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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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