Pre-Game

Gameday: Raptors @ Bucks, Game 4, April 22

I don’t think it can be worse. And if it is, hey, at least YOU can tune out.

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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