of a performance on Thursday in Milwaukee, and unlike a Game 1 in which they did some things decent-to-well and learned a lot about the Bucks, this had little in the way of redeeming qualities. Unless you value playoff experience for the end of the bench, which you should not, because moral victories do not exist in the postseason. That’s especially true in the first round, when you’re a favorite that has now fallen into a 1-2 series hole, with both of the losses grading anywhere from disappointing to embarrassing.

The Raptors didn’t just lose. They were outclassed, outworked, and out-hustled. The Raptors talked up meeting the energy that Milwaukee would surely bring, and when the ball was rolled in, the Bucks punched them in the mouth and Toronto never found the gumption to push back.

“Our fans were great tonight,” Greg Monroe said after the game. “We felt the energy from the jump. I definitely think we got the chance to use it to our advantage, get out to an early lead, and kinda kept control of the game after that.”

A 9-2 lead swelled to 32-12 after a quarter, 57-30 at the half, and because the Raptors quite literally couldn’t score until garbage time, it closed at a 104-77 final that, despite it’s remarkable margin, still doesn’t quite do this game justice. Credit the Bucks and a very raucous Bradley Center crowd for taking the Raptors completely out of it, but there’s absolutely no explanation for the Raptors wilting this way. Dwane Casey saying so doesn’t make it any better, because it’s a long-standing trend they should have an explanation for by now.

“There’s none,” Casey said. “It starts with us, myself as a coach as far as having them ready to play in a hostile environment. They ambushed us and there’s no aspect of our game that we executed whatsoever.”

They spent two days talking about how much energy the Bucks would have at home, how their experience would help them play up on the road, and how big a factor coming out strong was going to be. And still this.

Some quotes on getting their “asses busted”

On top of Casey saying the Bucks “ambushed” the Raptors – even though it’s probably not considered an ambush if you spend two days pointing out “hey look at that ambush we’re walking into!” – a few other Raptors had some choice words to describe the outing.

It doesn’t make it any better, but at least the Raptors know they got punked. How could they not?

The worst part about blowouts

There’s a line in an old Norm MacDonald movie called Dirty Work where, leaving prison, MacDonald says “You know what hurts the most? It’s the lack of respect. That’s what hurts the most. Except for the other thing. That hurts the most. But the lack of respect hurts the second most. Ridiculous.”

It’s sophomoric humor, but it always sticks in my head in blowouts. That’s because I always find myself thinking “You know what the worst part of a blowout is? The fact that most of the game becomes useless for analysis. There’s nothing to be learned in a 30-point game. That’s the worst part. Except for the blowout. That’s the worst part. But the lack of learning utility is the second worst. Ridiculous.”

That’s how I feel again here, and I think there’s a more tangible impact when that happens in a playoff series than the regular season. Forget the soft impact like confidence and how broken the Raptors looked. Even if they bounce back mentally (not a certainty) and in terms of effort (believe it when we see it), they squandered a good chance to continue to pick away at Milwaukee’s defense and work on their own base defensive sets for Giannis Antetokounmpo. When half the game is the Bucks clowning around and the Raptors’ deep reserves playing, there’s little useful to be gleaned. They have to enter Game 4 trying to make adjustments now, sure, but they passed up an entire half to try some of those adjustments and rotation tweaks out. You don’t just lose a game like this, you lose your ability to improve for the next one.

And the Bucks beat the Raptors with the same stuff they hammered them with in Game 1 and the Raptors started to correct in Game 2 (the Bucks had far fewer fast-break points here, but the Raptors managed just 11 assists and turned the ball over 16 times; they also completely forgot how to attack the aggressive traps, and while the Bucks blitzed a bit more, Toronto did themselves no favors continually running side action where the baseline aids the trap rather than middle where they had more success but is admittedly more difficult to get to). It’s infuriating.

Injury Updates – Tucker is apparently fine

P.J. Tucker somewhat mysteriously sat the entire second half with no information from the Raptors’ staff or broadcast. Tucker wasn’t at his best in the first half, to be sure, but he’s still among the team’s better performers in this series, and it was weird to see him go unused for the entire second half, even as the rest of the regular saw time. There was no indication after the game that Tucker was banged up or held out for anything beyond a coaching decision.

Lineup Notes

  • Raptors: They were all bad.
  • Bucks: They were all good.

(I would have loved to just leave it like that, but we need to have a look at a few small things…)

  • The Raptors starters were outscored by seven points in five minutes and are now a -13 in 31 minutes for the series. They’re done. Casey simply can’t go forward with this group after they’ve opened poorly in all but one of the six games they’ve started together, even if the reasons they’ve struggled are correctable.
    • Cory Joseph started the second half in place of Jonas Valanciunas, a curious decision when Tucker or Patrick Patterson would have made far more defensive sense. The Raptors wanted the extra ball-handler and bit of shooting, though, and that lineup was *only* a -3 in seven minutes.
    • DeMar DeRozan, Serge Ibaka, and the bench somehow went -10 in four minutes.
      • The Tucker-Patterson-Ibaka trio I liked a lot and talked up heading into Game 3 only got those minutes together. They remain a +2 in 25 minutes in the series.
  • The Bucks starters were +9 in 13 minutes and the move from Mirza Teletovic to Michael Beasley in the second nit worked wonders, with the Antetokounmpo-Snell-bench group going +10 in five minutes.

Here’s the quote you surely all want to hear from Casey: “We’ll make changes.”

Assorted

  • Teams that take a 2-1 series lead win 80 percent of the time. Those that do so as the lower-seeded team have gone 77-45, good for a 63.1-percent clip. That means that teams that have put themselves in the Raptors’ position have still won more than a third of the time, which has to be moderately encouraging. Or not. Because most of those teams weren’t blown out by 27 points in Game 3. (There actually were a couple of examples I found of teams going down 1-2 in a game this bad and winning the series, but I didn’t have the energy to do a full won-loss record.)
    • Here’s Kyle Lowry to that effect: “It ain’t over. It sucks right now. It’s a terrible feeling. But it ain’t over.”
  • This was the first time in DeRozan’s postseason career that he failed to make a single field goal. He hadn’t even done it in a regular season game since January of 2015 against – you guessed it – the Bucks.

  • Game 4 goes Saturday at 3 p.m., and I’m not sure whether to feel good about the quick turnaround time to shake this off or dread the idea of a Raptors playoff afternoon game.
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Raptors-Bucks Game 3 Reaction Podcast – WTF was that?

Host William Lou is once again joined by Zarar Siddiqi to break down a shitshow against the Milwaukee Bucks in Game 3.

(more…)

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Quick Reaction: Raptors 77, Bucks 104

Toronto 77 Final
Box Score
104 Milwaukee

F
S. Ibaka26 MIN, 6 PTS, 3 REB, 0 AST, 0 STL, 3-8 FG, 0-2 3FG, 0-0 FT, 1 BLK, 2 TO, -18 +/-

Look, if this game hadn’t been a total and complete disaster maybe this would be a higher grade. But he was out there with the starters contributing to this mess that started the game, and he deserves part of the blame. He tried, it wasn’t enough. Is it fair? Maybe not, but neither is being forced to watch that effort from the team.

F
D. Carroll14 MIN, 3 PTS, 1 REB, 0 AST, 2 STL, 1-4 FG, 1-4 3FG, 0-0 FT, 2 BLK, 0 TO, -13 +/-

Had a good third quarter. Otherwise, I have no idea why he’s out there. Can’t guard Middleton, can’t guard Giannis, and Casey isn’t going to bench DeMar. So unless he figures one of those things out someone is going to go off for Milwaukee. Tonight it was both.

F
J. Valanciunas20 MIN, 11 PTS, 7 REB, 0 AST, 0 STL, 3-9 FG, 0-0 3FG, 5-7 FT, 0 BLK, 2 TO, -12 +/-

The stat line is fine. Him getting bullied by Thon Maker and Greg Monroe, AGAIN, isn’t fine. He’s supposed to be bigger, stronger, and better than a rookie. At least inside, because he can’t seem to guard Thon on the perimeter.

F
K. Lowry35 MIN, 13 PTS, 5 REB, 2 AST, 0 STL, 4-10 FG, 2-5 3FG, 3-4 FT, 1 BLK, 3 TO, -18 +/-

Lowry started the game taking an awful contested 3(that bricked). That might’ve been one of his highlights tonight. He got outplayed by Brogdon, badly. And if JV can’t get outplayed by a rookie, that goes double for the guy who’s supposed to be the leader of the team.

F
D. DeRozan31 MIN, 8 PTS, 2 REB, 0 AST, 0 STL, 0-8 FG, 0-2 3FG, 8-8 FT, 0 BLK, 3 TO, -23 +/-

If I gave as much effort as DeMar did tonight, I’d leave this section blank. Only took 8 shots, didn’t hit any of them. Didn’t bother to give an effort on defense. Why was he even on the floor tonight? Got badly, badly outplayed by Khris Middleton, and that’s a matchup that has to go in Toronto’s favor for the Raptors to win this series.

D
D. Wright27 MIN, 13 PTS, 6 REB, 2 AST, 0 STL, 4-6 FG, 2-3 3FG, 3-5 FT, 0 BLK, 2 TO, 0 +/-

I can’t give anyone a good grade tonight. I can’t bring myself to do it. But if I did it’d be Delon. He was good in garbage minutes, which I guess is something? It’d be nice to see him get a shot earlier when things clearly aren’t working for the starters.

F
P. Patterson23 MIN, 3 PTS, 2 REB, 1 AST, 1 STL, 1-5 FG, 1-2 3FG, 0-0 FT, 0 BLK, 0 TO, -21 +/-

Patterson has been the invisible man in this series. Hasn’t contributed much on either end of the floor in any game. He has to be better.

F
C. Joseph16 MIN, 2 PTS, 1 REB, 3 AST, 0 STL, 1-5 FG, 0-2 3FG, 0-0 FT, 0 BLK, 2 TO, -22 +/-

Cory came out with the starters to begin the second half, and Middleton abused him just as badly as he did everyone else. Wasn’t running the offense well or hitting his shots.

D
N. Powell15 MIN, 12 PTS, 3 REB, 1 AST, 1 STL, 4-8 FG, 0-1 3FG, 4-4 FT, 1 BLK, 0 TO, 3 +/-

Same thing as Delon here. Was good in garbage time. Probably needs to get some actual minutes, because no one else seems capable of guarding any Milwaukee wings.

F
P. Tucker14 MIN, 0 PTS, 3 REB, 1 AST, 1 STL, 0-0 FG, 0-0 3FG, 0-0 FT, 0 BLK, 1 TO, -13 +/-

What happened to the PJ who came into games and affected the mentality of the Raptors? Maybe asking him to save this game is simply asking too much, but he didn’t really bring either the stuff that shows up on the stat sheet or the stuff that doesn’t tonight.

D
J. Poeltl9 MIN, 4 PTS, 7 REB, 0 AST, 0 STL, 2-6 FG, 0-0 3FG, 0-2 FT, 0 BLK, 0 TO, -4 +/-

Played in garbage and was solid. If JV can’t deal with Thon Maker and Greg Monroe, maybe it’s time for Jakob to get more minutes. Playing their rookie center is working out for Milwaukee, after all.

D
F. VanVleet6 MIN, 0 PTS, 0 REB, 1 AST, 0 STL, 0-1 FG, 0-1 3FG, 0-0 FT, 0 BLK, 0 TO, 3 +/-

He played a few garbage minutes, and didn’t really impact the game. That’s not really on him.

D
L. Nogueira4 MIN, 2 PTS, 0 REB, 0 AST, 1 STL, 1-1 FG, 0-0 3FG, 0-0 FT, 0 BLK, 0 TO, 3 +/-

Same as Fred here.

F
Dwane Casey

The players need to show up. These are grown men. At the same time, a coaches job is to prepare his team, right? Where was that? The Raptors looked completely unprepared, and that never changed as the game went on. Didn’t bench DeRozan when he clearly didn’t have it, didn’t go to Norm for a different look. I’m struggling to come up with what he did do in this game, aside from start Cory in the 2nd half, which was a move bound to fail. You don’t go smaller against a team that’s beating you with length.

Things We Saw

  1. This was depressing. What an awful effort. This is supposed to be an experienced Raptors team going up against a Bucks team that hasn’t been in the spotlight before. Simply not good enough.
  2. I wrote about this yesterday, and here it is again: If the Raptors can’t get out of this series, there’s a real chance MLSE doesn’t want to go into the luxury tax to keep this core together. This is it. If these guys want to have another season together, they need to figure this out, because three first round exits with home court advantage in four years isn’t going to convince anyone they can be a contender.
  3. Find some leadership. DeRozan, Lowry, and Casey are supposed to be the foundation of the franchise. They were all massively disappointing. What happened to the best backcourt in the East?
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Halftime Thoughts – Raptors/Bucks Game 3 – We’re getting killed (including Halftime Podcast)

First up, here’s Will:

I’ve seen some stuff in my time but this takes the cake.  We’re down 27 at the halftime, and basically everything that can go wrong, has gone wrong.  Bucks made a change in the starting lineup and got Thon in, and that seemed to energize them to the tune of a 30 point lead.

Shooting long-distance jumpers probably isn’t the thing to do on the road, but we did it anyway, and the Bucks ran those misses back in transition with ease.  We’re not even contesting their jumpers, and our close-outs just invite drives which we can’t contest at the rim. That’s not good.

Lowry and DeRozan’s vision is blocked on the drives because they’re being pressed so hard, they don’t even know where to pass even if they wanted to pass.  The possessions don’t have any sort of flow to them, other than passing it around on the perimeter threatening a drive that’s not really threatening anyone.  We can’t get any easy points, partially because we can’t get rebounds, and when we do get rebounds we can’t run since Milwaukee is getting back way too quickly for our slow guards to pressure them.

I’d say the Raptors were ill-prepared for this game, not just from the basketball perspective, but also from what they should’ve expected form the Milwaukee crowd which is louder than the ACC.   It’s very easy to point to X’s and O’s and say we can’t generate efficient offense (or any offense).  Take this possession for example – this is fairly early on and Carroll doesn’t even know where he’s supposed to be:

We also know that the Bucks like to pressure, but every time their guards pressure up top, we don’t have a release mechanism which punishes them. We just struggle to pass it back on the perimeter where we execute a benign swing. Instead, we have to punish them in the paint because their guards are really committing to pressuring us leaving them open in the back for a team that knows how to exploit it.

On the bright side, and this is the only bright side, Delon Wright looks like a player. He had a three and a couple nice drives (check them on @raptorsrepublic), and is probably our only guard that can match Milwaukee for athleticism. On that note, damn man, but is DeMarre Carroll disappointing or what? There’s literally nothing he can do well – he’s outmatched for pace and strength against whoever he’s guarding, rendering him useless. Same goes for JV, who just looks outmatched against everyone, especially Monroe. Either he’s too slow to check someone, or he’s just out of sorts against a bigger guy like Monroe.

Raps made a change at halftime starting Joseph instead of JV.

Here’s Kalamian at halftime:

Having said all that, it’s one game, and Game 4 is pivotal.  The question now is when does Dwane Casey just give up on the game and rest guys for Saturday. I’d say see if we can get this down to 18 by the fourth quarter and have a go.

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Raptors 905 D-League Finals schedule released

Photo credit: MattAzevedo.com

Raptors 905 will continue their quest to bring a championship to Mississauga on Sunday, when they tip off for their D-League Finals series against the Rio Grande Valley Vipers.

From there, the 905 return home for Game 2 at Hershey Centre on Tuesday and, if necessary, a deciding Game 3 on Thursday.

Game 1: Raptors 905 @ Rio Grande Valley Vipers  Sunday, April  23, 8pm, ESPNU/Facebook Live
Game 2: Rio Grande Valley Vipers @ Raptors 905 – Tuesday, April 25, 7pm, ESPNU/Facebook Live
Game 3*: Rio Grande Valley Vipers @ Raptors 905 – Thursday, April 27, 7pm, ESPNU/Facebook Live
* – if necessary

The big thing to note here is that the deciding Game 3, if necessary, would go up against Raptors-Bucks Game 6, which is all kinda of frustrating for those who root for both the parent and junior club. The 905 have wrapped up each of their series in two games so far, but Rio provides a tough test, and fans will be split between a pair of elimination games if the 905 need to go the distance. Rio fans can’t be much happier, as the Rockets and Thunder could also play that same night if the series isn’t wrapped by then. (I’m sure most fans will choose Raptors, which stinks for the 905 – their crowd for Game 2 of the East Finals on Wednesday was only half of its earlier playoff crowd because it overlapped with the Maple Leafs, so I can only imagine the impact of a Raptors overlap.)

As a side-note, these games will likely be aired on Facebook Live in Canada, as ESPNU games have been previously. UPDATE: They’ll be on Facebook Live.

We’ll have a full preview of the series sometime between now and Sunday morning.

Raptors Republic readers can get discounted 905 playoff tickets by using the promo code REPUBLIC905.

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Pre-game news & notes: No Jurassic Park viewing party for Game 3

Well, a quick turnaround between games certainly feels better than a long one. And hey, after this there’s an even quicker turnaround time with a 3 p.m. game on Saturday. The series is really moving now. Or something. It’s been a long couple of days. Shut up.

Anyway, the Toronto Raptors are in Wisconsin to take on the Milwaukee Bucks, with the winner taking a fairly commanding 2-1 lead in the series. Despite coughing up home court by losing Game 1, the Raptors remain in decent shape for the series as a whole, having evened things out at 1-1 and pushing most metrics (BPI, the Vegas line, historical precedent) back slightly in their favor. Based on how they’ve handled the postseason (and even the regular season) the last couple of years, maybe it’s best that they don’t know that. Head into Milwaukee, hope that the experience edge plays up on the road as head coach Dwane Casey suggested it will, hope the Bucks have some home-court jitters of their own, and don’t give the young upstarts much time to breathe.

“We’ve been here before, in a hostile environment,” Casey said of the series situation before identifying playing “within yourself” as the key to combating it.

For the Raptors, playing within themselves will mostly mean doing the right things on defense and not forcing the issue through heavy pressure on offense. Weird though that may seem since it’s not really in Toronto’s identity (and therefore maybe not within themselves), it was the key to the first half and fourth quarter of Game 2. Seeing more of that would be nice, and it’s a lot more likely to result in a victory than the panicked approach of Game 1.

“You know, it’s going to be a hostile environment, their first game and we have to be able to match and go over their intensity tonight,” DeMar DeRozan pre-echoed at shootaround.

It’s not, uhh, the greatest that the Raptors are so comfortable and experienced with 1-1 splits as the favorite, but they are where they are, and let’s let them take whatever confidence they can from it. Or whatever.

The game tips off at 8 on NBA TV (Spero Dedes, Grant Hill, Richard Hamilton, and Jennifer Hale) and TSN on TV and on Sportsnet 590 on radio. You can check out the full game preview here. Your officials areDerrick Stafford, Derrick Collins, and Zach Zarba.

Required reading
Here’s what you need ahead of Game 2, assuming you haven’t been keeping up.

Raptors updates
I think by now I’ve covered the rotation stuff, but a brief refresher: Delon Wright should see 8-12 minutes again, Patrick Patterson eating into Carroll’s minutes and playing with P.J. Tucker and Serge Ibaka often is the right call, and, that trio with Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan are your most likely closers, and the team should maybe change course and let Jonas Valanciunas loose on the offensive glass since they’re not defending well in transition despite punting a major potential advantage. Here’s a look at the Toronto lineups that have played five or more minutes together in the series so far:

As a side-note, Bruno Caboclo and Pascal Siakam were recalled from Raptors 905 and joined the team in Milwaukee today. They’ll be the inactives in this one and then head back to the 905 whenever they have a D-League Finals schedule to prepare for.

PG: Kyle Lowry, Cory Joseph, Delon Wright, Fred VanVleet
SG: DeMar DeRozan, Norman Powell
SF: DeMarre Carrol, P.J. Tucker, Bruno Caboclo
PF: Serge Ibaka, Patrick Patterson, Pascal Siakam
C: Jonas Valanciunas, Jakob Poeltl, Lucas Nogueira
TBD: None
ASSIGNED: None
OUT: None

Bucks updates
The Bucks starts remain fairly effective with a plus-10.3 net rating in 24 minutes, and Milwaukee’s four most-used groups have actually all had strong net ratings. Basically, their best groups are getting it done, and the peripheral ones are slipping up, something that most would have predicted given the gap in quality on the rosters as you get further down the depth chart. Mirza Teletovic has been shaky, Matthew Dellavedova has struggled at everything but screen-setting, and Tony Snell and Thon Maker have made cases for heavier usage. Here’s a look at the Milwaukee lineups that have played five or more minutes together in the series so far:

PG: Malcolm Brogdon, Matthew Dellavedova, Gary Payton II
SG: Tony Snell, Jason Terry, Rashad Vaughn
SF: Khris Middleton, Michael Beasley
PF: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Mirza Teletovic
C: Thon Maker, Greg Monroe, Spencer Hawes, John Henson
TBD: None
ASSIGNED: None
OUT: Jabari Parker

Pre-game news and notes

  • Dwane Casey’s pre-game address talked mostly about meeting what’s sure to be a high energy level from Milwaukee on their own court. It’s interesting that both teams define themselves so much by their energy. I mean, all 30 teams probably do because it’s a good catch-all for just playing well, but it’s funny to hear the two coaches and rosters basically sound like RZA.
  • Jason Kidd on how the Bucks are playing as well as they are despite their youth and inexperience: “One thing we’ve learned is trust. We trust one another.” That’s nice.
    • Here’s the full quote: “We’ve been young all year, so there’s no need to change. We’re all going to make mistakes. You can’t play a perfect game, but we do try to minimize mistakes and I think the one thing we’ve learned in trust. When we take the floor, we understand we’ll make mistakes but we have to move on quickly to the next play and that comes with trust and communication.”
  • These posts are kind of dry for road games when nobody is injured to update, I realize.

Assorted

  • A few random fun stat nuggets from Krishna Narsu of Nylon Calculus, using his KOBE metric (a way of grading shot selection):
    • The Bucks have the third-best mark in the league, the Raptors 26th. That the Raptors remain a great offense despite this is quite remarkable.
    • On the defensive side, Milwaukee gives up a slightly above-average shot quality, while the Raptors are exactly average. That’s a decent base to start from for the Raptors, and I’d be interested to see that broken down by season segment.
    • Individually, Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan both ranked in the top 10 in terms of beating their expected points total. DeRozan was eighth, Lowry 10th. In other words – and this should come as no surprise – both are very good shot makers.
  • The viewing party at Jurassic Park/Maple Leaf Square has been cancelled on account of the lightning in the forecast. More specifically, the basketball gods promised to strike down everyone there who had a “Trade Lowry” or “Raptors in 4” sign. Crisis averted.
  • The Raptors twitter and IG accounts have been tweeting out pics of Raptor fans in Milwaukee. As always, kudos to you if you travel or support the team from other locales. It’s one of the best things about this fan base, how impossible it is to gain a full home-court advantage playing the Raptors. Chris Paul would be so impressed.

The line
Game 1: Raptors -7.5 (Series Raptors -350) (Bucks 97, Raptors 83)
Game 2: Raptors -8 (Series Raptors -165) (Raptors 106, Bucks 100)
Game 3: Bucks -1.5
Series: Raptors -210 (implied probability of 67.7 percent)

At Bucks -1.5, the market is factoring in a huge swing for home court in this playoff series, it would appear. The line moving 9.5 points between games without any fundamental shift in team health or identity means that there’s more than the usual three-to-four points swinging for location (going Toronto to Milwaukee could have been expected to move the line seven or eight points, normally). That line has also held steady throughout the day. There’s also a chance the market likes the Bucks better now than at the start of the series, a reasonable take, but the Raptors remain strong series favorites nonetheless. The over-under is at 197, up slightly from 196.5, following totals of 180 and 206.

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Shootaround news & notes: Raptors looking to take home-court back

Raptors Republic is not traveling with the Toronto Raptors for the first round of the playoffs, which means we weren’t at shootaround on Thursday. Luckily, the team practiced in Toronto yesterday, and so most of what needed to be said was already covered. Some on the beat were kind enough to pass along what was said at the morning session, anyway, so a thank you to them, and now a shift in format, with a quick smattering of quotes.

On potential Bucks adjustments

The Raptors moved the ball much better against Milwaukee’s traps in Game 2, and it led to a steady diet of high-quality 3-point attempts. The Raptors shooters knocked those down, and the Bucks now face a tough question for Game 3: Let them keep firing, or adjust a hyper-aggressive system they’ve stuck with through its weaknesses in order to limit Toronto’s long-range shooting.

“If they try to do that, something else will open,” DeMar DeRozan said. “You give something or take away something, it’s on us to figure out what it is we can get, or what it is we can take away. That’s the beauty of the game, it’s always like chess or whatever you want to play. It’s still a game at the end of the day that’s on you to figure out the options you can attack.”

The idea of Milwaukee loosening up on ball-handlers probably won’t come to fruition. They’ve already had difficulty keeping DeRozan and Kyle Lowry off of the free-throw line, and given the inconsistency of threes in general and the Raptors’ shooters in particular, it seems likely that Jason Kidd will live with non-All-Stars trying to beat them. And again, we’ve said this, but the Bucks defense seems, logically, like one that can be learned over the course of the series, and DeRozan would seem to agree.

“After Game 1 you become more conscious of it. You understand how to attack it, how to be more aggressive,” he said of Milwaukee’s length. “Try to limit his space of being able to block shots, little things like that. Just be more aggressive and kind of read it.”

Playing up on the road

In each of their two series victories last year, the Raptors coughed up home court in the first game but went on to win Game 3 and take it back. Head coach Dwane Casey is a believer that it’s a sign of experience, and it sounds as if he expects that to be an edge on Thursday.

“On the road, that’s where it shows up,” Casey said of experience. “You don’t get rattled, you keep your composure, you play to your identity. You don’t come out and try to do something you don’t normally do. That’s where experience shows up. Every experienced team I’ve been around, on the road is where it shows up.”

Now, that’s a bit of a slightly flawed argument in this series since the inexperienced Bucks also won on the road, but it’s good to have belief in your guys. The Raptors also owned a 23-18 mark on the road during the regular season, tied for the best record in the Eastern Conference. The Bucks, meanwhile, had that same record at home.

Gerald Henderson Award

Somewhat predictably, Tony Snell would be the winner of the Gerald Henderson Award for the series so far. As a former Chicago Bull and established inexplicable Raptor killer, Snell fits the bill. That he’s a strong 3-point shooter the Raptors keep losing as play comes back the other way exacerbates that issue.

“They found him in transition,” Casey said. “We gave up 26 transition points, and we’ve got to cut that down and do a better job of getting back to find him. He had two threes in transition. Half-court play, we’ve got to be better in getting back to him. He’s a good shooter, we know that. We know what it takes to guard him. We’ve just got to have attention to detail to make sure we get to him and close out quicker.”

That Kidd opted not to play Snell down the stretch in Game 2 was one of his more curious decisions. Snell should factor in more Thursday if his jumper is falling again.

Open Gym

Can we show some love for the consistent excellence (and super-quick turnaround time) of the Open Gym series? How 29 other teams haven’t ripped this concept off and given their fans this sort of intimate look inside the franchise is beyond me. The latest playoff mini-episode is terrific, as usual.

Other Notes

  • The NBA released the Last Two Minute Report for Game 1, and the Bucks got away with a pair of infractions. On Giannis Antetokounmpo’s late post-up on Kyle Lowry, the NBA deemed Antetokounmpo should have been whistled for an offensive foul for extending his arm into Lowry. Late in that same possession, Khris Middleton should have been called for a traveling violation for lifting his pivot foot at the start of his dribble. No harm done, I suppose.
  • Here’s a random link I don’t pass on to make people mad but just to share: Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan both rank among the league’s worst offenders in terms of getting back after a play, whether due to falling on a drive or complaining to the referees or what have you. The excellent Chris Herring of FiveThirtyEight took a look, and while the list is star-dominated, DeRozan (seventh) and Lowry (eighth) ranking so high is at least notable in a series where all the talk has been about transition defense.
  • The Bucks have just an awesome shirt giveaway and aesthetic for the game tonight. Just, seriously good work here.

  • If any Raptor fans are going to be in Milwaukee, hit Kat up on Twitter. As always, the Raptors want to play up how awesome the fan base is and how well they travel, and you’ll probably get some Twitter/IG/pre-game love if you’re representing out there.

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Personalized Mantras for Every Raptor to Repeat in Game 3

Mantras are a powerful psychological tools that have been used for centuries. Armies in their sigils and chants, artists and scholars in their personal practice (I see you, Descartes!) and of course, with too many examples to count, in sports.

Going into Game 3 against the Bucks in Milwaukee tonight, our beloved—and sometimes chronic head cases—Raptors could likely use a cerebral whetstone to sharpen their mental edge. But generic, motivational sports mantras are not going to cut it. These are the playoffs, people. That’s why in my new role as Head Mantra Maker for the Toronto Raptors (role thus far unconfirmed), I’ve come up with individualized mantras for each player based on close character study and my natural instincts as a mantrist, to use going into tonight’s game.

Delon Wright: The long arm of Delon.

DeMarre Carroll: Who let the dogs out? It was me, I did.

Jakob Poeltl: On a return trip one evening from the Austrian countryside, when I was a young junge, my father hit a deer as it came bounding across the majestic steppe. I was just a boy and while I did not relish the delivery of death, for a moment I knew what it was to twine the delicate threads of life between my fingers, as if in a lively game of cat’s cradle. I will harness that boyhood recollection now against Herr Kidd and his deer men.

Serge Ibaka: I’m Serge Ibaka.

Bruno Caboclo: (from the bench, whispering) I’m Serge Ibaka.

Pascal Siakam: Rock’em Siakam

Norman Powell: Rolling Powell outages in the area reportedly caused by shooting the lights out.

Fred Van Vleet: The demon baller of Vleet Street.

Jonas Valančiūnas: Itty Bitty Ballers continues to be a great success and so do I.

Jason Thompson: I think I am still a Raptor therefore I am.

Cory Joseph: Just like the Pickering Nuclear Station, I could explode at any time.

Patrick Patterson: Two Pats on the back, all for me, Two Pats on the back, when I make a successful three.

Lucas Nogueira: I sleep in Bismack’s bed, my heart’s as wild as my head.

P.J. Tucker: Jettison the venison/Huck the Bucks/Fry the cervidae

Kyle Lowry: ‘No one puts Baby Kyle in the corner (but if they do he drills the 3)’ alternately, ‘Smiles for miles, Kyle’.

DeMar Derozan: ‘DeMarlition Man’, alternately, ‘DeMarcrazy Now’, alternately, ‘DeMarcate the stoppers from the floppers’.

And if you’re looking for a steadying, empowering mantra of your own to chant come game time, might I suggest my own personal fail-safe: “No, no, no, yes, YES, NO”—it’s worked wonders for me so far.

@wtevs

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The Team On His Back

By now it’s an all too familiar story. The Toronto entered the playoffs heavily favoured with a hopeful fanbase behind them and then immediately faltered, quickly turning that hope into despair. We’ve seen it play out a few times now and demands to blow the team up are becoming as much an annual tradition as game one losses, bad west coast road trips and midseason slumps. This all took on a slightly different look this time around, as the critics set their sight on a new target: starting point guard and Little Engine That Could Kyle Lowry.

Lowry has had his ups and downs in the past and is certainly not above criticism but it’s always seemed generally understood that he’s the best player and driving force behind everything this team does well. This usually gives him a little more slack when things aren’t going well, with fingers being pointed in a half dozen other directions before Lowry is even considered a problem, let alone THE problem. This time around all it took was one poor performance for him to be almost universally reviled and to bring out takes packing some real heat about the quality of his play, who would have done better(names like Raymond Felton were actually thrown around) and how much better the Raptors would be if they let him walk this summer. This is surprising when you consider how much Lowry has meant to the Raptors as they’ve climbed the ranks from laughing stock to respected franchise.

It’s Lowry who gives the Raptors their on-court personality. That never-say-die approach that keeps the team from being blown out even relative to other really good NBA teams starts with the smallest guy in the rotation repeatedly putting his body on the line to gain the smallest of advantages. When the team digs in on defense it’s often Lowry leading the charge by pressuring the point of attack and he’s the guard most likely to come through with a big strip or deflection in crunch time. He doesn’t lock in on defense constantly because nobody has the motor necessary to go all out on both ends for 38 minutes per game but he’s smart and effective and good at recognizing opportunities and picking his spots.

He’s also the driving force behind their offense. DeMar DeRozan takes the most shots but Lowry is the one who makes the offense run, their abysmal assist numbers only coming close to those of decent NBA offenses when Lowry is on the floor – only 43% of their baskets are assisted when sits vs. 50% when he plays. The Raptors have a tendency to get bogged down in one on one play and as much as it looks like Lowry is one of the most willing participants he’s also one of the only players with the skillset necessary to actually get other players involved consistently. It’s not just his playmaking that has driven the team to elite status on the offensive end. After coming into the league with a shaky jumpshot Lowry has put in a lot of work to become one of the leagues best high volume three point shooters, which is crucial on a team that sorely lacks shooting. Lowry, and to a lesser extent Patrick Patterson and Serge Ibaka, are the ones who make this group workable. Everyone else has skills and is a good player in their niche but also have holes in their game that can make it difficult to fit them into an NBA team. Certain skills or a certain IQ level are necessary on a good NBA team, and every player you have that lacks fundamental skills requires someone else to make up what they lack. Lowry more than anybody plays that role for the Raptors – they can get away with DeRozan’s lack of range with one of the best shooters in the NBA beside him and Cory Joseph’s mediocre playmaking skills are manageable because Lowry is a workhorse who will play a regular starting PG’s minutes and prop up the second unit as well.

Lowry has willed this team to victory after victory, and nowhere was this more apparent in last years postseason run, when he essentially dragged them to the Eastern Conference Finals. Lowry is talked about as a poor playoff performer but there is a big difference between playing poorly and shooting poorly; Lowry’s 2016 playoff performance was clearly the latter and a constant reminder of exactly what he brings to this team. Anybody who tries to reduce Lowry’s value to his shooting numbers – especially in the postseason – needs a reminder of what the Raptors did with and without him on the court during last years postseason:

Obviously the postseason is a small sample size but you see something similar if you check numbers over the last couple of seasons. Lowry is one of the biggest net positives on this team, especially on the offensive end.

DeRozan may score the most points and new arrivals Serge Ibaka and PJ Tucker may get a lot of credit for adding an element of toughness to the Raptors previously soft defense but this team is still only going as far as Kyle Lowry can take them. If anything, the opening games of these playoffs have given us a clear picture of Lowry’s value; if he’s not firing on all cylinders, even against a team with considerably less talent, the Raptors odds of winning diminish and if he doesn’t show up at all their odds all but disappear. In game two he didn’t even have an amazing performance but it was one of the biggest differences between a 14 point loss and a 6 point win. He may not shoot the ball well every game but we have an established history of him making huge positive impacts on the teams performance even when his shot isn’t falling, and that’s something that should be remembered should he happen to have another game where he doesn’t make a huge overall contribution.

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Epic Mid-Morning Coffee – Thu, Apr 20

‘We can get a lot better’: Raptors far from satisfied | Toronto Sun

The one big change from the beginning of the series until now is that Kyle Lowry is no longer looking lost offensively. Lowry looked to be the proverbial fish out of water in Game 1 unable to find any rhythm and struggling to put any kind of imprint on the game. His counterpart, Bucks rookie Malcolm Brogden, looked much more like the veteran player of the two.

Lowry turned the tables on that matchup nicely in Game 2, taking advantage of the young Bucks guard. He was aggressive getting into the paint and then took what was available once there. Often it was a kick out to an open shooter but, as the game went on, Lowry changed it up and finished those drives at the basket.

As good as the Raps feel about their game today collectively, there is still plenty of room for improvement, starting with that a long-held habit of getting a lead only to take their foot off the gas.

It happened twice in Game 2 as the Raptors opened the lead up to 13 and then suddenly fell back on lazy habits. The good ball movement that led to both of those leads was replaced by lazy cross-court passes that were easily picked off, or the ball movement stopped altogether and bad shots were taken resulting in empty possessions.

Casey calls it getting ‘happy on the farm.’ For Raptors fans, it’s a real head-scratcher and nothing they associate with happiness of any kind.

Raps need to keep pushing the ball in Game 3 – Video – TSN

After they were able to even up the series before heading back to Milwaukee, Rod Black, Jack Armstrong and Leo Rautins explain why the Raptors need to keep pushing the ball and wearing down the Bucks defence if they want to earn the series edge in Game 3.

NBA Playoffs: The Raptors continue their collective quest to stop Giannis – Raptors HQ

To begin, there was Jonas Valanciunas walling off the paint as DeMarre Carroll strove along with Giannis on his drives. That worked for a time — though it’s clear Carroll needs assistance. Antetokounmpo would often find himself swarmed by DeMar DeRozan or Lowry, coming in for steal or block attempts. Antetokounmpo was still often able to attack in the pick-and-roll as the screener or the ball handler, sometimes even switching roles in the same possession. It was evolution in real-time.

Then P.J. Tucker checked in and made things physical, hounding Giannis on the perimeter, enacting smart close-outs, and using his active hands to dislodge the ball. Again, the Bucks’ young star could and would recover, but the Raptors were doing what they could to keep him harried. Coach Dwane Casey said his team would not always go under screens — saying it makes the team “soft” — and while that was not necessarily true — Toronto gave Giannis space — the Raptors squeezed through them when they could to keep the pressure on. For his part, Giannis went 3-of-5 on jumpers just inside the arc anyway. It was like watching the T-1000 reform itself and keep coming.

Later in the game, the Raptors settled on something approaching a workable solution. Put Tucker on Khris Middleton to bottle him up, have Patterson contend with Giannis, and leave Serge Ibaka to roam when necessary — risking attacks from Thon Maker or Greg Monroe (who continues to be an under-the-radar problem in his own right). When Antetokounmpo slipped by Raptor players on the perimeter, or when, god forbid, the Greek Freak was able to get out and run, Ibaka too rose to the challenge.

Lowry, DeRozan team up in a lot of different ways | Toronto Star

Again, Delon Wright gets a few minutes, has an impact and his use in brief stints as a disruptive full-court defender and ball-handler was something Casey had planned long before it happened.

“I just thought he and Jakob both, there were times in the second quarter when were making substitutions to give guys a blow that he could come in and create. I thought he did an excellent job of coming in and creating shots, creating opportunities. I thought he did as good a defensive job as you can with Dellavedova and also Brogdon.”

I don’t think Wright’s ready to handle 22 minutes a night of playoff basketball – he still gets a little skittish at times with the ball – but he can have a big impact as a different look for eight or 10 minutes, for sure.

I’m sure you’ll see it every game from here on out, or at least until the Bucks find a way to exploit his inexperience. But since they’re so inexperienced, maybe they won’t.

Protecting home is Bucks’ next assignment as series shifts to Bradley Center – Journal Sentinel

“We have to be the desperate and aggressive team,” Kidd said. “I think we learned that in the month of March, that there’s never a time to be comfortable.

“It’s not about home court. Things happen. Look at hockey, and in the NBA you have (eighth-seeded) Chicago going to (top-seeded) Boston and winning two games.

“You have to go out there and take it or protect it.”

Yet after hearing all the noise from the energized “We the North” crowd in Canada, it will be nice for the young Bucks team to have a big crowd on its side.

Veteran guard Jason Terry said the Bucks must be smart in the way they approach it.

“Just coming home is not going to get the job done,” Terry said. “We need to have precise execution and really go after it and get this game.”

Numbers for Game 2: The Raptors get back on track – Raptors HQ

Rookie Jakob Poeltl got nearly four minutes worth of burn in the early going due to Jonas Valanciunas’ foul trouble in the first quarter, while head coach Dwane Casey looked to sophomore Delon Wright for roughly 8.5 minutes in the second frame as well.

Neither youngster made a huge splash in the box score (two points and a rebound for Poeltl, no points, two rebounds, and three assists for Wright), but both of them performed their jobs admirably when called upon.

Poeltl was a +4 in his limited minutes and his size and defensive presence made it hard for Milwaukee to go small. He contested three shots in 3.7 minutes, for a rate of 0.8 contests per minute. For context, Ibaka contested a monster 14 shots in 35.5 minutes for a rate of only 0.4.

Meanwhile, Wright’s length, mobility, and athleticism challenged the Bucks’ strengths and helped spark an important run in the second quarter. He might not have filled up the traditional box score, but in his 8.5 minutes of action, he managed to record a screen assist, amass three deflections, and contest four shots, according to NBA.com’s hustle stats.

Lowry, Ibaka the one-two punch the Raptors needed – Video – TSN

Kyle Lowry was in attack mode all night and was rewarded with 22 points, while Serge Ibaka helped shut down the Bucks down the stretch. Rod Black, Sam Mitchell, Jack Armstong and Leo Rautins look at how these two stepped up.

Raptors have to give as good as they get | Toronto Star

“Everybody has their own thinking about screens, about physicality,” Milwaukee coach Jason Kidd said. “There’s always different referees, they see things differently, their interpretation is different, so for us, we’ve just got to stay focussed on playing basketball and everything else will take care of itself.”

The Raptors were more forceful both fighting through screens and setting them in their 106-100 win Tuesday that tied the best-of-seven series 1-1. Toronto got free offensively to show some impressive ball movement and shooting — they had 24 assists on 34 baskets — and didn’t get caught up on screens defensively. That allowed them to clog the paint and limit the effectiveness of Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo.

“They showed me more bodies in the paint,” said Antetokounmpo, who still managed to have 24 points and 15 rebounds. “In the first game they let me go in the paint a lot. In the second game . . . they didn’t let me. When I was driving the ball into the paint, everyone was sacking me.”

Casey has long held that the Raptors need to be more consistently physical and decried the lack of toughness in their Game 1 performance.

“Everything else has to be heightened by our playoff level of play, our physicality,” he said. “That’s something that I thought they out-physicalled us, got into us, rode us off our line, and you can not let that happen at this time of year.”

Raptors know better than to take Bucks lightly – Article – TSN

Word on the visiting side – from Bucks reporters, broadcasters and even their coach Jason Kidd – is that Game 1 was some of the best basketball they have played all season, if not the best. Have we seen Toronto at its best in this series? No, probably not.
That’s not to say Milwaukee won’t continue to rise to the occasion, or that the Raptors will ultimately reach their ceiling, but – with the series evened up – one team seems to have more room for improvement. As Lowry continues to work his way back and get in sync with Tucker and Serge Ibaka, the hope is that their best is yet to come.
“For us, we see a little bit of how we can play,” Tucker said. “We don’t feel like we played a great game. We won and that’s great, but we want to get better. For us, it’s just taking it to another level still.”
The pressure has been and will continue to be on the favoured Raptors while the Bucks look to play spoiler. If nothing else, you can count on Milwaukee putting up a fight and making things interesting. This is still Toronto’s series to lose but now, more than ever, it’s clear: if they’re not careful, it’s far from a lock.
“It’s going to be a battle,” Dwane Casey said. “We’ve got to be ready for war. It’s not going to be easy. The game is not going to be pretty. We don’t want a pretty game. You talk about execution, that’s what the playoffs are about: playing after the execution is not there. Teams are going to take away your first option and probably your second option. After that it’s just about playing basketball. I thought our physicality was better. We’re going to have to take it up to another level to make it a grind-it-out game.

Raptors 905’s Jerry Stackhouse named D-League Coach of the Year – Raptors HQ

Stackhouse came in and preached defense and shared minutes across the roster, which is often a tough sell in the D-League. Many players in the D-League are hoping to play big minutes to get attention from the NBA. Stackhouse had his guys playing in the 20-25 minute range, but buying into his system. As a result, the 905 won; and as Stackhouse has said, teams like winners.

It’s not hard to believe that NBA teams will soon be calling Stackhouse about an NBA assistant coach deal or even a head coaching spot in the future. It feels like more a matter of when than if. And Stackhouse deserves it.

Raptors 905’s Jerry Stackhouse named D-League coach of the year | Toronto Star

The Raptors 905 hosted the Maine Red Claws at Mississauga’s Hershey Centre on Wednesday night, leading the best-of-three Eastern Conference final 1-0, needing just one win to have a chance at championship in just the second year of the team’s existence.

But more than that, Stackhouse helped develop players not only to the help the parent organization but also to help players get better, higher-paying jobs.

Casey lauds Stackhouse for the work he did with Pascal Siakam, Fred VanVleet, Jakob Poeltl and Bruno Caboclo in keeping them sharp and getting them ready to help the NBA team.

“He did a great job with that team, growing that team, developing that team,” Casey said Wednesday.

But Stackhouse and his staff did more than just develop players in the Toronto system.
Edy Tavares was the D-League’s defensive player of the after a season in Mississauga and Axel Toupane was one of the team’s most versatile players.

Both parlayed their D-League season into NBA contracts, Tavares with the Cleveland Cavaliers and Toupane with the New Orleans Pelicans.

Round of applause for Stack! Congrats Coach! #RoadToTheSix

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Raptors head to Milwaukee for Game 3 preparing for ‘a war’ – Sportsnet.ca

There’s only so much you can do to prevent an insanely athletic seven-footer with a 7’4 wingspan from getting his. But the Raptors still need to do more.

“I thought our physicality was better,” Casey said. “But we’re going to have to take it up to another level. To make it a grind-it-out type of game. That’s what it’s going to come to.”

The Raptors were at least able to better constrict Antetokounmpo’s room to breathe in Game 2. Much of that improvement can be chalked up to simply hustling back on defence, something the Raptors were sluggish to do in Game 1. You can see it on the stat sheet—the Bucks had 18 dunks or layups in Game 1, and only 11 in Game 2.

Casey says his team also made adjustments to its guarding schemes in certain situations—he doesn’t particularly want to discuss them publicly—that he feels helped keep Antetokounmpo relatively in check.

“You’re not going to stop a superstar at this time of year. We want to slow him down. It’s not one guy. It’s a team effort. We want to continue to take his numbers down as much as we can,” Casey said. “We’ll probably guard him a different way tomorrow night.”

https://www.instagram.com/p/BTFvJiWgym8/

Game 3 preview: Toronto Raptors at Milwaukee Bucks | Toronto Star

KEY MATCHUP

Valanciunas vs. Maker

The Raptors could use a breakout offensive game from centre Jonas Valanciunas, who enjoys a substantial bulk advantage in the matchup with Thon Maker, the 20-year-old Orangeville product. Valanciunas has been doing a good job chasing Maker out near the three-point line, but managed just nine points in Game 1 and 10 in Game 2.

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Game 3 Preview: Toronto Raptors vs. Milwaukee Bucks | Basketball Insiders

The Raptors are the better team and should win this series, but the way the Bucks kept coming at them despite it being a must win game for Toronto has to be a bit concerning. The Bucks aren’t simply satisfied to be in the playoffs; they’re here to win this series. They could’ve let up, content with stealing home court advantage, but they battled until the very end. When it comes down to it though, the Raptors are simply better. Their frontcourt is better. Their bench is better. Their stars, Lowry and DeRozan are better at being aggressive and attacking the paint. The Raptors will settle down, begin to impose their will on the Bucks, and pull out the Game 3 win. It will be close, but Toronto will come out with a 2-1 lead.

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Raptors Claw Back – BallNRoll

A big aspect of the bounce back performance by the Raptors as a whole was their three-point shooting coming to life. Led by Patrick Patterson and Cory Joseph the Raptors hit a franchise playoff record 14 three-pointers on 48% shooting from long range.

Moving forward, the Raptors will need to bring more toughness and more consistency to their game. It will be important for them to of course stay loose, but defensively it will be just as important for them to make things uncomfortable for Giannis Antetokounmpo. ‘The Greek Freak’ has had far too much room with which to operate and the to be frank, the Raptors have played him too soft to this point. The Raptors must deliver the metaphorical first punch when they come out on the road. By that, they must play more physically and make Giannis feel uncomfortable. When competing against a player as great as Antetokounmpo, sometimes making him feel uncomfortable is the best form of defense.

He even ties his shoes menacingly #wethenorth

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When you can't stand to look cause you already know the outcome. #LowryTime #WeTheNorth

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Did I miss something? Send me any Raptors-related article/video to rapsfan@raptorsrepublic.com

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Hello! Jack Armstrong has a t-shirt line

One of the most affable figures around the Toronto Raptors franchise is extending his particular brand of personality to the fashion industry. Well, kind of.

Raptors analyst and colour commentator Jack Armstrong has teamed up with Entripy to release a number of t-shirts bearing Armstrong’s catch phrases. The translation of Armstrong’s energy from the broadcast booth to the shirts is seamless, and at $20 a pop, they present an affordable way to diversify your Raptors wardrobe.

One of the kindest people you’ll ever meet, Armstrong initially seemed taken aback that people loved his catch phrases so much, let alone were willing to wear them. “I hope that folks enjoy them,” he said. “I’m honoured that people would have the enthusiasm to wear them.”

You can find the t-shirts here.

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Gameday: Raptors @ Bucks, Game 3, April 20

Maybe they’re just comfortable this way. The Toronto Raptors are once again headed out on the road looking to wrestle home-court advantage back in a playoff series, having squandered the first pair at home to the tune of a 1-1 series tie. Losing a game at home is not a death knell by any means, and the Raptors have shown the ability to fight back from 0-1 deficits, or 10-point deficits, or whatever other obstacles they’ve put in their own way. As discussed here the last few days, though, it renders the margin for error thin, and it ratchets the pressure up for Games 3 and 4 in Milwaukee, the first of which goes down Thursday at the Bradley Center.

“A dog fight,” P.J. Tucker said yesterday at practice. “That’s all we talked about today. They’re gonna come out hard. They won home-court advantage by winning one here, so now we gotta get it back, and they’re gonna do everything not to give us one. This third game is gonna be a game and we gotta come out like we’re going into a fight.”

If there was a consistent message around the Raptors since Game 2 ended, it’s that the Milwaukee Bucks aren’t going to just be willing to concede control back to the Raptors. win Game 3 and the series is back where it should be for Toronto. If the Bucks can take it, though, the pressure ratchets up – the Raptors won each Game 3 a year ago, and a 1-2 hole is a different thing altogether. The Raptors, then, aren’t feeling any less pressure to take their presumed 2-1 edge, and the discourse was about getting even better, not simply repeating what led them to a narrow victory on Tuesday.

“I don’t think so,” Tucker said of easing the pressure with a Game 2 win. “I think it ramps it up a little bit more. For us, we see a little bit of how we can play. We don’t feel like we played a great game. We won and that’s great, but we want to get better. For us, it’s just taking it to another level still.”

History still shades slightly to Toronto’s side. Teams with home-court advantage in a series tied 1-1 after two still in 60.3 percent of series. They’re a -225 favorite for the series, per Bettingsports. BPI gives them a 70-percent chance at winning the series and a 41-percent chance of doing so in six games or less. They won in this exact situation twice last year. And there were a lot of small things they did better in the last meeting that, if they continue to build on, should have them in a good place. That starts with moving the ball a lot better and not going away from that like they did in the third quarter Tuesday.

The game tips off at 8 on NBA TV and TSN on TV and on Sportsnet 590 on radio.

I  tried to do our usual thing where we’ll send some questions to the other side, but I wasn’t able to drum up responses in this instance. For some of their perspective, here’s what BrewHoop thought of Giannis Antetokounmpo’s Game 2 performance and the job the Raptors did on him:

Toronto played off Giannis plenty tonight, daring him to shoot. Rarely was he able to find a modicum of space in the entrenched paint, and it oftentimes took one of those VICIOUS screens or his man getting lost in traffic to free up enough space for the lane. He got a few feeds as the roll man tonight, but for the most part, Toronto was asking him to shoot jumpers, and he obliged until taking it to the post in the final quarter. With Toronto’s considerably better shooting tonight too, there were less opportunities to push off the miss. As such, his game looked a little neutered compared to game one, but the fact he didn’t stop shooting or probing the Raptors’ interior was an encouraging sign.

The Raptors, for their part, think they can do even better, with Tucker in particular saying he thinks as the series winds on and they learn him better, the team can improve limiting his transition game.

Here’s one more note from Adam Paris’ recap, something I found myself thinking about in the fourth quarter, too, after Jason Kidd not only went with Mirza Teletovic early in the fourth, but then stuck with Matthew Dellavedova late over Tony Snell:

Let’s talk briefly about Delly…Now, anyone could’ve missed that shot, but Tony Snell had also been hot from deep all night, bucketing two aforementioned clutch transition threes. Not to mention the fact Snell got subbed in for the final possession for defensive purposes on DeRozan. If you know Snell is “the man” to guard DeRozan, wouldn’t you want him in there in the waning minutes of another potential road win? Perhaps that could’ve helped prevent his go-ahead jumper late? Not to mention the fact wing threes are Snell’s hottest shot locations all year. Delly deserves minutes, but I don’t think the rationale necessarily matched up with the scenario tonight.

Dellavedova helped get a lot going for Milwaukee’s offense as a screener in Game 1, but he was less effective here. The Bucks have played two point guards together more than anticipated, and seeing more of Snell would probably be a negative for the Raptors.

Raptors updates
The biggest change head coach Dwane Casey made in Game 2 was to go deeper into his rotation. Jakob Poeltl played four minutes due to Jonas Valanciunas’ foul trouble and Serge Ibaka’s sore ankle, and while that’s probably not a firm part of the gameplan going forward, it’s nice to know he’s there as a reliable option. Delon Wright played nine minutes, and that felt like more of a fundamental rotation expansion to nine men. He responded well and made a case for even more playing time, though Cory Joseph may have already been close to the minimum Casey will play him (they’ve really talked about how much Joseph’s improved shooting has helped with spacing). Casey also mentioned that Norman Powell will have a place in this series at some point. It would be surprising and a stark change for Casey to run with an 11-man rotation, but as expected entering the series, it looks to be “eight with a spark from a young guy here and there,” which is a nice way to make use of the Raptors’ depth.

The other notable change was the heavy use of the Tucker-Patrick Patterson-Serge Ibaka trio, on paper their best bet for defending this Bucks team. They hardly played together in Game 1 but saw ample run Tuesday, and that trio with Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan figures to be one of Casey’s primary options closing a tight game out. They’d make for a good starting lineup, too, but it doesn’t seem like a change is coming after the Raptors’ starters played to a positive in the last one. The lack of rebounding edge Toronto’s been able to gain with the respective starting groups continues to perplex, with the Raptors grabbing just 51 percent of rebounds with that fivesome and just 51.2 percent overall. That simply has to be an advantage for Toronto in this series.

With all lineups, it’s important to remember that this group essentially had three regular season games together, and everyone is still figuring things out. That includes Casey, who has had a very quick hook for some lineups that haven’t worked out.

“It’s a challenge because we haven’t had as many games and now they’re intense, meaningful games,” Casey said. “So the communication, the nuances, understanding what certain guys are going to do in certain situations they’re still feeling each other out. So that’s a huge part…As we go along hopefully they get better.”

PG: Kyle Lowry, Cory Joseph, Delon Wright, Fred VanVleet
SG: DeMar DeRozan, Norman Powell
SF: DeMarre Carrol, P.J. Tucker
PF: Serge Ibaka, Patrick Patterson
C: Jonas Valanciunas, Jakob Poeltl, Lucas Nogueira
TBD: None
ASSIGNED: Bruno Caboclo, Pascal Siakam
OUT: None

Bucks updates
Kidd made a few curious choices with his rotation in Game 2, and there are a few things he’ll probably tweak here. Teletovic has been ineffective, and Spencer Hawes almost single-handedly got Lowry going again. With Thon Maker showing he can handle himself in longer minutes, including the high-leverage closing minutes, Kidd may soon get comfortable working with a two-center rotation rather than three. The option to slide Antetokounmpo there still exists, too, and should scare the Raptors at least a bit. And Kidd’s closing unit night to night remains a question mark (he’s used fewer lineups than the Raptors in general).

PG: Malcolm Brogdon, Matthew Dellavedova, Gary Payton II
SG: Tony Snell, Jason Terry, Rashad Vaughn
SF: Khris Middleton, Michael Beasley
PF: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Mirza Teletovic
C: Thon Maker, Greg Monroe, Spencer Hawes, John Henson
TBD: None
ASSIGNED: None
OUT: Jabari Parker

The line
Game 1: Raptors -7.5 (Series Raptors -350) (Bucks 97, Raptors 83)
Game 2: Raptors -8 (Series Raptors -165) (Raptors 106, Bucks 100)
Game 3: Bucks -1.5
Series: Raptors -225 (implied probability of 69.2 percent)

The market is factoring in a huge swing for home court in this playoff series, it would appear. The line moving 9.5 points between games without any fundamental shift in team health or identity means that there’s more than the usual three-to-four points swinging for location (going Toronto to Milwaukee could have been expected to move the line seven or eight points, normally). There’s also a chance the market likes the Bucks better now than at the start of the series, a reasonable take, but the Raptors remain strong series favorites nonetheless. The over-under is at 196.5 following totals of 180 and 206.

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Playing Craps with the Raps

The Raptors seem to be back on track once again after delivering their all-too familiar slow postseason start. The team was spanked at home in a very lackluster effort to begin their playoff run last Friday 97-83. Yes, it was an ugly loss, but it was not a telling loss. Torontonians have seen this all before with the team going to seven games in two of the last three years in the first round.

The Raps got off to a slow start and went the distance against the Pacers last year and also went to seven with the Nets in 2014. Who can ever forget Masai Ujiri shouting “%$ck Brooklyn!”? The team this season has a bit of a lesser matched opponent in the consistently inconsistent Milwaukee Bucks. They finished second in the Central by the skin of their teeth, narrowly edging out Indiana and Chicago. Nothing against the Pacers or Bulls but the Bucks were written off by many months ago. They managed to string together a late magical run though to get to this point. Also, thankfully, the Raps came to their senses in game two and it’s an even series.

As for the Raps year thus far, aside from a few hiccups and injury setbacks, they’ve been fairly steady. They’ve stayed close to or atop the Atlantic all year and have been considered contenders the whole way. Now that they’ve finished second in the division and lost their first game, their odds could be extremely high paying. The Raptors are undervalued as the fourth pick to win the East according to TopBet, the team is sitting at +4,000 to take home the gold.

So, what needs to happen from here for this team to win you some cash? Well, they need to escape round one. Once that happens their odds increase heavily and not just because other teams will be headed home…potentially.

The Celtics are getting pasted by the eight-seed Bulls in their series and the Cavs have their hands full with Indiana. Now, while the Pacers have dropped their opening pair of games, Raps fans know just how deadly that team can be when up against the wall; PG13 can make things rated R pretty quickly.

Once they’re through to the second round, they’ll likely face the Cleveland Cavaliers. The Cavs were the best team coming out the East all year long but stumbled in 2017. The team fell off the tracks a few times and they ended up finishing second in the conference. With that said, they’re still the powerhouse squad to beat and the Raps couldn’t have a better test in front of them.

If all goes according to plan and the Raps make it to the third round, the world is their oyster and a one-way ticket to the finals should be in the cards for this year’s rendition. If (and potentially when) that’s the case, that +4,000 oddset could net you some serious cash.

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Raptors 905 punch ticket to finals with 2-0 sweep of Maine

Raptors 905 103, Maine Red Claws 88 | Box Score | Raptors 905 win series 2-0
Assignees: Pascal Siakam, Bruno Caboclo (905), Demetrius Jackson, Jordan Mickey (Red Claws)

Before Raptors 905 tipped off for Game 2 of the Eastern Conference Finals, 905 head coach Jerry Stackhouse was presented with the D-League Coach of the Year award. While the award is given with only the regular season in mind, the playoffs so far have represented a strong litmus test as just how strong the 905’s season has been.

Before the playoffs, they lost Will Sheehey to injury. One game in, they lost Axel Toupane to the NBA. One round in, it was Edy Tavares getting the call. With the progression of each game has come a new challenge or a new adverse circumstance, and at each step, the 905 have just kept on moving forward. The Coach of the Year honor is a nice recognition, but despite everything accomplished so far – including Pyrrhic victories in the form of call-ups – the team was still set to approach Tuesday’s game for what it was: The chance to inch even closer to a goal bigger than any individual recognition.

“It’s not about anything else but going out, competing, and trying to finish this off. We talked about this and set goals at the beginning of the season,” Stackhouse said. “Personally, it’s gratifying, absolutely, to understand that you can have a system and a way of doing things that guys accept and have been able to thrive and flourish in.”

The team’s entire philosophy is being tested in these playoffs, the limits of an all-for-one, depth-reliant system stretched to the extremes. At each measuring point, the parts that remain have been weighed and found ample. To the surprise of nobody at this point, that was the case once again as the 905 rolled to a 103-88 victory and a place in the D-League Finals.

The 905 got out to a bit of a shaky start, allowing a pair of Maine buckets and requiring three offensive rebounds on the same possession before Bruno Caboclo got them on the board. The Red Claws hardly scored from there, shooting 2-of-15 over the rest of the quarter and coughing the ball up five times. The 905 didn’t make the best advantage of those turnovers (zero points), but pushing the ball the other way off of misses produced some nice opportunities to hit the glass against a scrambled defense. Six offensive rebounds in the first quarter led to eight second-chance points, and Caboclo had a pair of big ones he was able to score off of himself. Away from the glass, E.J. Singler was the only Raptor hitting early, but when you hold an opponent to 11 points on 22 possessions in a quarter, good things happen. As such, the 905 left the frame with a 12-point edge.

You have to score at some point, though, and the 905’s inability to do so early in the second saw the Red Claws slowly chip away. A thunderous Demetrius Jackson dunk cut the lead down to one with four minutes left in the half, marking a good time for Brady Heslip to hit his second three of the series on 10 attempts to that point. Pascal Siakam followed with a monster dunk of his own in transition, and the 905 had wrestled control back just like that. That bit of momentum snowballed in the form of an 18-0 run, Heslip heated up (hitting four more threes in the quarter and ultimately finishing with 21 points), and the Raptors assignees engaged in a nifty wing weave to free Singler for a three, pushing the lead out to 20 at the break.

For the second game in a row, the deficit seemed to frustrate the Red Claws, with Abdel Nader getting into it with C.J. Leslie a bit late in the half (they both received technicals). And for the second game in a row, that failed to manifest in any sort of sustained pushback – Maine made a brief run early in the third, but the strong defense withstood the test and a gang-rebounding approach to the glass against Maine’s length (and, uhh, girth) helped clean things up even in the absence of top rebounder Edy Tavares.

“We’ve changed course a lot of times this year, different styles that we’re able to play. Edy did clean up so much for us. Obviously, the Defensive Player of the Year, which is very deserved,” Stackhouse said before the game. “He was an anchor for us. I still say Edy played probably less than 24 minutes a game, so those other 25 minutes, we were pretty good defensively, too.”

That defense began getting tested late in the third, and with their season on the line, Maine found that bit of desperation that was lacking in Game 1. Guerschon Yabusele roaring down the floor for a foul in transition cut the lead to 11 with nine minutes to play, a reasonable deficit to try to erase even against the best of D-League defenses. Even as that defense bent some for the first time in the series, though, the 905 kept answering back, and while the close-out felt tight on account of the stakes, the Red Claws never really pulled back close enough to put the 905 in danger.

Because these things tend to provide the copy for you at times, Caboclo put the most fitting of caps on a terrific individual performance, rejecting Jordan Mickey as the shot-clock sounded for a turnover with under two minutes to go. That effectively ended Maine’s push, and stuck 17, head coach Scott Morrison brought in his bench to wind out the clock.

The 905 meanwhile, fought to contain smiles in a late huddle and then failed to do so at a stoppage in the final minute of play. Through everything – assignments, recalls, injuries, and call-ups – they’ve just kept winning. The feeling around the team is that as they keep moving forward, they’re becoming even more unassailable despite the subtractions.

“These guys, they all carry a little chip on their shoulder. I think they’ve done that since the beginning of the season,” Stackhouse said. “They’ve put in the work, so they have that swagger comes from the confidence of knowing they’ve put in the work to put themselves in this position. That’s what I see now: A confident group that’s just trying to get it done.”

The confidence is obvious as they continue to steamroll through all of the obstacles put in front of them. And now getting it done is just a matter of two more victories.

Notes

  • Stay with me here: Bruno Caboclo was excellent in this one. Not only was this one of Caboclo’s finest offensive performances of the season – he scored 16 points on 6-of-13 shooting and hit 4-of-8 on threes – he also continued to show why those who have tuned in this season have come away excited about his defensive potential. His growth as a team and man defender is obvious, and it was paramount as the 905 sustained Maine’s push in the fourth. This was really encouraging to see after Caboclo was mostly a non-factor on offense over his first few playoff appearances.
    • I asked Stackhouse about Caboclo’s progress after the game, and seriously, I wish my dad talked about me like that.
  • Pascal Siakam also turned in a strong showing, once again scoring in a variety of ways and showing some really nice post work. He finished with 15 points on 15 field-goal attempts, and while that’s nothing special, he also dished four assists, showing some nice vision on the move or on the block. He pulled in 10 rebounds, too, a critical contribution as the 905 crashed aggressively to secure a 10-rebound edge. He and Caboclo were both also big factors in keeping Abdel Nader and Jalen Jones, two excellent prospects, in check. Siakam’s had himself a solid playoff run.
  • Both Siakam and Caboclo are being recalled and will join the Raptors in Milwaukee tomorrow, then get assigned back down for Game 1 of the finals.
  • Boston Celtics assignee Demetrius Jackson was invisible for a second straight playoff game, so he’ll fit in seamlessly once recalled.
    • (He wasn’t actually bad here, scoring a team-high 21 points, I just had to get that joke off.)
    • Guerschon Yabusele is so much fun to watch in person. He had a rough series here and I’m not sure how his skill set, at his size, is going to translate to the NBA, but in the D-League, unique is always good.
  • The Hershey Centre was a little empty, with an announced attendance of 1,967. Stackhouse had tried to prepare his team for that ahead of time: “I know the Leafs are playing tonight, so we’re gonna try to probably create our own enthusiasm a little bit, may not be the excitement that we’d hope for being back in our home building. But we’ve done it before, so I’d expect nothing less than an unbelievable effort.”
  • Stackhouse was mic’d up for the ESPNU broadcast. Someone will have to tell me if he needed editing, because he wasn’t going to change his sideline language for TV: “That’s on them. They gotta edit it accordingly. I have no control over that.”
  • Former Raptors assistant and Canada Basketball head coach Jay Triano was in attendance. More importantly, so was Alex Wong.
  • The 905 will now await the winner of tonight’s deciding Game 3 between the Oklahoma City Blue and Rio Grande Valley Vipers. Game 1 will go Saturday or Sunday on the road before the 905 return home looking to secure a championship (likely) on Tuesday and Thursday. (This schedule isn’t confirmed, but with the championship needing to wrap by April 27 and the Mississauga Steelheads playing at home April 26, there really aren’t many other sequencing options.)
    • Raptors Republic readers can get discounted 905 playoff tickets by using the promo code REPUBLIC905.

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Practice news & notes: Not gonna be a picnic party

The Toronto Raptors bounced back in Game 2 to escape their own city with a 1-1 split. Now, the series heads to Wisconscin, and the Raptors are expecting the Milwaukee Bucks to try to turn things around and protect what’s now their home-court advantage in the series. This is, of course, how series work, with the sides making adjustments and counter-adjustments, momentum existing only as a momentary figment of narrative, and a team’s success only as sustainable as the energy that represents its driving force.

In other words, there’s still a lot of hard work to be done, and while the Raptors did well in evening the series, they still have a long way to go to wrestle control of it back. Game 3, then, won’t be easy, and there’s nobody better at telling you that hard things are hard than Raptors head coach Dwane Casey.

“Like I told the guys, it’s not going to be a picnic and if anybody’s looking for a picnic they’re in for the wrong type of party,” he said at practice Wednesday. “It’s going to be a battle, a war and we’ve got to go in with that mentality. The only friends they’re going to have is the guys in the film room earlier.”

So this one won’t be a picnic party, if you had expected the Raptors to show up with their favorite cheeses given the location of the next battle. Will it be sexy, though, showing up in its summer finest, as if the game were going to be an ethereal midsummer’s day?

“It’s going to be a battle. We’ve got to be ready for war,” he continued. “It’s not going to be easy. The game is not going to be pretty. We don’t want a pretty game.”

Funny quotes aside, though, the Raptors haven’t done enough through two games to feel particularly comfortable about their play. They played better, to be sure, and in cutting the Bucks from 18 dunks or layups to 11, and from 40 points in the paint to 30, they executed some key parts of their defensive gameplan well. Milwaukee, for as rigid as they are in their defensive system, has the opportunity now to adjust their offense, and the Raptors are bracing for a refined attack Thursday.

“We feel like we got better the second game. Personally, I felt like that,” P.J. Tucker said. “But we broke it down even more from the first game to the second game, now going into the third game, especially dissecting plays, how we wanna cover certain things. They made adjustments, so now we make adjustments to get better at it.

“We kinda talked about that today, in personal conversations of we still feel like we haven’t gotten close to our potential. We feel like we can get a lot better. Our energy has gotten up, we’re playing harder, but still, small things.”

While the Bucks may change things on the offensive end, their defense mostly is what it is. Despite some struggles, they’ve been exactly what the Raptors expected heading in. There’s strong logic to suggest the Bucks defense can be better exploited with more familiarity, and the Raptors seemed to be getting their in the first half of Game 2, particularly with the attention the Bucks were paying to Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan.

(I wrote about Lowry’s bounce-back performance over at Vice.)

“Those were good looks. We got all of the looks we wanted,” Casey said. “The way they played the defense presented that — those shots, those plays. Guys made shots.”

The Raptors will have to do even better creating and exploiting those openings in Game 3, because it’s unlikely that they’ll hit close to 50 percent on such a high volume of threes again. Then again, the Bucks aren’t particularly likely too, either. Regression is sometimes the biggest between-games adjustment, so the Raptors have to make sure their margin for such variance is expanded by playing better on both sides. That’s their focus.

The greatest scrum of all time

Serge Ibaka is not the greatest interview in Raptors history. He is thoughtful and smart, and asking the right questions can pull out some great answers, but for the most part, Ibaka is pretty light on the chit-chat. On Wednesday, media at practice were also light on questions for the power forward, and so his scrum lasted all of 25 seconds in one of the funnier sessions in Raptors history.

(How’s your ankle?)

Good.

(You seemed to play better in the second half.)

Yeah, my ankle felt good. … That’s it? Okay!

Fin.

Other Notes

  • Bruno Caboclo and Pascal Siakam were assigned back to Raptors 905 for Game 2 of the D-League Eastern Conference Finals, which goes down tonight. If the 905 win, the youngsters could re-join the parent club briefly to gain experience watching Games 3 and 4 in street clothes, depending on what the schedule ends up being for the D-League Finals. If the 905 lose, Game 3 goes Thursday, so Caboclo and Siakam won’t be going anywhere.
    • Jerry Stackhouse was named D-League Coach of the Year today, and here’s what Casey had to say about the job Stackhouse has done:
      • “That’s great. Congratulations. He did a great job with that team, growing that team, developing that team. I saw Tavares got defensive player of the year, that was huge. And I thought our guys that went down, Freddy and Siakam and those guys, did a great job going down there and playing, Bruno. That’s what it’s all about – not only to develop the players but to develop the coaches and that’s what the D-League was initially put in for. Whether it’s staff, coaches, players, it’s all about development and Stack did a great job with the team down there.”
  • For what it’s worth, Tucker was a very vocal presence on the sidelines Tuesday, particularly with respect to Kyle Lowry, though Tucker declined to shed light on what those conversations were like. Tucker’s of the belief, as many are, that Lowry’s energy drives the team, and so it seems he took it on himself to try to help make sure that energy level remains high.
  • The Raptors flew out after practice and will get into Milwaukee late this afternoon. They’ll have shootaround tomorrow, and we’ll have light coverage here, but we’re not traveling for the series, so it’ll be a lighter notes post. The Raptors expect to come back right after Saturday’s afternoon game, so they should be well rested despite the travel when Game 5 rolls around Monday.
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Delon Wright gives Raptors well-timed boost in Game 2

For a game that very nearly slipped away and saw the Toronto Raptors in an 0-2 hole, Tuesday’s defeat of the Milwaukee Bucks had a lot of little things to be encouraged by. Kyle Lowry played much better. Ball movement was a more obvious emphasis, save for a six-minute stretch of the third quarter. DeMarre Carroll and Cory Joseph saw their minutes trimmed some, Patrick Patterson’s went up, and the P.J. Tucker-Patterson-Serge Ibaka frontline – as well as the closing lineup that included those three – saw ample run a game after inexplicably seeing next to none (yes, Dwane Casey makes adjustments). Ibaka looked great once he got going, too.

It was not a perfect game by any means, but as far as reasons for optimism in a tight six-point win, there are reasons to think the Raptors are getting it together to some degree. Perhaps the most encouraging of the signs from an individual perspective was the play of two of the team’s young players.

Jakob Poeltl saw some first-half run, and while he was solid in four minutes – the Raptors didn’t miss a shot during that time, he finished on a nice cut to the rim, he hedged well in the pick-and-roll – he was playing because of a combination of foul trouble for Jonas Valanciunas and a desire to avoid over-taxing Ibaka’s ankle early on. Poeltl has proven steady when called upon, playing within himself and his role, and it was nice to see him respond to playoff intensity without missing a beat. Had Lucas Nogueira not lost his backup center job thanks to an ill-timed stretch of shaky play around the All-Star break, the Brazilian is, tactically speaking, a preferable option against an opponent like the Bucks (even if Greg Monroe did have his way with him a bit earlier in the year), but Poeltl providing a semblance of safety and floor is important, too.

Poeltl probably won’t be called on a ton game-to-game, especially since the Raptors looked so good with a Patterson-Ibaka frontcourt again. That doesn’t make it any less encouraging that he affirmed Casey’s belief that he’s there if needed.

Delon Wright, though, may have made a case for Casey to fundamentally change his rotation the rest of the series.

This is actually a case Wright’s been making for some time, to be clear. Initially expected to factor in a year ago, Wright was pushed to a third-string role but showed nice development in the D-League. He was showing more of the same in Summer League, when a dislocated shoulder and torn labrum not only ended his offseason but threatened his role for this year. Fred VanVleet ran with the third point guard slot even as Wright looked back to form with Raptors 905, and it wasn’t until an unlikely pre-deadline comeback against the Charlotte Hornets and the subsequent injury to Kyle Lowry that put Wright in a position to show his growth in a meaningful way at the NBA level. His play with Lowry out, while unsteady initially, was perhaps the single biggest silver lining of the All-Star’s absence.

(Raptors Republic readers, by the way, have been clamoring for more Wright throughout all of this.)

With the Raptors’ nine-point lead in the second quarter chipped down to two, Casey called on Wright in place of Cory Joseph. Normally, this is a chunk of time in the rotation where Lowry and Joseph share the floor, and it’s been very effective over the last two seasons. Milwaukee’s length poses problems against that two-point guard lineup, though, and they’ve done well seeking out switches that force a smaller guard onto Giannis Antetokounmpo or Krhis Middleton. Wright is not exactly Tucker in terms of stature, but he’s big for a point guard, with the length of a wing and a savvy, sneaky defensive focus that helps his size play up, especially when it’s one of the games in which he’s fighting through screens better (Wright believes this is his biggest area of weakness, by the way).

With a Lowry-Wright or, later, a Joseph-Wright pairing, the Raptors minimize the risk of being small without sacrificing too much in terms of ball-handling. Wright is a better penetrator than Joseph, and while he’s not the same shooting threat, the ability to attack the weak side is paramount against Milwaukee’s traps, and Wright’s slithering, amoebic drives help keep the Bucks from resetting as they scramble to re-balance their defense on a swing.

On Tuesday, Wright’s performance maybe didn’t jump off the page. Box score surfers surely didn’t catch it, as Wright went scoreless with two rebounds and three assists in his 8:25 of action. Even the Raptors’ plus-1 mark during that span betrays his impact some, as he was responsible for helping create a few Raptors scores and frustrate the Bucks at the other end, two things the Raptors hadn’t gotten from their two-point guard lineups so far in the series (save for maybe the early second quarter of Game 1).

Offensively, the biggest thing Wright was able to do was attack from the corner, either in an attempt to finish through length at the rim or to goad the defense into collapsing for a kick-out.

He was also able to take the much larger Middleton off the dribble when a play seemed to die out in the strong corner, no easy task even when Spencer Hawes is the helper.

I don’t have anything to say here, this is just a really zippy pass.

One of Wright’s rebounds came on the offensive glass, something that’s become a major strength for him (he ranked 11th in offenswive rebound rate among all players 6-foot-6 and under who played at least 400 minutes this year). Casey doesn’t like sending anyone toward the offensive glass other than Valanciunas, and the Raptors have posted anemic offensive rebounding numbers in the series so far. Wright’s anticipation is terrific, though, and he’s often able to hunt down longer rebounds that have him moving back on defense even if he can’t come up with them.

That same aggression in the open court also helped force an Antetokounmpo travel.

In the half court on defense, Wright’s impact wasn’t as clip-worthy beyond just doing a solid job opposite Malcolm Brogdon. He wasn’t perfect, getting beat once and forcing Valanciunas help that left the glass open for an Antetokounmpo rebound, but he was mostly good, recovering well if he was caught on a screen and anticipating them otherwise.

He also had a nice dig-down on a Greg Monroe post-up that helped force an out of bounds and eat clock. Twice on the same play, Wright reads the distance and angle he can help off of Brogdon, and Monroe has no clue the second swipe is coming.

Wright’s length came in to play after he lost the handle on a key defensive rebound, too, as he was left in a position to contest an Antetokounmpo pull-up.

Again, none of this is to say Wright was perfect, or would be if his role was expanded beyond the roughly nine minutes he played here. The more the Bucks see him, the more they may look to attack him and test his ability to withstand post-ups from bigger players. Casey probably isn’t going to have Wright jump Joseph in the rotation – Wright didn’t play at all in the second half – because he trusts Joseph, Joseph is a more established shooter as of this year (and the Raptors are a little starved for that necessity against Milwaukee’s defense already), and the Lowry-Joseph pairing can work against a lot of different Milwaukee iterations.

Speaking afterward, Casey made it sound as if this won’t be the last the Raptors lean on their pair of Utah Utes and another young piece in Norman Powell, who made a brief Game 1 appearance before drawing a DNP here.

“It was the plan coming in,” Casey said of using Wright. “I just thought he and Jakob both, there were times in the second quarter when were making substitutions to give guys a blow that he could come in and create. I thought he did an excellent job of coming in and creating shots, creating opportunities. I thought he did as good a defensive job as you can with Dellavedova and also Brogdon. He and also Jakob and Norm are going to have a place in this series before it’s over.”

A postseason series is all about adjustments, and Wright proved an effective one in Game 2. If that’s all his series ends up being, that contribution from a sophomore who played a few dozen games this year is one heck of a find. And it certainly looks like it could be more.

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Jerry Stackhouse wins D-League Coach of the Year

Photo credit: MattAzevedo.com.

The awards just keep coming for Raptors 905.

Head coach Jerry Stackhouse was named the D-League Coach of the Year on Tuesday, a well-deserved honor that most seemed to figure was a certainty after he led the 905 to the second-best record of all time in his freshman season behind the bench. The 905 went 39-11 and set a D-League record with a 21-4 mark on the road while also earning three NBA call-ups and helping the Toronto Raptors in the process.

The sophomore 905 had barely any holdovers from the year prior, and Stackhouse quickly made his mark with long, frequent practices. That set a tone for the season that not only would the work be hard, but that everyone was expected to be ready when called upon. That meant a fairly democratic split of minutes in a deep rotation and a distribution of shots that came within the offense’s flow, boiling down to a handful of go-to attacks only when the clock or the game dwindled. The 905 moved the ball better than almost any other D-League squad, and while some of that was based on having an immense amount of talent, it also had a lot to do with the buy-in to the offensive system and the belief that smart play would beget better results.

Defensively, the 905 ground the pace down to a halt and made sealing off the paint a priority. With multiple versatile defenders across the three wing spots, Stackhouse’s system saw the team switch aggressively around an anchor at center in Defensive Player of the Year Edy Tavares, now a member of the Cleveland Cavaleirs. The 905 proved an elite defensive team with the league’s No. 2 defensive efficiency, and they were particularly strong cleaning up the glass, which helped fuelled the attack the other way.

That the 905 remain in the playoffs didn’t impact voting but it sure to make Stackhouse’s case look stronger after the fact. The 905 have lost Will Sheehey to injury and Tavares and Axel Toupane to call-ups to the NBA, and the team keeps chugging along. They dominated Maine in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals despite being down to just 10 healthy bodies (including the pair of Raptors assignees), and they can punch their ticket to the D-League Finals with a victory on Tuesday at Hershey Centre.

From a player development perspective, it would be hard to argue Stackhouse and his staff haven’t done a terrific job (David Gale, Nathaniel Mitchell, Nicki Gross, and the rest of the staff all deserve a world of credit here and surely share in Stackhouse’s honor). Bruno Caboclo has taken significant strides as a defensive player and in terms of maturity on the court, Delon Wright used the D-League as a successful rehab assignment, Jakob Poeltl was able to stay fresh on two occasions, Fred VanVleet emerged as a capable NBA point guard, Jared Sullinger briefly existed, and now Pascal Siakam is getting the chance to throw rapid growth in the postseason environment. The D-Leaguers have improved, too, with Brady Heslip growing immensely as a point guard, Tavares turning himself back into an NBA prospect, Toupane growing as an offensive weapon, and a number of other players putting themselves in better positions for the offseason and their next step.

The award marks the second for the 905 this year and the fourth in their two-year existence. It’s impossible to call the program anything but a resounding success so far, and Stackhouse has rightfully been given a nod for the large hand he’s had in that. As I wrote before the playoffs, this year probably puts Stackhouse on the NBA coaching radar, where he’d seem to be a terrific candidate to take over a young, developing roster.

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What Comes After

Tuesday night the Toronto Raptors did the expected, and evened up their series against Milwaukee with a narrow 106-100 victory. It’s a completely reasonable thing to want to focus on the good here, and talk about Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan both having solid games to change the narrative that they can’t get it done in the playoffs, but it’s hard to watch that game and also come to the realization that this young Milwaukee squad isn’t going away, and they aren’t going to give up anything easily in this series. This will be a tough, long playoff series and it could easily break either way, and although I still favor the Raptors to get out, it might be worth exploring the long-term implications of this series whether or not the Raptors are victorious.

First of all, with Cleveland expected to be waiting in the next round, should the Raptors beat Milwaukee, it would be a safe bet that everything from here is playing with house money. After all, who could fault the team for losing to the defending Champions who are led by LeBron James? Whether or not the Raptors make it past Cleveland, as long as the series is somewhat competitive, there would definitely be an argument in favor of running it back again. With LeBron yet another year older, you could hope that perhaps he wouldn’t be quite the same player and that would open the door for Toronto at least a little bit.

Even here though, what does that look like? The Raptors can’t bring everyone back, that simply isn’t an option, with Kyle Lowry, Serge Ibaka, PJ Tucker, and Patrick Patterson free agents and just over $90 million already committed. The easiest of the bunch to figure out has to be Lowry, who you’d assume is back assuming the Raptors are willing to commit the money to keeping him. His maximum contract is a 5-year deal worth approximately $202 million. Perhaps Masai Ujiri manages to convince Lowry to take a discount of about the same percentage he talked DeMar DeRozan into a summer ago, where the Raptors saved around $15 million over the course of DeMar’s contract. A similar 10% discount on Lowry’s contract brings the total down to $180 million, with an initial year of $32 million. That would bring the Raptors commitments up to just over $120 million and put the team in the luxury tax zone, before even talking about any of the other guys.

If I had to order the other three players, I’d say Serge Ibaka is the most likely to return, but also at a high price, and PJ Tucker third. With those two signings possibly looking to bring the team into the neighborhood of $150 million in salary before additional moves, there would have to be other moves made to reduce the burden, as well as the likely acceptance that bringing back Patrick Patterson simply isn’t financially feasible. We’re a long way into guessing here, and it’s certainly possible Masai manage to work some magic to make the numbers look better than I can, but it’s hard to see this not being a very expensive proposition to bring back this core to make another run. If the team does try, they’ll have to move at least one salary to make this work, and while the fan base would certainly probably prefer that to be DeMarre Carroll, with his injury struggles and inconsistent on-court production, finding a suitor for the last two years of his contract could be difficult, even in a rising cap environment. It may end up being that either Cory Joseph or Jonas Valanciunas has to be moved just to keep the numbers palatable for MLSE. Perhaps even both, depending on the level of organizational confidence in Delon Wright, Jakob Poeltl and other young players.

That’s a complicated scenario to play out, and clearly not an easy path even if keeping a good team together is always preferable to rebuilding in any form, and it also assumes that all of those players decide to return. While that seems a safe bet with Kyle Lowry having found his most successful years in the NBA in Toronto, and Serge Ibaka and PJ Tucker have given no indication they’d rather play elsewhere, it’s certainly possible one or more of those players decides to move on.

On the other hand, if the Raptors were to lose to the Bucks, it could change the way the team is seen both within the organization and from outside. Despite last year’s trip to the Eastern Conference Finals, this would be the third time in four years where the Raptors would have lost in the first round with home court advantage, and that would definitely open up questions over whether or not this core simply can ever contend, not just for a NBA title, but to be one of the elite teams in an improving Eastern Conference. LeBron might not be going anywhere for a few years yet, and with Giannis ascending every year and young teams like Washington and the Celtics improving, the road may get tougher every year in the near future. I’ll preface this with this is the ‘darkest timeline’ outlook, and I’m intentionally painting the worst case scenario because the team may have to take these things into consideration as they plan out the future.

Despite the fact that the Raptors are one of the youngest teams in the league, their leaders aren’t young. Lowry is 30 now, and a decline at some point during his next contract is certainly not an unreasonable assumption. Tucker and Carroll are both also on the wrong side of 30, and Carroll has already had a couple of rough seasons with the Raptors in terms of health. While DeMar DeRozan and Serge Ibaka are both 27, neither of them can be considered totally a lock to sustain their current production. Prior to arriving in Toronto, Ibaka had been seen around the league as someone who was already in decline, with his athleticism not what it once was. He’s looked like the Ibaka of old since coming to the Raptors, but there may be more than smoke to the player he looked like in Orlando.

For DeRozan it’s a complicated question. After all, his game is described as an old man’s game, and he’s a player who works hard during every offseason to improve himself. Just during this campaign alone, he’s grown leaps and bounds as a decision maker and in the way he reads defenses and has even been giving improved effort on the defensive end late in the year. On the other hand, the way he plays simply might not be sustainable as a player ages, looking at historical context. It’s not a leap to say that DeMar’s game depends on being able to shoot a large quantity of free throws while not shooting often, or a high percentage, from three-point range. Since his first All-Star berth in 2013-14 his free throw rate(FTr) has been well over 40% each season, while his 3 point rate(3PAr) has never topped 15%. There have been 11 other players with similar shooting tendencies as young players since the year 2000. Even if you adjust these parameters slightly to 35% FTr and 20% 3PAr, to assume that he shoots a few less free throws and becomes a better three point shooter as he ages, that list narrows to just two players, Dwyane Wade and Allen Iverson. Given that, it’s not unreasonable to question how DeRozan’s game will evolve as he ages. I’ve been incredibly impressed with the growth of his game over this season, and it would certainly seem safe to assume he continues to improve in future years, but father time is undefeated, and not everyone’s game ages equally.

I bring up these questions, not as criticism for the players, but to demonstrate how complicated the scenario is if the Raptors do lose to Milwaukee, as far as the future of the franchise. It would certainly be preferable to It’s also reasonable to question how safe Dwane Casey’s job is should the team bow out in the first round, and wonder who replaces him should the team decide to move on. There is undoubtedly still hope if the Raptors decide to go in the direction of a youth movement, and with the talented youngsters on board, a full rebuild is likely unnecessary, but player development is never a sure thing, either.

If the team decides to move on and focus on the younger generation, what does that even look like? That’s a hard question to unpack, because while it’s easy to fall in love with players like Delon Wright, Norman Powell and Jakob Poeltl, and they all are loaded with potential, you wouldn’t want to hand any of them the reins of the franchise, at least not yet. Losing to Milwaukee is an unpalatable option, because none of the doors appear to have good options behind them if you decide to accept that this core simply won’t be a contender, and that’s a hard thing not to consider if they only manage one first-round win in four tries as the higher seed.

Whether management decides to stay the course or change direction, it’s clear that the team will have a complicated future. Will that be trying to manage their pocket book as they retool for more deep runs through the playoffs, or trying to rebuild on the fly for their youth movement while also moving on from the elder statesmen of the team? Either way, there seems to be a lot more riding on this playoff series than simply a berth in the second round for the Toronto Raptors.

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The Lowry ‘Forcing’ Shots Game

In a game of matchups, the Raptors were able to squeeze just enough from the favourable ones to win. Lineups matter so much in the NBA playoffs, when minutes for stars swell, and talented wings like DeMar DeRozan or Khris Middleton can back down a shorter but otherwise-talented player and shoot over the top in midrange. The Raptors learned just how much a poor lineup can doom a team’s playoff chances while watching Indiana implode in Game 5 last year. In Game 2 this year, the Raps bled just enough juice from their winning Lowry-Patterson lineups to overpower the Bucks.

A key narrative of this game was that the Raptors played much better than the Bucks, but they couldn’t build a sizeable lead and put their opponents in the ground. The Raps are merciful, which is good for people in life, but bad for people in sports.

Despite refusing the finish the job, the Raptors spent most of the game skillfully executing their gameplan, forcing the Bucks into a flurry of awkward-elbowed jumpers. However, Tony Snell hit four 3s. Greg Monroe stroked several midrange jumpers, and Giannis Antetokounmpo hit a number of midrange shots. He even stepped back for a game-tying clutch 3! The Bucks as a team shot almost 50% from 3 and 90% from the line. The Raps can live with that, especially because it statistically shouldn’t happen again.

When Jonas Valanciunas opened the game with a powerful and-1 over and through Thon Maker, it was clear that the Raptors would at least show up emotionally for the game, unlike Saturday evening. When Patterson, Ibaka, and then Tucker airballed wide open 3s, it was clear that the Raptors showed up perhaps a mite too emotional. The Raptors took their previous loss to heart, and it seemed as if they were trying too hard to make up for it. The Raps missed rotations from overhelping and generally seemed over-enthused to start the game. Effort always requires execution as a dance partner.

Dwayne Casey coached an impressive game, and he gifted Lowry an open rhythm 3 with an impressive after timeout play halfway through the first quarter. However, Valanciunas was basically played off the floor when Giannis switched to the roll man in the high pick and roll. The Alphabet scored an ungodly 1.43 points per possession as the roll man during the regular season (shooting almost 70% from the field!), and Valanciunas struggled containing either the ball-handler or the massive frame of Giannis darting towards the rim. With four minutes left in the frame, Casey opted for a more mobile frontcourt to contain Milwaukee’s speed and length, throwing Patrick Patterson and Jackob Poeltl into the frontcourt.

Poeltl only got time because of fouls, but he impressed. He high walls ballhandlers on the high pick and roll so well. He navigated one Dellavedova drive fantastically, keeping his weight back to stop a lob to Monroe, but showing his length to Delly to force an awkward floater. He seamlessly walked the tightrope of guarding two players simultaneously while keeping multiple defensive choices available in his toolbox.

Meanwhile on offence, Toronto started playing well. Lowry played in control, penetrating into the lane effortlessly, but seeming somewhat hesitant to go up against the Bucks’ length. Toronto countered hard doubles against DeRozan with quick skip passes to the outlet followed by laser swings for open corner 3s. Tucker and Carroll both played heady, knowing when to swing a second pass to the corner, when to hit the cutting big, and when to drive against the closeout. Tucker threw an impressive pass to a cutting Poeltl for a deuce.

It’s worth noting that DeRozan’s playmaking was off the charts in the first quarter. He operates somewhat like Steph Curry for Golden State. DeRozan warps the floor in such a way that his team gets open shots on the second or third pass after he gives it up. It doesn’t show up in the boxscore, but Toronto was thriving as a result.

At the same time, Milwaukee shot 4/5 from 3 in the quarter, which kept them in the game.

The second quarter opened with a run that could have broken the Bucks. Cory Joseph hounded Delly full-court, and it seemed to get in Delly’s head. The Bucks offense wasn’t starting until 10 seconds had already lapsed, and Giannis and Middleton were forced into some ugly, off-balanced shots to beat the shot clock. Joseph, Patterson, and Tucker were hitting 3s. But after a timeout, Ibaka airballed a 3 and then missed a rotation, letting the Bucks back into the game. Ibaka’s first half was horrific, accounting in large part for the Raps’ struggle to build any sizeable lead.

Casey turned to Delon Wright midway through the second in a typical Joseph rotation spot, perhaps to offer more length to counter the Bucks. Wright played well, swinging the ball to the corner for another Patterson 3. However, Monroe continued scoring at will for the Bucks. The Raptors found success with a little-used Lowry, DeRozan, Wright, Patterson, Valanciunas lineup. They offered lots of playmaking around Lowry’s shooting. The Bucks played into the Raptors’ hands by throwing Spencer Hawes at the Raptors, who promptly fouled Lowry behind the arc and then conceded a Lowry layup. The Raptors need to run up the score whenever the Bucks play their least mobile players, such as Hawes and Teletovic.

The Raptors ended the half on another down note, conceding some easy layups to Giannis due on his size alone. They just couldn’t put the Bucks away!

The Raps pulled the old ‘pretend to come out flat only to actually run up the score’ trick coming out of half. Tucker subbed in almost immediately, showing Casey’s willingness to quickly go away from a lineup that can’t get the job done. Carroll played with his legs under him, hitting a 3 and offering relatively energetic defense. After a Lowry layup in transition, the crowd was louder than your weird uncle, drunk at Christmas dinner, asking for the cranberry sauce. Of course, then Middleton hit a 3, refusing to go out quietly.

Ibaka owned the third quarter with some timely shooting and two insane blocks on Giannis. He woke up from a bad dream at half. DeRozan made a few plays attacking Monroe on the double team instead of quickly getting rid of the ball, which he was doing earlier. Monroe’s offense had been killing the Raps so far, and they seemed to make an effort to play him out of the game on the other end of the court.

The fourth quarter opened with Teletovic on the court for the Bucks, and the Raps predictably went on a run, powered by an Ibaka 3 and Joseph crossover for a layup. Kidd quickly took Teletovic out, and the Raptors turned the ball over several times, allowing the Bucks to get back into the game. Lowry and Joseph especially were turnover machines.

Casey went to his closing lineup of Lowry, DeRozan, Tucker, Patterson, and Ibaka relatively early in the fourth, but they weren’t getting it done. They ran a simple 1-2 pick and roll, isolating DeRozan against the much-shorter Delly. He missed, but that is a deep well of effective offense the Raps can trust when it’s winning time.

The fourth quarter proved the high-variance nature of the 3-pointer. Giannis hit a massive 3, but statistics balanced out on the next Bucks’ offensive possessions as Malcolm Brogdon and Delly missed wide open 3s. The Raptors got late-game stops more as a result of luck than skill.

In a game in which the Raps played far better than their opponents, but somehow were within a missed jumper of losing the second in a row, the final assassin was a familiar and comforting figure. Lowry hit a dagger with nine seconds left in the game on a patented elbow turnaround jumper. KLOE.

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Morning Coffee – Wed, Apr 19

10 things I saw from Raptors-Bucks (Game 2) – The Defeated

Adjustments: Dwane Casey pushed the right buttons after Game 1. He went away from the Lowry and bench unit with Jonas Valanciunas, and instead used Jakob Poeltl for the first half before riding with Ibaka for the second. That lineup needs defense and good spacing on offense, which Valanciunas can’t provide.

Raptors have just enough to buck the Bucks: Arthur | Toronto Star

On Lowry’s jumper, that was trust, too — DeRozan was doubled, he moved it to Ibaka, Ibaka found Lowry, Lowry made the play on his own. In the end, the Raptors had 24 assists on 37 field goals, hit a franchise playoff record 14 three-pointers, had Lowry and DeRozan combine for 55 points on 30 shots, and got that Ibaka surge in the second half — 13 points, four rebounds, six assists and two blocked shots, after which he celebrated like he had just escaped from Shawshank — and it was still hard.

“Oh yeah, it’s real relief,” Ibaka said. “Now we know it’s going to be a fight. We have to be ready to fight.”

What it takes to beat Milwaukee isn’t natural for these Raptors. Toronto was last in assisted baskets in 2015-16, and 28th the year before that. As Casey said, “you’re not gonna change what our DNA is. It’s been 82 games . . . you’re not gonna make DeMar DeRozan John Stockton.”

Stockton, of course, was the patron saint of pass-first point guards. These Raptors, meanwhile, are at a crossroads. This is the strongest team that team president Masai Ujiri has assembled, but he could disassemble it, if it falters. The East is wide open, LeBron and all. But this Milwaukee team is thorny, coached by the brilliant Jason Kidd, and they have the best player in the series. And they are so long, so otherworldly. Honestly, the Cleveland Cavaliers might be a better matchup, or at least a more comprehensible one.

But to get to there, the Raptors have to escape this. It won’t be easy, but it can be done.

Kyle Lowry, Raptors pass Game 2 test with no margin for error – Sportsnet.ca

After guarding Antetokounmpo in the post – “we don’t like that switch,” said Casey – it was Lowry who stepped up to drop the anvil on the Bucks. The same Lowry, who looked hesitant in Game 1 in putting up just 11 shots, letting the Bucks dictate his game, showed why the Raptors need him to be aggressive.

After DeRozan got rid of the ball while facing a Bucks double-team – the kind of smart decision-making that marked most of DeRozan’s night –Lowry was isolated against the Bucks’ rookie Malcolm Brogdon. He dribbled hard at him, backed him off and hit a step-back to put the game away with 8.9 seconds left.

“For me, I just wanted to get to my spot,” said Lowry. “I knew there was five seconds on the shot clock, I wanted to get to my spot. Get to my spot and let it go. At the end of the day, I work on my shot almost every day. So if I missed it, I would have still been happy because I got to my spot.

“But I was gonna try to make it.”

It was a relief as much as a success. Such is the lot of being the higher seed, the more experienced team. But it was a triumph, too, as the Raptors were fighting not only a resilient Bucks team, but their own ghosts as a favourite who can’t take care of business at home despite the adoration of crowds packed inside and outside the building.

Serge Ibaka’s Game 2 Was Everything the Raptors Needed and More – The Ringer

The Raptors, in spite of countless runs sparked by the percolating greatness of Giannis Antetokounmpo, narrowly escaped with a 106–100 victory at home largely because they knew this wasn’t Valanciunas’s series. They won because of a moment of foresight back in February, when the team did what it needed to in landing Serge Ibaka in an midseason deal. Over the last four seasons, Toronto has boasted one of the most traditionally constructed rosters in the league, a ’50s nuclear family on the hardwood. It doesn’t take much to completely reconfigure that DNA — only the rarest of modern-day NBA archetypes, the floor-spacing rim protector. The Raptors made sure they’d be armed with one come the postseason. Game 2 was exactly why.

It was Ibaka’s finest moment as a Raptor: 16 points (with 12 of them coming from 3, where he shot 4-of-7), seven rebounds, six assists, and two of the best blocks you’ll see all season against two of the Bucks’s longest, most athletic players. He was a game-high plus-13 in 35 and a half minutes. His performance in the third quarter was arguably the best I’d seen from him in years.

Raptors win Game 2 but something’s off | Toronto Sun

Dwane Casey’s thoughts on the offence breaking down after playing so well earlier: “I thought we lost our mind a little bit.

“We kind of got away from ourself as far as our passing, getting open shots. That’s something we have to be mindful of.”

True, because the Bucks will be waiting — and hoping — for those meaty opportunities that will let them morph into open-court predators.

“They made shots, it slowed us down, made us play in the half-court,” Jason Kidd said.

“We have to get back into the open court and to get guys running.”

The Raptors have to do a better job of not letting that happen for 48 minutes.

Raptors top Bucks in Game 2 duel to tie series | Toronto Star

The Raptors needed every bit that Lowry gave them. They needed the 23 points DeRozan chipped in, and the rock-solid second half they got from Serge Ibaka. They needed the tenacious defence of P.J. Tucker, the trio of three-pointers that Cory Joseph made, and a 10-point, 10-rebound night from Jonas Valanciunas, because the Bucks were not going to go quietly.

Behind another solid Giannis Antetokounmpo night — 24 points and 15 rebounds — Milwaukee refused to buckle when the Raptors extended leads to double-digits on a handful of occasions.

And they simply ran into some bad shooting luck in the final 90 seconds when both Matthew Dellavedova and Malcolm Brogdon missed wide-open three-pointers that would have given them the lead.

“We got some great looks. The ball goes halfway down (on Brogdon’s shot) and comes out. That’s just basketball,” said Milwaukee coach Jason Kidd. “It can be nice or it can be cruel.”

Lowry and DeRozan step up in final minutes to lift Raptors – Video – TSN

While it might have been too close for comfort for the Raptors and their fans, Nik Stauskas explains how important it was for their all-stars to step up in the end, while trying to limit the Greek Freak to jumpers.

2017 Playoffs: Game 2 Recap – Raptors 106, Bucks 100 | Toronto Raptors

CLOSING OUT IN DRAMATIC FASHION

The fourth quarter was a dramatic affair as the Raptors opened on an 11-0 run behind two 3-pointers from Serge Ibaka, a layup from Cory Joseph and another 3-pointer from P.J. Tucker to build a quick 12-point lead. Similarly to the third quarter, the Raptors were unable to run away with the game as the Bucks simply refused to go away, slowly chipping at the Toronto lead until a 3-pointer from Giannis Antetokounmpo tied the game with 2:49 remaining. From there, the Bucks had multiple looks attempts from beyond the arc, but could not get their shots to fall. Toronto did not ever give up the fourth-quarter lead and secured the victory with a step-back jumper from Lowry and a pair of free throws from Patrick Patterson. Toronto shot 47 percent in the final frame, holding Milwaukee to 33 percent from the floor.

NBA Playoffs, Game 2: Lowry, DeRozan and Casey respond, Raptors beat Bucks 106-100 – Raptors HQ

Jonas Valanciunas as the second unit anchor was replaced by Serge Ibaka — a more obvious fit in that running-and-gunning, defense-focused unit headed by Lowry. Delon Wright was inserted in the second frame as a taller stand-in for Joseph; his eight minutes were infinitely more important than his zero points might suggest. Wright, with his herky-jerky, drive-and-kick game, blended seamlessly into the Raptors’ side-to-side attack.

Most significantly, Casey unleashed the Ibaka, P.J. Tucker and Patrick Patterson front court that played a grand total of one minute together in Game 1. Apart from a 51-second breather for Ibaka (who was terrific in the second half once his wobbly ankle warmed up), the trio closed the final seven-plus minutes of the game.

Casey’s rotation alterations stand a good chance of sticking this time.

Not to be forgotten was DeMar DeRozan. His Game 1 showing wasn’t quite the lightning rod that Lowry and Casey’s were, but he was visibly bothered by Milwaukee’s trapping in the second-half on Saturday. Like Lowry, DeRozan mastered the Bucks’ puzzle in Game 2.

“He did a really good job of stretching out the trap,” said Casey. We did a good job of getting it to the weak side … We shot 48% from three and that’ll loosen up those traps when you get that.”

NBA Playoffs Final Score: Bucks’ Late Surge Falls Just Short in Game 2, 106-100 – Brew Hoop

Toronto played off Giannis plenty tonight, daring him to shoot. Rarely was he able to find a modicum of space in the entrenched paint, and it oftentimes took one of those VICIOUS screens or his man getting lost in traffic to free up enough space for the lane. He got a few feeds as the roll man tonight, but for the most part, Toronto was asking him to shoot jumpers, and he obliged until taking it to the post in the final quarter. With Toronto’s considerably better shooting tonight too, there were less opportunities to push off the miss. As such, his game looked a little neutered compared to game one, but the fact he didn’t stop shooting or probing the Raptors’ interior was an encouraging sign.

DeRozan: “We gotta clean it up” – Video – TSN

DeMar DeRozan was very pleased that the Raptors were able to even up the series, but knows they still made some mistakes and can clean things up with the series shifting to Milwaukee.

Raptors minimize Antetokounmpo, win Game 2 vs. Bucks | Toronto Sun

Offensively the Raptors moved the basketball much better than they did in the first game and shared the scoring equally, led by 23 from DeMar DeRozan and 22 from Kyle Lowry.

As important as the Raptors getting Antetokounmpo under some semblance of control was Lowry starting to look a lot more like the Lowry the Raptors’ faithful became accustomed to in the regular season.

He was not himself in Game 1, a non-factor for almost all of the game but that came to an end in Game 2.

Lowry aggressively attacked the basket the entire first half, getting to the line seven times and converting all seven free throws. He ended the half with a then game-high 17 on his way to those 22 points, none bigger than the pull-up jumper he hit with 8.9 seconds and the Raptors up two to basically put the game away.

There were plenty of doubters for Lowry to feed off between the two games, but his coach correctly predicted before the game that his all-star point guard would respond with a big game and he wasn’t disappointed.

“It’s just his competitive edge,” Casey said of knowing Lowry would come up big. “Being with him over these years I have seen him in the trenches before and he has always bounced back. That’s just the way he is. He’s a competitor. He’s a fighter and I just knew he wouldn’t be satisfied the way he played the first game.”

Lowry downplayed the turnaround.

“I just played. I went out there and took my shots, be aggressive like my teammates challenged me to be and I got to the free throw line nine times,” he said.

Raptors’ depth pays dividends in Game 2 win over Bucks – Sportsnet.ca

With Lowry and DeRozan drawing plenty of double teams in the first half, Joseph emerged as a secondary scoring threat, especially from beyond the arc. He hit a three on his first offensive possession, after DeRozan forced the ball through a trap to Tucker, who found Joseph unguarded in the corner.

Joseph hit two more in the first half, including one in the second quarter that should have come with a foul as he was bumped by Brogdon with no call. The Raptors guard worked diligently on his three-point shot last summer and continued to fine tune it throughout the season. Tuesday night he got to show off all his hard work.

“They’re keying in on Kyle and DeMar. So, we hit a couple shots when they found us,” Joseph said. “If I’m open, no hesitation. I’m just going to let it fly. They’ve been doubling off me. So, today I got to let a couple go.”

Third-string guard Delon Wright played an important role in Tuesday’s game as well, logging 8 1/2 minutes in the second quarter. It was a bit of a surprise to see him walk to the scorer’s table so early in the game. But Casey had told Wright beforehand to expect some run.

“It was the plan coming in,” Casey said. “I thought that he could come in and create. And he did a heck of a job.”

Weak, crazy, strange: Raptors win over Bucks anything but routine | Toronto Sun

“We had an opportunity,” Bucks’ coach Jason Kidd said.

They were close enough to be able to go home with a 2-0 lead. There is a game in every playoff series that a team ends up regretting. This could be Milwaukee’s regret.

It was there for them and then it wasn’t. If this went to the scorecards in boxing, it would not have been a unanimous decision.

This wasn’t magic: Now you see one team, now you don’t.

And it starts again on Thursday night. All tied up. The Raptors still trying to figure out who they are and how they play and what they must do to be playoff bright. They have to punch a little more, counter-punch a little less, be more sound. They need to find their playoff legs.

Kidd described the game almost perfectly: “It can be nice and it can be cruel.”

And there was no way of knowing which of those it was going to be until the Raptors had a win.

“Tonight, Toronto was desperate,” Kidd said. He meant the basketball team.

He might have been referring to the city as well.

Toronto Raptors Get Much-Needed Game 2 Victory Over Milwaukee – Sir Charles in Charge

DeRozan and Lowry combined for 45 points, 11 rebounds and eight assists. Overall, the team shot 48 percent from the field AND three-point range. Toronto’s hot shooting coupled with holding Giannis Antetokounmpo to 9-24 shooting from the field (he finished with 24 points, still) helped make way for a Raptors rebound in Game 2.

Serge Ibaka, who hit four huge three-pointers, added 16 points, seven rebounds and six assists in the Raptors’ win. Cory Joseph logged 11 off the bench.

As the series shifts to Milwaukee for Games 3 and 4, the questions still exist – can we finally (fully) trust the Toronto Raptors?

Kyle Lowry shows up, drills dagger to hold off Bucks for Game 2 win – Yahoo

“It was a broken play,” Lowry said with a laugh during a post-game interview with NBA TV’s Jen Hale. “DeMar [DeRozan] had two guys on him, kicked back to Serge [Ibaka]. Serge got me the ball, and I just wanted to get to my spot. I got to my spot, and shot the ball and made it.”

Lowry’s super-tough bucket gave Toronto a four-point lead that it would not relinquish, as the Raptors hung on for a 106-100 win that evened their best-of-seven first-round playoff series with the sixth-seeded Bucks at 1-1. Game 3 will tip off at 8 p.m. ET on Thursday in Milwaukee.

How much will Serge ibaka command as a free agent – RealGM

More than Ryno, less than Horford. 4/$100 is about my guess.

Raptors will select 23rd in the 2017 NBA Draft – Raptors HQ

The Clippers got the 23rd pick, the Raptors were 25th, but due to the aforementioned deals, the Raptors get 23rd and the Magic get 25th. Don’t ask me to explain this again — my head hurts.

Raptors, Bucks both winners at NBA draft lottery tiebreaker – Sportsnet.ca

The Clippers won the tiebreak to select 23rd overall, but that pick actually belongs to the Raptors as part of the Greivis Vasquez trade. The Raps also own the 25th overall pick, but will send the pick to Orlando as part of the Terrence Ross deal. So, to sum it up, the Raptors will draft 23rd this season. Louisville shooting guard Donovan Mitchell is DraftExpress’s 23rd-ranked player.

Did I miss anything? Send me any Raptors-related article/video/social to rapsfan@raptorsrepublic.com

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Post-game news & notes: Lowry bounces back, Raptors land on logical closing five

The Toronto Raptors have made it clear: They’re not going to make this easy.

On several occasions in their Game 2 victory on Tuesday, they looked to be gearing up to take control, only to cede it immediately. Each run was followed by a Milwaukee Bucks push that pulled things even, or close enough to it to cause the game-long anxious energy in the Air Canada Centre to fester over the court. They maybe didn’t have to put themselves in a position for some late-game heroics

That the Raptors pulled it out and evened the series at 1-1 is of monumental importance to the shape of the series. Just don’t expect it to get any easier from here.

Kyle Lowry Over Your Bad Takes and Disloyalty

Trade Kyle Lowry? To the dude who had that sign in Jurassic Park before the game: Consider yourself waived. Lowry entered Game 2 with serious questions about where his head may be at, whether he could get shots off against the length of the Bucks, and if a 45-game playoff sample was beginning to suggest maybe he’s just not built for this atmosphere (or for a 100-game season).

For a night, he answered any and all questions and doubts with an emphatic performance. Lowry was masterful in the first half and would close things out by hitting a dagger of a long two to extend the lead to four in the game’s closing seconds. He finished with 22 points on 12 field-goal attempts, added four rebounds, five assists, and three steals, and was a plus-7, the second-best mark of any player in the game.

“Just playing,” Lowry said of the change in performance. “Going out there and taking my shots. Being aggressive. My teammates challenged me, like I said before, and I got to the free-throw line nine times. Got aggressive early and the second half, DeMar kind of got himself going. So we balanced well tonight. For me, it was just going out there and playing.”

There was obviously some trepidation entering this one given the extent of his Game 1 struggles and the fact that he’s only a few games removed from a return following surgery. In the time leading up to Game 2, Lowry was fairly hard on himself and said some…interesting things publicly, but DeRozan and Casey gave him the space he needed, with DeRozan saying he said “nothing” to Lowry and Casey saying more or less the same. Still, they had faith.

*It’s just his competitive edge. He’s one of those guys that’s just a competitor, ” head coach Dwane Casey said of not saying much to Lowry before the game. “Being with him over these years, I’ve seen him be in the trenches with him before. He’s always bounced back. That’s just who he is. He’s a competitor. He’s a fighter. I just knew that he wasn’t going to be satisfied with the way he played in the first game. He’s human. Everyone has a night like that. We just can’t panic every time a guy like that has a tough night.”

Early on, it looked like maybe the Bucks’ length was precluding Lowry from attacking like he normally would. He tried to draw contact from Khris Middleton on a baseline drive but couldn’t stick the layup. He passed up a decent look at the rim to get DeMar DeRozan an even better one. He got blocked by Malcolm Brogdon. There were a few other instances, too. But once Lowry got going, thanks in part to a couple of switches onto Spencer Hawes, he seemed to put any of that behind him, even after Hawes got one back on him with a block inside.

“That’s the way they play,” Lowry said of the drive-and-kick approach. “They kinda make you get in there, they all come to the ball, you gotta kick out.”

That Lowry got to cap his night with a major dagger – on a play designed for DeRozan, no less – was a nice cherry. Lowry isn’t out of the woods yet, necessarily, because the Raptors aren’t out of the woods. But this was a major step in the right direction and likely a big weight off of his shoulders. Plus, we can stop talking about how bad one of the team’s best players ever is.

Adjusting – Ball movement, rotation, Utes

Toronto seemed to unlock something in the first half that they’ll need to go back and look at more closely, with a more democratic offense with a bit more ball movement seeming to up the defensive intensity at the other end and make Lowry a little more comfortable facilitating against a scattered defense.

“We tried to do some things to try to help him get open a little bit better,” Casey said, declining to point out what, specifically, he meant outside of shooters hitting shots.

He also only called it “somewhat” effective, taking issue with the team’s ball movement as they coughed up a lead in the third. Toronto had 12 assists on 17 first-half field goals and 12 on 20 in the second half, but Milwaukee’s 20-11 run over the last six minutes of the third saw Toronto muster just two, with four turnovers. They fell back into old habits a bit, and it almost bit them.

That strong first-half ball movement also included appearances by Jakob Poeltl and Delon Wright, who both contributed some solid minutes. Poeltl’s presence was due in part to Jonas Valanciunas’ foul trouble and Ibaka’s ankle, and while I thought maybe Lucas Nogueira’s passing would get him the first look here, it shouldn’t surprise that Poeltl remains ahead in the rotation. (The team briefly went with Patrick Patterson at the five, too, something they might try for again in Game 3.)

Wright, on the other hand, may have made a more permanent case for inclusion in Casey’s plans. He turned in eight solid minutes, proving less of a defensive post-up threat than Cory Joseph and making some heady, Delon Wright-style plays offensively. Don’t even look at the box score (three assists, zero points) for Wright’s contributions. He was good, and he’s probably going to play Thursday.

“It was the plan coming in,” Casey said of using the young players. “I just thought he and Jakob both, there were times in the second quarter when were making substitutions to give guys a blow that he could come in and create. I thought he did an excellent job of coming in and creating shots, creating opportunities.”

Casey also mentioned that Norman Powell will have a role in this series, too.

Injury Updates – Dead Man Blocking

Serge Ibaka shook off a shaky first half to turn in a monster effort in the second. That sprained ankle might give him a bit of trouble moving forward, but whatever treatment he got at halftime seemed to work, and I would like some for myself.

“I thought his ankle loosened up a little bit in the second half,” Casey said. “We knew he was a little gimpy in the first half, we were mindful of it, it’s why we got Jakob in and gave him some minutes but in the second half, I thought it got warmer and looser and he got his adrenaline going and was able to play on it…That’s a tough thing to fight through.”

That Ibaka played and played well was paramount, as he’s probably been the team’s best two-way player through two games. His presence at the rim and ability to make smaller, switchier lineups more playable opens up plenty of options for Casey. He finished with 16 points, seven rebounds, six assists, and two blocks that felt like twenty, and him coming through really seemed to fire up the tram for their third-quarter run and fourth-quarter stand.

“It’s big. Just getting out there, being a solider, doing the things he was able to do tonight for us, especially defensively,” DeRozan said. “He hit some key shots in the fourth quarter. He got us going, playing through that sore ankle, and without him, we wouldn’t have got this win tonight.”

There’s no indication there are any other injuries on either side.

Lineup Notes

  • Despite what some will surely feel was the case thanks to a different group closing, the Raptors’ starters were actually just fine for a change. They got out to a nice defensive start in the first quarter and helped build a lead in the third, and that group was a plus-5 in 15 minutes overall. I believe that’s the first time this group has played to a positive rating in five games together now.
    • Conversely, the Bucks starters were a minus-6 in 11 minutes.
  • The Raptors closed with a group that didn’t play at all in Game 1, a Lowry-DeRozan-Tucker-Patterson-Ibaka look that appeared before the series like it would be their best fivesome against this opponent. They were just a plus-2 in six minutes, but considering the leverage and situation of those minutes, that’s a big win.
  • The Lowry-and-bench group included Ibaka in this one, and they once again found a nice groove, with a plus-5 mark in eight minutes split over the second and fourth quarters.
  • Interestingly, the only bad Raptors lineups were ones that played exceptionally short minutes – Casey was quick to pull the plug if something wasn’t working, and only one unit played more than one minute with a negative rating (a -1 in three minutes for a DeRozan-Ibaka-bench group).
  • The Bucks’ starters with Dellavedova in place of Snell remains a problematic group thanks to the length, shooting, and pair of guards who can screen effectively. They were a plus-5 in nine minutes.

Assorted

  • In talking about the competitiveness in the Eastern Conference playoffs, Dwane Casey offered this: “There’s no easy sisters in the East.”
  • Bismack Biyombo was visiting in the Raptors’ locker room after the game, though sadly, he declined to speak to media and give us all one of last year’s incredible philosophical talks.
  • Just a point worth noting: Results can skew process. The Raptors were *better* in Game 1 than the final score suggests, having shot poorly on threes and with Antetokounmpo shooting fire from mid-range. They also maybe weren’t this good in Game 2,, as they shot 48.3 percent on their threes. The Bucks shot 47.8 percent, too, so maybe it was just a night where the rims were widened. In any case, don’t sell yourself too hard on this being a big turnaround – the teams have played very closely, in qualitative terms, through a pair of games. Toronto should be better, but they haven’t been with any consistency yet, so this is still very much a series.
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Raptors-Bucks Game 2 Reaction Podcast – Lowry, DeRozan, Ibaka comes up clutch

Host William Lou is joined by Zarar Siddiqi to recap a thrilling win over the Milwaukee Bucks in Game 2.

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Quick Reaction: Bucks 100, Raptors 106; Series tied 1-1

Milwaukee 100 Final
Box Score
106 Toronto

A
S. Ibaka36 MIN, 16 PTS, 7 REB, 6 AST, 0 STL, 6-15 FG, 4-7 3FG, 0-0 FT, 2 BLK, 1 TO, 13 +/-

Talk about a Jekyll and Hyde performance. He couldn’t hit the broad side of the barn to start the game but finished with some huge threes in the second half. He shot his shot all night long as evidenced by the 15 field goal attempts and kept the Raptors’ momentum up with two huge back to back blocks on Thon Maker and Giannis Antetokounmpo. Imagine what life would be like without him on this roster? *shudders*

C+
D. Carroll17 MIN, 9 PTS, 1 REB, 1 AST, 0 STL, 3-4 FG, 2-3 3FG, 1-3 FT, 1 BLK, 0 TO, -4 +/-

Carroll made up for his defensive woes…slightly. He finished two of three from deep but couldn’t get his free throws to drop again. He’s now just two of six from the charity stripe and looked downright soft on defense. It’s tough to grade a player when you have to guard the Greek Freak each night but man, it’s not even close.

B
J. Valanciunas22 MIN, 10 PTS, 10 REB, 0 AST, 0 STL, 4-10 FG, 0-0 3FG, 2-3 FT, 0 BLK, 2 TO, 1 +/-

JV did exactly what he needed to do. He exposed Maker with his size inside and when Greg Monroe came on he basically took a seat. He finished with another double double and was aggressive early. He had the crowd going with a big dive for a loose ball and continues to remind fans how important he is to this team being successful in the postseason.

B-
K. Lowry39 MIN, 22 PTS, 4 REB, 5 AST, 3 STL, 6-12 FG, 2-5 3FG, 8-9 FT, 1 BLK, 4 TO, 7 +/-

One of the more frustrating Kyle Lowry performances to watch. One one hand he scored 18 more points than he did in Game 1 but on the other hand he almost threw away the game with head-scratching turnovers. He continues to flop and the refs have had enough. Almost any other player in the league would have drawn a foul on Giannis for the push-off at the end of the game, but not Lowry. Still, he hit an absolute dagger at the end of the game and this could be the return of KLOE.

A-
D. DeRozan38 MIN, 23 PTS, 7 REB, 3 AST, 0 STL, 9-18 FG, 0-1 3FG, 5-6 FT, 0 BLK, 2 TO, -1 +/-

An oddly quiet 23 points from DeRozan tonight. Made his shots from the line, got to the basket, and shot 50 percent against the octopus arms of the Bucks. Can Bucks have Octopus arms?! Either way he got it done and flew under the radar with the erratic play of Lowry and the shot-blocking/shot-making of Ibaka. We’re spoiled watching him every night and his shooting woes in the playoffs are starting to trend in the right direction.

B+
P. Patterson30 MIN, 8 PTS, 3 REB, 3 AST, 3 STL, 2-6 FG, 2-6 3FG, 2-2 FT, 0 BLK, 1 TO, 6 +/-

Suffered a scary moment when he went to the locker room with his shoe off and limping but it turned out to just be a sprained right toe. He came back and made some quality “hockey passes” to set up big time shots. He constantly jumped passing lanes and disrupted the Bucks’ offense. The stats don’t often tell the whole Patterson story as we know by now and tonight was no different.

A-
P. Tucker28 MIN, 5 PTS, 5 REB, 2 AST, 0 STL, 2-4 FG, 1-3 3FG, 0-2 FT, 0 BLK, 0 TO, 2 +/-

The Bucks did well to avoid Tucker for large stretches of the night but P.J. always finds a way to take your lunch money. Tucker played his role perfectly and watching him lock up The Freak despite giving up about three hundred feet in wingspan is truly inspiring. His energy is contagious and he laid it all out on a night the Raps needed to win.

B
C. Joseph18 MIN, 11 PTS, 0 REB, 1 AST, 0 STL, 4-6 FG, 3-4 3FG, 0-0 FT, 0 BLK, 2 TO, 1 +/-

Still struggles to create and finish shots on offense but had a nice drive late in the game that showed a ray of hope. He held on to the ball for too long again tonight and seems almost timid with Lowry back on the court. He shot well including three of four from deep though and any time CoJo is going to give you that shooting performance you’ll take it. Still made some brutal passes out of the paint and needs to adjust to the length of the Bucks.

A-
Dwane Casey

Casey adjusted to the Bucks’ transition game well tonight and constantly pushed the Raps to move the ball up the floor. It helped that the Raptors made shots tonight and he was forced to play Carroll a little more and Lowry a little less than he would have normally liked. Still, with everyone calling for his job after Game 1 he answered in a big way. Would have liked to see an actual play drawn up that didn’t result in a Lowry hail-mary to finish it off but hey, we’re splitting hairs here.

Things We Saw

  1. Giannis is going to be a problem for the entire series. He’s the best player on the court and that goes a long way in the NBA. Wouldn’t be surprised if this goes seven games based solely on The Alphabet’s skillset. wow.
  2. Those give away raptors shirts looked identical to the Red Wings logo from far away right? How have they not figured something out that people will actually wear again? Get Carroll to design it.
  3. Lowry’s flopping is getting out of control and the refs are catching on. It felt he finished every drive or defensive stand on the floor and he’s only hurting his chances of getting a call further down the line at this point.
  4. The Carroll experiment is over. He simply can’t keep up to premier wing players anymore and doesn’t have the size or athleticism to switch onto power forwards. He’s still a smart defender, but his role needs to be limited going forward.
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VIDEO: Bismack Biyombo interviewed at Raptors-Bucks Game 2

DAD’S BACK!!

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Pre-game news & notes: Serge Ibaka to play despite ankle sprain

If you’re the Toronto Raptors, 7 p.m. probably can’t come soon enough. Following a disastrous Game 1 effort, a two-day break has left them to stew in their mistakes without the chance to correct them in actual game action and right the ship. This isn’t new, of course, and everyone – fans, players, coaches, media – appear tired of talking about the team’s consistent need to be punched in the mouth before dialling in. The extended break should have the Raptors champing at the bit when the ball’s rolled in on Tuesday for Game 2.

The Milwaukee Bucks, though, aren’t going to just roll over. All of the talk earlier in the day from Milwaukee’s side was about knowing what’s coming from Toronto and answering in kind, or even beating them to the punch. The Bucks are surely aware that taking two in Toronto would give them a commanding lead of the series heading home and, while they won’t say it, could threaten the Raptors’ psyche. Toronto knows they can always bounce back from these poor starts – you don’t lead the league in double-digit comebacks twice in a row otherwise – and Milwaukee will look to pose the question of “what if you can’t, though?”

What feels like forever later, it’s time for the next salvo.

The game tips off at 7 on NBA TV (Spero Dedes, Grant Hill, Richard Hamilton, and Jennifer Hale) and TSN on TV and on TSN 1050 on radio. You can check out the full game preview here. Your officials are Mike Callahan, Bill Kennedy, and Mark Lindsay.

Required reading
Here’s what you need ahead of Game 2, assuming you haven’t been keeping up.

Raptors updates
In the time between games, Dwane Casey was speaking like a man with faith in his crew but running thin on patience. He comes under criticism for being rigid or reactionary (these things would struggle to both be true), and his between-game adjustments in last year’s postseason were really strong. Just because he hasn’t talked up any shifts in scheme or rotation doesn’t mean adjustments aren’t coming – he’s not going to advertise them, and he was talking like he has his starting lineup on a very short leash moving forward. And he specifically mentioned potentially using younger players if the main guys don’t get it done.

Of course, a lot of this will flow from whether or not Serge Ibaka can play.

Ibaka is dealing with an ankle sprain suffered Saturday, missed practice Monday, and went through shootaround Tuesday. Casey said Ibaka “should be able to go” at his pre-game media availability but said Ibaka was still working out to test the ankle and see for sure if he’d be able to play. I’d be pretty surprised if he doesn’t go given his history of playing through things in the playoffs, but check back before tip-off for confirmation.

UPDATE: Ibaka plays and starts, so Siakam and Caboclo are inactive again.

PG: Kyle Lowry, Cory Joseph, Delon Wright, Fred VanVleet
SG: DeMar DeRozan, Norman Powell
SF: DeMarre Carrol, P.J. Tucker, Bruno Caboclo
PF: Serge Ibaka, Patrick Patterson, Pascal Siakam
C: Jonas Valanciunas, Jakob Poeltl, Lucas Nogueira
TBD: Serge Ibaka
ASSIGNED: None
OUT: None

Bucks updates
There weren’t a lot of surprises with the Bucks’ Game 1 rotations, though there were a few things of note. Malcolm Brogdon and Matthew Dellavedova played more together than maybe expected. Spencer Hawes was confirmed as the third center over John Henson. Rashad Vaughn is the 13th man over Gary Payton II. The most important takeaway for Milwaukee, though, was that at least for a night, starting Thon Maker at center looked like it could be just fine – the rookie was a huge factor in the third quarter and finished the game a plus-3 in 15 minutes

“I think for Thon, it’s his rookie season, he’s going to make mistakes, but his energy and effort are something that he can control,” Jason Kidd said at shootaround. “I thought he did a great job in Game 1, and he was a big influence in that second half, in that third quarter. Just his composure, being able to do the things that we’re asking him to do, we’re not putting any pressure on him. We just want for him to be himself, and stay in character, and he did that in Game 1. I think his energy rubs off on everybody, so hopefully what he did in Game 1 is something he can bottle up in Game 2.”

Most notably, the Bucks grabbed 54.8 percent of available rebounds with Maker on the court, the best mark on the team. He doesn’t even have to do that much to make him playable. Expect Kidd to come out with the same rotation until the Raptors force a change.

PG: Malcolm Brogdon, Matthew Dellavedova, Gary Payton II
SG: Tony Snell, Jason Terry, Rashad Vaughn
SF: Khris Middleton, Michael Beasley
PF: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Mirza Teletovic
C: Thon Maker, Greg Monroe, Spencer Hawes, John Henson
TBD: None
ASSIGNED: None
OUT: Jabari Parker

Pre-game news and notes

  • Asked whether or not he talks to Kyle Lowry before a game like this after his shaky Game 1, Casey offered an interesting look into the player-coach dynamic: “No. You know, guys, we’ve had how many games this year? Some good games, bad games. You kinda know when to go to a guy and when not to,” he said. “He’s a self-starter. He understands the situation and I’ll be very shocked if he doesn’t come out…I think he’ll play better and I think we’ll play better as a team.”
  • The Bucks have talked a lot today about how, while their defense was very good, they thought the Raptors missed shots they should be expected to make moving forward. Basically, the Bucks aren’t patting themselves on the back and resting on their defense holding a good shot-making team in check once again.
    • “That was probably our best defense of the year. We would love to duplicate that, but we know each game is gonna have a different flow,” head coach Jason Kidd said. “We have to expect their best…We have to be desperate tonight.”
  • An interesting note from Kidd on Maker: The lack of a D-League franchise played a factor in his role, as the team had nowhere domestic to send him with control over his growth, didn’t want to send him overseas, and didn’t want it to be a “wasted” year. It sounds like they settled on starting him to ratchet up his learning curve, but I’d guess it also has to do with it being the easiest way to work him into the rotation for a few minutes each half without disrupting much.
    • There was some thought that could shift come playoff time, when development takes a backseat. Kidd felt differently. “We’re not gonna change. What he’s done, he’s earned the opportunity to start,” he said.
  • Bruno Caboclo was recalled to watch the game in street clothes. He’ll be back down with the 905 for their Game 2 tomorrow, probably with Pascal Siakam.

Assorted

  • The Raptors will pick 23rd in the NBA Draft.
  • Edy Tavares has been named D-League Defensive Player of the Year.
  • Kevin Pelton of ESPN provides us this nice nugget: “Based on the regular-season point differential of the Raptors and their opponents, we’d expect about a 0.4 percent (or 1 in 238) chance of Toronto losing four home playoff openers in a row by random chance (and 1 in 880 if we include losing to the Miami Heat in Game 1 of last year’s conference semifinals).” Woof.
  • The NBA will hold their drawing to break ties in draft seeding tonight. The Raptors will pick somewhere between 23rd and 25th, and we’ll know tonight exactly where.
  • I’ve been posting occasional pics and quotes to my Instagram Story, if you want to follow along there, too. Here’s a picture of the shirts for tonight:

  • Need a reason to hate on the Bucks?

The line
Game 1: Raptors -7.5 (Bucks 97, Raptors 83)
Game 2: Raptors -8
Series: Raptors -165 (implied probability of 62 percent; opened at Raptors -350 [77.8 percent])

The Raptors opened as 7-point favorites and the line moved to eight throughout the day. This suggests something about the faith in Toronto’s bounce-back potential and Serge Ibaka’s ankle, as it’s an even stronger line than the opener. ESPN’s BPI is still giving the Raptors a 62-percent chance at winning the series, for what that’s worth, and was mentioned earlier, teams with home court advantage and an 0-1 hole are still nearly .500 in series. The over-under is way down at 194 coming off of a game with a 180 total.

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Edy Tavares named D-League Defensive Player of the Year

Photo credit: MattAzevedo.com

The Raptors 905 season hasn’t yet drawn to a close, and the hardware is already coming in.

Edy Tavares was named D-League Defensive Player of the Year on Tuesday, a feather in the cap of a terrific season.

The 7-foot-3 Tavares joined the 905 early in the season as a waiver claim after being cut by the Atlanta Hawks early in the NBA season and entering the D-League player pool. Over the course of the season, Tavares showed remarkable defensive acumen, using his exceptional length to turn shots away at the rim at will and anchor the second-best defense in the entire league. Tavares not only averaged 2.7 blocks (10.1 of all opponent 2-point attempts when he was on the floor), but helped the 905 clamp opponents down to the tune of 94.5 points per-100 possessions, the best mark among any regular on the team.

His strong play earned Tavares a late-season call from the Cleveland Cavaliers, who signed him to a multi-year deal last week. Tavares immediately made an impact in the season finale, grabbing 10 rebounds and turning away six Raptor shots. (You can read everything you need to know about Tavares’ incredible season in that link.)

Tavares follows DeAndre Liggins, Aaron Craft, and Liggins again as the most recent recipients of the award and follows Axel Toupane (Most Improved Player) and Scott Suggs (Sportsmanship Award) as 905ers to win awards. Head coach Jerry Stackhouse will likely soon follow.

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Raptors to pick 23rd in 2017 draft

The NBA broke their draft-order tiebreakers via random drawing on Tuesday, and the Toronto Raptors will select 23rd in the 2017 NBA Draft.

As explained last week:

Where the Raptors pick wasn’t as simple as where they finished in the standings, though. Two years ago, the Raptors dealt Greivis Vasquez to the Milwaukee Bucks for the second-round pick that would become Norman Powell and a future first-round pick from the Los Angeles Clippers. A week before the trade deadline this year, the Raptors packaged a first-round pick with Terrence Ross to acquire Serge Ibaka from the Orlando Magic. But the Raptors didn’t package a specific pick – they’re sending the less favorable of their two first-round picks (their own or L.A.’s) to the Magic.

That means that the Raptors are insulated from ending up at the back end of the four-way tiebreaker. Because Toronto would just pick the other pick if one landed at 26, the Raptors can’t pick lower than 25th. Their pick, then, could be as high as 23 or as low as 25, with 23rd their most likely landing spot.

The NBA won’t decide the tiebreakers for a few days, which they’ll do by random draw.

The tiebreaker saw the Clippers land 23rd and the Raptors land 25th, meaning the 25th pick will go to Orlando while the Raptors keep No. 23. The Raptors also dealt their 2017 second-round pick away in the P.J. Tucker trade.

This year’s draft takes place on June 22.

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Afternoon Coffee – Tue, Apr 18

Raptors refocusing on slowing Bucks’ transition attack in Game 2 – Sportsnet.ca

Milwaukee’s the best team in basketball when it comes to scoring in the paint, partially because they get there so quickly. Any miss you make or ball you cough up in Milwaukee’s end is quickly turned around, transitioned up the floor, and under your own basket in a matter of seconds. While they’re young and relatively unproven, no one can doubt the sheer inertia the Bucks generate as they sprint up the court.

The Raptors plan to counter that in Game 1 was to stay away from the offensive glass and focus on taking a positive first three steps back towards their own end whenever the ball changed hands around Milwaukee’s basket. That didn’t happen. But they’ll try again in Game 2, and you’ll know how well it’s going by the number of times Casey has his hands on his head after a Raptors wing crashes the offensive paint or one of his players gets knocked down and doesn’t get back up and in the play quickly enough.

“To win in this league we’ve got to play at another level,” Casey says. “You can’t play at regular-season level. You’ve got to screen in playoff form, you’ve got to cut in playoff form, you’ve got to turn in playoff form. And we didn’t do that long enough in Game 1. We did it in certain parts of the game. But not long enough.”

There is also the issue of Giannis Antetokounmpo, the designed-in-a-basketball-lab superhuman who unsurprisingly gave the Raptors fits Saturday. It’s folly to think you can ever truly contain a player like Antetokounmpo. He’s too big, too athletic, too talented. He’s getting his points in every game of this series, one way or another.

Armstrong: Raptors are architects of their own anxieties – TSN

TSN 1260 NBA analyst Jack Armstrong joins Nielson & Fraser to take a look around the opening round of the NBA postseason, and explains what the Raptors need to do to get back in their series down 0-1 to Milwaukee, with Game 2 set to go tonight

Raptors’ management of Antetokounmpo may define rest of series – Sportsnet.ca

What to look for in Game 2?

How quickly the Raptors on the weak side of the floor (opposite the ball) rotate back into a defensive position. Transition baskets are so valuable in the NBA that most teams don’t even want their perimeter players crashing the offensive boards and the Raptors are no exception. Even before the shot goes up they need to get bodies back to take away Antetokounmpo’s runway.

But when you’re seven feet, quick and a great ball-handler, you’re an issue in the half court as well.

There was a play at roughly the 6:25 mark of the second quarter when Antetokounmpo got help from a screen on Carroll and squared to attack the basket.

Serge Ibaka met him outside the paint and kept a body on Antetokounmpo, but the Greek prodigy kept pounding toward the rim before reaching up and dunking over Ibaka, one of the NBA’s premier shot-blockers and one of the few players in the league even remotely in his wheelhouse, athletically.

Just a superstar doing superstar things, right?

Not from Ibaka’s point of view.

“I remember that play. A guy like him, when you switch you have to be up [up the floor, further from the basket]. I was down,” he said. “Those kind of plays we have to do a better job, like, myself, when we switch, I have to be up and then get back. On the switch you go up first and then you back up and you’re ready to play one-on-one.”

Raptors always making it hard on themselves | Toronto Sun

It is a problem that has plagued this team when it is at full strength, and when DeMar DeRozan was hurt last year and when Kyle Lowry was out this year. It was an issue when the starting lineup included Luis Scola, and then when it included Patrick Patterson and now that it has Serge Ibaka.

It is, as coach Dwane Casey said on Monday, “our biggest mystery.”

Not that he hasn’t tried to solve it.

“We’ve done everything,” he said. “We’ve looked at the numbers, statistics, matchups, rotations, groups that were in there …,” and the coach trailed off a little, in that way that you sort of throw up your hands when you’ve looked and looked at the evidence and haven’t found any kind of useful revelation.

Like, if they could identify the actual problem, they would have fixed it by now.

“It’s in our DNA,” he said. “Slow starts and hard finishes.”

For Serge Ibaka, who has been here for only two months, it’s just as much of a mystery.

“I don’t know why,” he said of Toronto’s poor early play. He said that everybody seemed ready to bring playoff intensity, and as the most playoff-savvy player on the Raptors — with more than 90 post-season games on his resume — he would know.

Five thoughts on Raps’ offence, urgency and more – Article – TSN

TORONTO’S OFFENCE: The eight winning teams this weekend scored an average of 109.1 points. The Raptors only managed 83 against Milwaukee. Full credit goes to Jason Kidd’s team defence. The Raptors have their hands full with this opponent. When you get into postseason competition you need great team offensive toughness against a stifling, physical and athletic defence. You also must improve every aspect of execution and have guys who convert shots. Dwane Casey will have to consider playing Patrick Patterson more, along with pondering using Norman Powell and Delon Wright at times. Kyle Lowry had a difficult Game 1, but I understand that. There’s a whole different level of conditioning required for a playoff game and he’s clearly not there yet. He’ll figure it out. My bigger issue is that, in a league where scoring is way up consistently, you can’t keep getting outplayed and outscored in the first and third quarters. In this league, you have to think long and hard about the overall benefit of playing a starting small forward in DeMarre Carroll who gives you five points in 24 minutes. The guy is that spot needs to give you outstanding defensive effort, but he also must provide significant scoring pop. I respect and admire Carroll’s effort and team play. He plays the game the right way and is a good teammate. This is nothing personal. It’s about productivity. I think you need to look at surrounding Lowry and DeMar DeRozan with three other pieces the opposing defence has to respect and guard to open up space. Firepower is vital at every spot this time of year. The Raptors can’t keep playing from behind.

Slow-starting Raptors face ‘DNA’ test in Game 2 | Toronto Star

Whether the Raptors start the same group in Tuesday night’s Game 2 as they did in the opener is at least a bit in doubt as Serge Ibaka tries to get through the pain of an ankle he tweaked on Saturday.

Ibaka landed on the foot of Bucks big man Giannis Antetokounmpo after taking a shot, finished the game mainly on adrenaline and hasn’t done much gym work since. He did not practice fully on Monday and will see how he feels after Tuesday morning’s game-day shootaround.

“It would be tough (to play if the game was on Monday),” Ibaka said. “Don’t really think so. But I’ve been there before. This is not the first time I’ve sprained an ankle. I’ve been there before, so things can be changed. (Tuesday) I can be 100 per cent.”

Ibaka, who has only been with the Raptors for half a season, is as perplexed as anyone about the starts, too.

“I don’t know why because what I saw from guys, every time before the game, everybody is ready, everybody is (motivated) . . . like even today, people are here earlier, working hard to get ready for tomorrow, and then when it comes to the game those kind of things happen.

“Even for myself, sometimes I ask myself why . . . I don’t really know. Maybe you guys from outside can tell us.”

Raptors’ Ibaka won’t fall into funk over dunk | Toronto Sun

Ibaka knows exactly why he got dunked on and, more importantly, exactly how to avoid it again.

“I remember that play,” Ibaka said sounding like a guy who has been thinking about that one play a lot. “A guy like him, when you switch you have to be up. I was down (waiting for him at the rim). It’s not just him, anybody in the league, when somebody is coming full speed, it’s tough. In my mind, I was worried about foul.

“Those kind of plays we have to do a better job (defending), like, myself, when we switch, I have to be up and then get back. On the switch, you go up first and then you back up and you’re ready to play one-on-one. If you wait for him, he’s going to come full speed, he will attack you and it’s a foul or a basket.”

The rule of thumb for Game 2, if you are a member of the Raptors, should be this: If you see open space in front of Antetokounmpo, quickly fill it. Fill it with your body, or throw someone else in front of him if you have to. Just don’t let him see open space in front of him because when he does, only bad things happen for the Raptors.

Basically, Antetokounmpo is like that deer on the side of the road. If your lights catch him standing still, you are probably OK. But once he’s moving, brace yourself. He’s more than likely going across the road and coming through your windshield or, in the case of the Raptors, going by you in two long strides and cramming the basketball through your rim.

DeRozan compares Raptors’ slow starts to an old Buick Regal – Video – TSN

Raptors guard DeMar DeRozan makes light of the team’s slow starts to games, comparing them to an old Buick Regal. DeRozan and Dwane Casey also say the Raptors know they can’t rely on comebacks in the playoffs and are banking on their resilience to bounce back in Game 2.

Young Buck Maker no ‘deer in headlights’ in NBA playoff spotlight | Toronto Star

He’s not an integral part of what the Bucks do offensively, but he’s seven-foot-one and long and disruptive on defence, which fits perfectly with Milwaukee’s style. He went basically unnoticed early in Game 1, but had two blocked shots and a basket early in the third quarter that helped change the momentum.

“I was a little bit all over the place, trying to figure out what they were running,” Maker said. “But in the second half I already knew what they were into, so I had to just go a little bit harder and be more aggressive.”

Going hard is what has allowed Kidd to play Maker as a starter in crucial games. He may not have fully developed skills or experience, but he goes full-out all the time and his impact on games is subtle but vital.

“He covered the rim (Saturday) night pretty well in the second half. He runs the floor really well, and he’s really good in that scheme,” Raptor P.J. Tucker said. “I think he spaced the floor. We’ve seen him make shots, so he’s been pretty versatile for them. He’s won that spot with them, so we’ve got to respect him and he’s somebody we definitely have to take out.”

Raptors vs. Bucks Game 2 Preview: A Bounce Back Game from Kyle Lowry? – Raptors HQ

Which Kyle Lowry?
But not everything. Because really, this is all prologue for the main event: Where is Lowry?

Look, the Raptors are sunk — and I’m talking 2015 post-season sunk — if Lowry is a shell of himself. There’s no two ways about it, even with strong play from Joseph, or a miracle run from Delon Wright, or JV going off, or whatever permutation you want to think about. The Raptors cannot win in the post-season without Lowry.

Last season, even when Lowry wasn’t shooting well (which was most of the time), he was a net-positive for the Raptors. He made a difference in other ways — be it with passing, smart defense, or heady/disruptive plays on and off the ball. That’s long been Lowry’s MO. Which makes getting outplayed by a rookie Brogdon all the more galling. (I don’t care if Malcolm has a graduate degree.) That matchup should favour the Raptors in a big way. NBA teams rarely have rookies play for them in the playoffs, and rookie point guards least of all.

So, which Lowry will we see tonight? It’s the question of today, tomorrow, and the rest of the Raptors’ post-season run — a run that could be very short if the answer is “bad Lowry.”

Get ready.

2017 Playoffs: Game 2 Preview – Raptors vs. Bucks | Toronto Raptors

Though Serge Ibaka has only been with the Raptors since the mid February trade deadline, he’s one of the most experienced players on their roster when it comes to the postseason. Making it to the Finals with Oklahoma City Thunder — as well as multiple trips to the Western Conference Finals — gives Ibaka a perspective on postseason success that other players are still learning. After assessing the team’s Game 1 performance, he’s confident there’s plenty the team can improve upon in Game 2.

“We can do better on both ends of the floor,” ibaka said. “Both ends of the floor we can do better. It’s about discipline and defence. I think the key is about defence. Communication, getting back on defence and being physical.”

Another thing Ibaka discussed on Monday was the importance of being ready to act in the moment, as well as to sacrifice for the greater good of the team. If mistakes happen, keep moving and focus on making the correct play next. Staying locked in to the present is key for Ibaka.

“We already know its the playoffs,” Ibaka said. “It’s not really the time to wait or the time to say ‘I’m sorry’ [if you make a mistake]. The time you’re saying sorry, you’re down one already. It’s right now. We have to be ready to give everything we have for the team. Also like I said earlier, the playoffs is about sacrifice. You have to able to sacrifice.

Be ready, mentally, knowing this is the playoffs, I’m going to do whatever it takes for my team.”

Game 2: Milwaukee Bucks at Toronto Raptors, Tuesday preview | Toronto Star

KEY MATCHUP

Brogdon vs. Lowry

The Milwaukee rookie point guard had 16 points and made four three-pointers in Saturday’s Game 1. Lowry and the Raptors have to limit his effectiveness — Lowry must score more than four points for Toronto.

Did I miss something? Send me any Raptors-related link to rapsfan@raptorsrepublic.com

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Shootaround news & notes: Ibaka a game-time call, Antechnikounmpo rescinded

Throughout the playoffs, we’ll be giving you brief notebooks after every practice, shootaround, pre-game, and post-game. They’ll vary in terms of length and analysis based on what’s said, what happens, and what else is going on, and the videos will all eventually go up on the Raptors’ YouTube page, anyway, but rest assured you can use us as your first stop for the relevant quotes and notes each day during the postseason. Feedback on whether or not these posts are useful is appreciated so we can spend our time accordingly, especially with respect to shootaround, which is usually fairly uneventful.

All is not lost yet. A 1-0 deficit is a difficult hole to have put yourself in, but it’s hardly a death knell. Last year’s Toronto Raptors know this well. History is also far from damning – NBA favorites dropping Game 1 at home are still 62-70 in series. The Raptors even remain series favorites with a -160 line, according to 10Bet. That’s an implied win probability of 61.5 percent, a downgrade from the series opening price to be sure, but one that suggests the Raptors, based on the respective regular seasons turned in, are still favorites to turn this around.

That’s going to be a lot more difficult to do if they’re out Serge Ibaka, though.

Ibaka sprained his left ankle landing on Giannis Antetokounmpo after taking a 3-point attempt in Game 1, and while he stayed in the game that night, it forced him out of practice Monday. Head coach Dwane Casey said at shootaround Tuesday that Ibaka was a participant – his ankle was heavily taped as he came off the floor – but that he remained a game-time call.

“He went through shootaround this morning, though I’m still gonna wait to see,” Casey said. “Game-time decision, see how he feels tonight, get some more treatment this afternoon.”

It would be pretty surprising if Ibaka didn’t go. This is the same guy who was supposed to be done for the playoffs a couple of years ago for the Oklahoma City Thunder and returned to nearly swing a 2-0 series deficit against the San Antonio Spurs, and that injury was far more severe. He seemed pretty optimistic Monday, and the Raptors better hope he can play – he was their best two-way player on Saturday and is immensely important both as Antetokounmpo help and as a small-ball center in this series.

The Raptors assigned Bruno Caboclo to Raptors 905 for practice on Tuesday but declined to do the same with Pascal Siakam. That’s not a huge warning sign, but it’s telling that the team preferred to have Siakam go through game-day preparation with the parent club rather than get a full practice session in with the D-Leaguers, just in case. If Ibaka sits, Siakam would dress, though it would seem very unlikely that he gets into the game. If Ibaka can’t go, Patrick Patterson would probably stand to start, as you can’t go super-small against Milwaukee from the opening jump.

More of the same – Adjustments, Giannis, etc

Shootaround was basically a re-hashing of the points that have been discussed over the last few days, which is not surprising, as there has not been a game played since Game 1, and neither side has actually gotten to adjust yet. As a refresher:

  • The Raptors want to keep Giannis Antetokounmpo from getting out in transition, and that means less of an emphasis on offensive rebounding. And yes, that goes for Jonas Valanciunas, too. “Yeah, me included. We all have to come back,” the big man said. “It’s like I said, five-man defense. However, if I have good position under the basket, I can go. If I am on the free throw line or somewhere back there, I have to go back.”
    • I’m not sure I agree entirely with punting a clear advantage on the offensive end, but Milwaukee scored 1.8 points off of turnovers and 1.16 points off of defensive rebounds to 1.05 points in the half-court in Game 1, so it’s a focus for a reason.
  • The Raptors need to get out to better starts. That doesn’t sound like it means a lineup tweak for right now, but Casey’s patience appears to be wearing thin with the slot starts.
    • “Pretty quickly,” he said when asked of how swiftly he’d make a change if the team starts slow once again. “The physicality is not there, the cutting, the defensive schemes and executing those things, is gonna be pretty quick. We don’t have time to go two, three possessions to figure it out. Not in the playoffs. I expect our guys to come out tonight with that focus and intensity. That’s what we’ve done. I’d be very surprised if we didn’t.”
  • The Raptors can’t change their stripes. Even against Milwaukee’s defense, Toronto keeps saying it can’t change their core personality, which is that of a low-assist team. They need to adjust, of course, but in their minds the biggest adjustment to make seems to be just playing better.
    • “We don’t have to be completely different team, but we know last game wasn’t us,” Cory Joseph said.
    • “We just got to play our game as we showed this season we can play,” Valanciunas added. “We are so good when we are all enjoying the basketball and making good plays and cheering for each other. That’s what we are.”

So, yeah, a lot of the same stuff you’ve heard over the last few days. Some of it remains concerning, some of it less so, and all of it feels like, well…

J.V. would like to cut the chit-chat

Valanciunas said what was basically on all of our minds at the end of his media availability, cutting to the issue with having two days off between games.

“We can talk all X’s and O’s but you have to show it. I don’t want to talk before the fact,” he said. “We have to go and show that we can take advantage of that. It’s not about talking.”

Dwane Casey will have spoken to the media five times between games when Game 2 tips off, a ridiculous number. The scheduling obviously is what it is thanks to television deals and the desire to introduce a bit of additional rest to a series (the Raptors twice have two days off between games, though the next break at least includes a travel day), but you start to understand why players and coaches give rote answers and fans grow annoyed at the repetitiveness after a while.

Other Notes

  • The NBA rescinded the technical foul assessed to Giannis Antetokounmpo in Game 1, per Charles Gardner of the Journal-Sentinel. He probably didn’t deserve it in the first place – it came when he punched the air after blocking DeMar DeRozan – but I had considered it all evening out since he had gotten away with the landing non-foul on Serge Ibaka. Since technicals cost money, that wouldn’t have been even, I guess. I still maintain we are on our way to Dark Giannis in this series.
  • If you’re wondering why there hasn’t been a lot of buzz from the Bucks’ side, it’s likely because they travelled back to Milwaukee between games, and their primary beat writer didn’t head back with them. A few things have come out, and they held shootaround today, but it’s all mostly what you’d expect.
  • The focus for the Bucks seems to be recognizing that getting out to a better start will be the focus for the Raptors. Impressive rookie Malcolm Brogdon saying the Bucks plan to ratchet their intensity up even higher in order to match once again.
    • In a funny moment I’m not sure anyone else noticed, Brogdon talked up what a big deal it was to steal a Game 1 at the Air Canada Centre. Apparently, he hasn’t been watching a lot of playoff basketball the last few years.
  • I’ve been posting occasional pics and quotes to my Instagram Story, if you want to follow along there, too. Here’s a picture of the shirts for tonight:

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Breaking Down the Most Important 5 Minutes of Game 1

Introduction

Entering the 4th quarter, the Toronto Raptors trailed the Milwaukee Bucks by five points. Five minutes passed and the Bucks’ lead grew to 12. This is typically the point in a game where the Raptors’ famous bench unit regains control of a game – so what happened in Game 1?

Defense

The Bucks scored on five of their first ten possessions to start the 4th quarter, as well as drawing a non shooting foul. This led to the Bucks scoring seven points. The catalyst for their offense during this time was the once struggling Khris Middleton, as well as a series of actions that progressed further into each subsequent possession

The first Bucks basket came off of a simple pindown for Jason Terry. Jonas Valanciunas stepped up on the catch. It’s unclear if that was the scheme he was told to execute as subsequent plays do not illustrate him showing so high on the catch, but only the players are in the huddle so it is impossible to know. Regardless, as a result of Valanciunas’ action, Patrick Patterson is the only (somewhat) reasonably positioned defender to rotate. The issue with that is Patterson has to come from the weak side corner and is tasked with stopping Greg Monroe’s roll on the other side of the basket. Unsurprisingly, Patterson was unable to successfully execute and Monroe converted on the layup. Valanciunas and Lowry certainly did not make it easy on Patterson, as they allowed Terry to throw an over-the-top pocket pass with minimal resistance.

The importance of this basket is that it sets the tone for the following five minutes, as the Bucks use this action to trigger following actions that were far more harmful for the Raptors’ defense.

Kyle Lowry is able to deny Terry the use of the screen in any meaningful way, as he positions his body in a way that slows Terry’s momentum when curling. Terry proceeds to cut through the lane and screen for Middleton. The possession continues and Middleton uses a Monroe screen to curl towards the lane himself, as Terry had done just one play earlier. This time, Valanciunas did not step up nearly as aggressively. Instead, Cory Joseph dug down from the perimeter to slow Middleton down. This opened up enough space for Matthew Dellavedova to relocate and shoot an open three-pointer. No basket was scored and the Raptors forced the Bucks to run through their secondary and tertiary actions, but Middleton read the defense nicely and took what the Raptors gave him and his impact is noticeable on the following possession as well.

The Bucks continued to use this set a few more times throughout the quarter and got decent looks. Terry used the pindown as he did the first few times this set was run, except this time was just as a means for the Bucks to occupy the weak side of the floor with a decoy/fluff action. The real action occurs when Dellavedova initiated a pick and roll with Middleton. Joseph dies on the screen and Carroll is left to corral Dellavedova’s drive to the rim. While it is generally considered a cardinal sin to help one pass away/from the strong side corner, Patterson should’ve probably offered some level of help by digging down to the drive when considering the personnel.

The following instance of this action produced similar levels of havoc, as Middleton isolated Joseph in the post on a switch. The Raptors decided that they were going to switch these small/small screens, but I’d imagine they’ll reconsider that approach for the next game considering the impact Middleton had operating from the post on Joseph.

The Raptors would later sub in Norman Powell for Joseph, as the futility in watching Joseph get backed down over and over again was too hard to watch. In one of those post ups, Assistant Coach Rex Kalamian is visually signalling for someone to help Joseph in the post. From what I have observed this season, the Raptors were likely attempting to have Joseph deny the middle, double from the baseline, and play zone defense on the weak side of the floor.

I would expect the Raptors to deploy this defensive scheme as the series progresses and Middleton continues to isolate in the post against smaller guards. When Antetokounmpo and Monroe share the floor and are slotted off-ball is the most optimal time to double from the baseline and zone on the weak side, as there would be fewer shooters to hectically close out on, but that’s more of a Bucks choice than it is for the Raptors.

This accounted for eight of the Bucks’ ten points in this stretch. The last two came from the free throw line when Monroe stole the ball from Lowry. This came as a result of the Raptors offense sputtering for so long that Lowry decided he would push the ball in semi-transition, even though there was no space on the floor to push the ball to.

Offense

Describing the Raptors offensive production during the same five minute span is more difficult, as they technically only scored on two of the thirteen possessions, but went to the line on a third possession and missed both free throws. (Note: Raptors had three more possessions than the Bucks as a result of the ball going out of bounds twice and drawing a non-shooting foul.)

The first few possessions saw the Raptors offense come in the form of a pick and roll, which the Bucks defended very well as their off-ball defenders were positioned effectively.

The first possession saw the Raptors run their Chin Pick and Roll. The Bucks defended it as they do most pick and rolls, as they had the screen setter’s defender show high on the ball while a weak side defender aggressively tagged the screener rolling. Antetokounmpo was positioned very well and impeded Valanciunas’ roll to the rim. Even when he received the ball, Valanciunas was unable to convert with Antetokounmpo protecting the rim. The Raptors did not make it easy on themselves or Valanciunas, as they were bunched up on the weak side of the floor, making it unclear where the open man was.

The following possession in the compilation above shows Middleton in the off-ball defender role that Antetokounmpo occupied the possession earlier. He is the uppermost of two weak side defenders that have the opportunity to tag Valanciunas’ roll to the rim, so he was more conservative. Lowry identified that Middleton was sagging off of Patterson to stop Valanciunas’ roll, but Middleton’s positioning and quick reaction allowed him to recover to Patterson effectively and under control. A swing pass to Carroll in the corner was followed by a drive to the rim, which was stopped by Monroe taking a charge.

The last of the three expertly defended pick and roll possessions highlighted above has Joseph running a low baseline pick and roll with Valanciunas. While no screen is actually set, the Bucks treat the situation as if it had occurred by denying Joseph the middle of the floor with Monroe walling off the paint. This created a pocket for Joseph to pass to Valanciunas as he made his way to the rim, but once again the Bucks’ aggressive style bested the Raptors. They overloaded the strong side of the floor on a pick and roll and Antetokounmpo was able to telegraph the pass and come away with a steal.

None of this is new. The Bucks have always defender pick and rolls like this and inevitably will force the offense to turn the ball over.  Three times in five minutes is too much and the Raptors have to be better and change some things offensively. They’d eventually crack the Bucks to a degree within this quarter.

The Raptors would go on to get a couple of good looks in pick and roll scenarios by running their Weave Pick and Roll.

The first instance of this broke the Bucks’ aggressive defense, as both weak side defenders (Middleton and Antetokounmpo) refused to tag Valanciunas’ roll in a meaningful way. Valanciunas made the catch on a short roll and made a strong move to the basket, drawing a foul. He would go on to miss both free throws.

The second instance of the Raptors running this play happened later in the quarter when Ibaka was at centre. Monroe did not show high on Ibaka’s screen and allowed Lowry space to pull up from behind the arc, opting instead to retreat into the paint and lessening the burden of the Bucks’ weak side defenders. Lowry missed the shot and the Raptors didn’t come away with points, but from a process-over-results perspective, both instances of the Raptors running Weave Pick and Roll in the early fourth quarter were successful in sustainable and repeatable ways.

The Raptors found continued process-over-results success when pushing the ball in semi-transition.

In the first possession, Lowry used a Drag Screen set by Ibaka and was able to get into the paint – a goal for any offensive possession. Unfortunately, that advantage was quickly neutered by an awkwardly timed cut by P.J. Tucker. The ball continued to swing and made its way to DeRozan above the break and he attacked the paint once again and found Tucker open in the corner, but the pass was tipped out of bounds.

The second possession has DeRozan using a double drag screen set by Lowry and Ibaka where the former pops and the latter rolls to the rim. DeRozan strings out Monroe’s hard aggressive show and is fouled.

As previously pointed out, the Raptors did not convert on either possession but could not have really asked more in the way of creating advantages. At some point, you just have to execute on what is created or the team will continue to sputter out of control. Praising process over results is difficult when you are the team extending a deficit by seven points over five minutes, but it’s the reality.

The last possession that produced out of a transition scenario was Carroll’s three shot foul, where he made only one shot after being set up by Lowry bending the defense.

It is not surprising that the Raptors got their best looks against the Bucks’ defense in semi-transition, as this attack does not allow off-ball defenders to station themselves in the proper manner to overload the strong side of the floor. On one hand, the Raptors should continue to emphasize pushing the pace on offense as a way of lessening the impact of the Bucks’ aggressive pick and roll defense. Alternatively, this might be playing into the Bucks’ hands, as they want the pace to increase so they can attack in transition themselves. It’s something the Raptors have to consider and ultimately a balance will have to be struck to be successful

Another crucial factor in this five minute stretch to start the 4th quarter was Joseph’s ineffectiveness.

Placing blame on Joseph for all of these possessions is probably unfair, but he created no discernable advantage on any of them.

The first possession was a double ball screen where Ibaka was swung the ball above the arc. He made a questionable decision by not shooting as Monroe recovered, but it is not clear cut. The ball is swung to Joseph to run a second pick and roll and opts to hold the ball and reject the screen, driving towards Monroe’s aggressive show. Terry is supposed to deny Joseph the use of the screen, but there really was no way he would’ve been successful in doing so with the positioning he had. Joseph has to be more decisive and get into the middle of the floor when available, rather than  attacking a sideline lane that wasn’t there.

The second possession is a Sideline Out of Bounds (SLOB) Zipper Pick and Roll. Joseph made his decision that he was going to throw a bounce pass to Ibaka in a pocket that would cease to exist and was lucky to exit that possession with the ball rolling out of bounds.

The Raptors run the same play in a SLOB scenario a few minutes later and Joseph’s inability to shoot off the dribble when defense’s go under the screen stalled the offense again as he worked his way into position. Ibaka bailed him out by faking a roll to the rim before popping to lose Monroe.

The last possession in the compilation above has Joseph attempting to post up the larger Middleton. He backs down out of control and ends up throwing the ball away. It’s unclear where he expected that possession to go, but the Raptors have never run a post up for Joseph during his time with the team, so this seems to be a case of trying to do too much.

As was pointed out earlier, placing the blame solely on Joseph for all of these possessions is probably unfair, but he was rendered ineffective on offense in the early fourth quarter and contributed to the offense becoming bogged down. He toggled between telegraphing his decisions and being indecisive, while also allowing the Bucks to hide their weakest defender (Terry) on him without consequence.

Concluding Thoughts

The Raptors ultimately plotted out one of their most effective units (Lowry and the bench to start a quarter) hoping to erase a five point deficit and instead allowed the Bucks to increase their lead to twelve points. Going forward, the Raptors probably have to consider coming out of those minutes holding the current score a loss and certainly do when they allow the Bucks to build the lead to double digits.

As expected, the Bucks were ultra aggressive on pick and rolls by overloading the strong side of the court with extra defenders and forced three turnovers. The Raptors eventually settled down and got decent looks in subsequent pick and rolls but were unable to convert on any of them.

On the other end, the Bucks isolated Middleton in the post and went to work on Joseph. The Raptors are going to have to change something, whether it be matching Middleton’s minutes with only one point guard or doubling whenever he posts up. Regardless, I would expect more tactical changes on the defensive end in that respect, which seems counterintuitive when the Raptors only scored three points in five minutes.

The offense produced advantageous situations, the Raptors have to actually execute and not get in their own way. Additionally, Joseph cannot continue to be a hiding place for the Bucks’ worst defender and the punching bag on the opposite end.

He had a great first round last year and has been strong after the All Star break this year, so doing anything radical like excising him from the rotation is too rash. However, he cannot be as ineffective against the Bucks’ bench as he was in the second half of Game 1. He has a clear path to a successful series acting as a secondary ball handler that attacks poor closeouts when the Bucks rotate after aggressively defending pick and rolls, but he and the Raptors have to execute.

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Gameday: Bucks @ Raptors, Game 2, April 18

What else can be said about Game 1’s for the Toronto Raptors? Sure, it would’ve been nice to stick it to the less experienced Milwaukee Bucks on Saturday night, finally exorcise those Game 1 demons, and really take the next step as a franchise as a team with a winning playoff pedigree. But no…that didn’t happen. While it was in different fashion than we’re used to seeing, some grim similarities remained; most notably the shooting of Kyle Lowry.

Reasons to be positive – why things can change

So where do we go from here as Raptors fans? What else, other than focus on some of the positives, and things we’d like to see changed in Game 2? For starters, the obvious point to note is that this is familiar territory. To say that we’ve been here before would be an understatement. From the 7-game series against the Nets, to back-to-back playoff series victories against the Pacers and Heat last year, losing Game 1’s and bouncing back in roaring fashion has become a spring time tradition for Dwane Casey’s Raptors. That tradition, at least in successful or competitive series, usually includes a roar-back in Game 2, a gutsy road win, disappointing road losses sprinkled in, a wild Game 5 victory, and the usual Game 7 toss-up. So there’s the first positive – we’ve been there, we’ve been out of it, and it’s almost a part of what this team’s personality is all about (the Raptors led the league during the regular season in 10-plus point comeback wins, with 19 and 15-plus comeback wins with 6).

The second thing we can point to is some of the possible adjustments. Dwane Casey confirmed at practice on Sunday that DeMarre Carroll will remain the starter against Giannis Antetokounmpo, who absolutely abused Carroll during his time guarding the Greek Freak. It was one of the glaring weaknesses in the Raptors defensive schemes that really helped the Bucks stay on pace in the first half, before Antetokounmpo’s foul trouble in the second half. Despite Carroll starting, you’d have to figure the Raptors will throw more of P.J. Tucker at Giannis.

Another adjustment the Raptors’ will have to make is their transition defense, which struggled mightily. The Bucks’ length and action on defense, including off of blocks by Antetokounmpo and Maker, allowed them to get up and go repeatedly. The Raptors will have to make a collective team effort to get back on defense to guard the rim and the 3-point line (Brogdon, Dellavedova, and Snell all showed the ability to make it when open), and somehow contain the speed and athleticism of Giannis in the open floor. This would be especially true in the first quarter, as a couple of dunks is likely all Antetokounmpo needs to get his confidence going. Sending a double in the half-court may be tricky if it leaves some of those shooters open, but in the right situation, like a trap in the corners, it could be a good option for Toronto.

The third reason for optimism is pretty simple – the Raptors are the better team. I’m usually a fan of the “best player in the series” theory, but there’s always an exception to that ideology. While an individual player can probably win you a game or two in a playoff series, or even extend a series to seven games, the team with (1) a superior offensive and defensive system, (2) a collectively more talented unit, and (3) more experience, usually will prevail. The Raptors have two bona-fide all-stars, and a more balanced roster thanks to their trade-deadline acquisitions. Their bench depth is better, their offensive and defensive ratings in the regular season were better, they won the regular season series, and they have the clear edge when it comes to playoff experience as well. I’m not saying all of this means the series is a lock, but my money is still on the Raptors in 6 or 7; though a 7-game series win would prove to be more stress than I think any of us can handle.

Storylines heading into Game 2

While this series is still in its infancy, some storylines have already started to develop. One of them was from Sunday’s practice, when a clearly frustrated Kyle Lowry addressed the media. When asked about his aggressiveness, Lowry said he’ll have to “force more shots”. Lowry, who’s known to show some passive-aggressiveness when it comes to the media, is also someone who just loves to play, rather than talk about playing. So, while this was an intriguing way to put things, I really wouldn’t read too much into it. It’s just a frustrated player having to answer the same questions year after year. One thing is for sure – there’s not much worse Lowry can perform in Game 2. What will be interesting to see though, regardless of his shooting, is Lowry’s ability to defend Bucks rookie Malcolm Brogdon, who appeared calm, composed and sharp with his scoring (6/13 from the field) and outside stroke (4/7) in Game 1.

Here’s Lowry’s media availability video from Sunday’s practice:

While Serge Ibaka essentially confirmed that he’ll give it a go tonight, his ankle continues to be monitored. At yesterday’s practice, Ibaka confirmed that it’s “feeling better”, but that it continues to be something he needs to be careful of and that he was taking it “day by day”. When asked if he could play if the game was yesterday, Ibaka said “it would be tough”. All things considered, after his amazing performance in Game 1, if we see Ibaka tentative, or off-form it wouldn’t exactly be shocking.

The Raptors’ issues starting games was another topic of discussion at yesterday’s practice (see Blake’s practice news and notes for the full run-down), as DeMar DeRozan likened his team’s starts to an “Old Regal”, which needs some warm up time when initially started, but hits its cruising conditions once it heats up. While the analogy is nothing more than just that, it’s really something that boils down to (1) who gets the first few touches, (2) how the Raptors plan to guard Giannis to start the game, and (3) whether the Raptors’ shooters can preserve the spacing and rhythm that the team needs to get their offensive punch back. If the prospect of going down 0-2 in the first round is not enough to get these guys riled up to start things off, I’m not sure if any of the game planning will really matter. The Bucks have shown themselves to be formidable, and if the Raptors don’t show the requisite sense of urgency, they will likely find themselves in trouble once again.

Tip off time tonight is 7:00 pm.

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Talking Raptors Podcast – S4 E16 – Game 1

After a few days of panic, confusion and a whole bunch of swear words. A somber Nick and Barry try to make sense of what the hell happened in the first game.

On this episode of Talking Raptors the guys discuss:

– Game 1 Curse.

– Kyle Lowry and Playoff Curse.

– DeMar DeRozan and his new shoes.

– The Greek Freak.

– Potential Poeltl nicknames.

-Leafs Fans vs. Raptors Fans.

All this and a bunch more. As always we really hope you enjoy the episode and we thank you for listening!

Give us a shout with your thoughts and/or concerns on the Talking Raptors Hotline (877) 207-8611.

We will bounce back guys. Lets go Raptors.

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Practice news & notes: Ibaka sits with ankle sprain, Raptors looking to kick-start ‘old Regal’

Throughout the playoffs, we’ll be giving you brief notebooks after every practice, shootaround, pre-game, and post-game. They’ll vary in terms of length and analysis based on what’s said, what happens, and what else is going on, and the videos will all eventually go up on the Raptors’ YouTube page, anyway, but rest assured you can use us as your first stop for the relevant quotes and notes each day during the postseason. Feedback on whether or not these posts are useful is appreciated so we can spend our time accordingly.

The Toronto Raptors aren’t good to start games. They’re not good to start series, either. This is old hat, but the degree to which they struggle early on, and for how long it’s been the case, is staggering for a team of this quality. They were the league’s best fourth-quarter team. They have led the league in double-digit comebacks in two consecutive seasons. They clearly have a gear they can get into, when necessary, that makes them among the best teams in the NBA.

But their starts are bad, frustrating, and often inexplicable. The team itself does not have a good answer for it. If they did, they probably would have fixed things by now. At the very least, they have a good analogy to entertain with.

“I don’t know,” DeMar DeRozan said at practice Monday. “You ever have an old Regal, you’ve got to start up and sit there for a while before you pull off and you go on a little road trip. But once you get going, your car feels like a 2016 Lexus or something. I think that’s just kind of our problem. I don’t know. It’s something we have to be better with. I don’t know.”

DeRozan, by the way, did not ever have an old Regal.

The issue here, of course, is that the Raptors fancy themselves a Lexus in the big-picture, and as they Regal their way through the start of games and series, they make the nOS button more and more necessary. The slower you start, the harder you have to finish. And in Game 1, the Raptors were granny shifting when they should be double-clutching.

“We have done everything,” Casey said. “We have looked at the numbers, the stats, the rotations the matchups, the groups that were in there and there is no consistent statistic or number or group. It’s just kind of been our DNA. We have had different people in the starting lineups and that hasn’t changed very much. I think it is our DNA – slow starts and hard finishes.”

The current starting lineup doesn’t have much time together, but it’s been ineffective when used. The bulk of their starting lineups over the last two years, save for a few small-sample groups that played together due to injury, have been similarly shaky. The Raptors make their hay with bench units late in the first and third and early in the second, and thanks to elite closing groups that can get it done on both ends of the floor. The bad starts make for a much taller task, though, and they do themselves a major disservice playing this way.

“I totally agree with you, trust me,” DeRozan said. “It’s something that we can’t feel our way into. We can’t wait for a team to hit us, whatever it may be. We’ve got to have an automatic start and get out as soon as that ball goes up.”

Per John Schuhmann of NBA.com, they trailed 40 times after the first six minutes of a game this year (with five ties), after trailing 46 times (with six ties) after that amount of time a year ago. And per my own memory, they are now 0-6 in Game 1s over the last four postseasons. It has to stop.

Is the best defense better offense?

The talk at practice was once again about the transition defense. That conversation shifted at least a bit to the offensive end, though, which makes sense – Toronto’s offense actually underperformed relative to their average more than their defense did, and the halfcourt defense was pretty effective. How do the Bucks get transition opportunities? Turnovers, sure. But opponent misses can get that going, too, and the Raptors missed plenty.

“We shot 36 per cent,” DeRozan said. “That gave them multiple opportunities to get down in transition, especially when I was trying to be aggressive for myself, getting to the basket, leaving my teammates 4-on-5 going back down. That’s something we’ve got to be conscious of. We missed a lot of shots we normally make.

“We make half of them shots, we limit their chances in transition. We make them play in half court, we give ourselves a better chance.”

DeRozan also noted that improved defensive rebounding may be a way for the Raptors’ own transition game to pick up. The Raptors surprisingly made note of their pace on multiple occasions over the last few days, even though they generally prefer to muck things up at a slower tempo.

“Transition defense, the pace of play, the speed of play,” Casey said of what they can do better. “The speed of our cuts. Everything just wasn’t to the level that we needed to be for a long period of time. We had it for certain moments, we had a seven-point lead, but even then we weren’t doing things at a pace and level that was sustainable. That was our biggest problem.”

It will be interesting to see if they try to run with the Bucks on Saturday.

Other Notes

  • Serge Ibaka missed practice due to a sore ankle. He was on the court for several minutes in the third quarter of Saturday’s game after landing on Giannis Antetokounmpo’s foot while coming down from a 3-point attempts, a play the league later said should have been a foul (and something that really needs to be taken out of the game somehow). it doesn’t sound as if Ibaka’s in any danger of missing Game 2 on Tuesday – he was available to media on Monday, which is usually a good sign – but the Raptors’ best player from Game 1 may not be at 100 percent, which is tough.
    • Ibaka said if the game had been today, playing would have been difficult. But he felt better than two days ago and is optimistic about tomorrow. “It’s day by day,” he said. “Actually I woke up today a lot better, I’m walking perfect, so hopefully tomorrow I’m going to wake up and feel more better and be ready to go.”
    • On the unfortunate chance Ibaka can’t go, I’d expect Patrick Patterson to start rather than a huge or small lineup. Patterson is one of their best options on Antetokounmpo, and I doubt they’d want to downsize against this team or put a center on him.
  • Bruno Caboclo and Pascal Siakam were recalled for today’s practice session. Raptors 905 won Game 1 of their Eastern Conference Finals series against Maine on Sunday, and Casey clearly wanted someone who’s won a Game 1 to tell the rest of the team how it’s done. (In reality, both players will be back down by the time the 905 are set for Game 2 on Wednesday, but it’s good experience for them to be around an NBA club in playoff mode, however briefly, even if they’ll be in street clothes Tuesday.)
    • If Ibaka can’t go tomorrow, I’d imagine Siakam will dress.
  • Stray stat I came across in looking at potential emergency options to help beat Bucks traps: Lucas Nogueira was fourth in the NBA in screen assists per-minute and happens to be the team’s best passing big man. He might warrant a look if Toronto’s offense continues to struggle.
  • Happy 60th birthday to Dwane Casey.
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Game 1 Mailbag: Let’s try to talk through this

Two days off to prepare for Game 2 also means two days off to publish another #RRMailbag. We’ll try to do mini-mailbags when time allows during the postseason, but I’m skeptical there will be time/room for one of the 7,000-word mammoths. You can find all of the previous editions of the mailbag here, if, for whatever reason, you wanted to read old mailbags.

Before we go ahead: A reminder that we have a Patreon page at patreon.com/RaptorsRepublic. If you appreciate the content we produce, want to support RR, and have the means to do so, any contribution is greatly appreciated and will help us continue to do what we do (and try to do even more). You can also follow me on Twitter for, uhh, tweets, and on Facebook for all of my writing/podcasting/radio stuff. Validate me. You can also ask me questions at any time using #RRMailbag, and I’ll be sure to include them in the next mailbag, no matter how long between.

Alright, let’s get this money.

This is the big question hanging over everything right now, and it’s getting more and more difficult to answer. Here’s the negative:

  • Lowry is now shooting 26.6 percent and averaging single-digit points in six Game 1s as a Raptor.
  • It doesn’t get much better in Game 2s.
  • He owns the worst postseason FG% among all active players with at least 500 attempts.
  • He owns a bottom-20 postseason eFG% all-time, active or otherwise, at that same threshold.
  • While in 2015-16 he was very, very good despite the poor shooting, he was all-around bad on Saturday, like he was in 2014-15.

Some saving graces to keep you sane:

  • There is a ton of noise in these playoff samples, like:
    • Lowry was hurt or returning from injury in 2014-15 (back), 2015-16 (elbow), and 2016-17 (wrist).
    • Even with how long this has gone on, his playoff track record is still only about a half-season’s worth of data.
  • The Bucks’ defense is one that, in theory, smart players should be able to better exploit as time goes on.

That’s a mixed bag, and the injury caveats probably don’t make Raptor fans feel better since a) he’s still only five games removed from his return, and b) he’s been hurt by the end of three consecutive seasons, random or not.

My gut, having watched him for so long, is that Lowry will round out of this, concerning thought his comments were. He shot fine-to-okay in four games back and played well in three of those, he’s had two days off for continued work building chemistry with the new pieces, and he’s too good to be this bad for much longer. I’m not even that concerned about the shooting, but the defense and playmaking have to turn around, like, now, because the Raptors’ role players can only help when Lowry and DeMar DeRozan are putting them in good positions to.

Keep the faith. Kyle Lowry Over Adversity. Or something.

DeMar DeRozan’s first half was just about perfect on the offensive end. I know he didn’t finish with much in the way of assists, but the Bucks’ defense is probably one where you’re going to want to look at assists at the team level or check out secondary assists, because the passes their traps force are really tough to make clean catch-and-shoot passes out of. DeRozan moved the ball well, saw crevices to snake through, found angles to get baseline, and did some pretty nasty post-up work, too. He also lived at the free-throw line, which is kind of the dirty non-secret about Milwaukee’s defensive approach. There were a few instances where he missed an opportunity to pass to a release valve, those two missed dunks stand out, and he’ll have to do a better job on Khris Middleton because it sounds like Dwane Casey isn’t ready to go away from that matchup yet, but don’t let DeRozan’s field-goal line fool you – he was the team’s best player not named Serge Ibaka in Game 1.

Could they? Absolutely. I took Raptors in 6, and I wrote that I was giving Milwaukee one “Giannis game” and one “WTF Raptors” game. They’ve gotten the latter out of the way, and if you figure Antetokounmpo goes off in Game 3 or 4, the Raptors could still return home with a 2-2 split and home-court advantage for the final three games. But blowing Game 1 reduces your margin for error a great deal, and the Raptors really can’t afford another “lolPlayoffRaptors” outing, especially in Game 2. The Bucks aren’t as good, but they’re unrelenting and are exactly the type of roster you can’t sleep against. The Raptors have to hope the two days off helped figure things out, because they cost themselves a lot of breathing room Saturday.

That depends what you think the next step is. If you mean an NBA Championship, well, that doesn’t have as much to do with anything in-house for the Raptors as it does with the Golden State Warriors and the general power imbalance in the NBA. If you mean a more competitive series with the Cleveland Cavaliers, or even a trip to the NBA Finals, then yes, it’s a viable tandem. One game ago, Raptors fans were talking themselves into Cleveland’s weaknesses, and now suddenly this core isn’t good enough to do anything of meaning? Naw, miss me with the heavy shifts in evaluation after one game, one year after a conference finals run.

The Raptors are what they were a game ago: A very good team with a window of opportunity in front of them, but a team that has long had this weird psychological flaw where they have to get punched in the mouth before responding. It’s not new, and it’s not good, but it’s worked for them. They’ve led the NBA in double-digit comebacks in back-to-back years, foguth back from 1-0 deficits in two series last year, and will probably bounce back Tuesday. It’s an incredibly stressful way to approach things, but it seems to be their style for now.

As for the suggestion in this question that Dwane Casey and Lowry aren’t good, well, if you’re thinking that firing the coach and letting Lowry walk would put this team in a better position to take the next step, you better mean a full tear-down and re-build, because they’re much better off like this in the short-term than via some sort of addition by subtraction. Don’t forget just how damn good Lowry was last year in the playoffs even with the bad shooting. He was a top-15 player in the league when healthy this year. And Casey is fine.

This is a great question, but to be honest, it’s asking me to assume the psychology of a lot of people, so I can’t accurately answer. For whatever reason, yes, the Raptors absolutely seem to do better after facing some adversity. They didn’t get good until Masai Ujiri tried to tear it down. They didn’t reach their best regular-season level until they were swept. They played far better when down in series or in elimination games than they did in every other game last year. And for a second year in a row, they led the league in double-digit comebacks, winning almost as many games like that (21) as without a huge deficit (29).

It’s hard to know exactly what this tells us. On the one hand, it could suggest the Raptors are better than they’ve even shown, because they only lock in for stretches of games and seasons. In that sense, the answer to your question might be yes, that having your team forged through the fires of adversity is good, because as the playoffs wear on, you’re going to face more and more of it. The counter, though, would be that going through the fire that many times is also going to eventually burn you, and that relying on some sort of intestinal fortitude as a core tenet of your success is incredibly risky.

It comes down to whether you look at all the comebacks and fighting through adversity as “Damn, look at how good they are when it matters” or “Damn, how the hell are they bad enough to keep getting in these positions?” I tend to lean the former, that the trials they go through spit them out the other end in a better place (that Lowry, DeRozan, Carroll, Tucker, Siakam, Powell, and maybe others all have life and development stories that follow a similar path only makes this stronger). It definitely renders the margin for error incredibly slim, though.

I would like to take a moment to congratulate “Should Tucker start over Carroll” as the new captain of the mailbag team. Previous captains include:

  • Why is John Salmons?
  • Why doesn’t James Johnson play more?
  • Should the Raptors trade for Kenneth Faried?
  • Should the Raptors trade for Nerlens Noel?
  • Should the Raptors trade for Kenneth Faried?
  • Who killed Jason Blossom?

In other words, this is a question I’ve answered a bunch of times now. The reasons for continuing to start DeMarre Carroll are there, mind you. Inertia, for one, as much as people hate hearing that (when all else is close to equal, stick with what’s familiar). Carroll is also more of a 3-point threat than P.J. Tucker, even if the numbers don’t bear that out over the last few months – watch how teams scramble to a Carroll opportunity on the wing versus how they’ll do the same for Tucker there or in the corner. The team also believes they’re comparably effective defenders, although their case in that regard didn’t hold up opposite Giannis Antetokounmpo on Saturday.

The reasons people want to start Tucker are there, too. Namely, he’s played better since coming over. But the team likes having them both available over 48 minutes, Tucker’s playing more anyway, and while the team hasn’t said this, I’d be that part of the reason they like Tucker off the bench is because him and Ibaka are their best defensive communicators, and doing so keeps a defensive quarterback of sorts on the floor at all times (Carroll is a good team defender and talks between plays, but Tucker is boisterous).

I think if Game 2 goes as Game 1 did, they’ll consider a change somewhere, and that’s the most logical one if they’re committed to Jonas Valanciunas starting.

This is a time-tested question for a team that’s relied on depth like the Raptors have. Everything suggests you should tighten your rotation in the postseason, because you want your best players out there the most, opponents are playing their best players more, and there are no back-to-backs or compressed schedules to worry about. You just don’t want to be playing players of a lesser caliber with so much on the line and the intensity and quality of competition ratcheted up.

It sounded this weekend like Casey might be looking to expand the rotation by one, and I’d guess Norman Powell gets the call if that happens. The Bucks are so big that playing two point guards together is something they can only get away with when they don’t have Antetokounmpo and Middleton on the floor together. Milwaukee feasted on switches to get Middleton post-ups against those groups. Playing Powell more gives the team a bit more length and a more drive-oriented attacker for the weak side (the Bucks really overload the strong side, and attacking wild close-outs is something Powell does well). The onus is on Powell to take advantage of the opportunity, something he hasn’t done much lately and didn’t in a brief audition in Game 1. If he stumbles, Delon Wright presents an option as a sort of middle-ground between Joseph and Powell/bigger lineups, providing some additional ball-handling and defensive length.

I’d hesitate to go deeper than nine in a rotation right now. The Raptors’ best eight or nine players are better than Milwaukee’s, and the deeper they go looking for answers, the more they’re trading off a talent advantage in order to find some sort of intangible energy advantage. If everything else is failing? Hell yeah, go full Game 5 Against the Pacers. But I don’t think it should be the gameplan out of the gate.

The issue with going that big is that the Bucks aren’t just long, they’re also very fast. Patterson and Ibaka are by no means slow for their positions, but that’s a pretty plodding frontline when the biggest defensive issue you faced in Game 1 was transition defense. I definitely want to see more of the Patterson-Ibaka combo, though, and it’s criminal that the Tucker-Patterson-Ibaka trio barely played in Game 1 (and didn’t play at all with a Lowry-DeRozan backcourt). Against Antetokounmpo and Middleton, Lowry-DeRozan-Tucker-Patterson-Ibaka should be Toronto’s best two-way lineup.

Lowry being better will help a fair amount. If he had hit even two of his six 3-point attempts, the game would have looked a lot different heading into the fourth. Lowry came up empty on all 10 drives he made – 0-of-3 shooting and zero assists – while those are normally productive plays, from a scoring or passing standpoint. Even if you assume Milwaukee’s length will remain an issue (Thon Maker was a problem) and Lowry’s shot won’t be all the way back, he should be good for producing a few more points in Game 2. DeRozan might be even better, too, if he can maintain his level of offensive play from the first half. And the team is unlikely to shoot 5-of-23 on threes and 1-of-15 on shots outside of 10 feet that were “tight” or “very tight” contests. There’s some regression that will hopefully come, even if you can’t bank on it coming in a short series.

That’s probably not enough, though. The Raptors more or less punted the offensive glass, and while that’s smart to limit transition buckets, they need Valanciunas and Ibaka (when at center) stealing some easy points. That’s a huge weakness of Milwaukee’s system that the Raptors more or less ignored. They can also do better once the ball is passed out of traps – Valanciunas actually made a couple of OK floor reads into DHOs but had that one bad turnover on a corner kick, Carroll did some decent work initiating with Valanciunas on the side, and Tucker attacked and kicked to keep the defense scrambled, but very little of that actually produced points. There were some opportunities that went missed once Milwaukee forced the ball from the All-Stars.

How to better attack the defense requires a bigger video breakdown, and cooper has one coming tomorrow, so I’ll leave the more Xs&Os specifics for him.

Yes. I think all of the talk about their failings in Game 1s probably has everyone thinking a bit too introspectively, and giving their brains a different, unrelated challenge could be a nice way to clear their heads while keeping their brains sharp. Also, the idea of P.J. Tucker just yelling at the cube to change itself, and the cube listening, is entertaining.

I think they’re positioning Heavy Machinery as faces, so that might be a little down the line. I do think there’s something to Gargano and Ciampa being used to help bring along these younger hoss teams, though, which is why I figure we’re in for another AOP-DIY feud. With The Revival gone, there’s not really anyone else to challenge for the tag titles, anyway, and DIY are the type of hands who can really help AOP keep improving. From there, a Machinery-DIY run to get Machinery ready to be the AOP challengers could be fun. NXT could use a few more teams, too, especially if TM-61 aren’t going to click super-well once healthy.

/extremely Wade Keller voice: “Oh no, my kayfabe!”

I think the answer is probably four or five. Smarks gonna smark, but when you factor in the room for contrarians being contrarians, for grumpy people to dislike kayfabe being broken (these are the same people who think Patrick Patterson had a cold shooting night because he watched Logan instead of game-tape the afternoon prior, or that DeMarre Carroll has lost a step on defense because of how he dresses), and for people like John Chidley-Hill, you’ll come across one pretty quickly.

This brings me to a fun theory I’ve come up with. You’ve heard of Godwin’s Law, the idea that as an online discussion goes on, the probability of a Hitler comparison approaches 100 percent? I believe the IWC is reaching the point of Phineas Godwinns’ Law, the idea that as an online wrestling discussion goes on, the probability of someone blaming all of WWE’s problems on the death of kayfabe approaches 100 percent.

As a reminder, if you appreciate the content we produce, want to support RR, and have the means to do so, we’ve started a Patreon page at patreon.com/RaptorsRepublic. Any contribution is greatly appreciated and will help us continue to do what we do, and try to do even more.

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The Power of Two

After another disappointing loss to open yet another playoff series for the Toronto Raptors, fans, players and critics alike were left scrambling for answers. What to make of a team that was expected to challenge to win the Eastern Conference struggling so much? Was this simply the team’s identity, that they were meant to struggle and, with this core of Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan and Dwane Casey, simply unable to do things the easy way?

Kyle Lowry at least, seemed to have some answers when he spoke to the media on Sunday and said, “Put it this way: I guess I’mma have to force shots.” If this feels like a familiar refrain to Raptors fans, that shouldn’t surprise anyone. After all, last year against the Pacers we heard much the same all series while Lowry and DeRozan struggled to score. Last year it was Lowry, after the Raptors beat the Pacers in 7 games, saying about DeMar, “I’m answering that question for you so I don’t care if he shot 40 times. He emptied the clip and we won. That’s all that matters.”

The Raptors won that series, sure. The next one as well, when it was much the same story until DeRozan’s shot came to life late in the series against the Heat. But it took 14 games for the Raptors to get to the Eastern Conference Finals, versus the Cleveland Cavaliers who made it in 8. The difference in wear and tear showed, too, as despite the Raptors winning two games during their series, the net point differential in the ECF was +91 in favor of the Cavaliers. Winning is the most important thing in the playoffs, but not making it as hard as possible on yourselves before progressing can pay dividends later on.

You put this together with other quotes coming from players as well as coach Dwane Casey, and it aught to be clear, this is Lowry and DeMar’s team and they’ll determine whether this playoffs is a success or failure. In fact, that was never in question, that this was their team. The only question is which part of that is more important, that it’s theirs or that it’s a team. Because the Raptors fall into a trap at times where the emphasis is way too much on Lowry and DeMar instead of on the team as a whole.

Maybe it’s telling that during game 1, Toronto had their best stretches with only one of their All-Stars on the floor, a stretch to open the second quarter where the team closed the gap with Lowry out there and DeMar sitting, and then a stretch to close the second quarter where DeRozan played as Lowry sat. Perhaps having only one of the stars playing forced them to involve other guys in the offense, which increased the intensity from the team as a whole on both ends of the floor.

This team should be too talented to fail. They’re perhaps the deepest squad in the playoffs, with players like Delon Wright, Norman Powell and Jakob Poeltl relegated to garbage time, guys who would be rotation players on many playoff squads. Dwane Casey has the luxury of being able to match big or small with opponents by changing up his lineups with the depth that they have. Down the stretch of the season they had nights where they looked like a dominant passing team. In fact, in Lowry’s return, a narrow victory over the Detroit Pistons, the team won despite their All-Stars shooting just a combined 14/33 from the floor because they each had 10 assists, the first time that’s occurred during their time together with the Raptors.

As incredible as these two players are as scorers, and they’re some of the best in the league at that, they can be so much more. DeMar DeRozan has grown by leaps and bounds this season, and showed off his improved offensive abilities in that first half against Milwaukee, attacking what the defense gave him with ease while the Bucks struggled to take everything away. Yet what’s been most impressive, especially late in the season, hasn’t been his ability to score with ease against nearly any coverage, it’s been his willingness to defer and create for others, to keep them involved in the game even when he can get his own. It’s paid dividends, too, as guys look more engaged when they feel involved.

Kyle Lowry has to be better, and it’s hard to simplify that first playoff game more than that. But if we look at it as part of a larger trend, it’s about a different choice. It’s about whether this simply an organization that’s role is to support DeMar and Kyle as they try to progress through the playoffs as far as they can with their supporting cast. Maybe that’s all the Raptors will be, two leaders and a group of talented guys who try to make their lives easier.

As incredible as these two players are as scorers, and they’re some of the best in the league at that, they can be so much more. DeMar DeRozan has grown by leaps and bounds this season, and showed off his improved offensive abilities in that first half against Milwaukee, attacking what the defense gave him with ease while the Bucks struggled to take everything away. Yet what’s been most impressive, especially late in the season, hasn’t been his ability to score with ease against nearly any coverage, it’s been his willingness to defer and create for others, to keep them involved in the game even when he can get his own. It’s paid dividends, too, as guys look more engaged when they feel involved.

Or maybe it’s something more, maybe it’s a team, lead by Lowry and DeMar, where the stars serve the rest of the team as much as the other guys serve them. Where it’s not about forcing shots or emptying clips, but winning basketball games through a group effort. The Raptors can do that, we’ve seen flashes of it all season and they’re simply dominant when everyone’s involved. The defensive intensity is higher, the offensive execution is crisper, and they’re a lot more fun to watch. With the most talented team the Raptors have ever assembled, it shouldn’t even be much of a stretch for them to get there. But it has to start with the All-Stars. If they want all of the credit for the team’s successes, if they want to be the ones taking the lion’s share of the shots regardless of matchups because they’re the leaders, then they will also shoulder the blame when the team inevitably falls. It won’t stop being their team if they take this path, it just shifts the emphasis from ‘their’ to ‘team’.

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Mid-Morning Coffee – Mon, Apr 17

Five changes Raptors need to make for Game 2 | Toronto Sun

WAKE UP

Toronto’s defence got caught too many times to count on backdoor cuts and other unexpected movements. Nearly every player was a victim. Milwaukee is not a team that runs a ton of pick-and-rolls (unlike the Raptors). They aren’t setting a ton of screens. The Bucks ranked 28th in screen assists (just 7.7 per game), compared to Toronto’s 12.1 per game, which was fourth in the NBA. Jason Kidd’s squad looks to catch you napping all the time. While having eyes in the back of your head isn’t actually possible, the Raptors must do a better job of keeping their heads on a swivel and must be ready to react quickly.

Kyle Lowry, Casey unsure how to fix point guard’s playoff blues – Sportsnet.ca

What will make it better, is the pressing question.

If Lowry is hoping that Raptors head coach Dwane Casey will somehow let him off the hook and come up with a game plan that doesn’t centre around him and DeMar DeRozan driving play, it’s wishful thinking.

Casey plans to ride his horse.

“He’s gotta be more aggressive,” Casey said of his point guard. “It sounds like a yearly song we sing but we’re going to go as he and DeMar goes and he’s gotta be aggressive no matter what the defence is doing. They didn’t do anything that we didn’t expect or work on, but again if he has open shots he’s gotta take them, he’s got the green light and that hasn’t changed in the regular season when we were third in the NBA [sixth, actually] in offence. That was the case then and that hasn’t changed.”

But it sounds like Lowry wouldn’t mind if it would change, at least a little bit. Lowry’s version of his latest nightmare on Bay Street is that he was under constant attack from the Bucks contingent of scary, long-limbed monsters.

He sounds like he’d be happy to move the ball, take less responsibility.

“Every time I [attacked] a screen, I had four arms around me,” he said, referring to the Bucks swarming defenders.

Raptors’ Kyle Lowry needs a big bounce-back game | Toronto Sun

Lowry didn’t need to see the numbers to know he wasn’t effective.

“Every shot I took was contested or ran off,” Lowry said. “They did a good job. They gameplanned really well for us. That’s one thing about the playoffs, teams are gonna gameplan for me and DeMar. We gotta figure out ways to make tough shots or everybody else gotta help us, we gotta get other guys to get even more open looks.”

It’s about here where there seems to be a difference of opinion.

His coach and by extension his teammates according to Lowry are telling him he has to be more aggressive and shoot more than he did in Game 1.

Lowry sounds like he will comply but grudgingly.

“Every time I (used) a screen, I had four arms around me,” Lowry said “Put it this way: I guess I’m (going to) have to force shots. My teammates want me to be more aggressive, so I’m (going to) have to force some more shots. Simple as that. Because I felt like I made the right passes (Saturday) night, but my teammates, I guess I’ll be forcing more shots, put it that way. You got four arms on you, but I gotta be more aggressive.”

Casey said it’s not just Lowry he needs to be more aggressive and forceful in everything he does in the game. It’s his whole team. But he wasn’t backing down from the fact that he thought Lowry passed up some shots with or without all the attention he was getting.

“There were a few times, it wasn’t like it was a whole bunch, but there were a few times he could have turned the corner and got to the paint, caused another problem, kickout,” Casey said. “But overall, it just wasn’t Kyle, it was everybody, all of us. We just didn’t play at a level to deserve to win that game. We didn’t play with playoff intensity. We played like it was a mid-season game in February. You’re not going to win in this league playing with that kind of intensity, force.”

Tucker: Raptors know what adjustments need to be made on Giannis – Video – TSN

Raptors forward P.J. Tucker talks about the challenges that Giannis Antetokounmpo presented in Game 1, and how the team knows it needs to adjust its defensive philosophy against him for Game 2.

Raptors Put Focus on Defence Ahead of Game 2 | Toronto Raptors

Whatever the reason, the Raptors did not match Milwaukee’s effort when the Bucks turned up the intensity in the second half. Although the Raptors struggled offensively, Tucker’s focus was on the defensive end of the floor as well as cleaning up mental mistakes that led to turnovers. Toronto did a decent job taking care of the ball, only turning it over 11 times, but the Bucks were phenomenal at taking care of the ball, registering just five turnovers in the game. Milwaukee outscored Toronto 19-7 on points scored off opponent turnovers.Taking away the extra points the Bucks scored off Toronto’s mistakes will be key in Game 2.

“With each team, each series, there’s different challenges and this challenge is to get back on defence,” Tucker said. “When we set our halfcourt defence we’re pretty good. If you watched the game, a lot of it, [their scoring] was off turnovers, off long rebounds, off jabbing in the backcourt at the ball and they getting out and throwing the ball ahead and just pushing.

I think for us, the main thing for us is to get back on defence.”

With Giannis Antetokounmpo scoring a playoff career-high 28 points on Toronto, Tucker was adamant about needing to control the paint.

“We’ve got to shut the paint down,” he said. “The paint is No. 1, the paint is gold in this series.

DeRozan and Lowry add to bad NBA playoff rep: Feschuk | Toronto Star

This is who they are — a gaggle of players predictable and limited enough in their attack as to be seen as stoppable. DeRozan’s reliance on mid-range jumpers and free-throw-inducing drives isn’t always conducive to beating the more concentrated defensive approaches of the post-season (although Saturday’s 27-point performance, in which he took 21 shots but went 13 for 14 from the free-throw line, was encouraging enough.)

Still, the Raptors would obviously prefer both of their all-stars on comfortable footing, which is why Casey was insisting on Sunday that Lowry needs to be more aggressive in his approach. Lowry is the Raptor most gifted at creating shots for both himself and teammates by breaking down the defence in ways that are difficult to stymie through simple strategic tweaks. So it says something that Lowry bristled at the idea that he could have done more in Game 1.

Actually, Lowry essentially scoffed at the coach’s concept, insisting he made all the correct reads when he was incessantly double-teamed.

“You got four arms on you, but I gotta be more aggressive,” Lowry said, speaking with obvious sarcasm.

Lowry, in his usual argumentative way, suggested it’s his teammates who need to step it up.

“(The Bucks) game-planned really well for us. That’s one thing about the playoffs, teams are gonna game plan for me and DeMar,” Lowry said. “We gotta figure out ways to make tough shots or everybody else gotta help us. We gotta get other guys to get even more open looks.”

Raptors coach Casey on age, hard work and living the dream | Toronto Sun

Dwane Casey is a man of influence now, the fourth oldest coach in the NBA and one of its most successful. He sits today at the age of 60, feeling anything but old, proud of where he has come to, how he has gotten here.

“To me, 60 isn’t old,” says Casey. “It’s a blessing to have my health. I still feel like I’m in my 30s or 40s. To me, it’s more of a sign of longevity than anything else. I have more experience. I know more. I understand more. I still feel young.

“The image I had of what a 60-year-old was when I was a kid isn’t what I see now. When I was younger, a 60-year-old was a guy with a cane, slowing down, not understanding what music was about, not understanding the lingo. Truth, I have just as much energy now as I did when I was 40, probably more. I work out more, eat better, probably get my rest more. Today’s 60 is yesterday’s 40. And I feel good about this age.”

Casey may not feel very good about Game 1 of the playoff series against the Bucks, but this is just another challenge in a remarkable life of so many challenges. As a young coach, an assistant at the University of Kentucky, he thought he was on the fast track to a head-coaching job in college. And then scandal hit at Kentucky and he believes to this day he was scapegoated as payment apparently intended for the father of a college recruit. Casey resigned his position almost 30 years ago, was suspended by the NCAA — and wound up coaching in, of all places, Japan.

Few coaches have taken such a circuitous route to the NBA. Few coaches have found their security, if not peace, after more than 30 years in the business: They weren’t dry cleaning jobs or restaurant cleanup, but Casey never stopped working, believing in himself, thinking that, if he did the right things, they would work out in his favour.

Could team DNA explain Raptors’ Game 1 woes? – Article – TSN

Perhaps it comes down to something that can’t be measured using advanced statistics or tracked watching countless hours of game tape. Maybe it can’t be easily explained. Could it be rooted in their DNA as a team?
The Raptors have become the NBA’s greatest procrastinators.
“That’s been our MO,” Casey said.
Despite going in as favourites, they needed seven games to advance past the first and second round last year. For the second straight season, they led the league in double-digit comeback wins with 21, also setting a franchise record. They were a minus-12 in the first quarter this season – third-worst among playoff teams – and a league-best plus-227 in the fourth.
As is the case with most teams, the Raptors take on the playing personality of their best players. DeRozan and Lowry, like a lot of other guys on the roster over the years, are accustomed to being underdogs. They’ve been counted out, overlooked and underrated for most of their professional careers before blossoming into self-made stars in Toronto. They’re at their best when theirs backs are up against the wall and, as a result, the Raptors are at their best with their backs up against the wall.
It’s a double-edged sword, something that tells you a few things about this team and its players, both good and bad. They don’t quit and tend to respond well in the face of adversity, whether it’s rallying late in games or bouncing back after a tough loss. They’ve proven to be resilient but, on the other side of the coin, they put themselves in far too many situations where they need to be and that’s a dangerous way to live in the NBA.

Raptors, Lowry expect better in Game 2 | Toronto Star

The 31-year-old is a bit of a contrarian, and that might have had something to do with the idea of him having to force more shots. The fact is, he just has to make better basketball plays and trust that his teammates will do their job. If there’s a breakdown in that trust, everything’s going to fall apart and a playoff of promise will devolve into ugliness and everyone connected with the team knows it.

“We can run the floor on offence better, flow better,” P.J. Tucker said. “I think a lot of times Kyle is getting out, pushing, and we weren’t back on offence yet.

“Everybody getting to spots, cutting harder, screening harder — playing harder, period — will make Kyle’s life a lot easier.”

And if Lowry’s life is easier, the game is easier and the Raptors are better.

To be sure, the Bucks know that as well as any scout who’s ever watched the Raptors knows it.

“Every shot I took was contested or ran off,” Lowry said. “They did a good job. They game-planned really well for us. That’s one thing about the playoffs: teams are going to game plan for me and DeMar (DeRozan).

“We’ve got to figure out ways to make tough shots or everybody else has got to help us. We’ve got to get other guys to get even more open looks.”

Most Unpopular Raptor of All-Time Bracket: It was always Bargnani – Raptors HQ

Andrea Bargnani vs. Hedo Turkoglu in a showdown to see who is the most unpopular player in the history of the Raptors franchise.

Did I miss something? Send me any Raptors-related link to rapsfan@raptorsrepublic.com

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Game One and Passing Blame

This is getting tiresome, and it’s tough not to get frustrated at the Raptors inability to not suck at the start of a playoff series.  It’s both frustrating and almost comical (you know, if it didn’t suck as much as it does) how they continually find new ways to fail to gain the initial momentum.

Losing game one was Kyle Lowry’s fault.  It hurts to write that, as Kyle Lowry is normally over everything, but it is the simplest explanation for what happened.  The Raptors simply can’t thrive when their best player scores 4 points on 11 shots, misses all 6 of his three pointers, only gets to the line one time, and registers a team worst -22.

This was Kyle Lowry’s worst game of the season, perhaps his worst as a Raptor, and it came at one of the worst possible moments.  Even when Lowry struggles on offense, he can normally still impact the game on the other end of the court.  Instead, Lowry was routinely beat off the dribble or lost his man off ball.

Granted, Lowry was far from the only problem in game one, as almost every Raptor struggled, but as the team plays off of Lowry their struggles are less surprising.  As Milwaukee built their lead in the third quarter, there was clear panic among the Raptors on the court.

Shots were rushed and/or forced.  Switches were done outside of a structure.  Rebounders were not boxed out (although this was a problem throughout the entire game).  And shooters were left wide open.

And I have no words left.  Like many Raptors fans I basked in reading the many basketball analysts predicting a trip to the NBA Finals, but it felt strangely unsettling too.  It was as if I was being set up for a bigger disappointment then I have experienced in my time as a Raptors fan.

In many ways, I feel like a neglected dog that doubts the kindness it is given, and needs to be reminded that there are nice things/people in the world.

Yes, this is melodramatic, but I don’t care.  Saturday was full of anticipation of good things, and the Raptors crapped all over my dreams.  Game one sucked, and if the Raptors can’t solve the numerous problems from game one then it could easily follow the same pattern.

As much as I blame Kyle Lowry for ruining my Saturday, I clearly share the blame for allowing myself to hope that this game one could be different.

The Raptors may not need Lowry to always be at his best, but they need him to at least be average if game two is going to be any different.

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Raptors Weekly Podcast – In a very dark place

Host William Lou is joined by Harsh Dave and Vivek Jacob for an hour’s worth of commiseration.

(more…)

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C.J. Leslie, teflon Raptors 905 blow out Maine in series opener

Photo by MattAzevedo.com

Raptors 905 109, Maine Red Claws 84 | Box Score | Raptors 905 lead series 1-0
Assignees: Pascal Siakam, Bruno Caboclo (905), Demetrius Jackson, Jordan Mickey (Red Claws)

There is no known adversity that can slow Raptors 905. Call-ups, injuries, and illness have all done their best to derail the storybook sophomore campaign, and even reeling from another bout of tumult between series, the 905 just kept chugging along Sunday, winning Game 1 of their Eastern Conference Final series against the Maine Red Claws 109-84.

Short their two best players in Edy Tavares and Axel Toupane, plus another key rotation piece in the injured Will Sheehey (Negus Webster-Chan is out, too), the 905 were going to have to lean on depth and defense to take one in Maine’s gym, where they took both regular season meetings. That meant starting Goodluck Okonoboh for a spark of energy, relying heavily on C.J. Leslie to prop up the second-unit offense, and turning to the Toronto Raptors assignment players for offense early on. Pascal Siakam answered the call and lustily put up nine shots in the first nine minutes, producing a much-needed eight early points to build a lead as the Red Claws shot 1-of-7 out of the gate. Maine pulled back in reach as a few of Siakam’s looks at the rim rolled out and the Red Claws’ shooting picked up, but not even back-to-back triples from Cameron Ayers could keep things tight for too long.

A pair of careless turnovers late – one with Arthur Edwards talking to the sideline and another with Abdel Nader dumping off to Guerschon Yabusele as the shot-clock expired – allowed the 905 to extend their lead back out. The 905 offense wasn’t even particularly strong, but a seven-one edge on the offensive glass was a major factor, producing an 11-point edge in second-chance points early on. Leslie casually drained a three as the trailer to put the 905 up 29-17 after a frame.

Frustration appeared to mount a bit for the Red Claws in the second (they picked up a pair of technicals), but Jordan Mickey’s force helped keep them afloat. If the 905 weren’t thinned out enough, foul trouble for Antwaine Wiggins and Yanick Moreira stretched them further, and the assignees were leaned on for big minutes once again. The defense from both was a nice addition, and despite loading up the paint, Maine had some trouble keeping Siakam and Leslie away from the rim or line, especially once E.J. Singler joined Brady Heslip on the floor to give the big some space. Really, though, it was all the defense, and at one point they 905 lead by 14 while shooting just 35 percent, which says plenty.

Staying that cold on offense is a tough way to play in the D-League, where leads evaporate quickly, and a few careless turnovers sandwiched around Heslip’s errant 3-point shooting helped Maine make it a game, at 50-44, once again entering the half. The 905 were probably pleased with withstanding the foul trouble and holding Maine to 37-percent shooting, but were it not for Singler hitting a late triple, they may have squandered what felt like a stranglehold on the game entirely.

There was all kinds of trouble out of the break – the stream went dead, Caboclo picked up a third, Moreira a fourth, the Red Claws were in the bonus in under six minutes – but the 905 held steady with a multi-possession lead, and a nice little back-and-forth broke out between Mickey and Leslie. Leslie and Siakam really stepped up here, a major consideration with Tavares out inside and Toupane’s instant, late-clock offense unavailable. Those points around the rim were a big factor as the 905 struggled to find their customary ball movement and as Heslip, who appeared to be favoring his right wrist at one point, didn’t get on the board as a scorer or playmaker until late in the third. Once again, though, it was the defense that played a huge factor in helping the 905 push out to an 19-point lead entering the fourth.

It was enough to frustrate the Red Claws into a third technical, even after a rare make, betraying that the 905 may have broken their spirit, at least for the day. Large leads aren’t always safe here, but the 905 lost but a single game all season when leading entering the fourth, and their defense sometimes doesn’t concede 19 points down the stretch, let alone a 19-point lead. As the lead ballooned into the high-20s midway through the frame, Maine turned it over to their bench (something the 905 could hardly do because of how thinned out they are), and the final minutes were rote.

The 905 aren’t in the clear yet, but they’ll now have two opportunities at home, in a back-to-back, to punch a ticket to the D-League Finals. The job head coach Jerry Stackhouse and staff have done keeping this team ready through assignments, recalls, call-ups, and other shake-ups is quite remarkable and a testament to the system, particularly on the defensive end. Stackhouse has had to use the phrase “next man up” far too often over the last few weeks, but they’ve had no choice but to approach things that way, and the rallying cry has worked consistently. It only needs to work for three more victories.

Notes

  • Bruno Caboclo wasn’t quite as impressive as in the Cavaliers game the other night, but it was another decent defensive showing with a middling offensive performance. This has kind of been the standard for him in the playoffs here, and while he plays a small role well, Wednesday’s showing created a hope that Caboclo would be a little more forceful here. He managed just four points (he was 0-of-6 on threes), four rebounds, two steals, and a block but was a plus-6 in 33 minutes.
  • Pascal Siakam had just a terrific bounce-back game here. His first five D-League appearances saw him dominate but he was just okay in the team’s first two postseason games. A taste of game action at the NBA level on Wednesday seems to have reinvigorated him, and he was great in this one. The first-round pick finished with 22 points on 10-of-16 shooting with nine rebounds, two steals, and a plus-16 mark in 35 minutes. The 905 really needed this kind of performance out of him.
  • With Edy Tavares called up to the Cavaliers, Stackhouse opted to start Goodluck Okonoboh at center. He had options. Yanick Moreira had started early in the season and has been solid off the bench, C.J. Leslie has capably played some minutes as a small center, and Pascal Siakam may be best off in that role. But Stackhouse has had an affinity for Okonoboh all year, referring to him as his “pitbull.” It’s something I wrote about at the D-League Showcase. He only wound up playing four minutes until garbage time, grabbing three rebounds in the team’s strong opening stretch.
    • Leslie ended up soaking most of those minutes and was massive, scoring 33 points on 12-of-18 shooting with 11 rebounds, three steals, and a plus-19 rating in just 21 minutes off the bench. Talk about answering the call.
      • When Leslie misses and the announcers say “Leslie, nope,” I laugh every time, even though I don’t think they mean to make a Parks & Rec joke.
  • Red Claws forward Abdel Nader was presented with the D-League Rookie of the Year award before the game. Dude deserves it. He’s awesome, and is definitely getting a hybrid roster spot somewhere next year, if he wants it. That he started 0-of-5 and finished 3-of-16 was appreciated here, though.
    • Guerschon Yabusele is going to be such an interesting NBA prospect. At 6-foot-8 and 270 pounds, with a thick, solid frame but decent footwork and terrific vision, there aren’t many players out there like him. The 905 mostly kept him in check here and it was one of maybe two shaky games in the D-League so far for The Dancing Bear
    • Shout out to Maine head coach Scott Morrison. Always nice to see Canadian content on the sidelines, and Morrison is by all accounts quite good. He works with the national program, too.
  • At this point in the season, there’s no excuse for the Facebook Live streams to be as bad as they remain. I know traffic is easier to direct and monetize on FBL over YouTube, but it is criminal I’ve gone an entire D-League season without the ability to cut quality video, or even watch playoff games in decent quality without falling way behind. Early in the third quarter, the stream went out completely, and people on Twitter were telling me they had turned the game off completely out of frustration.
  • The 905 will return home for Game 2 on Wednesday at Hershey Centre. Raptors Republic readers can get discounted 905 playoff tickets by using the promo code REPUBLIC905.
    • These teams have played five times this year now, and the road team has won every game. A bad omen for Games 2 and 3? Probably not.
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Practice news & notes: Lowry has to be more aggressive (or “force shots”)

Throughout the playoffs, we’ll be giving you brief notebooks after every practice, shootaround, pre-game, and post-game. They’ll vary in terms of length and analysis based on what’s said, what happens, and what else is going on, and the videos will all eventually go up on the Raptors’ YouTube page, anyway, but rest assured you can use us as your first stop for the relevant quotes and notes each day during the postseason. Feedback on whether or not these posts are useful is appreciated so we can spend our time accordingly.

NOTE: GO here to comment. Sorry.

This isn’t the kind of thing you really want to hear from your All-Star after a Game 1 loss.

“Put it this way: I guess I’mma have to force shots.”

That was Kyle Lowry when asked about how he needs to be better moving forward. Coming off of a 2-of-11 performance in which Lowry came up empty on 10 drives (0-of-3 with zero assists), didn’t work particularly well as a creator, and was shaky defensively, the Toronto Raptors point guard seemed somewhat combative about the feeling around the team that he needs to try to do more rather than less.

“My teammates want me to be more aggressive, so I’mma have to force some more shots. Simple as that,” he continued. “Because I felt like I made the right passes last night, but my teammates, I guess I’ll be forcing more shots, put it that way. You got four arms on you, but I gotta be more aggressive.”

That Lowry is upset is not surprising, or disconcerting. He played poorly, and that was a major reason the Raptors once again find themselves in an 0-1 hole. But with head coach Dwane Casey confirming that the Raptors do, in fact, want Lowry to get more aggressive, Lowry’s prickly announcement of that intention is sure to raise eyebrows.

To his own point, some of the looks he passed up in close would have meant him shooting through a swarm of arms.

He shot this, for example:If Lowry feels like those shots are being asked of him, then his attitude makes sense. But he also passed up a fairly clean look against Greg Monroe inside and just generally lacked the force he normally plays with (and that the Raptors often credit with setting the tone for the entire team).

For the second year in a row – or maybe fourth – Casey is back to trying to hammer the message home that the Raptors are going to trust their guys.

“He’s gotta be more aggressive,” Casey confirmed. “It sounds like a yearly song we sing but we’re going to go as he and DeMar goes and he’s gotta be aggressive no matter what the defense is doing. They didn’t do anything that we didn’t expect or work on, but again if he has open shots he’s gotta take them. He’s got the green light and that hasn’t change in the regular season when we were third in the NBA in offense.”

They need to trust themselves, too, though, or we’re headed for another “Lowry shoots alone in a hoodie late at the Air Canada Centre” story. Lowry presently owns a share of the worst postseason field-goal percentage among active players with at least 500 field-goal attempts at 37.9 percent. That simply can’t continue, and whether it’s aggression or variance or what, Lowry has to give them more.

He could also do himself a favor by not, you know, saying things like this, but that’s a non-basketball matter for another time.

Transition defense, and the energy that flows from it, a major focus

There’s been a lot of talk since Game 1 ended about Milwaukee’s transition offense, and Lowry and Casey both stressed the need to ignore the offensive glass and get back. Milwaukee was the league’s top team in points in the paint, and a ton of that flowed from their ability to punish any miss or turnover (and they’re terrific at forcing those) with a head of steam the other way. The Raptors failed in that regard, and they didn’t reap the benefits of that trade-off, either.

“That was the goal,” Lowry said. “That was the gameplan not to crash as much, and we didn’t follow that. They got out in transition a lot.It’s unfortunate that we didn’t follow the gameplan that we needed to follow.”

Basically, they only want Jonas Valanciunas crashing, which is how they’ve always talked about that area, but it puts them in a bit of a bind – Milwaukee is a poor defensive rebounding team, and it’s where Toronto could get a lot of easy points when their offense stagnates (which was a bigger issue than their defense last night). The Raptors grabbed less than 20 percent of available offensive rebounds, well below their usual rate, and it still didn’t help with the transition defense. That give-and-take is something to watch in Game 2, especially when Valanciunas is off the floor.

“I think the transition buckets by going for fake rebounds or rebounds we thought we could get hurt us more by not getting back in transition,” Casey said. “That has been our philosophy and it will continue to be our philosophy. We give Jonas the leeway of rebounding if he’s right in the paint and right there at the rim or Serge but we should never be coming in from the corner for an offensive rebound.”

That goes for getting settled quickly in semi-transition, too.

A big byproduct of the transition game was the difference in energy – or other ethereal measure of intensity/force/constitution – and there was plenty of talk about how the Raptors can be a lot better by simply playing better and harder.

“I think they were making shots, and dunks. taking the air out of us a bit. It kinda hurt us,” Lowry said. “We gave them the confidence that they needed and we gave them the open air space they needed to get out and run.”

“We just didn’t play at a level to deserve to win that game,” Casey echoed. “We didn’t play with playoff intensity. We played like it was a mid-season game in February. You’re not going to win in this league playing with that kind of intensity, force.”

For P.J. Tucker, who’s new to the whole Game 1 epidemic, it doesn’t make a great deal of sense.

“I don’t know, man. If you can answer you could probably get a job if you can answer that,” he said. “It’s kind of weird that everybody today’s like ‘oh yeah, we always lose the first game.’ It’s like, no. No. No, we don’t always want to lose the first game. It’s not cool. It’s not something we plan out and want to do. We actually lost the game, they outplayed us, so what’s the answer? I don’t know, but we’ve got to figure it out the next two days before this next game.​”

Tucker sounds like he’s been watching the Raptors in the playoffs for years.

Other Notes

  • Casey turned down the idea of starting both DeMarre Carroll and P.J. Tucker in order to help combat the dual threats of Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton. DeMar DeRozan will continue to draw Middleton out of the gate – trying to put DeRozan on Tony Snell, while probably worth a shot at some point, means Serge Ibaka on Middleton or Antetokounmpo, which they seem to want to avoid – and Casey shot down the idea of the starting lineup changing.
    • He did concede, though, that the Raptors will change some of how they approached the Middleton matchup. He didn’t get into specifics, but Middleton simply got too many switches onto Toronto guards, and his playmaking posting up or looking over a smaller defender was pristine.
  • In other lineup news, Casey mentioned Norman Powell and Delon Wright as potential options moving forward. The Raptors can’t really get away with Lowry and Cory Joseph together for long when Middleton and Antetokounmpo share the floor, and adding one of the longer guards into the rotation would minimize that risk a bit while adding a bit more punch attacking from the weak side.
    • Casey’s still unsettled on his Lowry-and-bench unit, though, a product both of when Greg Monroe’s minutes will come and the rotation tightening. Valanciunas worked well in that spot in the second quarter on Saturday, and the Raptors should probably experiment with getting Valanciunas an earlier hook in the first and third to match up more of his minutes with Monroe.
  • That is, assuming they’re not going to go to Valanciunas attacking Thon Maker. The Raptors remain worried about double-teams there but want to try to find Valanciunas more opportunities to attack.
    • “Always,” Casey said. “Rolling to the basket, finishing. I don’t know how many attempts we had at the rim that we did not finish. He had the opportunity to roll to the rim a few times. You always want to have him an opportunity to go 1-on-1. I don’t think they’ll let him go 1-on-1 in the post very often, especially against Maker. They’re going to double team him. We’ve got to be prepared for that, too.”
  • I could listen to Tucker talk about defense all day.
    • He called Matthew Dellavedova “one of the best screeners in the NBA,” which I thought was interesting and definitely looked to be the case in Game 1. Dellavedova as a screener for Antetokonmpo in the pick-and-pop or for Middleton to free him for a switch in the corner offense were both huge.

Continued apologies: We have no idea why Disqus threads aren’t loading for some posts. Trust us, it hurts us as much as you, because comments are a huge part of what makes this community and what makes this site run. It’s an issue on Disqus’ end. I ain’t tryna NOT have you guys reacting to Lowry’s quotes, I promise.

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Comment Thread – April 16

Comment threads aren’t working on today’s practice news & notes, and there are some quotes worth commenting on, so here is this working thread.

We’re trying to figure out why Disqus has been struggling to create comment threads the last few days. Apologies for the inconvenience.

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VIDEO: Kyle Lowry says he’ll “have to force shots”

We have a full breakdown of all of the notes and quotes from practice here, but I figured Kyle Lowry’s interesting choice of words were best presented within the context of his full media availability.

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Another series, another hole the Raptors have dug themselves

Raptors 83, Bucks 97 | Box Score | Quick Reaction | Post-game news & notes | Reaction Podcast

There is something to be said about playoff experience. Players, coaches, and analysts say it all the time: It takes a taste of the postseason to know exactly what it takes to win down the line. Wayne Gretzky famously tells a story about looking into the New York Islanders locker room after his Edmonton Oilers were defeated, seeing the bumps and bruises and exhaustion, and clueing in as to what a championship run took. With a few exceptions here and there, titles require a progression of success, even if progress is not always linear.

The Toronto Raptors, then, put themselves in a great position on Saturday, because they managed to get Fred VanVleet, Jakob Poeltl, and Delon Wright some garbage-time run at the end of a playoff game. That experience will be valuable as soon as next year, after the Raptors blow up the current core.

I kid, of course, although that very much seemed to be the energy of the fan base after the Raptors dropped yet another Game 1 at the Air Canada Centre on Saturday. It was about as frustrating as losses come, a lackluster effort in a 97-83 defeat against a quality, plucky Milwaukee Bucks team that the Raptors are quite heavily favored against. It was a misstep, one that once again has the team behind the eight-ball in a playoff series, stuck in an 0-1 hole without the benefit of home-court advantage any longer.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Three years ago, the Raptors shook off years of futility to make the playoffs, essentially playing the role of the Bucks, the surprising and inexperienced team on the upswing just looking to amass experience and make a dent. A terrible postseason followed, but the Raptors spent all of last year answering questions new and old, exorcising demons, and establishing the core as worth pushing forward with. Their run to the Eastern Conference and the quality season that followed – one in which they were nearly as successful despite far more adversity and upheaval – were supposed to give the franchise a sense of stability and a sense of having outgrown the spectre of inadequacy that hung over them for two decades.

Saturday, then, was supposed to go according to a plan. The only thing left for them to knock off their “can’t do” list was a seemingly random, meaningless inability to win Game 1s, an issue that extends throughout the history of the team. Vince Carter and Chris Bosh have nothing to do with the current roster, of course, and those earlier teams just weren’t all that great, a reasonable explanation for losing games. Again, this was supposed to be different – this Raptors team is supposed to be good, they’re a favorite, and as much as there remain doubts about just how high they can rise, they’re supposed to be past the point of dreading each and every game as a referendum on their legitimacy.

Here they were, though, playing what felt like every type of typical Raptors game that has stressed and frustrated throughout the year.

It started early, with the Raptors getting out to their customary slow start thanks in part to a starting lineup that still hasn’t figured things out. Toronto was clearly wary of going to Jonas Valanciunas for fear of turnovers in Milwaukee’s trademark post double-teams, and so the Bucks paid him less mind in turn, making life as difficult on Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan as anticipated. DeRozan responded well early on, but Lowry continued his career Game 1 struggles, starting out timid and ultimately finishing 2-of-11 with four points, six assists, and little for the trademark force that have made him a major plus in the playoffs even when he’s struggled shooting in the past.

“It happens,” a somewhat solemn but unshaken Lowry said after the game. “I have to make the adjustments what they’re doing and figure it out and watch the film and go from there. Can’t leave myself in the hole, I’ve got to dig my way out, I’ve got to keep getting out, somehow, some way.”

Watching film will probably only help so much. The Bucks defended the way the Raptors should have anticipated, because it’s the way they’ve operated their base defense for the bulk of the year. The Raptors knew these blitzes and traps were coming, but they failed to execute well out of them. Their 15 assists perhaps undersold the ball movement thanks to the team’s 5-of-23 mark from outside, but it’s telling that no non-point guard had more than a single assist.

Head coach Dwane Casey was quick to point out that the Raptors have long succeeded as a low-assist offense and was steadfast that film review will show missed opportunities. That might be true – Milwaukee’s defense seems like the type that can be learned and exploited more and more over a seven-game series as an offense gets better at making the reads and poking holes in the aggression, but this was an inauspicious start, especially since the Raptors punted the biggest advantage they have in this series, grabbing just eight offensive rebounds.

“Not really. There were assist opportunities there,” he said. “The roller was open, the swing pass to the next pass, at the end of the day, those guys gotta make a play, make a shot. I don’t know if you’re gonna change your playing personality at this time of year. We had the low assists and we were top three or whatever early in the season, but again, we were making shots.”

The lack of shot-making wasn’t an issue coming out of the first quarter in an eight-point hole, because the Raptors locked in defensively. Valanciunas held Greg Monroe in check temporarily in the Lowry-and-bench lineup was able to go on a mini-run with only Jason Kidd staggering Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton (the Lowry-Cory-Joseph pairing is going to be difficult to play together when both of those players are on the floor, as Kidd hammered home in this same spot in the fourth quarter). The Raptors gummed things up for Milwaukee, limiting their transition opportunities and choking off their easy half-court cuts (hello, P.J. Tucker on Antetokounmpo), Serge Ibaka was incredible at both ends, and DeRozan found a bit of a groove scoring late in the half to take a five-point lead back.

That lead would swell to seven before the rails came off, Toronto’s cold shooting helping fuel Milwaukee’s transition game. The Bucks opened the third on a run, closed the third on a run, and then blew the doors off early in the fourth, totaling 14 fast-break points and 13 off of turnovers in the second half. Toronto shooting just 20 percent (!) over the second half and grabbing only 5 of 26 potential offensive rebounds let Milwaukee dictate the open-court flow of the game, and the Raptors broke, something they’re not supposed to have in their makeup any more.

“Our second half was just abysmal,” Casey said. “We didn’t play with any pace, any rhythm, any movement. You got to give them credit for doing a good job defensively. We got to figure out how to get a better rhythm, a better pace, spacing once the ball gets in the half-court we got to get better movement…You keep playing that way it’s always going to bite you in the behind. That’s what happened tonight.”

There is a long list of things the Raptors could have done differently or done better, and they have two days off to try to figure them out. Non-Tucker defenders need to keep Antetokounmpo’s legs from under him, and Patrick Patterson needs to get more opportunity in that matchup (and yes, a starting lineup tweak should be considered). The Raptors can’t play as small when Antetokounmpo and Middleton share the floor, because they’re not good enough at recognizing the cuts in Milwaukee’s corner offense and are too susceptible to post-up switches or back-door layups. Thon Maker won’t play as well, and if the Raptors are going to use Valanciunas for 23 minutes, they need to use him a bit more rather than just having him be the strong screen-setter he is, and he has to cause a greater problem on the offensive glass. Lowry also just needs to play a heck of a lot better, full stop, because in the words of Casey, the Raptors go as he goes.

They have some time. It’s a seven-game series, and there are nearly 48 hours between games. That can be a positive or a negative at times, but the Raptors don’t have the luxury of letting it be the latter.

“Doesn’t matter,” Tucker said of the break. “One day, two days, next day, just be prepared. We didn’t go out and execute our plan. Hopefully next game we will.”

The Raptors have been here before. They weren’t supposed to be again, not like this, and the hope now has to be that the experience they trumpeted ahead of the series manifests itself in the fight back in a way it didn’t for the opening salvo. It’s easy to wring hands and become disenfranchised after a loss like this, especially when the game felt so plainly winnable for three quarters. That’s how the Raptors certainly seemed to feel, as frustrated with themselves as much as anything. Same as it ever was, and with plenty of time to correct course.

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Raptors-Bucks Game 1 Reaction Podcast – Kyle Lowry needs to be much better

Host William Lou recaps an awful loss to the Milwaukee Bucks in Game 1.

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Post-game news & notes: This “abysmal” Game 1 thing again

This was a gut punch, even if it was one everyone seemed to jokingly be expecting. The Toronto Raptors had grown out of the constant fear of not actually being good, the spectre of their history shaken away in recent years. The Raptors and their fans were supposed to feel better this time around. Confident, even. The team was good and could potentially be great, they were once again a favorite, and now they had been through it a bunch.

And still, they came out and botched another Game 1 at home, punting home-court advantage of their first-round playoff series against the Milwaukee Bucks right through the lengthy, outstretched uprights that are Giannis Antetokounmpo’s arms. The 97-83 final betrays how close the game was for most of the night but somehow also understates just how disappointing an effort it was.

This again?

The Raptors are now 1-11 in Game 1s all time, 0-9 in Game 1s that start a first round, 0-5 in Game 1s during this core’s four-year stretch, and 0-4 in those recent Game 1s that came at home. This may have been the worst loss of all of them, and there was no 12:30 excuse, or inexperience, or other intangible to blame it on. They had every advantage here, and they laid an absolute egg.

“I have no clue,” DeMar DeRozan said of the pattern. “If I had the answer than maybe we would have pulled it out tonight. But it’s something now we’re not unfamiliar with, being at this point. It’s never ideal but we’ve got to bounce back and understand we make it hard on ourself to come back and fight back even harder. But it’s on us. We don’t have no excuse.”

He’s right. This wasn’t an unlucky performance or just a cold shooting night. They completely gave in during the course of the second half, letting an eminently winnable game slip through their fingers. The Bucks obviously get credit for taking advantage and showing up prepared, but the Raptors lost this game more than Milwaukee won it, if that makes sense.

“Our second half was just abysmal,” head coach Dwane Casey said after the game. “We didn’t play with any pace, any rhythm, any movement. You got to give them credit for doing a good job defensively. We got to figure out how to get a better rhythm, a better pace, spacing once the ball gets in the half-court we got to get better movement. Our exchanges, don’t stand there and help their defence, all of the above. A lot of that led to a lot of tough shots, challenged shots but we were just totally out of rhythm in the second half and with that said we were still up seven.

“You keep playing that way it’s always going to bite you in the behind. That’s what happenedtonight.”

A big, big problem was the continued shaky early series play of Kyle Lowry, who shot 2-of-11 and scored just four points. Unlike last season when Lowry’s shooting struggles came with strong playmaking and a gritty defensive performance, he was just plain bad here. He dealt with foul trouble and then got passive on defense, he couldn’t find his way to the rim, and his 0-of-6 mark from long-range speaks to his frigidity with the jumper.

Here are Lowry’s Game 1s as a Raptor:

  • 7-of-18, 22 points, 2014
  • 2-of-10, 7 points, 2015
  • 3-of-13, 11 points, 2016 round one
  • 3-of-13, 7 points, 2016 round two
  • 4-of-14, 8 points, 2016 round three
  • 2-of-11, 4 points, 2017

That’s a total of 21-of-79 (26.6 percent) for an average of 9.83 points. It’s hard to say, even with a sample that’s grown as large as six games, whether this is anything more than noise. He was hurt in 2015 (back) and again in 2016 (elbow) and this was only his fifth game back from wrist surgery, so it may not be prescriptive. It is certainly a trend, though, and it’s tough to imagine Raptor fans having a ton of confidence if they make it to another Game 1 this year.

“We’re gonna go the way Kyle goes,” Casey said. “He’s our guy, he’s our All-Star, he makes a lot of decisions for us. He’s gotta continue to be aggressive, make or miss. He takes 15 shots, misses 15 shots, he’s still gotta take em. A lot of our stuff revolves around him being aggressive. He’s gotta continue to do that, or begin to do that.”

Need some positivity to go to bed with? He’s averaged 13.2 points on 31.4 percent in Game 2s. Progress! (It’s fine. It’s probably fine. I mean, it’s maybe fine, right?)

We the fourth

The Raptors were the league’s best fourth-quarter team, and it wasn’t particularly close. They once again led the league in double-digit comebacks with 21, and they had the best fourth-quarter net rating. That abandoned them in a major way here, as a five-point halftime lead turned into a five-point fourth-quarter deficit, and that only swelled from there.

All told, Toronto scored just 32 points int he second half and shot 4-of-17 with five turnovers in the fourth.

“We missed a lot of shots that we normally make,” DeRozan said. “We didn’t get over 20 in the final quarters in the second half, that’s unlike us. We shot 36 per cent, shots we normally make. But we can’t let that affect us getting back in transition. I think that’s when the Bucks took advantage of that and they pulled away with a lead.”

While it’s true that the Bucks got their offense going (they scored 51 points on 45 second-half possessions, including 14 fast-break points), the offense was the major issue here, with the Raptors scoring just 94.3 points per-100 possessions. The team thinks their shaky defense flowed from the offense, which makes sense given Milwaukee’s efficacy in transition, so shoring up the offense is priority one. To hear Casey tell it, that means executing better, not changing their stripes.

“There were assist opportunities there,” Casey said. “I don’t know if you’re gonna change your playing personality at this time of year…I don’t think you’re gonna change Kyle’s personality, DeMar’s personality…We’ll go in and make some adjustments, what they were doing to us, see what they were doing to us defensively. But my eyes tell me right now they weren’t doing anything we didn’t expect. We gotta make some adjustments to get some better shots, some easier shots, some freer shots, but it has nothing to do with that multiple effort on the defensive end.”

It will be interesting to see how the Raptors come out from a tactical standpoint in Game 2.

Injury Updates

Serge Ibaka had a bit of a scare early in the third quarter when his left foot landed on Giannis Antetokounmpo’s foot as Ibaka came down from shooting a three. He laid on the floor for a defensive possession and then limped to the bench during a timeout but ultimately stayed in the game. He was Toronto’s best player, so that was nice. These kind of plays should probably be fouls. The shooter has to have room to land.

Lineup Notes

  • The “Lowry and bench” unit to start the second quarter included Valanciunas, Patterson, Tucker, and Joseph. As always, they went on a pretty major run, with a +5 marker in four minutes.
    • They went with Carroll in Tucker’s spot here in the fourth, likely to keep Tucker fresh for the stretch run. It was less effective, as you’ll be shocked to learn (-3 in two minutes). Casey went away from it quickly.
  • Lowry played eight minutes in the first, as is fairly usual. He sat briefly in the middle of the second, too, though, when DeRozan checked back in, because he had two fouls. He picked up a third and sat the final three minutes, too. He had the worst plus-minus (-22) on the team, a rarity even when he shot poorly last year.
  • The Raptors turned those tables and got Antetokounmpo his fourth foul with 4:33 to play in the third (and were in the bonus), but they couldn’t take advantage. Milwaukee closed out the quarter on an 11-6 run.
  • Casey rolled with what is a very good lineup in general for a long part of the fourth, but one that is untenable against Milwaukee’s size – Lowry-Joseph-DeRozan-Tucker-Ibaka. Eventually, he went to Powell in Joseph’s place. They just can’t have two point guards and DeRozan on the floor much together against Milwaukee’s best lineups, because there are too many ways for the Bucks to seek out post-up mismatches, something their offense is very good at finding. Middleton was 4-of-15 and yet a huge problem.
    • “Khris didn’t have his typical offensive night but I thought he still had a big imprint on the game by passing, finding the open guys and the guys delivered,” Jason Kidd said.
    • They were only a -1 in seven minutes, mind you.
    • The Raptors did not use what I think is their best lineup in this series: Lowry-DeRozan-Tucker-Patterson-Ibaka.
  • Milwaukee starters were a +7 in 14 minutes. Their Giannis-and-bench lineup (-7 in three minutes) was really their only abjectly ineffective one.
    • Toronto starters were a -11 in 10 minutes, continuing a two-year long trend, it feels like.

Assorted

  • The Raptors allowed fans to stay after the game and watch the remainder of the Leafs’ playoff game, which is a cool idea. Concessions were open, too, so it’s also a nice cash-grab. Had the Raptors won, I’d imagine more people would have jumped on the opportunity.
  • Ethan Hawke was here in a tucked-in Kyle Lowry jersey, so the Raptors presented him with an Ethan Hawke jersey. Ok! By the way, where you at, Drake?
  • Game 2 goes Tuesday at 7 at home. Let’s try not to drink too much bleach between then and now. Coors Light will do instead.
    • “Doesn’t matter. One day, two days, next day, just be prepared,” P.J. Tucker said. “We didn’t go out and execute our plan. Hopefully next game we will.

Note: I have no idea why Disqus has rendered comments unavailable on two posts today. It’s an issue on their end, apparently. Apologies for that, but comment away on the Quick Reaction, and I’ll be back with the recap at 9am.

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Quick Reaction: Bucks 97, Raptors 83; Bucks lead series 1-0

Milwaukee 97 Final
Box Score
83 Toronto

C
S. Ibaka36 MIN, 19 PTS, 14 REB, 0 AST, 0 STL, 8-14 FG, 1-4 3FG, 2-4 FT, 3 BLK, 1 TO, -16 +/-

This is the highest grade anyone is getting tonight, and it reflects the fact that Ibaka was the best Raptor. Nice stat line, made some big plays, especially in the first quarter where he owned the paint.

But neither he, nor any other Raptor, could slow down Giannis and when the collapsing started because of that Milwaukee started hitting 3s. His ability to switch, his mobility and leadership defensively is why he’s here, and he didn’t have that tonight when the team needed it most late.

F
D. Carroll24 MIN, 5 PTS, 4 REB, 0 AST, 0 STL, 2-3 FG, 0-1 3FG, 1-3 FT, 1 BLK, 1 TO, -15 +/-

Well, Carroll managed to score on two weird drives, one of which ended in a dunk. That’s all he did, really, in the 24 minutes he played. His defense was awful, looked like he didn’t want to shoot on offense, and just generally looked out of place. I defended him starting last week, but it was in the hopes it wouldn’t be this much of a trainwreck for the starting lineup.

D
J. Valanciunas24 MIN, 9 PTS, 9 REB, 0 AST, 0 STL, 2-5 FG, 0-0 3FG, 5-7 FT, 0 BLK, 1 TO, -14 +/-

“The return of playoff Jonas”. I tweeted about this before the game, and how I was looking forward to it. Instead, we saw one good quarter, the second, and a whole lot of invisible Jonas. Outside of that second frame he didn’t bring much on offense, and let Milwaukee have whatever they wanted on defense. To say he was a nonfactor is inaccurate, he was a huge factor for the Bucks pulling away in the second half.

That second quarter saved him from a F, because it really was a good quarter and he needs to bring that for full games.

D-
K. Lowry34 MIN, 4 PTS, 2 REB, 6 AST, 2 STL, 2-11 FG, 0-6 3FG, 0-1 FT, 0 BLK, 1 TO, -22 +/-

I’m giving Lowry a D- instead of an F only because I think there’s a lot of rust at play here. He has only played a handful of games in the last two months, and maybe this should’ve been expected. On the other hand, this is the playoffs, and he’s supposed to be the best player for the Raptors.

He couldn’t hit the shots he did take, shouldn’t have taken quite a few of them, and turned down a handful of good shots. At the same time he couldn’t contain Malcolm Brogdon, a rookie, on defense. Lowry has to be Lowry for the Raptors to be great, and he wasn’t even close tonight.

C
D. DeRozan39 MIN, 27 PTS, 8 REB, 1 AST, 0 STL, 7-21 FG, 0-2 3FG, 13-14 FT, 0 BLK, 1 TO, -16 +/-

DeMar gets a C as well, mostly because this was an A+ at halftime. The first half was everything we’ve come to love about his game. Aggressively attacking what the defense gave him and scoring with ease, while not forcing his game. Also looked good defensively in the first 24 minutes. Nearly had the dunk of the year twice before missing both of them, showing his aggressiveness.

Unfortunately, halftime happened. When the rest of the roster came out after half with no intensity, he didn’t bring it either, as he forced some tough shots, missed some good ones, and generally just didn’t have it. This bled into his defensive game, where he looked like the old DeMar in the second half. Give me more of the first half, and the Raptors are a better team.

C
P. Tucker29 MIN, 7 PTS, 4 REB, 1 AST, 0 STL, 2-7 FG, 1-4 3FG, 2-2 FT, 0 BLK, 0 TO, 1 +/-

The good with PJ is what it always is. He brings toughness and works hard regardless of the opponent or game. On the other hand, he couldn’t contain Giannis in the slightest when matched up on him, and didn’t bring the raised intensity from his teammates he has coming off the bench in past games. The Raptors need him to be a leader.

D
C. Joseph27 MIN, 3 PTS, 0 REB, 5 AST, 0 STL, 1-5 FG, 1-1 3FG, 0-0 FT, 0 BLK, 3 TO, 1 +/-

About the only thing Cory did well tonight was generate some assists, otherwise it was a poor effort. He’s been scoring lately, and didn’t have that tonight, but more than that he has to be a defensive factor and he was terrible there tonight. When Matthew Dellavedova put Cory on his butt with a crossover, that about summed up his defensive game.

D
P. Patterson16 MIN, 3 PTS, 3 REB, 1 AST, 0 STL, 1-3 FG, 1-3 3FG, 0-0 FT, 0 BLK, 1 TO, -3 +/-

It’s hard to remember many notable moment for Patterson tonight, and maybe that sums up his game in itself. He was invisible, largely, and that’s not good enough. The bench as a whole wasn’t a factor for most of the game, and the Raptors need their depth to be a strength.

C
N. Powell6 MIN, 5 PTS, 0 REB, 0 AST, 0 STL, 2-4 FG, 1-1 3FG, 0-0 FT, 0 BLK, 1 TO, -2 +/-

There was a lot of clamoring on social media for Norm to get minutes with Carroll struggling, and I’d imagine that’d be much easier if he hadn’t struggled so much the last few months defensively. It’s a tough series for him anyways though, with Milwaukee being a big, long team, and Norm being short, despite his wingspan.

C
D. Wright2 MIN, 0 PTS, 0 REB, 1 AST, 0 STL, 0-1 FG, 0-1 3FG, 0-0 FT, 0 BLK, 0 TO, 4 +/-

Only played in garbage time, and that’s probably about all he’ll see in these playoffs.

C
F. VanVleet2 MIN, 0 PTS, 0 REB, 0 AST, 0 STL, 0-0 FG, 0-0 3FG, 0-0 FT, 0 BLK, 0 TO, 4 +/-

He’s in the same boat as Delon here. Maybe one of them sees some time if Lowry and Joseph continue to struggle, but if that’s the case the Raptors have larger issues.

C
J. Poeltl2 MIN, 0 PTS, 0 REB, 0 AST, 1 STL, 0-0 FG, 0-0 3FG, 0-0 FT, 0 BLK, 0 TO, 4 +/-

I don’t know how you get him in the rotation, but if Valanciunas continues to have as many issues as he had tonight, he might find himself playing playoff minutes.

C
L. Nogueira1 MIN, 1 PTS, 3 REB, 0 AST, 0 STL, 0-1 FG, 0-0 3FG, 1-2 FT, 0 BLK, 0 TO, 4 +/-

With Bebe sitting being Poeltl in the rotation, who also isn’t playing, expect garbage time to be about all we get from him.

F
Dwane Casey

Maybe it’s not on Casey that Lowry just didn’t have it tonight and the team’s energy wasn’t there. But, on the other hand, where were the adjustments? Where were any rotational or lineup adjustments as the game fell apart? He needed to find answers as the game went on, and all we got were more questions.

Things We Saw

  1. It feels weird to harp on defense this much in a game where the Raptors only scored 83 points, but this was a slow game, and the Raptors managed just a DRtg of 110.2 against a Bucks offense that wasn’t good this year. Toronto can’t defend like they did here and expect to find postseason success.
  2. I’ve been thinking about the Raptors as a contender to make the ECF and the Finals, and those ideas took a serious blow here. You can’t throw away quarters in the playoffs, and that disturbing trend from the regular season showed again tonight. They have to find consistency throughout games, and stop being a different team in different halves.
  3. I know I wrote last week defending Carroll as starting small forward, but if he’s not better maybe PJ Tucker needs to start. It’s tiring watching the Raptors suck to open games and knowing that it’s just who they are. Be better.
  4. The Lowry and DeMar can’t get it done in the playoffs narrative won’t go away if they keep having games like their combined 9/32 tonight. I know DeMar scored 27, but the whistle might not be as kind every night, and the defense might not bite as often on his pump fakes. They have to lead.
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Pre-game news & notes: “The pressure is the same, the expectations are different”

The walk up to the Air Canada Centre today was interesting. It’s the fourth year in a row the Toronto Raptors have made the playoffs and the third time in that stretch I’ve been making a similar pre-game walk to attend Game 1. (It will never not be striking and a cause to be grateful on a day as big as this that this is considered a commute for me.) Last year’s walk was cause for a lot of thinking because of just how much that series against the Indiana Pacers meant. The walk up for Game 7, Game 7 against the Miami Heat, and Game 4 against the Cleveland Cavaliers are all walks I’ll remember (shout out to Mandy Moore).

Today’s, for whatever reason, felt a little more rote despite the palpable buzz around the city. I was frozen by cold, hard rain for the first half of the 40-minute trek, and spent the second half sweating instead of drying up. I saw Leafs jerseys, Jays jerseys, and Raptors jerseys. I walked past Jurassic Park before the crowds filtered in, and lapped the ACC to check out the visuals. It’s exciting, of course, to be in the playoffs again ahead of what could be a very good, very meaningful playoff run, but the Raptors have grown to the point where the opening of the playoffs, while awesome, is the expectation, and it’s kind of old hat. In talking to others on the walk and around the ACC, that seemed to be the majority feeling, not that it makes today even one iota less incredible.

“The pressure is the same. The expectations are different,” head coach Dwane Casey said before the game. “That’s what comes with the territory when you build something and get better each year.”

The Raptors can’t afford to feel this way. All week, they’ve talked up their experience, not in terms of the edge it provides them against a young Milwaukee Bucks but in terms of how they’ll be prepared for anything – any series scenario, being a favorite or an underdog, any defensive coverage. On the short list of things this group is yet to accomplish, getting off to a good start is at the top, and they’ll need to approach Saturday with the hunger and desperation that has defined their successes. They seem acutely aware of this, and if they forget it for a second, a plucky, high-energy Bucks team is going to be there to remind them with a swift punch in the mouth. (Theoretically, unless maybe Spencer Hawes finds himself in the rotation.)

The game tips off at 5:30 on ESPN (Ryan Ruocco, Doris Burke, and Cassidy Hubbarth) and Sportsnet One on TV and on TSN 1050 on radio. You can check out the full game preview here. Your officials are Ken Mauer, John Gable, and Ed Malloy.

Required reading
Here’s what you need ahead of Game 1, assuming you haven’t been keeping up.

Raptors updates
To answer the question that didn’t need answering: No, an illness will not keep P.J. Tucker out of his first career NBA playoff game. He’s a go, and that’s awesome, because Tucker at extra intensity should be something to behold. He treats every possession like a Game 7, anyway, and his teammates have the utmost faith he’s going to respond well to the postseason atmosphere.

“It’ll be easy. Especially for him,” DeMar DeRozan said of Tucker earlier in the week. “He fits what Saturday night is going to be like. The whole atmosphere, the intensity, the aggression, the passion. That’s PJ. He’s definitely going to fit in with that perfectly.”

Outside of Tucker’s status, everything else was known going in, though how head coach Dwane Casey will approach his rotation – eight men? ten? Delon Wright or Norman Powell? use Jonas Valanciunas opposite Greg Monroe early in the second and fourth? – is likely to be something of an ongoing question as the teams figure each other out. That aspect is one of my favorite chess matches of the playoffs.

PG: Kyle Lowry, Cory Joseph, Delon Wright, Fred VanVleet
SG: DeMar DeRozan, Norman Powell
SF: DeMarre Carrol, P.J. Tucker
PF: Serge Ibaka, Patrick Patterson
C: Jonas Valanciunas, Jakob Poeltl, Lucas Nogueira
TBD: None
ASSIGNED: Bruno Caboclo, Pascal Siakam
OUT: None

Bucks updates
The Bucks come in healthy, too, save for the long-term absence of Jabari Parker. Gary Payton II or Rashad Vaughn figure to join him as the second inactive, as Milwaukee will probably want to keep four centers available even if they’re actually best off using none of them. How Jason Kidd handles his rotation at the five is probably the biggest question he faces – Thon Maker is a nice long-term piece but could get bullied here, Spencer Hawes can shoot but isn’t particularly good otherwise, Monroe is a personal favorite but is set in his bench role, and John Henson doesn’t have the weaknesses of the others to as pronounced a degree but also doesn’t have the clear strengths they bring – and the Raptors have to be hoping he puts off using Giannis Antetokounmpo at the five as long as he can.

PG: Malcolm Brogdon, Matthew Dellavedova, Gary Payton II
SG: Tony Snell, Jason Terry, Rashad Vaughn
SF: Khris Middleton, Michael Beasley
PF: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Mirza Teletovic
C: Thon Maker, Greg Monroe, John Henson, Spencer Hawes
TBD: None
ASSIGNED: None
OUT: Jabari Parker

Pre-game news and notes

  • Casey was asked about trying to marry the team’s offensive success with their defensive success, successes that haven’t happened together at any point this year. “It’s the NBA. Things change,” he offered, pointing to the difficulty of maintaining a high level on both sides over long periods. That’s obviously what they’re looking to achieve here.
  • Asked about the Bucks’ defensive pressure, Casey pointed to DeRozan’s growth as a playmaker as a necessity. “That’s one of the most important things is the willingness and understanding of where the outlets are,” Casey said, noting that the Raptors averaged more than a point per-possession against what they categorized as over 20 Bucks blitzes last time out.
  • Jason Kidd on starting two rookies in a playoff series: “I think we’re starting two rookies in which we felt during the season they’ve gotten better. Thon has made a jump here in the month of March and April and Malcolm has done the same thing for us all season.”
    • On the problems Valanciunas has caused the Bucks in the past: “I think he’s a very talented center…For our guys, we have our hands full.”
  • On the differences between the Raptors now and the Raptors he coaches against three years ago, Kidd was very complementary of the team’s growth, particularly with respect to Lowry and DeRozan. “This is going to be a really good test for us.”
  • It’s Game 1…there really wasn’t much juicy said.

Assorted

  • It’s a plaid-out, complete with shirts with a hand holding a net. I’m a fan, but the reception on Twitter so far seems to be mixed.

    • Semi-related, the Raptors have some pretty cool gear on the way throughout the playoffs. The Buffalo plaid theme maybe isn’t for everyone, but the shirts, hats, and accents on the way are OK by me. The Raptors’ red, black, and white color scheme fits well with it, and if they’re not going to go Huskies/OVO/throwback at any point, going with a style that reflects their primary colors (and therefore has a long shelf life for fans wearing them) is smart.
  • Game 1.

    A post shared by Blake Murphy (@eblakemurphy) on

The line
Game 1: Raptors -7.5
Series: Raptors -350 (implied probability of 77.8 percent)

The Raptors opened as 6.5-point favorites and the line has edged to Raptors -7.5. That suggests the Raptors are a three-to-four point favorite on neutral ground and could be a slight favorite or a pick-em when the series moves to Milwaukee, assuming no significant changes over Games 1 and 2. What’s interesting with the line being bid up in favor of the Raptors is that the series price has gone the other way, from -400 to -350 since Friday, suggesting there’s been some action on the underdog. The over-under, meanwhile, quickly dropped from 203.5 to 197.5, which is pretty significant given how sharp Vegas lines usually are in the playoffs.

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Raptors-Bucks Series Preview Hub & Poll

Here’s everything you need to get ready for the Toronto Raptors to take on the Milwaukee Bucks.

SCHEDULE & COMPARISON

GAME 1 PREVIEW

PREVIEW CONTENT

ELSEWHERE

POLL

Call it.


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Gameday: Bucks @ Raptors, Game 1, April 15

It’s finally here. This Toronto Raptors season has somehow felt short, but the wait for the postseason has felt like it’s taken forever. Perhaps that’s because a year ago, the Raptors achieved their greatest success yet, and the excitement at the opportunity to repeat or build on that success festered all through the offseason, too. The franchise has grown past the point where they’ll be measured on regular-season success, and so the 82-game slough brought with it a sense of hollowness.

It’s terrific that the Raptors once again won 50-plus games, continued to solidify themselves as a world-class organization, had a pair of All-Stars make their third appearances, watched their young players grow and their veterans get even better, and have reached the playoffs healthy. The Raptors went through a world of adversity, too, dealing with multiple injuries to key pieces, fighting through a long mid-season malaise, and working in new pieces. It’s helped forge them. The journey, in basketball and in life, is amazing and should be respected and appreciated.

But in the bigger picture, the Raptors’ goals have only to do with what happens in April, May, and if everything goes right, June. Everything about the last few months has been valuable insomuch as it informs what the Raptors will be now, where – and this is new to the organization – they always knew they’d be.

“Now for me the real thing starts,” DeMar DeRozan, coming off of the best season of his career and one of the best in franchise history, said Thursday. “This is what I worked all summer for. This was the only thing during the Olympics on my mind – getting back to April, May and playing in the moment. Pushing myself to get myself in that mindset for those games. For me my measuring stick don’t happen until Saturday.”

The Raptors’ aims extend beyond the first round of the playoffs, but they’re keenly aware that a major challenge lies in front of them still. Standing in their way is a young, upstart team that offers an otherworldly amount of length, a coaching staff with prior success against this same Raptors core, and one of the 10 best basketball players on the planet in Giannis Antetokounmpo. The Raptors are favorites, and they learned last year that it doesn’t mean a whole lot once the ball’s rolled in. The talk over the last two days has been about experience – experience in the postseason, experience failing and succeeding, experience in each situation imaginable – and about how best to apply that experience against an opponent that’s lacking in it but is by no means short on challenges to present.

“At this point we’ve been through everything,” DeRozan said. “We’ve been through the Game 7s, we’ve been to the conference finals. Now it’s about putting everything you’ve learned, everything you’ve struggled with, everything you’ve fell down trying to learn, together this time around.”

They get the chance Saturday in Game 1 against the Milwaukee Bucks, the long wait to get back to this proving ground finally over.

The game tips off at 5:30 on ESPN and Sportsnet One on TV and on TSN 1050 on radio.

Normally we’d do a Q&A with the opposing side here, but we just did that in serious fashion for a series preview. So I’ll just direct you to all of our preview content so far:

Raptors updates
P.J. Tucker is not going to be held back by an illness – he might literally try to fight the infection – but he’s listed as a TBD here just in case his condition gets worse. He was sent home from practice Friday because he’s the third Raptor (joining DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry) to come down with it (Dwane Casey says his illness is just his usual seasonal allergies, but it’s clear something’s going around). Anyway, Tucker probably killed any virus or bug with a rear-naked choke and then squatted its carcass 400 times just to make sure everything had been sweated out.

Everyone else, save for the Raptors 905 assignees (who could conceivably be recalled from Portland, Maine, to watch in street clothes) is available.

Normally, that would mean the Raptors have a good sense of who they are and what to expect here. But Lowry missed all but four games since Tucker and Serge Ibaka were acquired, and Ibaka sat the fourth out with DeRozan. The result is a starting lineup that’s played very little together and a rotation that still seemed to be influx heading into the postseason. The guess here is that Casey tightens things to the eight players you’d expect, and if a ninth is needed, the nod goes to Norman Powell first, Delon Wright second, and Jakob Poeltl only if foul trouble dictates. This could all change freely, though – Casey is experimenting, including with Jonas Valanciunas in the Lowry-and-bench spot opposite what will likely be Greg Monroe’s minutes, and the problems the Bucks can pose with their offensive talent and fluidity mean Casey will have to be ready to change course, even if he settles on a look out of the gate.

It’s telling that very few of those lineups are going to be used in this series.

PG: Kyle Lowry, Cory Joseph, Delon Wright, Fred VanVleet
SG: DeMar DeRozan, Norman Powell
SF: DeMarre Carrol, P.J. Tucker
PF: Serge Ibaka, Patrick Patterson
C: Jonas Valanciunas, Jakob Poeltl, Lucas Nogueira
TBD: P.J. Tucker
ASSIGNED: Bruno Caboclo, Pascal Siakam
OUT: None

Bucks updates
Outside of Jabari Parker, the Bucks enter healthy here. Parker’s absence highlights an intriguing aspect of this series, and something that’s become a bit of a regular thing for the Raptors ahead of recent postseason matchups – these teams haven’t met in their current form yet. Tucker, Ibaka, and Middleton didn’t play in the first three meetings, Parker did, Parker and Lowry missed the fourth, Middleton only played the fourth, and DeRozan missed the third. These teams haven’t squared off how they’ll square off here yet at all.

Like with the Raptors, these most commonly used groups aren’t even some of Milwaukee’s best. Toronto is probably fine with any look involving Monroe, because while he’s a gifted player and a better defender (this year) than he gets credit for, he’s not the matchup problem some of Milwaukee’s other options present. John Henson and Thon Maker aren’t all that good yet and Valanciunas should bully them, and Spencer Hawes is bad enough to be mostly out of the rotation despite the problems he poses, so maybe it won’t be so bad. Jason Kidd holds a serious wild-card, though, with the option to make the rarely used move to going to Antetokounmpo at center surrounded by a ton of shooting. The Raptors have to fear that at least a little bit, even with their newfound versatility.

PG: Malcolm Brogdon, Matthew Dellavedova, Gary Payton II
SG: Tony Snell, Jason Terry, Rashad Vaughn
SF: Khris Middleton, Michael Beasley
PF: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Mirza Teletovic
C: Thon Maker, Greg Monroe, John Henson, Spencer Hawes
TBD: None
ASSIGNED: None
OUT: Jabari Parker

The line
The Raptors opened as 6.5-point favorites and the line has edged to Raptors -7. That suggests the Raptors are a three-to-four point favorite on neutral ground and could be a slight favorite or a pick-em when the series moves to Milwaukee, assuming no significant changes over Games 1 and 2. The -400 series price on the Raptors implies about an 80-percent win probability for the Raptors, too, roughly in line with the models that are publicly available (though they’ve skewed closer to 90 percent). The over-under quickly dropped from 203.5 to 199.5.

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Raptors-Bucks Series Preview: Film Room Primer

Introduction

After an Eastern Conference Finals appearance last year, the Toronto Raptors seem primed to carry some playoff momentum into their first round matchup against the Milwaukee Bucks. While the season series between these two teams did not feature either team at full strength, a lot of information can be gleaned by pouring over the film.

Bucks Defensive Scheme

Pick and Roll Coverage

The Milwaukee Bucks do not deploy a traditional conservative pick and roll scheme on defense. Rather than dropping their big man and screen defenders into the paint, as much of the league has done in a post-Thibodeau NBA, the Bucks ask their bigs to jump up to the level of the screen to pressure the ball handler.

In scenarios where the pick and roll ball handler is driving towards the side of the court (rather than the middle), the Bucks jump up and high-wall, or aggressively show, with the screen defender. The goal of such a scheme is to force the ball out of the hands of a primary playmaker and into the hands of a secondary player across the court. Additionally, the Bucks will load up on the strong side of the floor with weak side defenders to tag the screener as they roll, further complicating the ball handler’s decision.

Attempt to pass to the roller and risk having the possession fizzle out as the defense recovers before they can make a decision. Throwing a skip pass to the weak side has its risks as well, as a ball-hawk on that side of the floor with good anticipation might nab a lobbed pass. Such passes work under the assumption that the ball handler can even safely rid themselves of the ball before the aggressive defenders strip it away.

As seen in the film above, when the Bucks overload the strong side of the floor, their aim is to make the ball handler as uncomfortable as possible. However, all of this is incredibly risky. One flawed step and the entire system falls apart.

Here, the Bucks do a tremendous job of tying DeMar DeRozan up along the sideline. They force him to pick up his dribble while they trap him along the imaginary third defender. However, as a result of two defenders (Jabari Parker and Tony Snell) defending a single offensive player, an advantage is created somewhere else on the floor. John Henson is blocking a simple pass to Valanciunas on the block, leaving two weak side defenders to cover three perimeter shooters. After Matthew Dellavedova removes Patrick Patterson from the scenario, DeRozan has no choice but to throw a skip pass to Kyle Lowry. Giannis Antetokounmpo feints the wrong way for a split second and allows Lowry to catch the ball cleanly, securing a two-on-one scenario where DeMarre Carroll lands an open three. This example is representative of the Bucks’ fatal flaw, as once a link is broken, the entire chain falls apart.

The possibilities for such an aggressive defense to fall apart are nearly endless. A Raptors guards can blow by a screen defender who has shown too high or snake towards the middle against one that has sagged too low. A screener left untagged on his roll can catch the ball and pass around the perimeter or dive towards the paint and finish at the rim. An overeager off-ball defender is often prone to leaving their primary assignment a beat too early, allowing for an easy pass to the weak side that can result in an open jumper or a closeout that is out of control.

Ram Pick and Roll

The Raptors have a few set plays that are ideal for attacking such a defensive scheme, such as their Ram pick and roll series.

This will delay the screener’s defender from meeting the ball handler at the level of the screen, which can create enough separation to snake towards the middle of the floor, or simply drive by the big as Lowry has done in the clip above.

Wedge Stagger

Though the Bucks will attempt to heavily deny the ball handler the use of a screen, therefore not allowing a drive towards the middle of the court, the Raptors can still attempt to do so with sets such as their Wedge Stagger pick and roll.

The Bucks are going to utilize a variety of defensive schemes once the Raptors force their way into the middle of the floor on pick and rolls. They will surely hedge-and-recover at some point, though with the Raptors ability to play shooters 1 through 5, it seems unlikely. Here, the Bucks’ answer to Wedge Stagger was to switch. When this happens throughout the series, the Raptors must properly find the advantage. If DeRozan is efficiently attacking a mismatch, he has to go to work. If Valanciunas has a smaller defender switch onto him, he has to attack the offensive glass and create as much havoc as he did through the first two rounds of the 2016 playoffs, as well as establishing post position to punish the size difference. Interestingly enough, the Bucks’ post defense follows the same principles as their pick and roll defense.

Post Defense Coverage

The Raptors have a few players that are capable of attacking mismatches in the post. DeRozan (who ranks as the 2nd most efficient post player in the NBA among those who have used 100 such possession, with 1.13 PPP) will likely pick apart Dellavedova, Snell, Terry, and possibly Brogdon from the low block if they pick him up in semi-transition.

Another potential post player the Raptors might single out to attack a mismatch is newly acquired Serge Ibaka. While his contributions offensively are important as a whole, he has been prone to turning the ball over when posting up against aggressive defenses during the regular season. His vision and overall awareness in post up scenarios has been poor, as defenders who dig down from the perimeter have been able to strip him or force an errant pass.

Valanciunas will likely punish any non-Monroe defender that is tasked with guarding him. With the huge potential for post play, the Bucks will encourage their defenders to front the post, as well as task their weak side defenders with loading up on the strong side of the court even when they cannot successfully front. This defensive style produces tons of turnovers, as they routinely tip and steal imprecise entry passes. Even when the post player has the ball on the low block, they are still forced to pass it off as they are walled off by two defenders. This forces a difficult pass, as the Bucks’ length obscures which players are truly open on the weak side of the court. But just as their aggressive pick and roll scheme, it cannot be deployed without risk.

When the post player possesses the ball and is faced with a trap, poise is incredibly important to identify which teammate the defense is leaning away from. While it is easier said than done, once completed, the rest of the possession is just about being decisive and finding the open man along the perimeter. When the off-ball defenders are too conservative and leave an offensive player untagged in the middle of the floor, the Raptors can flash to the high post and attack 4-on-3 as they did in aggressive pick and roll scenarios.

Iverson Slice Punch

The Raptors also have a few pet plays to battle against this type of defense, such as their Iverson Slice Punch play

This comes out of the Raptors Iverson series, which is normally used to get DeRozan freed from a defender by running from one side of the court to the other – also known as an Iverson Cut. However, a following option out of this series is to have Valanciunas use a Slice Cut as Carroll sets a screen for him from the Elbow to the opposite block. This forces Valanciunas’ defender to follow under Carroll’s screen, as they risk being sealed out of the paint if trailing over the top. Once they have recovered, Valanciunas will already be in the post and ready to attack any of the Bucks’ smaller defenders, from Thon Maker to Antetokounmpo.

Big Picture Defensive Thoughts

Whether the Raptors are attacking out of pick and roll or from the low block, their issue remains the same within the context of this series. It boils down to the same principles that all offenses are dependent on – how effectively can you create advantages, as well as execute on them. The Bucks willingly present the advantage by aggressively assigning two defenders on the ball as soon as possible. Much of the Raptors’ efficiency on offense will come down to whether the scale tips in their favour to find the advantage somewhere else on the floor. That might become present in the form of open shooters along the perimeter, cleaner driving lanes once the ball has swung, as well as easier offensive rebounds when defender’s are out of position because of such a frantic defensive identify. However, it would not be overly surprising to see the Bucks switch a lot of pick and rolls, especially involving like-sized defenders.

Where things get very interesting is when they use a sparingly deployed Antetokounmpo at centre lineup, which has played 126 minutes (depending on who you consider a centre), with 83 of those using Jabari Parker, who is unavailable for this series. Jason Kidd has shown he has no problem playing an unconventional lineup, so it will be interesting how untraditional he gets. Ultimately, the effectiveness of such a lineup will be determined by how badly the Bucks get hurt on the offensive glass by Valanciunas and Ibaka, relative to the damage they can do by switching and attacking in transition against a slower front court.

Bucks Offense

Corner Offense

The Bucks’ versatility on the defensive end translates into similarly a varied and interchangeable attack offensively. Their base offense is referred to as the Corner Offense, an offensive attack that Rick Adelman’s teams routinely deployed. Think Kevin Love’s Timberwolves working at the elbows. Its complexity and intricacies are too numerous to outline in its entirety, as the branches of decision making are vast, but a few of the most notable reads and options will be outlined.

The formation of the Corner Offense has two players stationed at the elbows, one in the strong side corner, the ball handler slotted above him on the wing and the last player positioned on the weak side wing.

Corner Offense – Continuity

The first series of actions we’ll look at out of the Corner Offense is the base continuity portion of the Bucks’ offense.

A dribble entry followed by a pass to the elbow occurs on one side of the court. The two off-ball, strong side wing players will screen for each other and read the defense to decide where and when to cut. Overplay the top side of the screen and the lower corner player will cut back door. Switch and a defender might get sealed off from the paint. Regardless of the decision the corner players make, the elbow passer is the decision maker and must decide whether the screens have freed either player enough to warrant a somewhat risky pass.

If the basket cuts are denied by the defense, one of the Bucks’ corner players will exit along the baseline while the other engages in a dribble handoff at the elbow. This is effectively a pick and roll, as the player receiving the ball in the handoff is being screened for by the offensive player at the elbow. With their momentum carrying them to the rim and their defender behind them, the new ball handler will generally have a two-on-one into the middle of the floor.

If the handoff option is denied by tremendous defense, the Bucks will clear the strong side of the floor so the player at the elbow can isolate and go to work. This is where Antetokounmpo will surely do a ton of damage, as he has the vision to pass from the elbow to tricky cutters, as well as the obvious transcendent skill to get to the rim at will.

Corner Offense – Elbow Get

Another play that Antetokounmpo will clearly excel at is the Bucks’ Elbow Get, or a pick and roll at the free throw line.

The ball is entered to the elbow, sometimes after a dribble handoff (DHO) between the two strong side players, sometimes through a direct entry. Regardless, the player situated at the strong side elbow then turns into a pick and roll with the player stationed at the opposite elbow for a quick pick and roll. The 2015 Houston Rockets, featuring Josh Smith and Dwight Howard, beat the athletically challenged Dallas Mavericks in the playoffs by forcing Dirk Nowitzki to defend this action as often as possible.

A nice wrinkle the Bucks throw in for this actions is utilizing a guard in some manner. This can come in the form of them running the pick and roll themselves, being stationed at the opposite elbow as the eventual screener, or being screened before they screen the ball themselves. Regardless of how they incorporate both small and large players into this action, the important theme to take away is Jason Kidd’s willingness to put unconventional personnel into uncomfortable positions for optimal results. Traditionally, only big men are slotted at the elbows, with guards and wings filling out the remaining positions in the Corner Offense. Kidd throws that out the window and utilizes his personnel in the ways he sees fit.

Corner Offense – Exchange

Another wrinkle the Bucks use with their Corner Offense is infuriating in its simplicity, but admirable in its efficacy.

Instead of the primary ball handler entering the ball to the elbow, they’ll just exchange positions with the player that is deepest in the corner. Within this little handoff, a screen is created along the sideline, where the new ball handler is shielded from his defender by the handoff. Snell is an assassin from behind the arc with this action as he hunts down this shot more than most.

Corner Offense – Weak Side Step Up Ball Screen

The next action out of the Bucks’ Corner Offense is a ball reversal into a weak side Step Up ball screen.

The ball handler will usually enter the ball into the high post, as Bucks do to trigger many of their options. Instead of running Elbow Get, the ball gets reversed to the weak side of the court, where two Bucks are in position for the following action. The perimeter player quickly catches the ball and then engages in a pick and roll with the screener at the elbow. The quickness that the Bucks run this action with is crucial, as the weak side on-ball defender steps up and is quickly caught on the screen and can generally force a switch. The Bucks will probably go to this action quite a bit as a consistent vehicle to isolate Khris Middleton on smaller guards after they secure a switch with a properly spaced floor.

Transition

Double Drag

The Bucks take an interesting approach to an action that is used with regularity around the league. In (semi) transition, they’ll utilize a double screen for their ball handler – also known as a Double Drag Screen.

What they do differently than everyone else is the placement of the screens. With the understanding that Antetokounmpo’s biggest flaw is his perimeter shooting, the Bucks compensate by setting the double screen as low as possible. The higher the screen, the more room for the defense to duck under. The advantage gained by setting screens this low is that if the defense still ducks under, they will only be able to recover back to Antetokounmpo once he has a full head of steam and is essentially at the rim.

They also like to use a guard as one of the screeners, which serves two purposes. First, it forces a similarly small guard to hedge onto Antetokounmpo, with the hope that they will not actually be able to impede his progress towards the rim with their slender frame. Second, and possibly more important, is that it forces one of the two screen defenders to stay along the perimeter. This renders them useless as a help defender for the roll man, who is most likely free on the account that their primary defender has rotated to stop the Antetokounmpo drive.

Pistol

Another common action the Bucks use in transition is Pistol.

Pistol (also known as 21), is a quick hitter that somewhat resembles the sideline handoff described in the Bucks’ corner offense. The ball handler utilizes a step up ball screen from a guard that is deep in the corner. The screener then proceeds to use a flare screen themselves. This stretches and contorts the defense into uncomfortable positions in an early offense situation where help defense is already problematic. The Bucks will also use this as an avenue to get their bigger ball handlers (Antetokounmpo and Middleton) into the post quickly – and in an ideal world for them, against a smaller guard who had to switch onto them.

Giannis Antetokounmpo Post Ups

As much as quick hitters and intricate play calls make the playoffs an interesting setting, so many games come down to what advantage can consistently be exploited. The Bucks have a gigantic Greek one that is a walking mismatch. In the regular season, Antetokounmpo looked far too strong for Carroll and (more surprisingly) Patrick Patterson. P.J. Tucker will surely get his fair shot at stopping the dynamic Antetokounmpo, as will Ibaka. If Tucker can’t hold his ground in the post, Ibaka risks being exploited along the perimeter (though, if Ibaka gets switched on to him in pick and roll scenarios, I have a feeling that Antetokounmpo will back up and try to dance in isolation, which seems like a favourable outcome for the Raptors).

Regardless of who matches up with Antetokounmpo as the Bucks cross half court, they risk being shoved into the post or screened off so Antetokounmpo can work against a smaller guard (Lowry, DeRozan, Powell, Joseph) from the block. Despite what his points per possession numbers say, Antetokounmpo’s ability to attack smaller players in the post is a problem. The Raptors will inevitably send the same type of help from the weak side of the floor that the Bucks will direct towards Valanciunas and DeRozan when they have the ball, but Antetokounmpo’s vision outclasses the Raptors’ post options. It might just come down to how his supporting cast is able to convert from the perimeter after they are freed by the attention Antetokounmpo draws. In a lesser role, I also expect Middleton to attack the Raptors’ smaller players from the post as well. Though, with him holding the ball and Antetokounmpo away from it, the Bucks seem easier to defend.

Concluding Thoughts

Even though these teams did not square off against one another during the regular season as they stand now, a lot of offensive and defensive cues were learned. The Bucks are going to be an aggressive team when defending pick and rolls and post ups, which will inevitably lead to their fair share of steals. Ranking 5th in the league in points off turnovers was not a coincidence, but neither was their defensive rebounding being ranked 27th. All that chaos leads to out of position defenders and block out responsibilities, which inevitably results in offensive rebounds. Valanciunas has been a dominant, series altering force in the playoffs with his production on the offensive glass, so there will surely be times in which he produces as such in this series. Ultimately, his impact will determine whether the Bucks can survive as a small and aggressive team. If they can’t, the balance tips in the Raptors’ favour to a sizeable degree.

The defensive side will be similarly interesting for the Raptors, as illustrated above. There is no “answer” for Antetokounmpo. He is going to score a lot of points in transition and at the rim. His ability to hunt down mismatches for post ups will be vital to the Bucks’ offensive sustainability, as to will their intricate Corner Offense, which allows for tinkering to find where personnel can be maximized the most.
This will surely be an interesting series to monitor from a tactical perspective, as both coaches have the personnel to experiment when things are not working. The Raptors are obvious favourites as a higher seed against an inexperienced Bucks team, but the tactical differences will truly show who has the upper hand in this series.

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Practice news & notes: New additions fitting in, Tucker sick, Raptor fans a factor

Throughout the playoffs, we’ll be giving you brief notebooks after every practice, shootaround, pre-game, and post-game. They’ll vary in terms of length and analysis based on what’s said, what happens, and what else is going on, and the videos will all eventually go up on the Raptors’ YouTube page, anyway, but rest assured you can use us as your first stop for the relevant quotes and notes each day during the postseason. Feedback on whether or not these posts are useful is appreciated so we can spend our time accordingly.

A year ago, the Toronto Raptors were still in the process of figuring out whether their core, namely Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan, and head coach Dwane Casey, was strong enough to warrant continuing to build with. A year after being swept by the Washington Wizards, the Raptors had opted to give it another go, and the returns met even the highest expectations: The Raptors not only won a playoff series but made a run to the Eastern Conference Finals, taking the eventual champions to six games.

They entered this season facing some important big-picture questions, but there was no longer doubt as to whether they were a team worth investing in. They opened the season hot, and even an extended cold stretch couldn’t limit the feeling that the Raptors had more of a window open to push forward than at any time in the past. And so team president Masai Ujiri, general manager Jeff Weltman, and company went out and fortified the core, acquiring P.J. Tucker and Serge Ibaka.

On paper, they were natural spiritual and tactical fits.

“You see guys that are intense, and it doesn’t matter what they are doing, or what game it is, they’re just intense and it’s all about winning,” Ujiri explained at BioSteel Centre on Friday. “And I think everybody paid attention to that. So there were tons of teams that wanted him (Tucker). We were just lucky to get him. His intensity, the real person that he is, even the way he talks and the way he feels about the game, it’s huge for us.”

The fit has played out that way from a culture perspective. Ujiri relayed an anecdote about hearing Tucker, Ibaka, and assistant coach Rex Kalamian arguing after practice the other day, only for Casey to inform him they were all discussing the team’s defense. That’s what they’d hoped they were adding.

“That tells you what they’re about. There’s a level of intensity they’ve brought,” Ujiri said. “These guys we brought, they bring intensity and toughness and they’re about winning. That helps our ball club. As teammates, they’ve proven to be good teammates where they were, and in the short time we’ve had them, we’ve seen it here too.”

In acquiring the support, Ujiri’s message was clear: The front office was bringing in the pieces. It was on the players to perform and the coaching staff to figure out the fit. Figuring out the fit hit a stumbling block before either player had played a minute, as Lowry hit the shelf following surgery on his right wrist. Things could have tipped one way without one of the team’s All-Stars, but the pair of new additions fit right away, not only helping the team stay course without Lowry but lifting them to an even higher defensive peak.

“I think a lot of players emerged in that period. On paper it all looks good when you make trades and bring in players, but you hope they all gel together and it’s working out fine for the season, and now the second season starts,” Ujiri said. “This is the big test for us, but I’ll say everyone feels good about going into this season. ”

It’s only been the last four games (three of them, really) where the Raptors could see what the whole group looks like together. But if the pieces worked without Lowry and in small samples with him, there’s plenty of reason for optimism that what Ujiri and company saw at the deadline will come to fruition in the playoffs.

Tucker and Ibaka were meant to push the ceiling higher, and now they’ll get an opportunity to do that rather than just helping keep the floor from collapsing.

Raptors lean on fans for support

With many franchises, paying lip service to how good the fanbase is amounts to just that: lip service. For the Raptors, though, the reputation for one of the best crowds in the NBA is well deserved. LeBron James doesn’t take time out of a post-series interview to dap up just any crowd. Trace it back to Ujiri yelling “Fuck Brooklyn” during what was essentially the birth of the modern Raptors, and the Raptors have embraced the raucousness that’s followed ever since. Jurassic Park is a site to behold before, during, and after games, and the Air Canada Centre has been credited with having a hand in multiple big playoffs wins.

For as much as this can sometimes feel like fans patting themselves on the back, they can rest assured that the players and the organization notice and appreciate just how vigorously they’re supported.

“They love it. This is the time, you know. Everybody is out, Leafs are in, Toronto sports is on a high and I think it’s a big, big time for all of us,” Ujiri said. “The fans, come early, come to the park, the police take down those barricades so we can get more and more fans in there because we love it and the players love it and they feel it. This is a moment that I think everyone feels. From the moment when everyone comes in and sings the Canadian national anthem, that is the moment when you know it is beginning.

“That is my way of telling the fans to come early tomorrow. Come at 5 p.m.”

And hey, if the Raptors fans come correct for early starts, maybe a later tip will help bring even more noise. It certainly can’t hurt the Raptors, anyway, who are 1-10 in Game 1s all-time and have dropped four consecutive Game 1s at home with this same group.

“Well we have changed it from a 6 a.m. game to a 5:30 p.m. game so…,” Ujiri joked.  “Oops. I might get fined for that one.”

Jokes aside, the talk on Thursday was all about how the Raptors need to get out to better starts to each series. Casey talked up needing to perhaps simplify things and stop over-thinking. Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan think it should come more naturally with more experience and a better sense of who they are. Whatever it is the Raptors do to try to fix it, getting out to a 1-0 series lead would be a welcome change. All the talk of the home-court advantage doesn’t mean nearly as much if the team keeps punting home games.

“You know what, there are not excuses. We have to come out and play well and its Game 1 in our home court,” Ujiri said. “We have to come out and compete and play well and that Game 1 has always – I don’t want to say haunted us – but it is what it is. We are going to come out and play and I know these guys look at is as their first playoff game and they are all excited to play. Records are made to be broken so hopefully we break this one this time.”

Preach.

Other Notes

  • P.J. Tucker was away from practice due to an illness today. Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan have already had it and Dwane Casey is dealing with it, too. This is less than ideal, of course, but I’d be shocked if Tucker doesn’t go tomorrow. With his first NBA playoff game looming, Tucker might be the first person in history to ever physically fight an illness.
  • There’s no story here, but just a phenomenal quote from Ujiri on Lowry and DeRozan: “Kyle is our force and DeMar is our style.” Just perfect.
  • Jonas Valanciunas and DeMarre Carroll also spoke with media Friday, but there wasn’t anything noteworthy. Valanciunas usually says what you’d expect him to say, and Carroll echoed a lot of Thursday’s talk about guarding Giannis Antetokounmpo.
    • Ujiri referred to Antetokounmpo as “family” and offered that “There’s so much room for growth. Except the next couple games.”
    • Valanciunas did have a funny comment about “one day” becoming a great defender “I hope.” He’s nothing if not self-aware.
  • It was a beautiful day today, and I’m feeling a lot of good vibes ahead of the playoffs. Thank you for reading and all the continued support of RR.
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Raptors-Bucks Series Preview: Outside perspectives

A little earlier, we went deep into the Toronto Raptors first-round matchup with the Milwaukee Bucks with our own writers, providing our perspective on the series. Then, we had a Q&A with a Bucks writer to get the alternate perspective on the series.

It can also be instructive to get perspectives from outside of the team-specific bubble. Those without a rooting (or writing) interest in the series have the benefit of more space, a balance of knowledge across both teams, and less potential bias. Getting their opinions can help further color the picture ahead of Game 1.

So we reached out to a handful of writers from around the league for their take on Raptors-Bucks, asking them two simple questions.

What is the biggest strength/opportunity for the Raptors in this series?

Michael PinaThey’re deeper, more potent, skilled enough to generate individual offense and possess unteachable qualities like continuity and playoff experience. Serge Ibaka and P.J. Tucker have really helped turn the defense around and Jonas Valanciunas will likely force Jason Kidd to start Greg Monroe before Thon Maker is killed.

James Herbert: If they’re patient and move the ball, the Raptors’ biggest strength — their elite offense — should be able to withstand the Bucks’ ultra-aggressive defensive style. Milwaukee is capable of disrupting teams and forcing turnovers, but if Toronto anticipates where the help is coming from, stays poised and uses the Bucks’ pressure against them, it will find open looks, especially from deep. It’s time to prove these dudes have learned from past playoff experiences.

Ian Levy: The Raptors are just so much deeper than the Bucks. There are some difficult matchups for them but they just have so many options to try and resolve those. Their defense has been terrific since the trade deadline and they have more than enough offensive firepower to survive. Giannis can put up enormous stat lines but the Raptors can focus on taking away Middleton and Brogdon and still feel confident about their chances.

Justin RowanThe biggest strength for the Raptors in this series is depth. Unlike past versions of this team, the Raptors have versatility and the ability to effectively play multiple styles. This will allow Casey to have the ability to adjust throughout the series and make the appropriate adjustments.

What is the biggest strength/opportunity for the Bucks in this series?

Michael PinaMilwaukee has enough length, versatility, and speed to ostensibly make life difficult for DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry. That’s a plus, but in the end it all comes down to Giannis Antetokounmpo potentially blossoming into the series’ best player. If he can take things over, dominate on both ends, and transform into a legitimate top-10 talent before our very eyes, Toronto will be in a little bit of trouble..

James Herbert: Milwaukee’s biggest strength is that it employs both Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton. P.J. Tucker can’t guard both of them at the same time, so the Raptors’ much-improved defense will be tested. On the other side, Antetokounmpo and Middleton are vital parts of Milwaukee’s defense, which is based on length, versatility and speed. The Bucks need to communicate and avoid fouling if they’re going to use all that to their advantage.

Ian Levy: Giannis. He’s a bear for any team to defend but he seems like a particularly bad matchup for the Raptors. Giannis averaged 25.0 points, 7.8 rebounds, and 7.1 assists per 36 minutes against Toronto in the regular season, shooting 58.8 percent from the field. He was at 23.2, 8.9, 5.8 and 52.1 percent, respectively against the rest of the league. He’s too long for Powell or DeRozan and too fast for Carroll or Tucker. In addition, the other wing matchups are tough for Toronto because Middleton and Brogdon have a size advantage on DeRozan and Lowry. But, as I mentioned above, there’s Joseph and Norman Powell and a variety of different ways to stagger their rotations and get creative solving these problems. If the Bucks make this competitive, it’s going to be because Giannis goes nuts. But even that may not be enough.

Justin RowanThe biggest strength the Bucks have is length. They typically start games with four wings, which couldn’t cause a tremendous amount of trouble for Toronto’s starters. But despite this wing heavy look, they are still the team with more length and size.Toronto has the tools to counter these looks, but it may force them to adapt how they typically play.

Who takes the series, in how many games, and why?

Michael PinaToronto in 7. Lowry hasn’t even played 100 minutes with Ibaka and Tucker, and reintegrating him into the mix this close to a playoff series that whispers a few parallels between last year’s first-round battle against the Indiana Pacers is concerning. But the Bucks don’t have enough experience on the whole. Antetokounmpo will have to be the best player in the series and Khris Middleton can’t take his foot off the gas for a second.

James Herbert: Raptors in six because they’re the much deeper, more balanced team now that Tucker and Serge Ibaka are around.

Ian Levy: Bucks in 6. (Just kidding). Raptors in 6.

Justin RowanRaptors in six games. I think the first 2-3 games of this series might be rough. But I believe in Casey’s ability to make adjustments and ultimately the deeper and more talented roster will win.

Other outside opinions

FiveThirtyEight gives the Raptors a 78-percent chance to win the series and a five-percent chance to win the title.

ESPN’s Kevin Pelton ranks Milwaukee-Toronto as the third least likely series to result in an upset, pegging the Raptors with an 87-percent chance to win the series.

Basketball Reference gives the Raptors a 5.5-percent chance to win the title and a 30.6-percent chance to win the conference.

Bovada has the Raptors as +3300 to win the championship, sixth among all teams. They also have the Raptors at -400 for the first round win. Westgate Superbook has the Raptors at 40-to-1 for the title, which ranks eighth. The Raptors rank sixth in something called the Vegas Power Rankings at ESPN, just behind Cleveland.

Covers is projecting a Raptors -7 opening line for Game 1.

I don’t think I’ve come across a single expert picking Milwaukee.

My picks

If anyone cares, here’s what I’ve got for Round One. It’s a lot of chalk.

CHI in 7 (I couldn’t help myself)
CLE in 5
TOR in 6
WAS in 6

GS in 4
SA in 5
HOU in 5
UTA in 7

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Raptors-Bucks Series Preview: Q&A with the enemy

The playoffs are finally here. The 51-31 Toronto Raptors drew the third seed in the Eastern Conference, and as a result they’ll host the sixth-seeded, 42-40 Milwaukee Bucks. The series tips off Saturday and pits the Raptors’ post-All-Star break surge to the test against one of the most intriguing up-and-coming two-way teams in the NBA.

To help set the stage for the series, we reached out to Mitchell Maurer of BrewHoop, and he was kind enough to provide deep, thoughtful answers to an annoyingly long list of questions I sent his way. Give him and the BrewHoop guys a follow and be sure to check out BrewHoop for the Bucks’ side of things throughout the series.

Blake Murphy: The Bucks essentially swapped out Jabari Parker for Khris Middleton midway through the season, with the former suffering an unfortunate ACL tear and the latter returning from a hamstring injury. Parker won’t be seen until next year, but Middleton figures to be a massive piece in this series, one the Raptors didn’t get an extended look at in the season series this year. What does Middleton bring at both ends of the floor that the Raptors will need to watch out for?

Mitchell Maurer: Jabari Parker is many things, and many of those things are good. Khris Middleton brings a much different flavor to the Bucks when he’s active. First, he’s a much smarter defender than Jabari, and at 6’8” he’s able to capably switch onto off-guards and stretch-4s alike. Second, he’s much more steady on offense than Jabari has been. Where Parker would slice through the lane for a thunderous slam, Khris is more likely to seek out a mismatch and take a fadeaway against a shorter defender. Unlike Jabari, though, Middleton is very comfortable taking midrange and long range jump shots from any spot on the floor. More than anything, Khris is a much better communicator on the floor. He calls out screens better, he tells teammates where they need to be more often, and overall leads more effectively than Parker has.

Blake Murphy: Middleton seems a natural fit on the wing next to Giannis Antetokounmpo. Between those two, Tony Snell, and Malcolm Brogdon, and even Thon Maker, the Bucks have a ton of length and switchability all around the floor on defense. Just how aggressive does Milwaukee get in switching assignments or cross-matching on the fly? Has Maker established himself as a reliable part of that scheme?

Mitchell Maurer: On paper, Milwaukee is among the most aggressive defenses in the NBA. With the length and mobility their starting group offers, they are far more likely to switch, trap, and force risky decisions than the average team. This has burned them on numerous occasions, because any high-reward system also comes with a high level of risk, and that risk manifests itself in the form of open corner-threes. Thon Maker’s elevation to the starting lineup helps mitigate this risk, since he’s far more athletic than his Milwaukee counterparts, but his youth and inexperience still caps his playing time, which also hinders the Bucks’ peak defensive output.

Blake Murphy: The Bucks also trap and blitz the pick-and-roll a ton. It’s something the Raptors saw plenty of when Jason Kidd and Eric Hughes were behind the bench for the Nets, and the Bucks haven’t been shy about using that strategy against the Raptors in the regular season. You have to figure they keep the same approach here, perhaps even ratcheting up the pressure against Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, right?

Mitchell Maurer: DeMar DeRozan knows that Eric Hughes knows his game, and knows how to take him out of it. That alone is reason enough to expect the Bucks to throw as many traps at DeRozan as they can stand, but I think they would be wise to exercise caution when deciding how to treat Kyle Lowry. While not as explosive, Lowry presents a very different problem for the Bucks defense in that he can simply make a good decision faster than Milwaukee can anticipate it. Of course, if you give Lowry space, he can make you pay, but that comes with the territory when you’re trying to contain the Best Guard in the Eastern Conference.

Blake Murphy: While Kidd’s scheme does well to get the ball out of the hands of the opponent’s best players, there are some drawbacks. A Kidd-led team has never been even average in terms of opponent free-throw attempts per-field-goal attempt, meaning the Raptors’ strategy of getting to the line plenty could still work here (DeRozan had a boatload of free-throws in the Nets series, for example). How do you feel about the aggression trade-off for the Bucks in this series, especially with the Raptors generally taking good care of the ball and possibly limiting another strength that flows from Milwaukee’s aggression?

Mitchell Maurer: Milwaukee’s ability to stifle Toronto’s free throw total is the key to any hope of a series upset. Because of how many gambles the Bucks have to take on defense (as demanded by the scheme), there are always going to be opportunities where the offense gets an angle to the rim. Against an opponent that knows how to move the ball (like the Raptors!), this means that Toronto will earn a number of beneficial whistles, since it’s impossible to expect the Bucks to recover on every trap on every possession. If any team could benefit from reluctant referees, it’s the Bucks…but I don’t expect to have that happen in the playoffs.

“Dark Giannis” sounds terrifying.

Blake Murphy: I don’t know why I waited five questions to just rave about Antetokounmpo. He’s amazing, he’s a ton of fun, and it’s been a blast watching Bucks tape preparing for this series. He can score in a variety of ways, he’s a monster in transition, and he uses his length exceptionally well on the defensive end, disrupting ball-handlers in the pick-and-roll, locking down opposing wings, or coming out of nowhere as a helper. He’s kind of terrifying and has the potential to be the best player in this series. What are your expectations for Antetokounmpo in his second taste of playoff action?

Mitchell Maurer: Giannis is the best, and I will vigorously denounce anyone who claims otherwise. Giannis has also shown flashes of what some Bucks fans call “Dark Giannis,” when he sneers and scowls and takes over a game in a way that few human beings can.

The problem with “Dark Giannis” is that it’s hard to control, and Giannis (who’s only 22!) can get easily frustrated…which is what happened the last time the Bucks were in the playoffs.

All that said, I expect Giannis to play hard and push the pace as much as his teammates will allow, and as the best player in the series (sorry, not sorry) he could call forth “Dark Giannis” to banish the Raptors from the postseason.

Raptors offense and Bucks defense, courtesy AustinClemens.com.

Blake Murphy: Looking at the entire series, whether it’s Xs & Os or numbers or lineup options or whatever, what do you see as the Bucks’ biggest strength in this series? Their biggest weakness?

Mitchell Maurer: The Bucks’ biggest weakness is their defense, and specifically their defense’s propensity to giving up open perimeter shots. They pride themselves on preventing early shots and have personnel who excel at limiting access to the rim, but the way they achieve those goals leaves them vulnerable to threes from the corner, which just so happen to be the most valuable threes available in basketball. Their strength is very much their versatility, ability to manufacture points in transition, and scoring points in the paint. We’ll see if they can do enough of the latter to offset the former.

Raptors offense and Bucks defense, courtesy AustinClemens.com.

Blake Murphy: The Bucks are among the league’s worst teams on the glass, ranking 26th in defensive rebounding rate and 22nd in offensive rebounding rate. This seems a byproduct of the system and the personnel, and there isn’t a great deal to be done about it. Is this something you expect to be a major edge for Toronto? How do you see Jonas Valanciunas fitting into this matchup?

Mitchell Maurer: Absolutely. The Bucks have good rebounders, but are a bad rebounding team, and it is definitely a downside of the scheme. Considering how often they have to force a defender to sprint to the line to close out on an open shooter, they’re routinely rebounding without a numbers advantage. Valanciunas is going to clean up on the glass this series, and it’s not going to be particularly difficult for him.

Centers, per-36 minutes, via Basketball-Reference.com.

Blake Murphy: Speaking of Valanciunas, Greg Monroe has really found a home as the Bucks’ sixth man, to the point that he’s not only getting some Sixth Man of the Year love, but being lauded for his improved defense in the reserve role. Why has this set-up worked so well for Monroe and the Bucks? If you’re the Raptors, are you trying to line up some of Valanciunas’ minutes with Monroe in those second unit spots? (This is something Dwane Casey has experimented with since Kyle Lowry’s return, anyway, using Valanciunas with bench-heavy groups, and it’s one of the more interesting rotation subplots for early in the series, in my eyes.)

Mitchell Maurer: Greg Monroe has been a huge surprise this season, partially because few of us expected him to willingly embrace the sixth-man role. But considering he gets to score post buckets against second-string defenders while still earning minutes to play with the starters, it’s not really a bad gig for Moose. He’s also shown huge improvements on defense, partially because of his preposterously fast hands (1.8 steals per 36-minutes, 2nd among all centers), but also a renewed dedication to exerting effort and avoiding taking possessions off. JV would figure to be similarly impactful in such a role with Toronto, which makes sense for all of the reasons Monroe’s improvements makes sense.

Blake Murphy: The Bucks shoot just a moderate amount of threes, ranking 21st in the portion of their shots that come from long-range, one spot ahead of Toronto. They hit them well enough – they’re 10th in 3-point percentage – but their lack of outside fire-power lines up well with Toronto’s own infrequent bombing. Both teams also play at glacial paces, ranking as the two slowest Eastern Conference playoff teams by tempo. Does this figure to be a grimy, low-scoring series (probably Toronto’s preference), or will the Bucks use their youth to try to speed things up and fire a bit more from outside? Obviously, the correct answer for the Bucks is to just let Michael Beasley cook if things slow down too much.

Mitchell Maurer: I’m sorry to say it, but if Jabari Parker were still available, the Bucks really could run the Raptors out of the gym. However, without such a capable running mate, Giannis has been forced to lead the Bucks’ transition charge solo, and the team’s transition offense has tanked as a result. Despite their youth, the Bucks don’t have anybody (besides the injured Parker) that can run with Giannis. This means that the pace will be slow, which favors Toronto, or that Michael Beasley will get free reign to turn the court into his personal kitchen, which also probably favors Toronto. (Don’t get me wrong, Beasley has been great this year, but he’s still a flawed player overall.)

Blake Murphy: Call it.

Mitchell Maurer: Though I have much love for #BucksInSix, I expect this series to go 4-1 in favor of Toronto.

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Raptors-Bucks Series Preview: Raptors Republic Roundtable

We began ratcheting up the playoff preview coverage yesterday and with the podcast this morning, but today’s the big day. We’ve learned the Milwaukee Bucks, we’ve studied the tape and the numbers, we’ve puffed our chests out or quietly cowered in the recesses of our minds. Today’s the big series preview day. And we start, as we always do, with a staff roundtable to gauge everyone’s feelings heading into Game 1.

As a reminder, here’s the schedule for the series:

Here’s the tale of the tape:

And here are the projected rotations to start:

And now, most of the Raptors Republic staff, roundtable style,

Before we get into the Bucks – and we’ll do a proper look back at our preseason Raptors expectations after the playoffs – let’s take a moment to appreciate a second consecutive 50-win season and a fourth playoff berth in a row. Not only has the whole season wound up fairly good, the Raptors have reached this end despite a pretty tough December-February stretch, mostly of their own doing. Now that the team’s pulled out of it and is healthy, is that confidence that’s back? Ahead of the playoffs, in Toronto? Where is your confidence level now relative to the start of the year, or relative to its lowest point this season?

William Lou: More confident that I was to begin the year, because I’m more confident in their defense. Even when they were rolling earlier in the season, it was still readily apparent that the Raptors were flawed. Having Serge Ibaka and P.J. Tucker gives them the flexibility to defend in different match-ups, while also providing reliable outside shooting and secondary scoring. Tack on noticeable improvements from DeMar DeRozan and it’s quite clear that this Raptors team is better than ever.

Mike Nelson: With so many past seasons not even offering a level of hope fans could attach themselves to, let’s appreciate the moment, indeed. As for my level of confidence: Well, despite the year’s low points tempting me to change my tune, my belief in this squad has never been higher. And at least on paper (I’ll take what I can get), even with the concerns over Lowry’s level of rust/chemistry, the idea of this team reaching a point where a victory over Cleveland can be suggested with a straight face has become much more of a reality.

Matt Shantz: After mentally reviewing the full 2016-17 season for the Raptors, I have more confidence/hope for them now than I have at any point previously. My expectation last summer was that Toronto would exceed their over/under of 50.5 wins if healthy, but the fact they hit fifty despite losing Lowry for an extended stretch is incredible. With the additions of Serge Ibaka and PJ Tucker at the deadline, this is the deepest and most versatile team the franchise has seen.

Tim Chisholm: My confidence level is pretty high, which has historically been dangerous at this time of year. Still, the spike in defensive focus and execution have been a huge development since the Ibaka and Tucker trades, and it goes to show you the domino effects of a good acquisition. These guys obviously brought their own defensive abilities to the table, that’s why they were acquired, but they’ve also allowed for the team as a whole to trust the defensive structure that Casey implemented because there are fewer weak spots, and because there are fewer weak spots, guys don’t want to be the one that allows the system to break down. Hopefully the strong close to the season, combined with the aforementioned Playoff experience, will help the Raptors do something unprecedented, like win Game 1 of a series!

Gavin MacPherson: I’m more confident now than at the beginning of the season because no matter what gets thrown at them the Raptors have enough consistently good defenders to keep things close if the offense is not working. It used to be a very mixed bag outside of Patterson: JV is matchup dependent, Terrence was Terrence, Bebe lacked focus, even Biyombo last year was very inconsistent. If the offense stalls the Raptors should be able to count on Tucker, Ibaka and Patterson grinding the opponents offense to a halt as well while the guards find their rhythm.

Tamberlyn Richardson: Raptors survived injuries to core players Lowry (23), DeRozan (12), Patterson (18) Carroll (11). Between the injuries and trades youngsters like Delon Wright, Fred VanVleet and Jakob Poeltl received valuable minutes in real game situations. As a result the team is better prepared as a whole. My Exec of year (Masai Ujiri) not only filled the Raptors most glaring needs, but his best attribute appears to be the ability to seemingly find the perfect character to mesh with the team’s identity and strong chemistry. Given all these factors I unabashedly can say this squad showcases the best combination of depth, versatility, grit, leadership, experienced youth,and desire to win by a squad who demonstrably like each other on/off court. Raptors are only EC squad in top 10 offense/defense and boast the top EC post break record (18-7) along with 4th ranked defense. Suffice to say I’m the most confident I have ever been about a Raptors playoff team.

Shyam Baskaran: Relative to early season, I’d say it’s about the same – we expected to be in a second or third seed, competing for an Eastern Conference Finals birth. Relative to mid-season I’d have to say it’s at least a couple of notches better. The way we endured the Lowry injury, discovered DeMar’s brilliance and established defensive toughness with the trade-deadline acquisitions all give me a renewed sense of confidence.

Anthony Doyle: Right now, my confidence is probably as high as it’s been since December, when the team was 22-8 and rolling with a historically great offense. Lowry’s back and playing well, everyone appears to be healthy, and DeMar has been having the best stretch of his career both scoring and distributing. It’s hard not to be a little hesitant, given the various playoff struggles of a year ago and the Raptors’ habit of sometimes throwing away quarters, which can be much more costly during the playoffs, but I’m confident saying I think this is the best chance the franchise has ever had at getting through to the NBA Finals and that’s an awesome thing. It’s going to be fun.

Spencer Redmond: My expectations heading into this season were the Raptors would repeat the great success they had last season, and make another deep playoff run. The Eastern conference had gotten stronger, but the Raptors still seemed like the second or third best team in the conference. My confidence level throughout a 82 game season doesn’t really go up and down depending on how the team is doing. The Raptors having a rough stretch is inevitable, but knowing their roster, a top seed was never really in question. My confidence level entering the postseason, is similar to what it was like in the beginning of the season. I fully expect the Raptors to make a deep playoff push, with their new look roster, I think they have a better chance at that.

Barry Taylor: At the risk of jinxing all of this I am quietly confident going in to these playoffs, much more than any other time in Raptors history. Achieving a 50 win season without their best player for two months is unreal. Lowry coming back rested to play with this lineup seems to good to be true. And no one is talking about the Raptors. We’re coming in to these playoff like ninjas. Hungry, focused ninjas.

Katie Heindl: I feel great! Ready! Hungry! Please ignore the half moon indentations my nails have made in my clenched palms. I think the slump helped us out, in many ways, but probably the best result of us getting a bit knocked around was the tightening up that’s resulted. Team-wide, everyone is playing better, smarter, because with Lowry out there wasn’t a proverbial kraken to release when things got bad. Instead, everyone had to have a make it work moment and dig in and just figure it out. They’re playing with earned confidence going into this run and I think they’re more appreciative, understanding, now of each role.

Louis Zatzman: Confidence and Raptors fans have always treated each other like Miley Cyrus and Liam Hemsworth. I can’t believe that I am making a celebrity couple reference in this, my first Roundtable, but that’s how shook I am when thinking about confidence. I’m hot and I’m cold, I’m yes and I’m no, and the Raps are in and they’re out. That basically sums it up.

Alex Gres: Confidence is on the upswing on my end. The win total was just ahead of what I’d anticipated (48), but the way they got there was far from straightforward. I did not anticipate in my wildest dreams that we’d have our worst weaknesses addressed for such a small price (sorry, TR), that we’d have a wing stopper like Tucker and a 2-end stretch four in Ibaka heading into the postseason. Beyond that, if you told me we’d win at a 66% clip without Lowry in a prolonged absence I would have laughed you out of the building. And yet, all those things happened, and the team is going into the playoffs healthy and with positive momentum after going 12-2 in the last 14 games of the regular season (since the Thunder loss and players meeting). As I wrote on Tuesday, my confidence level is at ‘Raptors make the NBA Finals’ level.

Blake Murphy: It’s been an up and down route, but my confidence level has more or less returned to where it was at the start of the season. Perhaps it’s a little higher in terms of the team’s overall quality, but their playoff path confuses that some. This is, to be clear, the best Raptors team ever, better than the one from last year, and better positioned to take a real swing at the East’s power structure. They can defend, they can play a variety of styles, and they’re finally healthy. Not only were the Raptors one of just three teams to rank in the top 10 on both ends of the floor, their expected win-loss record was higher than what they produced and they lost the most value over replacement to injuries. That they only won 51 games hurts because of how it sets up the second round, but it shouldn’t confuse that this team is very good, and the best bet to upend Cleveland, if anyone’s going to.

The Raptors will draw the Bucks in round one. There was some disagreement on who the best matchup is for Toronto. Would you have preferred Indiana or Atlanta here? Why or why not?

William Lou: I would have preferred Atlanta, simply because they have the least talent. Mike Budenholzer is a smart coach who maximizes his roster, but who is really hurting you on that team? Paul Millsap? Dennis Schroder? I’d rather take my chances with those dudes over someone like Giannis Antetokounmpo, who could have a terrifying playoff gear.

Mike Nelson: Valid arguments can be made to support each preference. Examples: (A) Atlanta lacking an elite offensive catalyst combined with owning the league’s third-highest turnover ratio. (B) The satisfaction of beating Indiana while sending a message to the bad blood between them. And (C) The thought of taking advantage of Milwaukee’s inexperience. But in the end, despite Jason Kidd being well versed in how to effectively trap a backcourt and force a team’s supporting cast into the spotlight, I’ll happily take a team that attempts threes at 24th overall clip, registered the biggest disparity on the boards, and is the closet in overall pace. Bring on the Bucks.

Matt Shantz: My preference would have been Atlanta, as they have largely sputtered since the All Star break, but I’m happy to have avoided Indiana. Last year’s opening round brings back annoying memories, and Paul George has hit his stride over the last quarter of the season.

Tim Chisholm: The Bucks were, for me, always the ideal matchup for the Raptors. Yes, Indiana around George and Turner are weak, but it’s always worrisome to face the team with the best proven player in the series (which I believe George would have been). Atlanta probably would have been fine, but I still have mental scars from what Dwight Howard did to the Raptors in 2008. Milwaukee is good, but that’s about it. They are middle of the pack in offence and defence, they aren’t much to speak of on the glass, and the Raptors went 3-1 against them during the regular season. More than that, though, this club is not particularly Playoff-tested. They are a shell of the team that went there in 2015, and they don’t have nearly the number of reps as these Raptors do in postseason play. While all eyes will be on Antetokounmpo after his stellar season, there just isn’t much to be afraid of here.

Gavin MacPherson: Atlanta is probably the best matchup. You generally want to avoid dynamic stars like Gianna Antetokounmpo and Paul George because of the variance they can throw into what should be a fairly easy series. I didn’t really care that much though; the Raptors exorcised that first round demon last year, they should be past the point where they care about which borderline playoff team they end up drawing and if they’re not then they have some big questions to answer in the offseason.

Tamberlyn Richardson: Sure the Bucks have the inimitable Antetokounmpo, but they are inexperienced and have specific weaknesses. Both Indy and Atlanta offer their own issues with George being of the same ilk as the Greek Freak with an outside shot and more importantly experience. The Hawks enter with the 5th best defense since the break and confidence from beating the Cavs twice in the past week. Ironically the one time the Raptors would have benefited from the early start facing a young inexperienced squad the NBA finally gives us a later start time.The Bucks had the second best EC record down the stretch and are playing well. Ultimately there are pluses and minuses to every opponent, but from my perspective there are no easy rides to the next round.

Shyam Baskaran: Probably Atlanta just because they wouldn’t have the best player in the series. Top-tier talent like Joe Johnson, John Wall, and Paul George have hurt us big time in the playoffs, and I feel like Atlanta just doesn’t have a superstar player that you’d have to game plan for. The Pacers would’ve been annoying because of Paul George, and it would’ve just felt like a boring series after seeing it already last year.

Anthony Doyle: I thought the Hawks were the best matchup, for many reasons. Their strengths are all up front, where the Raptors are fairly well suited to stop them with Ibaka and Tucker on board, and Atlanta doesn’t have the best defensive depth in the backcourt. That was my preferred matchup, but I much prefer the Bucks to the Pacers because Paul George is still Paul George. With either the Bucks or Pacers though, you’re playing into an opponent with a lot of length and ability to slow down penetration into the paint, and that’s something that can cause the Raptors problems sometimes. It’s fine though, none of these teams are great, and the Raptors have heavy advantages against Milwaukee anyways.

Spencer Redmond: The Bucks have some weapons that make them a tough matchup: Greek Freak, they were 17-9 post All-Star break so they are coming in with momentum, and they are a good defensive team, which scares some because the Raptors offense in the playoffs the past couple season has been ugly at times. Their are positives and negatives to every matchup, each team possesses good players who could be headaches for the Raptors. It doesn’t matter too much who the Raptors got, they are a much better team than all three of these teams.

Barry Taylor: As a Toronto sports fan I’m terrified right now that things are too good. Antetokounmpo is truly a freak but his team lacks the experience of the Pacers and Hawks. The Bucks are going to be a problem in a year or two, especially when Parker is healthy but right now they’re little fawns. They’re Bambi and we’re the clever girl from Jurassic Park. Let’s eat these fools.

Katie Heindl: I wanted Atlanta, for sure. I didn’t realistically think we’d sweep the Pacers or the Hawks but the way I imagine Atlanta coming out, slower—not as connected as I hope the Raps to be after this rough schedule to finish—it would have been a nice boost for us to get the first couple games on ’em.

Louis Zatzman: I’m happy about the Bucks, but neither the Bucks nor the Hawks would be a terrifying matchup. The Bucks have Giannis, who is incredible, and Khris Middleton, who is perhaps even more effective. That being said, the Raptors have better shooting, better defense, better depth, more experience, and much more talent. Atlanta has Paul Millsap, who is still one of the most underrated players in the league. He is one of the best defenders on the perimeter and interior, and he is incredibly talented at so many things on offense. I’m more scared of him than Giannis in 2017, though my comparative fear levels come 2020 will be a different story. Plus, the Hawks have so many more shooters.

Alex Gres: All of the teams in 5-9 scared and didn’t scare me equally. On one hand, I believe Raptors should have been able to beat any and all of them in a 7-game series (yes, even the Bulls). At the same time, each of those clubs was dangerous in its own way, with unique advantages and weaknesses, to the point that I felt it was a wash on preferring to play one or the other.

Blake Murphy: I think I’m in the minority here, but I preferred the Pacers, feared the deer, and was lukewarm on the Hawks. I think the Raptors should have been expected to beat each team, and they’re still favorites against Milwaukee, but the Bucks will probably be the most challenging from a tactical perspective. The Hawks just aren’t heavy on talent around Paul Millsap, and while Paul George would stand to be an enormous factor, the Pacers as a whole are worse than the Pacers team that a lesser Raptors squad eked by a year ago. Giannis Antetokounmpo is in George’s class, is flanked by a better complementary star than the Hawks or Pacers have in Khris Middleton, and length always worries me for the Raptors. On the bright side, I think the Milwaukee series stood to help make the Raptors better more than the other two options, so that’s nice.

Giannis Antetokounmpo may be the best player in this series. Obviously Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan will have a say in that, but Antetokounmpo has grown into one of the top-10 players on the planet and can take over a game at both ends. Just how much does Antetokounmpo worry you from a matchup perspective?

William Lou: I’m not too worried about Giannis unless the Bucks get smart at play him at center around four shooters. That lineup scares me to death, but otherwise Giannis (and the Bucks as a whole) are mostly average in the halfcourt game.

Mike Nelson: When the need to use a multiple-defender approach (and I’m not just talking about double-teams) tends to be more of a prerequisite than a optional wait-and-see strategy, worry turns into fear in a hurry. I mean, I don’t even think Casey knows who will get the very first defensive assignment yet. However, considering the Freak’s splash plays are inevitable, it all comes down to damage control – especially on the road. Consistency on offense will surely be needed to stifle/answer the momentum he’ll create.

Matt Shantz: Giannis has truly earned his reputation/nickname as a freak. He can do almost everything on the court, and can impact a game at both ends. If he gets hot, the Bucks can cause some serious problems for Toronto. With that said, it comes down to his shooting for me. He shot just over 27 percent on the season from three, which provides a blueprint for defenders to go under screens (although they use him often as the screener, which adds a new dynamic). The Raptors also have an assortment of defenders (Tucker, Carroll, Patterson) to provide Giannis with different defensive looks.

Tim Chisholm: Not as much as he’ll worry other people. He’s an incredible NBA player, but he still has to prove that he can have the same impact against Playoff defences, ones that are designed almost exclusively to stop him from having an impact. He played well against Toronto this year (24.8 ppg, 7.8 rpg, 7.0 apg), but he also lost three of the four games they played. Toronto also has enough defensive weapons to throw at him to make life unpleasant, and without a stronger supporting cast, that might be all you have to do to keep Milwaukee from putting too much of a scare into the Raptors. Plus, this is one of those scenarios where Antetokounmpo may be the best player, but that doesn’t mean he’s the best Playoff player. He may turn out to be, but he has to show that he is, first. The Raptors have plenty of experience (not in their favour) of that particular phenomenon.

Gavin MacPherson: He’s amazing but I would be more worried if I felt like the Raptors didn’t have bigger advantages elsewhere. The Raptors have a variety of competent defenders who all have different strengths to throw at Giannis; hopefuly this will keep him off balance. I don’t see the Bucks having comparable options with Lowry and Valanciunas; they’re thin at PG and small up front, and if they shift their better wing defenders to Lowry then DeRozan should feast.

Tamberlyn Richardson: The key is finding a way to slow Antetokounmpo,from entering the paint (easier said than done, but Ibaka helps), slow down the transition and force him into being a jump shooter. Top to bottom the Raptors are deeper, so perhaps the key will be how much the Raptors can engage GA defensively to wear him down.

Shyam Baskaran: A little bit, but not a ton. The Greek Freak is obviously scary for many reasons, with the most notable ones being his ability to guard multiple positions, and the LBJ-like strength that he’s developed, enabling him to get to his spots on offense to score and distribute. But on the flip side, he doesn’t shoot the ball well from deep, and regardless of his talent level, this will only be his second playoff series (he has yet to win one)…so there’s that.

Anthony Doyle: There is always a big advantage to having the best player in any given series, and Giannis is that guy here. Kyle Lowry has more experience and has led a team to more success than Giannis has, but the Greek Freak’s talent is undeniable and he’s going to be a matchup nightmare. The Raptors will likely try any number of players on him including Serge Ibaka, PJ Tucker, and Patrick Patterson, but none of those guys are really a match for his athleticism, quickness and ability. The best bet for the Raptors is probably to take away his passing game as much as possible by staying honest on other guys, and making Giannis beat them through his own scoring, where he still isn’t a great shooter.

Spencer Redmond: Giannis is good, like All-NBA Second Team, Most Improved Player of the Year good. He will probably do something crazy in this series, and single handedly win the Bucks a game. At the same time, he’s young. At 22 years old, Giannis will no doubt make some mistakes in this series, and carrying a team at such a young age can be a tough task in the playoffs. I fully expect Giannis to play some great basketball this postseason, and yes I’m a little worried about him.

Barry Taylor: He’s an unbelievable player and the best in the series but we’ve got the experience advantage. I think he’ll win one and maybe even two games on his own but our second and third options are much better than Milwaukee. It’s been said many times but adding Tucker and Ibaka took this team to another level. Slowing down a player like Giannis is much more realistic with these guys on the court.

Katie Heindl: The Freak’s on fire, that’s for sure. I like the idea of P.J. on him the most, Delon second, and Carroll not at all. I don’t think he’s fast enough, and Giannis is like a giant, jacked, supremely athletic snake in a joke mixed-nuts can—he’s going to explode when and where you least expect him to. Wright is young but he has the same frenetic energy, and nobody outplays P.J., containment is our best strategy.

Louis Zatzman: Giannis is a player who routinely does things on the court that humans have never before seen. Bill Simmons and his stable at The Ringer might even refer to him as A UnicornTM. However, I am not worried about him, especially with Tucker and his frenetic, fire-spitting defense on the roster. His Freakiness is young, raw, and guardable. Lay off him and let the team’s switchability force Giannis to beat you alone, preferably from the perimeter. He will have incredible numbers, but that shouldn’t be enough to win. Giannis makes mistakes, and for all his talent, he can’t juice his team enough on either end to compete with the Raptors.

Alex Gres: As a growing franchise player that can do it all (seriously, he led the Bucks in EVERY SINGLE ONE of the five major statistical categories), it’s natural to fear what he can do on the big stage. However, Giannis only has 6 playoff games under his belt, and as we’ve seen with nearly every star player (all time greats like LeBron excluded), it takes time to adjust to leading a club in the bloody playoff battleground. The postseason is a different game, and Antetokounmpo will likely have ups and downs throughout the series, enough to give the now-experienced Raptors an opportunity to take control of the matchup.

Blake Murphy: He’s just…so good. The Raptors will really have to focus on not turning the ball over, normally a huge strength but something Milwaukee forces teams to do plenty. If Antetokounmpo is allowed to get a head of steam in transition, it’s over, and Dwane Casey might punt a Raptors advantage on the offensive glass in order to neutralize that. In the half-court, Anteokounmpo is versatile and savvy, and the presence of Middleton makes guarding him incredibly complex – with both of those things out there, the only real hiding spot is Tony Snell, and even Antetokounmpo at power forward threatens to force the Raptors into downsizing at the five (if it sounds weird to have to downsize against length, well, it is, but you need multiple wing defenders unless you want Serge Ibaka guarding these fluid wings instead of being a helper inside). Antetokounmpo is a matchup nightmare and a top-flight defender. He’s a top-10 player in the NBA, full stop.

A year ago at this time, we were all talking about Norman Powell as a potential X-Factor against Indiana, and that came to pass. Who are you looking at to provide that kind of deep or unexpected spark, if the Raptors need one here?

William Lou: It would be nice if Patrick Patterson and DeMarre Carroll can hit open threes, but I’m not holding my breath. My pick is Cory Joseph, who will be counted upon for his steady ball-handling abilities and defensive toughness.

Mike Nelson: You mean aside from JV’s new role as a three-point specialist? Ok, ok, baby steps. It really all depends on how the series progresses. If the Bucks have to make adjustments and deviate from how they make their living (second overall in paint points), I’d nominate Delon Wright. We can’t expect Lowry’s entire skill-set to immediately resurface, Cojo making a defensive difference wouldn’t be unexpected, and Delon is versatile enough to help out at three different positions. Still, old habits die hard. So with the likelihood of foul trouble and game-to-game inconsistencies hindering the frontcourt, Bebe’s shot-blocking and rebounding presence could very well be felt even in limited minutes.

Matt Shantz: PJ Tucker is the obvious answer, as he has clearly become an emotional leader on the team. He’s even inspired DeMar DeRozan to step up his defensive effort, which is no small task. With that said, I’m going to go a little deeper in the line-up and pick Jakob Poeltl. His play in the second half of the season has likely earned him some spot minutes in the playoffs, but his footwork when switched onto a smaller player could come in handy if teams target Valanciunas. Poeltl also provides solid rebounding, which is a big benefit against teams that struggle on the boards like Milwaukee.

Tim Chisholm: The easy answer is P.J. Tucker, since he’s the new (old) hotness in Toronto, so I’ll go in a different direction and say Cory Joseph. He completely turned his season around after the All-Star break, when he was thrust into an unexpected starting role, and he seems to have regained both his confidence and the trust of the coaching staff. Plus, he’s more interested in playing defence against opposing point guards with above-average usage rates than Lowry often is, which will be key against guys like Malcolm Brogdon and Matthew Dellavedova, guys that can have annoying impacts on a series if you don’t take the time to keep them in check.

Gavin MacPherson: I think it’s Delon Wright’s turn. This year has been a bit different with Lowry and Wright missing time and Joseph being inconsistent but two PG lineups have been great for the team as long as Lowry has been in town and I think against the Bucks specifically they’ll be very important. Their defense is very long and active, there isn’t any time to stand around and spreading the floor will be crucial. Two PG lineups tend to be more decisive with the ball and Lowry is the best spot up shooter on the team so they’re great counter to the Bucks defensive style. If Joseph struggles I think there’s a good chance Wright gets some minutes alongside Lowry in a 2 PG look and that tandem has the potential to be great on both ends of the floor.

Tamberlyn Richardson: Again, the depth of the Raptors offers plenty of options to choose from. Delon Wright could be a factor with his length (if he sees the floor) and JV will likely provide fits for Kidd to address. But, I see it in reverse…. the Bucks player with the most post season experience (40 games in last 2 seasons) along with a few trophies from the scars he left behind is Matthew Dellavedova. In contrast, at 31 this is Tucker’s first foray into the post season. Tucker has always been the type of player who thrives off audience energy or shifting momentum. Something tells me Delly will be a little less likely to pull any nonsense knowing Tucker can counter. The first round will offer PJ opportunities to makes key defensive plays, hit timely corner threes and show his grit.

Shyam Baskaran: Jakob Poeltl. He’s shown the ability to make an impact when the team is searching for answers, especially when JV becomes unplayable. Based on what we’ve seen all year, Poeltl has proven himself to be someone who easily slots himself into lineups as a low-maintenance big with a smart touch around the basket. Ideal “surprise x-factor” material.

Anthony Doyle: There are three guys who could potentially fill that role, in Powell, Delon Wright, and Jakob Poeltl. If the Raptors start finding themselves in trouble, it wouldn’t be shocking to find any of those guys suddenly getting minutes and contributing, and they all are definitely capable of being impact guys in a playoff series. If I had to guess, I’d say that Wright might be the most likely to find himself getting minutes. I think though, that at least to start the series, the Raptors will stick to their core 8-man rotation, which is more solid than it’s ever been previously. Those three guys are great luxury pieces to have, and I would be willing to trust that if necessary, any of them would give the team the spark that caused Dwane Casey to bring them into the game.

Spencer Redmond: Playoff Jonas Valanciunas could be the X-Factor in the Bucks series. The Raptors took advantage of the Jonas mismatch in round one last year against the Pacers, and he came through for the rest of the playoffs, and showed us the best basketball of his career so far. The Bucks rank 24th in the NBA in REB%, and Greg Monroe might have some trouble containing Valanciunas in postup situations. Valanciunas closed out the season on a strong note, and I hope the Raptors take advantage of Valanciunas being a mismatch for the Bucks.

Barry Taylor: Patterson is due for a good stretch of games. If he can get hot from three we’ll be playing deep into the spring.

Katie Heindl: Delon! If we can set up JV and Tucker to funnel his energy, he could really be the NOS we need when we’re dragging (sorry, I am seeing Fast and the Furious in 4D this weekend). P.J., also, is going to be the dig deep dude because frankly when our mojo gets wonky we need someone to tell us to get over it and that’s him. If Fred Van Vleet gets minutes I am going to levitate with joy, but honestly he can be so smart with the ball and throws his whole body after it. And of course my countryman, Poeltl, the slowest to get going this season but I think that hammer is going to stay coming down. He dunks now!

Louis Zatzman: I’m not going too deep into the roster, so I may be cheating this answer a little, but Patrick Patterson is still the X-Factor for me. His role on the squad with Tucker and Ibaka is a little unclear, but he proved in the fourth quarter against the Knicks that his defense and shooting can bring the Raptors to the next level. Against a team as long as the Bucks on offense, Patterson’s incredible defensive rotations should really muck up their best-laid plans. The Lowry+bench lineup partially thrives because of Patterson’s skills, and I expect that lineup to have monster +/- numbers in this series.

Alex Gres: Delon Wright. He has already proven to be a capable momentum-swinging piece at times, and there may be an occasion or two that calls for his services. With that said, I don’t feel the Raptors will NEED an X-factor in the first round the way they needed one last season.

Blake Murphy: This is probably going to sound a bit off since I haven’t been the most complimentary of his play over the last two months, but I kind of think it’s Powell again. Delon Wright may have jumped him in the rotation, and the Raptors might be able to keep it to a tight eight, anyway. But with the Raptors so established, the “X-Factor” to me is someone who’d be called on if things don’t work out of the gate. Powell’s length and defense could be important here, affording the Raptors another option to guard Middleton to save DeMar DeRozan, and Powell might be the team’s most adept non-star at attacking a zoned-up weak-side defense when the ball’s swung away from Milwaukee’s traps. Powell’s struggled shifting back into a role player’s role, but I think he’d be able to dial in if called upon here.

What do you see as the Raptors’ biggest strength in this series? Their biggest weakness?

William Lou: Our biggest strength is depth. Milwaukee has 2.5 players (Giannis, Khris Middleton, Malcolm Brogdon) who can be counted upon to do their job each night. We also match-up nicely with the Bucks since we generally avoid turnovers and put pressure on the basket, where the Bucks are weakest. The Raptors’ biggest weakness is that they’re the Raptors and they can never get out of their own way.

Mike Nelson: Even without Serge Ibaka’s playoff chops being added to what this core has gone through in the last three years, their biggest strength coming in was already experience. It’s now just primed to come full circle. Biggest weakness: It’s amazing how much a 51-31 team can own such a high level of Jekyll-and-Hyde tendencies, especially from quarter to quarter. Although their need (seemingly) for adversity to stare them in the face in order to regroup bodes well for any second half/4th quarter comebacks, they’ll always be playing with fire whenever they need to dig deep.

Matt Shantz: The Bucks finished the regular season with a rebounding percentage of just 48.7, tying them with Indian and Orlando for fifth worst on the year. Since the All Star Break they’ve been the second worst rebounding team in the league, getting just 47.3 percent of available boards. Meanwhile, the Raptors have been the second best rebounding team since All Star, which should mean that players like Jonas and Poelt can feast on the offensive glass.

Biggest weakness? Length. Milwaukee has built their team around long defenders like Giannis and Khris Middleton, which has historically been a good recipe for disrupting DeMar. With that said, DeRozan has seemed less bothered/impacted by length this season.

Tim Chisholm: Their biggest strengths in this particular series is definitely their experience and their depth. This is their fourth go-around as a group, and they showed last year that they are capable of winning games and series, so they shouldn’t be nearly as spooked out there as they’ve been in the past. Plus, replacing Scola with Ibaka and Ross with Tucker will make a huge difference when it comes to being able to mix-and-match lineup combinations to deal with Milwaukee’s plan of attack. As far as their biggest weakness, it remains consistency. The Raptors still have a habit of turning it on and off, and while they are typically able to dig out of holes that they create for themselves, the Playoffs are enough of a grind without needing to expend extra energy playing from behind. Keep in mind, their second round opponent would almost certainly be Cleveland, and Cleveland has looked vulnerable (we’ll see if that’s still true in two weeks), so pouncing early on Milwaukee and going into round two rested could be huge.

Gavin MacPherson:  Their depth and versatility is their biggest strength. If DeRozan is struggling they can go to Powell or even Wright and their offense is constructed in a way that they can play two or even three PGs at once without changing things dramatically. In Carroll, Tucker, Ibaka and Patterson they have guys who can play multiple frontcourt positions capably. Bebe spent the bulk of the season as one of the highest rated per-possession players in the league and he can’t even sniff the court in a real game these days. They have 12 players who seem like bona fide NBA rotation players. If this series becomes a marathon instead of a sprint they have more options available.

Their biggest weakness is how much of their offense still comes from two sources. Their playoff history has shown that if you slow one of them down it can cripple the team but they haven’t really done much to diversify the offense. They’re really banking on their guards to be more precise than previous seasons and it could all fall apart if they’re not up to the task.

Tamberlyn Richardson: Greatest Strength: Overall depth and versatility. Although the Bucks have one of the better benches I still think Toronto has the counter to every move Kidd makes. Greatest Weakness: Focus! Raptors have a propensity to allow teams jump on them early or get back into games. If they learned anything last year it’s vital they take care of business early in this series.

Shyam Baskaran: Biggest strength: Our defense. Other than Giannis, I don’t see Milwaukee killing us on the offensive side of the ball, Khris Middleton or not. The Raps have had the fourth best defense since the all-star break, and with Tucker, Ibaka and the rest of the crew locked in, I don’t see how the Bucks are going to consistently do damage. Biggest weakness: The word “length” is probably overused at this point, but with guys like Giannis, Maker, Henson, etc. the Bucks have a ton of it (more of a Bucks’ strength than a Raptors weakness here). And while DeRozan has had solid games against Milwaukee, the game in March was clearly indicative of what the Bucks’ length could do for them defensively.

Anthony Doyle: The biggest advantage for the Raptors is simply experience. Last year, this Raptors team went through some really tough series that weren’t supposed to be and managed to come out the other side, and then saw the Cleveland juggernaut in the ECF. That gives them a big advantage in terms of understanding the stage and circus of the NBA playoffs, and they won’t be struck by the moment. The same can’t really be said for a young Milwaukee team that, despite a first round exit two years ago, really doesn’t have much experience here and might struggle under the bright lights.

The Raptors’ biggest weakness is what it’ll be for the entire playoffs, their stubborn insistence at times in not adjusting to the opponent and trying to dictate their game regardless. Toronto will play the same game in every series, and everyone knows it going in, and that predictability can get them in trouble, as it did against Indiana and Miami last year. The pieces are better this year, but the core is still the same and they’ll still largely lean on DeRozan and Lowry more and more the tighter the games and series gets. Stop them, you stop the Raptors.

Spencer Redmond: Experience. This Raptors group knows how to win a series, they know how to play playoff basketball. Their biggest worry might be if the Raptors have had enough time to integrate Lowry with their new pieces? Certainly playoff like atmospheres like the Miami Heat game from last week are great tests, but the playoffs are a different ballgame. Having continuity is one of the Raptors greatest strengths, inserting a dominate player like Lowry into new rotations may take more time than a few regular season games.

Barry Taylor: The biggest strength is their depth. All praise Masai Ujiri. The Raptors have too many weapons to make this an easy series for the Bucks. Their only weakness is they don’t have a player like Giannis but neither do 25 other teams in the league.

Katie Heindl: Strength: Leadership, liking each other, confidence to play it slow, being the outliers and loving every minute of it. Weakness: Not having strong starts in every game and catching up will hurt us if we fall into that routine. It’s too tiring to maintain and morale goes AWOL.

Louis Zatzman: The Raptors’ biggest strength in this series is talent. I know that most other writers will go with experience, but experience is meaningless without the talent to beat the other team. The Raptors are so deep, with two all-world players to lean on when the going gets tough. With Lowry entering KLOE-mode and DeRozan scoring the basketball in ways we haven’t seen since prime Kobe, the Raptors should be able to coast past a significantly inferior opponent. I don’t think the Raptors have a significance weakness in this series. Look at me – I quoted Katy Perry in regards to my troubled relationship with sports confidence, and here I am talking about the Raptors’ invincibility in this series. What am I if not a hypocrite?

Alex Gres: Biggest strength – although there are a few, their greatest is the presence of two All-Stars who have seen a few playoffs now, learned what it takes to win in that environment, and are able to make key plays down the stretch of games. Their talent and self-confidence borne of experience will allow them to separate Toronto from Milwaukee when it matters most. The biggest weakness is probably not having a perfect player to guard the Greek Freak, with the Raptors’ wing stoppers not being tall enough and the power forwards not being fast enough. But then again, that applies to pretty much every team in the league. The key to working through it is just making him work, being physical, and Toronto can certainly accomplish that.

Blake Murphy: The Raptors are more talented, and that goes a long way. They have two of the three best players in the series in some order, there’s a lot more playoff-caliber talent in their eight- or nine-man rotation, and nearly every metric points to the Raptors just being a much better team. (This is also one of the biggest gaps in rebounding ability imaginable.) The weakness is that the Raptors are themselves and have had trouble simply going out and playing well for 48 minutes. You don’t want to ascribe some psychological affliction to a team for starting games or series poorly, but I’ve definitely priced in one “what the hell was that” game into my series prediction. (A cold-shooting series for the Raptors’ 3-point shooters would threaten to wear out Lowry and DeRozan.)

Call it.

William Lou: Raptors in 6.

Mike Nelson: I get that the postseason is a different animal, but rolling at the right time has to be taken into consideration. It would therefore be a mistake to automatically think this series will be a cakewalk given the Bucks’ impressive stretch run. At the same time, though, the Raps counter that notion by falling into the same category. Getting over their annual opening-game hump would speak volumes. Pick: The 6ix in six.

Matt Shantz: Raptors in 5. Giannis and company will grab a game in Milwaukee, but the Raptors depth and experience will be enough to carry them smoothly through the first round.

Tim Chisholm: Raptors in five.

Gavin MacPherson: Raptors in 5. At some point they have to live up to expectations in the playoffs, now is as good a time as any.

Tamberlyn Richardson: Maybe I’m delusional, but I think the Raptors can take this in 5 (6 tops).

Shyam Baskaran: Raps in 6.

Anthony Doyle: At the end of the day the Raptors depth, experience and talent advantages will just be too much for the Bucks, and I think this is a 5-game series. Toronto probably has one let-down game where they just throw away a quarter and can’t quite climb back from that, but otherwise this should be quick and relatively easy. Toronto needs to take care of this one quickly, because the difficulty ramps up significantly from here, and some rest before the second round would be helpful going forward.

Spencer Redmond: Raptors in 5.

Barry Taylor: Raptors in 6. This is still Toronto so a sweep or five game series is still too much to expect but we’re turning the corner. Over the next few years this city is going to have some awesome spring months. So pumped. Let’s do this.

Katie Heindl: Raps in 5 (I have tickets to Game 5).

Louis Zatzman: Raps in 5. Sweeping a playoff team is hard without the best / most talented player on your team, so I’ll go with the next best thing.

Alex Gres: 4-1 TO.

Blake Murphy: Raptors in 6. I’m giving Milwaukee one game for variance/an off night for Toronto and one for the Antetokounmpo factor. Seven felt too scared (go to church) and five felt too hubristic. Scientific, this.

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We’re hosting an AMA on Reddit at 10 a.m.

Just a heads up that I’ll be hosting an AMA at R/Toronto Raptors at 10 a.m., if you’ve been itching to fire off any postseason questions I’ve missed in the comments the last couple of weeks. I’m looking forward to it. I’ve done them before, and it was a lot of fun, though I only have an hour this time and totally forgot it was a holiday when booking the day. If nothing else, it’s a way to kill some time and nerves before Game 1, right?

If you’re not a Redditor or can’t make it, you can always tweet at me with the hashtag #RRMailbag, as that’s how I keep track of outstanding questions for the next mailbag (and another will come at some point mid-series.).

Here’s the link, come say hi!

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Raptors Weekly Extra Podcast, April 14 – Bucks series preview

The Extra returns with the regular crew to, well, what do you think they talk about?

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Canadian broadcast schedule for Raptors-Bucks released

The Toronto Raptors released their broadcast schedule for their first-round playoff series against the Milwaukee Bucks on Thursday. Canadian fans will be able to catch games on TV or radio as follows:

It looks like TSN is a bit of a winner here, though Raptors fans with limited cable packages may be the ones drawing the short straw for Game 1.

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Practice news & notes: Raptors can’t lean on experience alone; won’t go soft on Giannis

Throughout the playoffs, we’ll be giving you brief notebooks after every practice, shootaround, pre-game, and post-game. They’ll vary in terms of length and analysis based on what’s said, what happens, and what else is going on, and the videos will all eventually go up on the Raptors’ YouTube page, anyway, but rest assured you can use us as your first stop for the relevant quotes and notes each day during the postseason. Feedback on whether or not these posts are useful is appreciated so we can spend our time accordingly.

The regular season has finally come to a close, and to hear DeMar DeRozan tell it, the Toronto Raptors could hardly contain their excitement on the flight back from Cleveland on Wednesday night. Players were in to Biosteel Centre early on Thursday looking to make sure they’re in peak form as the Raptors prepare to embark on a first-round playoff series with the Milwaukee Bucks, and there seems to be far less anxiety around the postseason proceedings this time around.

This perhaps shouldn’t be surprising. The Raptors are entering the playoffs for a fourth consecutive April, and that brings with it a certain level of experience. This core has been through several scenarios – being the young upstart, losing in seven, getting swept, being the favorite, and making a deeper run – and there’s little that could happen when the series begins Saturday that the Raptors won’t be ready for.

“The experience that you gain from that is damn near everything you can get out of the playoffs other than a Finals,” DeRozan said Thursday. “So going into Saturday’s game, we’ve got to keep that mindset of understanding of we know how hard it is to win, especially that first game. Go out there, be locked in.”

The Raptors know how hard it is to win a Game 1, but that hasn’t kept them from coughing them up in the past, even last year when they had built up some experience. The team, then, can’t simply lean on their experience to carry them, though it can help possibly change the approach. On Thursday, that was about refocusing on who the Raptors want to be and keeping things a little simpler.

“That could be it: Over-preparation, over-thinking and not coming out and playing to your identity,” head coach Dwane Casey said. “That’s one of the themes we had today, keep it simple, play to our identity but at the same time, you have to have the experience and knowledge of making adjustments and understanding what teams are trying to do to you and taking that away. That’s where I think experience does come in.”

In other words, experience can help beget more experience. Even with all they’ve accrued, each new series is a chance to learn and check off one more box on the annoying narrative checklist.

“I’m not even sure. It’s something,” DeRozan said. “Now we have another opportunity to try to get that off our backs, whatever that might be, and start off the right way.”

The Raptors simply leaning on their five series of experience together as a core – plus finals runs for Serge Ibaka and Cory Joseph – could prove a risk. Kyle Lowry, as banal as ever leaned back in the media room, had no time for any suggestion that the Raptors might have an easier time this year because they’ve been through it in the past.

“It’s still hard,” he offered. “You’ve still gotta go out there and play. The playoffs are a different beast. No matter what you’ve done last year or the year before, this is a completely new slate. We can’t take what we did last year and bring it into this playoffs aside from experience.”

Remember “hard things are hard” from last year? Hard things remain hard.

Guarding Giannis

The most popular topic of conversation from a strategic perspective was unquestionably how the Raptors will approach Giannis Antetokounmpo. It’s telling that Lowry, DeRozan, and Casey all pointed to different areas to focus on, because Antetokounmpo is just that multi-faceted.

“Everything is heightened,” DeRozan said of his growth. “You see it from his physical appearance, his confidence to him just reading the floor when he’s out there on the court, doing every single thing on both ends. He’s just putting it all together and I think he realized how gifted an individual he was on that basketball court.”

Not only does that mean trying to defend him in a variety of scenarios, but it means it’s going to take an army of bodies to contain the man who may be the best player in the entire series.

“He leads their team in every area, so you’ve got to go out there and game plan for him,” Lowry said. “He’s going to get him numbers but we’ve got to try to control him a little bit. He’ll get his, he’s that talented. We’ve got  great defenders in DeMarre Carroll and P.J Tucker who can be physical and play defense on him, so everyone has to do their jobs.”

One thing the Raptors won’t be doing is going under screens and daring Antetokounmpo to shoot. He’s lacking in a 3-point shot, but he’s a decent mid-range shooter, is adept at firing off floaters and push shots with a bit of room, and dropping under screens gives him the opportunity to gain a head of steam charging into the paint. Outside of sheer tactics, Casey worries that more conservative defensive approaches like that can mess with the Raptors’ constitution.

“What happens too is when you start talking about guys you want to play off of, make them shoot jump shots, that makes you soft,” Casey said. “That makes you a soft team, and our experience this year has been guys who want to go under on pick and rolls, let’s go over. Because when we go under, we become a soft team. So we’re going to have our coverages and all that, but we don’t want to disrespect anybody because he’s an All-Star for a reason.”

There’s room to quibble here. Antetokounmpo is an All-Star for a lot of reasons, and his ability to pull up with a jumper is lower down the list. This is probably Casey sticking to the team’s taling points from an intangible perspective rather than giving away any strategic preferences – at some point, if Antetokounmpo is cooking, the Raptors will have to get outside of their comfort zone to slow him down, even if that means giving off the perception they’ve softened up, when really it’s smartening up. It may not come to that, anyway, but locking in to any one approach against a player this dynamic seems short-sighted.

Other Notes

  • Raptors president Masai Ujiri will address the media on Friday at 11:30 a.m. I don’t expect him to say “F— Milwaukee,” but here’s hoping.
  • Ed Malloy is listed among the 37 referees who will be used in the first round of the playoffs. Schedule your tweets and purchase alcohol accordingly.
  • DeMar DeRozan’s new shoe, the Nike Kobe AD Compton, released yesterday. They’re awesome. They’re also a bit pricey, but given they can probably work as a ball shoe or a casual kick, it’s not a bad investment. I have a pair on order online because 13s are apparently hard to find in-store, even on the release day.
  • P.J. Tucker will play in his first career NBA playoff game on Saturday, ending one of the league’s longest droughts. The players may be willing to needle Tucker about how his international playoff experience doesn’t count, but absolutely nobody is worried about how he’ll respond when the ball is rolled in.
    • “That’s one guy I don’t worry about,” Casey said. “If he misses a shot it’s not going to be because of the playoff jitters, because he’s a man. He’s a tough guy. He’s been around.”
    • “It’ll be easy. Especially for him,” DeRozan said. “He fits what Saturday night is going to be like. The whole atmosphere, the intensity, the aggression, the passion. That’s PJ.”
  • DeRozan and Casey didn’t say much of the new start time, but Lowry pulled no punches when it came to the death of the 12:30 tip: “I’m just more excited we don’t have the noon game. That’s more exciting than everything.” Fans seem to mostly agree, but Lowry’s obviously not a Toronto Maple Leafs fan, too.
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Playoff Mailbag: Rotations, matchups, scheduling, (…and the murder of Jason Blossom)

Two days off to prepare for a playoff opponent also means two days off to publish another #RRMailbag. We’ll try to do mini-mailbags when time allows during the postseason, but I’m skeptical there will be time/room for one of the 7,000-word mammoths. You can find all of the previous editions of the mailbag here, if, for whatever reason, you wanted to read old mailbags.

Before we go ahead: A reminder that we have a Patreon page at patreon.com/RaptorsRepublic. If you appreciate the content we produce, want to support RR, and have the means to do so, any contribution is greatly appreciated and will help us continue to do what we do (and try to do even more). You can also follow me on Twitter for, uhh, tweets, and on Facebook for all of my writing/podcasting/radio stuff. Validate me. You can also ask me questions at any time using #RRMailbag, and I’ll be sure to include them in the next mailbag, no matter how long between.

And if you haven’t had enough of me by then, I’ll be doing an AMA on R/TorontoRaptors on Friday at 10 a.m.

Alright, let’s get this money.

Playoff Specifics

I was going to be fine with either outcome last night. Lose, and the Raptors would have made sure they get the No. 23 pick while also keeping the possibility open that Cleveland could land in the one-seed. But Boston was always pretty likely to win against a resting Milwaukee squad, and since the Raptors have had so few reps with Kyle Lowry over the last few months, I was on board with a “first half dress rehearsal” of sorts. Things played out pretty much how I probably would have run them – a bit of rest, nobody tasked with too many minutes, and a lot of opportunities for the young guys.

That Boston won anyway is great, and while the Clippers also winning may end up costing the Raptors a spot or two in the draft, there are drawbacks from intentionally tanking a game. And hey, did you see Bruno Caboclo? The 905 may have beaten the Cavaliers last night anyway!

Let’s start by plugging my own work. I wrote about Jonas Valanciunas trying to turn into “Playoff JV” at the right time for Vice Sports earlier this week. That Valanciunas has turned in good games in eight of the last nine is encouraging, as is his haircut – almost since the moment he went back to his chrome-dome playoff look, he’s turned things around.

Against the Bucks, Valanciunas should be an important piece. He’s the Raptors’ best rebounders and one of the most dominant players on the glass in the entire league. It’s a huge weakness for Milwaukee, who rank in the bottom third on the boards at both ends of the floor and who often play more slender fives like Thon Maker and John Henson, players Valanciunas can beat with his physicality. Valanciunas should feast on the offensive glass, and his powerful screens will be important for clearing valuable slivers of space against Milwaukee’s trapping of ball-handlers.

As always, though, Valanciunas’ overall impact will come down to how he defends. His pick-and-roll defense has trended upward down the stretch, and the Bucks don’t employ the type of speedy north-south point guard that tends to give the Lithuanian the most trouble. They’ll throw a lot of different pick-and-roll looks at Toronto, to be sure, but many will involve a wing or forward as the screener, or even as the ball-handler, which takes Valanciunas away from the action and into a more suitable helper role. Unless the Bucks change course and try to attack Valanciunas with Giannis Antetokounmpo going downhill, he’ll have every opportunity to keep himself on the floor.

Watch for Dwane Casey to continue his recent experiment of using Valanciunas in the Lowry-and-bench unit to start the second and fourth quarters. That would line him up with Greg Monroe more often, and while Monroe’s a fanciful passer and a gifted post scorer, that’s a matchup Valanciunas can win.

Can. Valanciunas’ inconsistencies have been part of the reason he’s a polarizing figure among Raptors fans, and it’s on him to make the most of the matchup, whether it’s in 20 minutes or 30.

More shameless self promotion: I wrote about Delon Wright’s crafty play for The Athletic this week, and the other week I wrote about Norman Powell struggling moving back to his old role. Raptors Republic readers can get 20 percent off the subscription price by using this link.

To answer the first question: Wright definitely hasn’t jumped Cory Joseph. Joseph’s play since Lowry went down has been back closer to his 2015-16 levels, and the days of his backup spot being in jeopardy are behind him. That could change if he’s shaky again, and Milwaukee can throw some serious size against him, but he should match up well with Matthew Dellavedova and fine with Malcolm Brogdon. It’s nice that Wright’s there if needed, but Joseph’s play has stabilized.

Wright has, however, possibly jumped Powell. Those two will probably be a fluid choice in the ninth-man role (I think the top eight are fairly obvious and the Raptors won’t need a second center against the Bucks), and who Casey turns to will be an interesting choice. Wright has been better down the stretch and provides more ball-handling, an important consideration in multi-guard lineups when the Bucks might force the ball out of the hands of Toronto’s stars. But the Bucks also overload the strong side against the pick-and-roll, which puts additional value on having an attacker spotting up on the weak side. Powell might be the team’s best in that position.

Casey would be justified in going either direction, and the leash on both sophomores will be short. The guess here is that Powell gets the first crack for the extra size and attacking, but he needs to look like Game 82 Powell.

I’ve answered this one a lot in recent mailbags, and I’ve kind of landed on this: P.J. Tucker is playing better than DeMarre Carroll, and Carroll’s biggest edge over Tucker (shooting) has kind of dissipated with Tucker feasting on open corner looks, but Carroll continuing to start is fine. For now. Carroll actually did a pretty decent job on Antetokounmpo in earlier meetings, and while the ability for Tucker to throw some serious physicality at the youngster is a nice change of pace, the Raptors are going to need both of them – and a handful of others – over the course of each game.

Keeping Tucker with the second unit means that one of the team’s most vocal defensive quarterbacks (Tucker or Serge Ibaka) is on the floor at all times, and Tucker’s found a great groove with Lowry and the bench squad. There are also secondary considerations to benching Carroll, like the psychological impact or the trickle-down to the second unit – these are relatively minor if Carroll is playing horribly, but if their play is close enough, the argument for inertia gets stronger.

Casey will probably start Carroll. Tucker will probably play more and is more likely to close games. It’s fine, but Casey better be as willing to change course as he was last year if it isn’t working.

Related to my last point, I actually think the criticisms that Casey is inflexible are outdated now. It was definitely true across the first two postseasons this team made it to, and he was stubborn during the regular season a year ago. But the Indiana series forced his hand, and he not only eventually went away from his long-held starting power forward, but he tried brand-new lineups in the playoffs, benched DeMar DeRozan down the stretch, and responded capably to the loss of Valanciunas. Again this year, Casey’s proven pretty malleable as the roster has changed and the team’s dealt with injury or ineffectiveness – they went like a month without using an actual power forward, for example, and they’ve tried playing small and switchy a ton.

The truth is Casey has to be flexible. The bonus is the Raptors have a versatile enough rotation now that being flexible is something he’s probably embracing. Valanciunas isn’t winning the battle inside? Go small. Antetkounmpo is killing Carroll? Go to Tucker. Pick-and-roll defense is struggling? Switch everywhere. Playing big, playing small, trying new lineups…they’re all things Casey’s been forced to do this year, and the Raptors’ ability to adapt should be a strength in the postseason as a result. I don’t see why Casey would shy away from it now.

Physically? Hell yeah. Brogdon is great. Like, Rookie of the Year level great. He’s thick, smart, and has an immense wingspan, and while he’s not an elite one-on-one defender, he really knows how to play in Jason Kidd’s system. Dellavedova isn’t particularly good, but he’s pesky and will probably try to live inside Lowry’s jersey when on the court. The Bucks did really well defending opposing point guards this year.

On the bright side, Lowry is significantly better than either, and even if they make life tough on him, he should be just fine (assuming there’s no lingering wrist discomfort).

I’m much more encouraged by the post-break sample (fourth in the NBA) than the more recent one. There was clearly some malaise setting in there, and the Raptors were still able to find that extra defensive gear in the fourth quarter of games. Lowry’s defense was pretty bad, but the truth is he was probably just trying to get a rhythm and get his game conditioning back without much concern for stopping the opponent (see: letting Ron Baker run by you in transition).

Now, Lowry’s defense has been below his standard for the season, despite what the advanced metrics say. He’s still a savvy ball-hawk and an opportunist drawing charges, but he was culpable as the Raptors suffered from “blow-by” issues earlier in the year. Lowry’s shown in the past that he’ll turn that aspect of his game up when the games matter. It’s tough to trust it without seeing it again, of course, but there’s a lot more evidence pointing to this team being good defensively than bad when the ball’s in on Saturday.

I don’t mean to dismiss this question, but I’m tight on time to get this up – Ask me again in the mailbag ahead of the second round. Sorry!

Guarding Antetokounmpo takes an army, and everyone is going to get a crack at it. I kind of answered this above in talking about Tucker and Carroll, but they’ll get the first opportunities. Patrick Patterson may be the team’s best bet at slowing Antetokounmpo, in a vacuum, and Serge Ibaka and Norman Powell could be useful, too. The way the Bucks play – length at every position, multiple ball-handlers, wings and guards screening and initiating alike – there aren’t really places to hide, and the Raptors will have to switch a lot. Tucker is going to body Antetokounmpo up, Carroll needs to work to keep him from getting his legs under him, and the help needs to be ready to contest at the rim, but Antetokounmpo is still going to get his off. The biggest key to stopping him is to not turn the ball over, because he’s the NBA’s premiere transition threat, non-Russell Westbrook division.

As for Khris Middleton, he’s an equally challenging player, especially as a number two. Middleton can attack in isolation or in the pick-and-roll and his numbers as a catch-and-shoot threat around Antetokounmpo are staggering, but where he really punishes from a strategy perspective is in the post. Raptors’ guards have proven capable of guarding larger players on post switches in the past, but the Raptors are going to want to make sure they have a wing attached to Middleton in those scenarios, and that means that sometimes DeMar DeRozan is going to draw that responsibility. DeRozan can be better on defense than he sometimes gets credit for, but you don’t want him exerting a ton at that end if you can manage. He’ll probably start on Tony Snell, but the Bucks will then run Snell through some actions to try to force switches.

The Bucks aren’t a great offensive team overall, but they’re a difficult one to check. Not giving a damn about positions or traditional roles means you can’t gameplan for them in a straight-forward way. Everyone is going to be called on to defend.

Middleton and Snell will probably share DeRozan duties on the other end, keeping Antetokounmpo free to work as a help defender (the Raptors will respond by having Ibaka pop above the break more often than he heads to the corners). Antetokounmpo will see some time, too, I’m sure, and the Bucks won’t hesitate to let Brogdon take a crack if the Raptors try to draw a switch with their pet two-one pick-and-rolls.

Blake Murphy vs. Sleep.

(It’s not one vs. one, but the biggest matchup key is probably how well each team’s supporting cast shoots from long-range. Neither team shoots a ton of threes, but they’re both above-average at hitting them and have multiple guys who will let fire two or three times a game. Maybe Patterson-Mirza Teletovic, then? The primary players are simply going to switch assignments too much and match offense-vs-defense to identify a priority head-to-head. DeRozan-Middleton, if I have to choose.)

Inconsistent 3-point shooting probably stands to limit Toronto’s ceiling the most. Threes are by nature a high-variance approach, but with only one reliable high-volume shooter, the Raptors are perhaps more susceptible to slumps and streaks than teams with more weapons. They could go ice-cold from outside and still survive the first round, because they do enough other things well that don’t slump nearly as much, like rebound and defend and protect the ball and get to the line. Against Cleveland, though, your defense is only going to be able to do so much, and the Raptors will only be able to keep up as much as their shooters support Lowry and DeRozan. That’s true to a smaller degree when the Bucks force the ball out of the stars’ hands, too.

Playoff Ancillary

This question has obviously been answered already, though I’m not sure of the actual reasoning for the schedule breaking down as it did. I expected a 12:30 Saturday start, and 5:30 is a better slot, even if it overlaps a bit with the Leafs. The Sunday 6:30 slot is probably the “best” one, but too much is made of this stuff, anyway, in my opinion. (Having three of six announced games on NBA TV suggests that the Raptors aren’t completely out of the woods in terms of respect or being a casual draw.)

I think it can only be bad news for the Raptors. The favorites always fear randomness, and four planets being in retrograde mean some really weird stuff could happen here.

Because we need a way to balance out the incomes of those who get to travel with the team and those who don’t. (Or because Milwaukee is a middling city and the airlines would prefer you to fly into Chicago, instead.)

Yes. Michael Paul Beasley, my pick for the series’ Gerald Henderson Award winner.

He’s a logical pick for the GHA given his history killing the Raptors and his Bulls pedigree. I’m still going with Supercool Beas, though. Midwest Terrence Ross doesn’t scare me a ton in this series.

We’ve past the deadline, but I remain shocked that the Bucks went with Gary Payton II for their 15th roster spot instead of plucking someone from the 905. They had Axel Toupane for two games earlier in the year, though, so they clearly already got all of the knowledge they needed from the 905, just like the Cavaliers are doing with Edy Tavares.

It’s going to be really weird when Baskonia waives Andrea Bargnani next week and plucks C.J. Leslie from the 905 with the 905 tied 98-98 in Game 3 of the D-League finals.

So far, nobody, really. Tucker’s getting smoother passes in the corners and Patterson’s found a nice groove, but really, all of the team’s 3-point shooters benefit from Lowry being back. With a bigger sample, the answer would definitely be DeRozan – Lowry not only helps share the load creating on offense, but he’s DeRozan’s best spot-up shooter to kick out to, and that gives him a better passing option and more space to operate in. It’s probably also a boon for Valanciunas, who hasn’t had the greatest of chemistry with Joseph the last two years.

Both Game 7s would go Saturday, April 29, so May 1 would be the first possible day they could start. If one of the series went the distance, I could see that getting bumped to May 2 (the Raptors’ schedule in round one is more compressed than last year, so there could be a two-day grace period built in between rounds). I went back and looked at some schedules from recent years, and it’s pretty difficult to predict this far out. If both series end early, you might be able to catch a game there early, but if one of them goes seven (maybe even six), you could be out of luck. I’m sorry I don’t have a better answer for you – precedent is inconsistent.

The five-Bruno hydra.

Non-Raptors Miscellaneous

I think he’s been introduced great, other than changing the font on his video from that cool red to generic Asian yellow. They’ve made him seem like a huge deal without him saying or doing all that much, and The Miz and Dolph Ziggler are great first foils to introduce not only his character (both heels are great at reacting to faces) but to his physical style (Ziggler might be the best seller they have). The WWE has a huge star on their hands in Shinsuke Nakamura. It’d take some pretty shaky booking to botch this opportunity.

And yeah, I’m saving Nakamura-Styles until Nakamura is fully established and it has the requisite big match feel outside of them just telling you it’s a big match. We know, but the big events aren’t just about us. Let Styles have his face run, then they can meet up down the line as a neutral-neutral mega-feud. It’s going to be so good.

Sigh. Jughead is an emo kid, a writer, and someone headed for definitely unrequited love with the girl next door. And a closet binge eater. Sadly, I’m Jughead, it would appear.

I’m going to be so mad when Riverdale is the only TV show I carve out time to watch during the playoffs, and we end up finding out Jason Blossom’s estranged cousin killed him to get his hands into the maple syrup conglomerate or something. They need to pivot off of this storyline as soon as the season ends and direct us toward the bigger issues that will carry season two.

As a reminder, if you appreciate the content we produce, want to support RR, and have the means to do so, we’ve started a Patreon page at patreon.com/RaptorsRepublic. Any contribution is greatly appreciated and will help us continue to do what we do, and try to do even more.

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Raptors 905 vs. Maine Red Claws: Series Preview

Photo credit: MattAzevedo.com

In just their second season of existence, Raptors 905 are headed to the Eastern Conference Finals. For as large an accomplishment as this is, it’s almost an understatement. The 905 finished the 2016-17 season with the best record in the entire D-League and the second-best D-League record of all time. Naturally, then, they entered the playoffs as a favorite, at least to come out of the Eastern Conference. Not even losing Axel Toupane to a call-up mid-series could slow them in the first round, as they swept the Canton Charge 2-0 to win their first ever playoff series.

Things will get tougher from here. The D-League playoffs bring with it some threats, and unlike the NBA counterpart, there’s far less assurance that the best team will move on if not properly dialed in. Head coach Jerry Stackhouse has quickly earned a reputation for having his charges permanently locked in, and with a week off between series, it’s a safe bet that Stackhouse and staff had the 905 working hard to make up for the loss of not only Toupane, but Edy Tavares, as well.

The goal here is a championship. Standing in the way of the 905 next are the Maine Red Claws, the D-League affiliate of the Boston Celtics. Here’s a look at how the series sets up.

The Format: In an interesting D-League wrinkle, the team with home-court advantage hits the road for Game 1 of each series before returning home for Games 2 and 3. With a best-of-three format, the D-League’s aim is to minimize travel, and that presents an unusual playoff format that has players and coaches a little split. The 905, with the best road record in D-League history (21-4), are supremely confident heading into another team’s arena and taking a game. If they do, they’ve got two chances to close out at home. Lost that first game, though, and suddenly you find yourself desperate, backs against the wall before you’ve even enjoyed the spoils of your home-court advantage.

The Schedule, How to Watch, and a Ticker Discount!): The 905 open on the road Wednesday before returning home for games Saturday and, if necessary, next Tuesday.

Game 1: Raptors 905 @ Maine, Sunday, April 16, 5 p.m., ESPN/Facebook Live
Game 2: Maine @ Raptors 905, Wednesday, April 19, 7 p.m., ESPN/Facebook Live
Game 3*: Maine @ Raptors 905, Thursday, April 20, 7 p.m., Facebook Live
* – if necessary

Raptors Republic readers can use the promo code REPUBLIC905 for a discount on playoff tickets (if this link doesn’t work at any point, the code should still work at check out).

Season Series: The 905 and Red Claws met four times this season, with the road team taking each game. Here’s a brief look back at each outcome:

  • Nov. 26 (Mississauga): 100-91 loss. Jakob Poeltl grabs 15 rebounds in his first assignment. Recap.
  • Dec. 4 (Maine): 102-89 win. C.J. Leslie grabs 16 rebounds and dishes seven assists. Recap.
  • Dec. 29 (Mississauga): 80-69 loss. Edy Tavares has a 15-11 double-double. Recap.
  • Jan. 12 (Maine): 110-94 win. Abdel Nader goes off for 29 with five dimes. Recap.

The Tale of the Tape: The 905 nearly drew Fort Wayne here, which probably would have been a more difficult series in their post-Tavares reality. Maine was fairly mediocre during the course of the season and nearly choked away Game 3 after coughing up a huge lead in Game 2, but they’re a better team today than their numbers suggest thanks in part to the addition of Guerschon Yabusele. The 905 remain one of the league’s best teams by season-long metrics, but the reality is, they’ve lost two of their best overall players and their best two defensive players, full stop, plus they’re missing important rotation piece Will Sheehey. Basically, the 905 are going to have to get a bit grimy and lean on their depth here, even if they appear to have an edge in a lot of areas.

NBA Assignees: There’s going to be a fair amount of NBA content in this series, which should make for a more interesting matchup. NBA teams have the option to assign players to the D-League for the postseason, and there are good arguments in favor of doing so, even if it does take some opportunity away from full-time D-Leaguers or limit the NBA side early in the postseason. For the 905, it’s been a steady up-and-down of with six different assignees this year, while the Red Claws have seen somewhat less involvement. While the 905 have gotten 68 games from NBA players, the Red Claws had just 44. The Red Claws have had just as much success in terms of call-ups, though, graduating Marcus Georges-Hunt and Ryan Kelly to the nBA. For this series, each team figures to have two assignees, though the Raptors could send a third.

Demetrius Jackson, Celtics assignee: The Celtics’ second-round pick has only played 17 NBA minutes thanks to the team’s depth at the position, but the reasons they’re high on the Notre Dame product remain fairly clear. In 32 games, he’s averaged 14.8 points, six assists, and 1.3 steals, and while he hasn’t exactly shot the lights out or shown NBA range (despite an eager willingness to try). The Red Claws have actually been a shade better without him on the floor, but there’s probably some noise there. He’ll be a nice defensive foil for Brady Heslip while challenging him at the other end.

Jordan Mickey, Celtics assignee: The better of the two assignees, Mickey’s probably ready to graduate from the D-League. It’s his second season with significant time down there, and he’s proven too good for this level. In 12 games this year, he averaged 20.8 points on 51.5-percent shooting, knocked down 43.8 percent of a decent volume of threes, and averaged 8.8 rebounds and 2.8 blocks. He’s among the best rim protectors in the postseason and will be lurking any time the 905 drive. He also figures to be a major factor on the glass with Tavares out.

Bruno Caboclo, Raptors assignee: Caboclo is getting his first taste of real postseason experience since his days in Brazil, a nice learning experience. The 21-year-old is yet to really refine himself as a weapon at the offensive end of the floor, but he showed on Wednesday night that he’s making some progress. He’s also shooting 33.1 percent on 4.6 threes per-game with the 905, so Maine will at least have to be aware of his quick trigger. Defensively, Caboclo has made great progress. With a stronger build and improved awareness, Caboclo’s become a plus team defender and a quality check on the perimeter. He’s averaging more than a block and steal, and he’s gotten much better in help-and-recover scenarios and identifying opportunities to help the helper. He didn’t see a ton of time in the 905’s close-out game against Canton, but he should be a big factor in the frontcourt rotation with Tavares gone.

Pascal Siakam, Raptors assignee: Siakam has been dominant whenever he’s been assigned. After spending the first half of the season starting for a 50-win NBA team, perhaps that’s not surprising. But Siakam also spent a long stretch on the bench without much D-League timer, and so it’s been encouraging to see him hit the ground running as a two-way force at this level. In five games, he averaged a team-high 18.2 points, 8.6 rebounds, 2.6 assists, 2.2 steals, and 1.6 blocks, and he’s even hit 6-of-12 from long-range. It was a small sample of time, but he led a very good 905 team in PER, and the 905 outscored opponents by a team-best 24.8 points per-100 possessions with him on the floor. He was less impressive in two playoff games but had a fine showing with the parent club on Wednesday and should bounce back this weekend.

Fred VanVleet, not assigned: It’s unclear if VanVleet will be assigned now that Kyle Lowry is healthy, or if the Raptors will want to keep 13 healthy bodies on the playoff roster. Either would be justified, but the 905 getting VanVleet would allow them to move Heslip off the ball some, helping cover up for the losses of Toupane and Sheehey. In 16 games on assisgnment, VanVleet was incredibly steady, averaging 16.9 points, 3.5 rebounds, 7.6 assists, and 1.5 steals while hitting 40.7 percent of his threes.

Depth Charts and Key Non-Assignment Players: The Dancing Bear! The best shooter outside the NBA! Three players called up during the playoffs between the two teams! There is – or at least was – a ton of NBA-caliber talent here not on rosters.

Guerschon Yabusele, Red Claws: A first-round pick of the Celtics, “French Draymond” aka The Dancing Bear, the impetus for #YabuHive, is a treat to watch. He came over late in the year and only got into two regular season games with Maine, quickly dropping a 17-and-9 and then a 20-and-11. His three-game playoff series started out shaky but he quickly bounced back despite some occasional foul trouble, averaging 16.7 points on 57.1 percent shooting in the series while chipping in 6.7 rebounds and 2.7 assists. A heady player with a knack for smart cuts and nifty passes, Yabusele stands out for more than just his 260-pound frame.

Jalen Jones and Abdel Nader, Red Claws: I’m putting these two together in honor of D-League guru Chris Reichert calling them a “playmaking hydra” for the Red Claws. Both are probably deserving of NBA looks this summer, and Jones was getting some late-season sniffs from a few teams. Nader is averaging 21.3 points, 6.2 rebounds, and 3.9 assists while Jones chips in 21, nine, and 2.2, with each hitting a respectable mark from long-range. Yabusele is the player to watch and the assignment players are important, but Maine’s approach at both ends of the floor runs through the forward combo of Jones and Nader.

Marcus Georges-Hunt, Magic: A stalwart of the Red Claws for 45 games this year, Georges-Hunt drew the call-up from the Magic for the final 10 days of the regular season. An All-Star at mid-season, the 23-year-old rookie was averaging 15.8 points, 6.2 rebounds, and 4.5 assists for Maine while also knocking down 39.2 percent of his threes. Soaking up 36.4 minutes per-game, MGH is as big a loss for Maine as Axel Toupane is for the 905 (more on him in a second). And like with Toupane, Georges-Hunt isn’t expected to re-join the D-League postseason, even once the NBA season ends. But hey, this is great for him and the entire point of the D-League, and the fact that he’s already gotten into four NBA games is incredible for him.

Edy Tavares and Axel Toupane, Cavaliers/Pelicans: The 905 lost their two best players to call-ups, a major win for the organization but a huge loss for the 905’s title chances. Toupane was the team’s most versatile defensive piece and their go-to scoring option, while Tavares is a legitimate D-League Defensive Player of the Year candidate, their best screen-setter, and the provider of easy points around the rim. With Will Sheehey hurt, the 905 are thin on options to replace Toupane, and Negus Webster-Chan could find himself in the rotation. Tavares’ minutes will fall to Yanick Moreira as the starting center, but this suddenly becomes a massive C.J. Leslie series, too. Leslie has been excellent at times this year but has also been fairly inconsistent, and they’ll need him at his absolute best here.

Brady Heslip, 905: Only once in D-League history has a player drained more threes in a season than Heslip did this year. With the ball in his hands more as a point guard and a number of neat pet plays to get him clean looks (elevator doors, swoon), Heslip has a permanent green light and hasn’t been hesitant to use it. He’s hit 41.8 percent of his 9.1 (!) 3-point attempts per-game. His skills as a point guard have improved since the beginning of the season, too, and while Heslip still needs some help at the defensive end, he was able to post the second-best net rating among regulars (plus-14.6). In two playoff games, Heslip came off the bench firing, scoring 36 points and hitting eight threes in 58 minutes. He’ll be the team’s go-to offensive piece now that Toupane’s gone.

Prediction: 905 in 3.

Looking Ahead: Out West, the Rio Grande Valley Vipers and Oklahoma City Blue open their conference finals series on Thursday. The 905 would visit the winner for Game 1 of the finals before returning home to Mississauga for Games 2 and 3 some time before April 27, if they get past Maine.

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Raptors, Leafs announce round one schedule for Jurassic Park

Now that the Toronto Raptors and Toronto Maple Leafs both know their first-round playoff schedules, MLSE has been able to put together a proper schedule for fans at Jurassic Park/Maple Leaf Square/Whatever We Call It.

The schedule is as follows:

Of note here, obviously, is that the Raptors and Leafs got away with just one schedule conflict, and it comes for Game 1 on Saturday. As MLSE had laid out prior, the home team takes priority in these situations, so the Square will be for the Raptors game until its conclusion, then switch over to Leafs. Makes sense to me.

Hope everyone has a great time at these events. Please do so responsibly and respectfully and, most important, loudly. Let’s leave no question who the loudest fan base in the city belongs to.

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Brady Heslip is doing more than just shoot

Photo credit: MattAzevedo.com.

Brady Heslip’s game plan coming into the 2016-17 season was straightforward — become recognized as a point guard.

His proficiency when squaring up, elevating, and hoisting a ball into a basket, for better or worse, has built the reputation of a basketball marksman — someone with the opposition-deflating ability to get buckets. The Toronto Raptors were willing to see if he could offer more.

“That (playmaking) was the whole point of the year and why I went to training camp with the Raptors,” Heslip said in the locker room before Game 2 of Raptors 905’s first-round playoff series against Canton on Saturday. “It’s something that no one else has really given me a chance to do. Everybody wants me to be a shooter.”

It’s easy to see where “everybody” was coming from. Even this past season, Heslip finished with 182 three-pointers in 48 games. It was the most makes in the D-League and the second-most ever, coming at the fourth-most efficient rate (41.9 percent) among those that attempted at least 200 shots from beyond the arc. He was even better in his last tour of the D-League, knocking down 44.3 percent of nearly 13 attempts per-game. He’s maybe the best shooter in the world not in the NBA.

Usually, the talk about Heslip would stop there. But this season has been different. He’s had 10 games with at least five assists this season, including a pair of nine-assist games. Factor in that Heslip has had to juggle a starter and bench role throughout the season due to the riches of the Raptors franchise at the point guard position, it’s evident that he’s made strides.

When Heslip checked into the 905’s first-ever home playoff game in front of a thunder-stick laden crowd of 4,300, his team had already put their stamp on the game by taking a 26-6 lead with about four minutes remaining in the first quarter. The Heslip of old may have seen this as an opportunity to get his, but instead, he gently tucked in his No.4 jersey and went ahead and did what he’s been focused on all season: Playmaking.

As he dribbled the ball with his right hand after receiving the inbounds, he lifted his left with four fingers raised and promptly handed the ball off to Antwaine Wiggins coming off a curl from the left elbow. There was some two-man game between Wiggins and Pascal Siakam at the right elbow before the play took shape with a post-up for Siakam on the right block. Siakam was quick to recognize the second defender that over-helped, and kicked the ball back out to Wiggins for an open three. While Heslip didn’t get credited with the assist, the play was executed to perfection. These things are subtle. Most things a point guard does are.

There’s more to running point than just calling plays and directing traffic. The point guard is often looked upon as an extension of the coach on the floor, and that leadership needs to carry over off it as well.

“I try to be a leader everyday, in every practice, every game for this team,” Heslip said. “Axel (Toupane) is gone — we’re all happy for him and that’s our brother, he belongs there. We’re down a man but we’ve got to pick each other up and we’re just going to fight just as hard.”

With Toupane deservedly getting called up by the New Orleans Pelicans, Heslip is now the team’s leading scorer and ranks second in assists. Edy Tavares has also become the latest addition to the Cleveland Cavaliers, meaning the 905 are now without their two best players, and needing to lean on Heslip even more.

It’s a role Heslip is experienced in and comfortable with, courtesy of his time in Bosnia in 2015. He signed with Igokea, where he averaged 18.3 points per game in the Bosnian League, and 23.7 point per game in the Adriatic League. He also went on to become the Bosnian Cup Grand Final MVP. The atmosphere he experiences in Europe will likely be more intense than anything he experiences this postseason, with fans there prepared to voice their displeasure in a manner much more divisive than a smattering of boos.

“It helps because I’ve played a lot before with a lot on the line and, you know, over there in Europe there’s a lot of pressure in the playoffs,” he said. “The managers and the team expect you to do well. So being able to win the championship there allows me to just stay calm and treat this game like any other.”

It appears that everything is starting to come together for the 26-year-old Heslip, and that his experiences of the past can genuinely be looked upon as the formative years of who he is now. Gone are the days of worrying about when his number will get called or his final tally on the box score. He’s back competing for a championship like he once did, but doing it in a different way.

“This year, more than any, I didn’t look too much at the stats,” he said. “I just feel like from the beginning of the year till now, I’ve grown so much as a player — as a point guard, just showing a lot of people I can run a team. There’s other great point guards in this league, but none of them have as good a record as we did.”

The 905 have had two players recently rewarded with call-ups to the main stage for winning, and with Heslip now in the spotlight, he could very well be next.

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11 things to know about Raptors vs. Bucks

My son William Lou is a good boy. He wrote a very good preview of Raptors-Bucks, highlighting 11 things you need to know for the series. You should go read it on Will’s Medium page.

Here’s an excerpt:

2. A brief history of time

Let’s take a quick history of this young Bucks team.

Everything came together in 2014 when Jason Kidd settled in Milwaukee by way of a failed ultimatum in Brooklyn (threatening a Russians tycoon was a bold decision). Kidd instilled his signature smallball principles with the team, thus putting Giannis Antetokounmpo on the path to superstardom, while the team learned to play a swarming style of defense. They were fun early in the season, but couldn’t pass up the chance to swap Brandon Knight for Michael Carter-Williams (Kidd loves those point guards who resemble himself in the slightest). This derailed their offense and a decidedly average Bucks team lost to the Bulls in six games. Shoutout to Giannis for bodying Mike Dunleavy in that series — he did that shit for the culture.

2015 was was miscalculation for the Bucks. They made the classic small franchise mistake by spending too much money on a free agent that didn’t quite fit in Greg Monroe. Accommodating a plodder like Monroe detracted from the Bucks’ greatest strength (athleticism) and their other acquisitions also flopped. Swapping a disgruntled Greivis Vasquez for the cap space to sign Cory Joseph, a future 1st (that became Serge Ibaka) and a second-round pick that was Norman Powell is one of Masai Ujiri’s best moves. Bucks struggled all season to find their identity and honestly, having O.J. Mayo as the veteran voice in their locker room was a stupid idea.

Milwaukee rectified most of their mistakes this season. They went back to playing an open court game with their wealth of athletes. However, their season went sideways in training camp as Khris Middleton tore his left hamstring (gross). This left the Bucks short on outside shooting, especially since giving $38 million to Matthew Dellavedova turned out to be a flop (learn from your mistakes, small market teams!).

Losing Jabari Parker to a second ACL tear looked to be the finishing blow. However, Middleton returned ahead of schedule to essentially take Parker’s spot in the lineup, and quite frankly they fit better in this arrangement. Parker is fantastically talented (he really is a poor man’s Carmelo Anthony) but he needs the ball in his hands to thrive. Losing Parker meant more of point Giannis, more of Malcolm Brogdon, while Middleton provided better spacing and wildly superior defense.

Milwaukee went 17–10 after the All-Star break for the fifth-best record in the league (Raptors were fourth at 17–7). However, this is a bit misleading since the Bucks’ net rating was minus-0.2, which translates to a .500 team. Credit the Bucks for getting those wins, but some measure of luck positively influenced their results.

Will’s the best.

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Powell and Caboclo lead Raptors to victory in season finale

Raptors 98, Cavaliers 83 | Box Score | Quick Reaction | Reaction Podcast

For all intents and purposes, Wednesday’s game between the Toronto Raptors and Cleveland Cavaliers didn’t mean much.

The Raptors entered locked into the third seed with the Milwaukee Bucks as an opponent. While they had talked up trying to find some more chemistry and get more repetitions in now that Kyle Lowry was back and had yet to play much with the team’s new additions (the presumed starting lineup has only played 40 ineffective minutes together), the human body took that experiment out of their hands – DeMar DeRozan was dealing with an illness for several days and the team made the correct call to let him sit this one out. Serge Ibaka followed suit, and while it was a course-correction after head coach Dwane Casey said Tuesday that everyone would play, it was hardly egregious to change plans once DeRozan was ruled out. Short of getting to play their main rotation together a bit more, the Raptors didn’t have much to accomplish here. Come in, get some reps in, get a sweat going, and leave healthy.

The Cavaliers took an even more aggressive approach to calling this game a farce, sitting LeBron James, Kyrie Irving, Kevin Love, and Kay Felder, only the latter of whom is actually injured. Cleveland actually had something to lose here, with the top seed in the Eastern Conference still up for grabs, but after collapsing twice against the Atlanta Hawks twice last week and taxing their players with far too heavy a load in those games, they opted to fold up their pursuit of the top spot here. It’s justifiable, to be sure. The science backs the rest strategy up, and the Cavs are confident enough to be unconcerned with home court in the Eastern Conference Finals if they wind up meeting the Boston Celtics. It’s only a little strange because they went all-out for it until the final two games.

That put Toronto in an interesting position, albeit an uncertain one. Losing to the Cavs would keep the chance of the Cavs taking the one-seed alive (if the Celtics lost to a resting Bucks team), a worthwhile end because it would mean the Raptors, if all goes well, wouldn’t have to see Cleveland until the third round. But losing intentionally, or at least not trying to win, comes with some costs: It means no reps for Lowry, who’s only been back for three games; It means no shots for DeMarre Carroll and Patrick Patterson, who are rhythm players; It means no touches for Jonas Valanciunas, who is riding some momentum as he looks to once again become “Playoff J.V.;” And it means putting young players out there for extended stretches with the idea in the back of their heads that losing is the end goal, which is probably not the best idea from a culture standpoint, even for a night.

The Raptors could have made that decision with more certainty and been justified in doing so. But there was also the issue of potentially not being able to out-tank a Cavaliers team playing a pair of players who literally just signed earlier in the day and a cast of veterans just trying to keep their calves in shape for capris season. And there was the issue that Boston would win anyway, and the Raptors would have sacrificed those reps and chance at positive development for nothing. If they were being honest, Casey and company would probably admit that they didn’t want to send the message to their team that they can be looking ahead past the first round, too.

And so they went ahead and treated it like half a game, resting two starters, playing Lowry and Valanciunas only for the first half, and turning things over to Raptors 905 for the bulk of the second half. Lowry hit a three, attacked the rim, and made some quality passes to teammates. Valanciunas made some iffy plays early but bullied his way to 13-and-7 in 15 minutes. Patrick Patterson knocked down a three. They came in, got some reps in, got a sweat going, and left healthy.

From there, the result was a messy, mostly meaningless game from which only a few things can really be taken. With neither side really going all-out, there’s not a lot of great information to be gleaned, and any positives come with qualifiers. There was also just a lot of straight-up weirdness, like Valanciunas delivering on his long-held promise to hit a three in a game, or the game at one point including six 905 alum on the floor at once (five Raptors and Edy Tavares, who the Cavaliers scooped up earlier in the day to further hurt Jerry Stackhouse’s title chances). If nothing else, this game was a pretty nice affirmation for the 905 system, with Tavares looking great in his 24 minutes with  six points, 10 rebounds, and six blocks, Delon Wright continuing to make a push for playoff minutes, Norman Powell coming back to life with a massive 25-point outburst (he really seems to love these kind of games), Pascal Siakam looking much better than before his assignment, and Bruno Caboclo getting to show off a little bit of his off-radar improvement from this season.

The positive here is that the Raptors’ young bench squad proved incapable of blowing what was at one point was a 21-point lead. It got trimmed, but they heald steady in keeping it to 15 at the final buzzer, and nobody left with a plus-minus of worse than minus-5 (poor Lucas Nogueira). The Twitter feed was blowing up with anger that the Raptors weren’t intentionally or accidentally blowing the game, but when zoomed out a bit, this was mostly a positive evening. The Cavs were in tank mode, too, but they were playing a hungry and effective Tavares and a few veterans who could at least test the young Raptors. There were good signs, caveats aside, and there’s not much choice but to take them as such. If nothing else, appreciate what Caboclo showed here. He looked really solid at both ends,  scoring a career-high 11 points and showing the improved instincts as a defender we’ve been trumpeting in the 905 coverage on this site. Seriously. Caboclo looked like a borderline NBA player, and even if it’s garbage time against an opponent tanking, well, what else are you expecting from a game like this? Take the positives Caboclo provided. There were plenty. He was downright good. It was fun.

And after all the hand-wringing, the Celtics won anyway, and the Raptors blowing this thing intentionally would have been for naught. Not that Powell ever would have let the Raptors lose this, anyway. Again, this was mostly meaningless and there isn’t a lot to be taken from it. The Raptors got out healthy, finished the season with a fine 51-31 record (with a net rating that suggests a higher expected win total and one of the highest value lost to injury ratings in the league), and didn’t damage their playoff chances in any way whatsoever. It’s exactly what they were likely hoping for from a game like this.

And Bruno!

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Raptors-Cavaliers Reaction Podcast – Bruno sets career high

Host William Lou breaks down a totally meaningless game against the Cleveland Cavaliers.

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Raptors-Bucks schedule released with 5:30 Saturday start; Raptors 905-Maine schedule, too

For the fourth season in a row, the Toronto Raptors are in the playoffs. For the first time in that stretch, they will not play the early game on the opening day of the postseason. The respect, it comes in enormous, swathing waves, hugging the franchise like only so many Atlantic Division banners could in the past. There’s actually not even a 12:30 Saturday slot as usual – the Cleveland Cavaliers and Indiana Pacers will start us off at 3 p.m. Saturday on ABC.

The Eastern Conference’s 3-6 matchup will see the Raptors host the Milwaukee Bucks at the Air Canada Centre on Saturday at 5:30. The full schedule for the series is as follows, and Canadian broadcast information should be available in the coming days:

Game 1: Milwaukee @ Toronto, Saturday, April 15, 5:30 p.m. ET, ESPN
Game 2: Milwaukee @ Toronto, Tuesday, April 18, 7 p.m. ET, NBA TV
Game 3: Toronto @ Milwaukee, Thursday, April 20, 8 p.m. ET, NBA TV
Game 4: Toronto @ Milwaukee, Saturday, April 22, 3 p.m. ET, TNT
Game 5*: Milwaukee @ Toronto, Monday, April 24, 7 p.m. ET, NBA TV
Game 6*: Toronto @ Milwaukee, Thursday, April 27, TBD, TBD
Game 7*: Milwaukee @ Toronto, Saturday, April 29, TBD, TNT
* – if necessary


I’m seeing some people complain about the Game 1 start time on Twitter, and I really don’t get it. Three years in a row, the Raptors have been given the earliest possible slot, and the fanbase cried disrespect. It made sense, even if I think some of the reasoning for the early start times was actually a nod of appreciation and trust to the Air Canada Centre and Jurassic Park for being the liveliest crowd regardless of time of day (the team disagrees with my assessment). Now, the Raptors are getting the second-latest start time of any East series (Boston-Chicago starts at 6:30 on Sunday), they’re getting the opening day nod, and they’re playing in a better spot than even the Cavaliers (at least, based on how people have reacted to the schedule in the past) and Hawks-Wizards (1 p.m. Sunday). Yes, the league ditched the 12:30 Saturday start time altogether, but the Raptors still got a better shake than they could have.

There’s overlap with Game 2 of the Toronto Maple Leags and Washington Capitals (Jurassic Park will belong to the Raptors that night, by the way), but there’s only so much that can be done when three pro teams share an arena, and surely fans would have complained about an overlap with the Toronto Blue Jays were the game earlier or Toronto FC if it were later. Really, we should all be thankful there’s so much going on right now to split our attention, and recognize that a nice, perfect schedule isn’t a realistic ask of the respective leagues.

Maybe I’m just being too positive. I was, after all, one of the only people who liked the 12:30 starts anyway (and thought in year four it should actually be an advantage). And who am I to tell you what to be mad about? But I think this is a nice development, a nice recognition of the Raptors having had to play at an odd-ball time three years in a row, and as good a time as any to start a fourth consecutive playoffs. Giddy up.

The Raptors, by the way, drew into Cleveland’s side of the bracket, so it will be the Cavaliers waiting in round two if the Raptors make it past the Bucks.

Raptors 905 also received their schedule for the Eastern Conference Finals opposite the Maine Red Claws (who beat Fort Wayne on Wednesday to win the series 2-1), which is as follows:

Game 1: Raptors 905 @ Maine, Sunday, April 16, 5 p.m., ESPN/Facebook Live
Game 2: Maine @ Raptors 905, Wednesday, April 19, 7 p.m., ESPN/Facebook Live
Game 3*: Maine @ Raptors 905, Thursday, April 20, 7 p.m., Facebook Live
* – if necessary

We’ll have a full preview of the 905-Maine series tomorrow, and our preview content for Raptors-Bucks will roll out over the next couple of days.

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Raptors will pick 23rd-25th in 2017 NBA Draft

While all of the focus is quite rightly going toward the Toronto Raptors’ first-round playoff series against the Milwaukee Bucks, the Raptors got a small bit of clarity on their longer-term future on Wednesday. With the NBA regular season now concluded (thanks, finally, Clippers), the Raptors have some idea where they’ll be picking in the 2017 NBA Draft on June 22.

Here’s a look at how the top of the league-wide standings finished:

  • 1-4 – GS (67-15), SA (61-21), Hou (55-27), Bos (53-29)
  • 5-8 – Cle, Tor, Uta, LAC (51-31)
  • 9 – Was (49-33)

So the Raptors in a four-way tie at 51-31, which means they should pick somewhere between 23 and 26 depending on how tiebreakers work out.

Where the Raptors pick wasn’t as simple as where they finished in the standings, though. Two years ago, the Raptors dealt Greivis Vasquez to the Milwaukee Bucks for the second-round pick that would become Norman Powell and a future first-round pick from the Los Angeles Clippers. A week before the trade deadline this year, the Raptors packaged a first-round pick with Terrence Ross to acquire Serge Ibaka from the Orlando Magic. But the Raptors didn’t package a specific pick – they’re sending the less favorable of their two first-round picks (their own or L.A.’s) to the Magic.

That means that the Raptors are insulated from ending up at the back end of the four-way tiebreaker. Because Toronto would just pick the other pick if one landed at 26, the Raptors can’t pick lower than 25th. Their pick, then, could be as high as 23 or as low as 25, with 23rd their most likely landing spot.

The NBA won’t decide the tiebreakers for a few days, which they’ll do by random draw.

Here are the names currently being mocked in the 20-30 range by DraftExpress: Ivan Rabb, Isaiah Hartenstein, Rodions Kurucs, T.J. Leaf, Tyler Lydon, Harry Giles, Luke Kennard, Jawun Evans, Semi Ojeleye, Caleb Swanigan, Anzejs Pasecniks. It’s a little early to be looking at the mocks, without the benefit of the Portsmouth, the Combine, or the pre-draft workout process and with the focus on the playoffs, but hey, people love this stuff. Dream away.

(I realize this post isn’t particularly useful as of yet without the tiebreaker, but I had it prepped and the games just happened to turn out where we had way less clarity than we potentially could have. Shrug.)

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Quick Reaction: Raptors 98, Cavaliers 83

Toronto 98 Final
Box Score
83 Cleveland

C
D. Carroll16 MIN, 2 PTS, 6 REB, 1 AST, 0 STL, 1-5 FG, 0-3 3FG, 0-0 FT, 0 BLK, 1 TO, 2 +/-

Couldn’t hit a three but did hit the boards.

B
P. Patterson15 MIN, 3 PTS, 1 REB, 0 AST, 2 STL, 1-1 FG, 1-1 3FG, 0-0 FT, 0 BLK, 0 TO, 2 +/-

Hard to do much in 15 minutes of action in a meaningless game.

A+
J. Valanciunas15 MIN, 13 PTS, 7 REB, 1 AST, 1 STL, 6-10 FG, 1-1 3FG, 0-0 FT, 0 BLK, 1 TO, 15 +/-

Mans hit a three. How could I give him anything else. Offence leaned on him heavily in the first quarter and he was very good. He played loose, and maybe that’s something that can help him going forward.

A+
N. Powell34 MIN, 25 PTS, 2 REB, 2 AST, 1 STL, 10-13 FG, 3-5 3FG, 2-2 FT, 0 BLK, 0 TO, 6 +/-

Was sensational getting to the rack and shot his threes with confidence. Didn’t have a turnover either. Great night to show Casey he’s ready to contribute in the playoffs.