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.)
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.