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Game 5 Mailbag: Bucks adjustments, Cavaliers look-ahead, and more

28 mins read

Well, this is going to be weird. An #RRMailbag when things are going OK? I said I’d do them when there are two days off between games, and I’m interested to see the change in tone between today and the post-Game 3 edition. 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 how long they take to put together. 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.

Raptors-Bucks

There’s a strong logic that the Bucks’ defense is one that can be learned or “figured out” over the course of the series. They don’t change their coverages much, and seeing the same traps and blitzes again and again should theoretically improve one’s ability to read them. The gaps that are created by that aggression should be easier to identify, role players should get more comfortable attacking them, and the comfort level should increase. I definitely think that was a part of what was happening in Game 5 (I wrote more about it at The Athletic today).

Sustaining that into Game 6, though, requires three things: The Bucks to stay the course (they probably will – Jason Kidd doesn’t tweak the base defense much), the Raptors being as willing to pass the ball again (not a given – they went away from it in Game 3 after having success in Game 2), and a combination of the Bucks defending better and the Raptors not shooting as well still not breaking the Raptors’ commitment to it (basically, the Bucks are so long and talented that even with experience, the Raptors could regress to their old selves).

Defensively, I think the plan is working more to form and probably won’t change a lot. The Bucks are going to try to get Giannis Antetokounmpo the ball on the move, they’ll hunt for Khris Middleton mismatches, and they’ll probably look to feature Greg Monroe a bit more. Making buckets has helped slow the transition game down a bit (non-Antetokounmpo category), and the half-court defense has been pretty solid all series (the Bucks are averaging just 0.96 points per-possession after makes or dead balls, third-worst in the postseason). I have a lot more faith in the defense keeping up than the offense.

There are a few answers to this question, and none of them are really satisfying.

The big one is that the Raptors employ Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, two of the best players in the entire league at creating points driving to the rim. The Raptors, as a result, are consistently among the league’s best scoring teams on drives and in isolation, and against most opponents, they can get away with that strategy. You build an offense around your personnel in most cases, and the Raptors built theirs around those two guards, then built the rest of the roster around those pieces, so there’s a ceiling on just how much they can change course as a matter of full-time system. They can be something close to Monday, though, and they’ve shown it for brief instances this year.

The rest of the answer is some mixture of 3-point shots being high-variance, the Raptors getting scared off of passing when those threes aren’t falling, and the fact that opponents are also trying really hard to stop you. If all else fails, the Raptors are going to trust their elite shot-makers.

The issue here will be that Milwaukee can keep that decision quiet until close to tip-off, and the Raptors would have to adjust at the first whistle. I also don’t think the Bucks are going to make that change, because I think they’d fear the Raptors running the ball at Monroe ad nauseam out of the gate.

If they do, though, yes, I’d try my best to tether Jonas Valanciunas’ minutes to Monroe’s, calling on him pretty quickly. Serge Ibaka should be able to defend Monroe better than he has, but it’s about maximizing the team’s 48 minutes, and Valanciunas has played Monroe something close to even when they’re on the floor together (and hasn’t played all that well against Thon Maker, Game 5’s big dunk aside). If Valanciunas isn’t matched up with Monroe, you’re either looking at suboptimal Valanciunas minutes or extending Ibaka to thin as a full-time center (or playing an extra big, which they don’t want to do). Monroe’s turned in a heck of a series and is, in my mind, a really underrated talent, and as much as he doesn’t seem like the type of guy you should have to rework your rotation around, lining him up with Valanciunas is just a natural chess move, whatever time of game it comes.

The far bigger concern for me, and I’ll write about this tomorrow, is the Bucks going with Antetokounmpo at center.

Looking ahead, short-term

Would you look at the confidence in this fan base! In the Game 3 mailbag, we were talking about scenarios in which the team loses and blows everything up. And now we’re taking aim at the Cavaliers! Giddy up. A note before all that follows: The Raptors still have to win the Bucks series. I’m just answering the questions I receive, as always.

As for rotations, I think the Raptors would play small a slot, but not out of the gate. Valanciunas basically has to start opposite Tristan Thompson and play that something close to a draw, because Valanciunas can’t really be trusted defensively when the Cavaliers take Thompson out. There’s no Timofey Mozgov any longer, and so those non-Thompson minutes come against Kevin Love, Channing Frye, or even LeBron James at the five. You can live like that for a couple of minutes by cross-matching and trying to stick Valanciunas on a wing (Iman Shumpert) or by taking it to Frye at the other end, but a big reason they acquired Ibaka was for that defensive versatility in this exact matchup.

So I think the Raptors would revert to their initial starting lineup, DeMarre Carroll’s leash would probably shorten with P.J. Tucker behind him, and Norman Powell would slide back into a reserve role (he’s been great, but the Raptors won’t want to put him on the much larger James much, and he’s their best option chasing Kyle Korver around). Patrick Patterson’s role would also figure to expand, because he’s one of their best options on James and Love. You’d see a lot of Patterson-Ibaka or Tucker-Ibaka (or even all three) frontcourts, and the offense would tilt back some to Lowry and DeRozan trying to get theirs against lesser defenders (with the Cavaliers helping aggressively off of any non-shooter).

It’s an interesting spot where I think the Raptors would actually expand the rotation to a consistent nine rather than tightening it up, because the Cavaliers are exhausting and you need even more bodies for James than you do Antetokounmpo.

https://twitter.com/YoungGrowin/status/857247236459253760

It’s possible, but as outlined above, it would be really tough to play Valanciunas off the bench against the Cavaliers unless he’s just going to go to work against Frye. Powell’s value in this series also comes against Korver, who comes off the bench for Cleveland. Unless you’re resigned to a small Valanciunas role and maybe some minutes with Patterson at center, I don’t think you start small.

As for the doubles on DeRozan, they’re definitely going to help J.R. Smith and Shumpert out, and James will draw that assignment in crunch time, but they don’t have the personnel to trap and recover like the Bucks, especially if Thompson isn’t on the floor (he’s also their only rim protector, so they may not want to pull him away anyway). I think you’ll see a lot of free switching on DeRozan so long as it’s not Kyrie Irving he’s seeking out, and they’ll freely ignore any non-shooter to help, but I’d be surprised if Cleveland is nearly as aggressive as Milwaukee.

It’s big. The players have talked up getting a physical rest with three days off instead of one, and considering some guys are banged up (including Lowry), that’s big. From a gameplan perspective, two extra days of mental preparation wouldn’t hurt either, even if the Raptors do already know this Cavs team pretty well (they’ve played 14 times in the last two seasons). James presents an impossible matchup, and extra film session to be reminded of how the extra attention he commands opens things up around the floor would be invaluable. The Raptors also haven’t seen a lot of James at the five or of Korver as a Cavalier in general, and they still need to figure out The Melted Faced God.

https://twitter.com/KoenSwinkels/status/857210992555675648

The final boss in the Raptor Killer video game, The Melted Faced God is unstoppable when playing against Toronto. For his career, he’s shot 43.6 percent on threes against Toronto, good for a 59.1 true-shooting percentage and 10.4 points in 23.1 minutes. As a Cavalier, he’s a ridiculous 23-of-41 from long-range against Toronto, and he has never once shot below 40 percent on threes in a game against them. Ibaka should help the defensive flexibility in that matchup, but I’m fully confident the Raptors could quadruple-team Frye and he’d have a 10-of-10 game in him in round two.

Looking ahead, long-term

I’m not really a big fan of player comparisons, but the one for Powell that has always stuck with me is one former 905 coach Jesse Mermuys gave him: “Tony Allen with a jump-shot.”

Now, obviously Powell’s shown a lot more flash offensively than just that, but that’s really high praise. Allen is “FIRST TEAM ALL-DEFENSE,” as you’re surely aware, and that speaks to Powell’s potential on that end  when dialled in. He slipped a little in the second half of this season, by his own admission, but seems to have it back against Middleton in this series. Offensively, he needs to continue to improve as a playmaker when attacking, but you’re already seeing what he can do with a head of steam as a tertiary option.

I’m hesitant to put a player comp on it beyond Mermuys’ comments, but I think, ceiling wise, he can definitely reach starter status and maybe develop into a team’s No. 3. The lesson I’ve learned from watching DeRozan grow over the years and getting to know Powell, though, is that you shouldn’t really put a ceiling on what guys who work this hard can do.

I really have no idea what the Raptors would do if they won a championship, or any Toronto team for that matter. I haven’t been in the city for a Toronto championship before, and I was too young to really remember what the Blue Jays did. I think the Raptors would probably try to hit a larger part of the city and maybe do something north-south, but I don’t know what. How long do these things normally go? Could they just do it along Lakeshore? Help me out here, people.

If the 905 win the championship, I think they should parade from Hershey Centre to Air Canada Centre to symbolize The Road To The 6ix, then circle back and stop at Shondra’s.

The Raptors have to lose to the Bucks.

I don’t mean to be facetious, but Bruno Caboclo still isn’t close enough where the Raptors could safely pencil him in for meaningful minutes next year. He’s getting pretty close to being there defensively but still has a ways to go on offense, and the net result would probably see opponents load up off of him on one end and then really test him out at the other end. He can be a defensive difference-maker in the not-too-distant future, but he’s probably more likely to be in a 12th-13th man role next year. Barring disaster, the Raptors figure to be very competitive again, and they’ll want a full contingent of forwards around (plus, Caboclo is probably going to have to compete with Pascal Siakam for those minutes, and he’s behind).

Keep in mind he’s still among the two dozen youngest players in the NBA, and the fact that he’s been on the roster for three years confuses his development time some (especially since his rookie year was basically him learning English and watching basketball). He’s still exceptionally young. The two-years-away joke has exhausted me, but that draft-night analysis was actually pretty accurate as to the Raptors’ plans.

This is a very interesting question facing the Raptors this offseason. They’ve already picked up Caboclo’s option for 2017-18, but they also have a window until Oct. 31 to extend him. The ‘yes or no’ of that decision is going to hinge a lot on how Caboclo develops this summer and looks next training camp. Then the ‘how long’ and ‘how much’ questions are even more interesting. Will Caboclo be ready to contribute by the end of next year? Is his ceiling high enough to continue the investment when higher floors exist at similar prices? What direction is the team headed in over the next few years? Was there a hand-shake agreement that Caboclo would take a very reasonable salary on his next deal? Is there actually a risk of another team signing him to an offer sheet the following summer? If so, is the cost and risk of locking him up now worth avoiding his price being bid up later?

These questions are always difficult with players coming off their rookie deals, but Caboclo is a supremely unique case. Given the defensive potential, I actually think I’d extend him if he’s willing to do so at something close to the end-of-roster salary he’s been getting as a late first-round pick. I might be crazy, though.

I’ve written about this one before, and it’s not fair to answer assuming this, but I’d lean Tucker because he’s likely to be cheaper. Tucker seems far more likely, at a more advanced age and without much NBA playoff experience, to sign a reasonable deal to stay with a contender. Patterson is younger, probably has another deal after this one, and should be set to make more on the open market, even if his market value has probably decreased a fair amount since January. To be clear, Patterson might be a better fitting piece if the Raptors are going to shop Valanciunas and retain Ibaka, and Tucker could be a bit redundant on the wing if Carroll stays and Powell continues to develop. But they’ll probably be stuck choosing one or the other, and since they could be similarly valuable moving forward (in different ways), the cheaper option makes sense in a luxury tax crunch. I’d see the argument for either side, though, especially since Patterson’s shooting is scarce on the roster and expensive to replace on the market.

This is another one I’ve answered a bunch. I do think Cory Joseph is a potential trade candidate this offseason as the Raptors look to duck a big luxury tax hit. The organization really likes Joseph as a person and a player, and dealing him is something they’d surely like to avoid unless absolute necessary, but there’s a clear succession plan if Lowry is retained and Joseph were to leave. Delon Wright is ready for NBA backup minutes now, and Fred VanVleet has looked capable of handling third point guard duties, if not more. Plus, both of those players are very inexpensive, which is a great tool for balancing out the salary sheet when you might be about to invest heavily in your top point guard. (Not to mention, Joseph holds a player option and can hit the market after next year.)

There are other options, though, including unloading Valanciunas or Carroll. I think those moves would make more sense in the big picture, even if they’re at thinner positions, because the financial impact is much more pronounced. But you may have to pay a team to take Carroll’s deal, Valanciunas may have a limited market, and Joseph’s the one piece of the three who might be able to bring back assets without a salary cost attached. These are big questions that hinge not only on Game 6 against the Bucks, but the Cavs series, the free agent decisions of Lowry, Ibaka, Tucker, and Patterson, and some bigger-picture thinking for the front office. It’s nice to have some options, but letting players go just to save money is always tough to swallow.

Miscellaneous

It’s pretty similar to earlier years. The Raptors had an exceptionally long first round last year, starting on the first day possible and ending on the last day possible, and that’s on the table again here (although it wouldn’t extend 17 days). The NBA schedules the rounds fairly similarly year-to-year, so while it may change for one team in terms of cadence or off days, in the larger sense they’re usually fairly similar, save for some tweaks as markets dictate and the league learns.

Monster energy drinks.

(In all seriousness, I sleep very little during the playoffs, especially with 905 going, but I love the challenge of this time of year. Having so much to do, so many angles to cover, going full-bore for weeks at a time. I really enjoy being in a chaotic environment like that, and I’m perfectly OK stretching myself as thin as I do. The regular season can get a bit rote by the end, and I love how the playoffs push me to work harder and do better with more eyeballs on the work and more to do. The gym and healthy eating suffer, though, which sucks. And I definitely drink too much caffeine.)

Braun Strowman is the best anything in the WWE right now. He’s amazing. They’ve built him so well, and his character, while simple, is so pure. He thinks he’s the best, he has no time for anyone who he feels is inferior, and he wants to destroy anyone who anybody thinks might be superior. There is no good and evil, only destruction, and he’s only a heel because he thinks he’s better than your babyface. It’s been a really fun couple of months for the man who just wants to lift weights and eat steaks.

The obvious answer for Raptor in the WWE is Jonas Valanciunas. A 7-footer from Europe? They’d probably make him pretend to be Russian instead of Lithuanian (Ivan Koloff was French-Canadian), but he’d be a big draw as an evil foreign villain, and he has the dry comedy chops to eventually make a babyface turn.

Watch your language. But I have no idea. I know Coachella conflicted with Game 1 and he has a life outside of the Raptors and doesn’t live in the city full-time, but I’d hope he comes through for the Cavaliers series. This is all making his impending free agency as global ambassador seem like a much bigger deal than it was previously.

My best guess? He’s hiding out because he killed Jason Blossom.

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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