It was a sweep at the hands of the Cleveland Cavaliers that led Masai Ujiri to say the Toronto Raptors needed a culture reset. Before that series, though, it was some offensive struggles against the Milwaukee Bucks that suggested in no uncertain terms that the Raptors needed to grow more versatile offensively. Where Cleveland laid plain that the Raptors would simply have to shoot more threes to keep up, the Bucks highlighted the need to empower players other than Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan to create offense.
That the Raptors have struggled to produce offense in the postseason is no secret. What stood out against Milwaukee was how incapable the non-stars seemed of taking advantage of heavy attention and an unbalanced floor underneath high pick-and-rolls, which has been a key focus of the culture shift on the offensive end this year.
The changes have mostly gone well, with the Raptors shooting more threes, playing faster, assisting on more baskets, and relying a little less on their stars. They haven’t been tested a ton against elite teams yet, and while Milwaukee isn’t that – nor are they a quality defense, ranking 22nd despite a ton of obvious talent and a consistent length advantage – they are precisely the type of defense the Raptors hope their changes helps them out against. On top of Giannis Antetokounmpo being a human litmus test for team defenses, the Bucks visiting the Air Canada Centre on Monday should give the Raptors a lot of helpful information about where they are on the re-development curve.
The game tips off at 7:30 on Sportsnet One and TSN 1050.
Blake Murphy: Mitchell, I miss ya, man. Was a lot of fun going back and forth with the Bucks crew in the playoffs last year. That said, I really, really hope we don’t have to do it again this spring. Giannis Antetkounmpo is downright terrifying. As he continues his ascent to bona fide MVP candidate, what have you seen him add to his game this year? Is it a general all-around improvement? Are there no tools in the arsenal? He looks scarier by the day.
Mitchell Maurer: Blake, my guy! We have to stop meeting like this (when the Bucks are underdogs against the Raptors). But to your point about Giannis, the Bucks may not be underdogs for long. He has become the high-usage, high-efficiency super-duper-star that we never dreamed he could be as the 15th overall pick back in 2013. This season, it isn’t so much about what he added to his game, but that he’s doing everything, everywhere, all the time. He leads the league in minutes per game (38.1 as of 12/31), but is still just as efficient and impactful as he was previously. He just doesn’t stop, it’s wonderful.
Blake Murphy: Looking to add shot-creating help around Antetokounmpo, the Bucks flipped Greg Monroe and picks for Eric Bledsoe. How has Bledsoe been fitting in on both ends?
Mitchell Maurer: Moving Monroe for Bledsoe was a near-perfect move for what the Bucks needed for the team to take the next step. Whether or not that step is far enough is a different question, but Moose’s low-post production is well-worth exchanging for Bledsoe’s frenetic energy, breathtaking athleticism, and downright clutch performance when the game is close. His shooting from deep is spotty, but his disruption on defense helps stifle the quick guards that Milwaukee struggles with so often, and his movement and ball-control on offense adds a viable safety valve for when Giannis gets walled off from the rim. Bledsoe was, and is, a great fit for the Bucks.
Blake Murphy: Jabari Parker is on track for a return sometime around the All-Star break based on recent reports. He opens up even more fun lineups offensively. Even at less than 100 percent, I like the wrinkles he adds to make Milwaukee tough to defend. How excited are you to get him back?
Mitchell Maurer: Jabari’s return is highly anticipated in the Bucks universe, but not for the reasons you might think. People love Jabari the human, but have reservations about his defense and durability on the court. Yes, he could come back to his 20+ ppg form relatively quickly, but Bucks fans are far more fixated on the team’s defensive shortcomings (which Parker would exacerbate) than their offensive firepower (which would become more considerable with Jabari in the mix). Why the cynicism? Well, Parker will have 30-40 games to state his case for a big offer in restricted free agency, and Milwaukee’s cap situation will put them in a pickle: either commit to Jabari, as is, for the dollar figure he wants (regardless of his financial worth), or risk seeing him jump ship. Jabari Parker is gonna get buckets, but Bucks fans are looking at a lot more upon his return.
Blake Murphy: I’ve seen a few people suggest that the Bucks’ bottleneck right now might be head coach Jason Kidd, who hasn’t exactly shown a ton of creativity on offense or flexibility on defense. What are your feelings on the job Kidd’s doing and the temperature of his seat if Milwaukee goes one-and-done in the playoffs?
Mitchell Maurer: I’ll tell you a secret: for a long time, I was one of the last holdouts on the Isle of Kidd. Bucks fans could not like Jason Kidd as their coach less, and it’s because he keeps doing things that are extremely easy to dislike. Foul an opponent point guard up four in a tight game? Sure, why not? Leave your best bench player (Malcolm Brogdon) out of the game for the first 20+ minutes for…reasons? Absolutely! Set expectations in the preseason and then turn around to claim that expectations are too high? #NailedIt.
I just don’t get it. I don’t get Jason Kidd. I’ve always seen him as a pragmatist, but I simply cannot understand how some of his decisions help anybody, especially himself. There was a stretch a few weeks ago where the Bucks dialed back their blitzing overload defense, and things looked much improved…and not only did Kidd deny that any changes were made, he went back and uninstalled the patch he had just installed. To no one’s surprise, the defense looked bad again! Milwaukee fans are largely fed up with Jason Kidd, so the only thing that could lower the temperature of his lava-hot seat would be a massively-unexpected playoff run.
Blake Murphy: Can Rashad Vaughn hang around a few extra days to work out with Norman Powell so Powell can get back on track?
Mitchell Maurer: I’m hearing “will you trade Rashad Vaughn for OG Anunoby straight up?” and I accept your offer.
Every game lately, I’ve said something along the lines of “well, NOW we’ll see what the 10-, 11-, or 12-man rotation will look like,” and almost every game, something has come up to change that. C.J. Miles’ absence extended, Serge Ibaka rested, or Ibaka got suspended. It’s still not entirely clear what Dwane Casey’s rotation would look like if he chose a set one for the medium-term. That’s not entirely necessary – there’s nothing wrong with things being fluid and trying out some different groups and rotation patterns – and Lucas Nogueira playing well in a close-out scenario Friday (and generally being the team’s best trap-busting big) could have Casey back to the 12-man plan he was using before Nogueira and Delon Wright here hurt.
If anyone’s going to fall out of the rotation for a beat, it would seem to be Norman Powell, who was the 11th man and unused until late in the third quarter on Wednesday and who continues to struggle at the offensive end. The Raptors want to let him play through it, knowing how important he is in the bigger picture, but if there’s someone to draw the short straw the next bit, he’d probably be the guy.
PG: Kyle Lowry, Delon Wright, Fred VanVleet
SG: DeMar DeRozan, Norman Powell
SF: OG Anunoby, C.J. Miles,
PF: Serge Ibaka, Pascal Siakam
C: Jonas Valanciunas, Jakob Poeltl, Lucas Nogueira
905: Alfonzo McKinnie, Malcolm Miller, Lorenzo Brown, Bruno Caboclo
Raptors fans should still be pretty familiar with how the Bucks operate. There are some changes since the playoffs, though, particularly with Eric Bledsoe in the fold and Greg Monroe out. The center spot is now manned by John Henson rather than Thon Maker to start games, with Milwaukee’s starting five just ridiculously long. Their bench is now essentially Maker and a bunch of guards, and Jason Kidd mixes and matches a lot so as never to go too small. Giannis Antetokounmpo defies positional logic, and every player in their rotation except for maybe Jason Terry is capable of guarding multiple positions if necessary.
Expect Khris Middleton to draw the initial DeMar DeRozan assignment with Bledsoe on Kyle Lowry, allowing Giannis Antetokounmpo to freelance some off of Serge Ibaka. They don’t start a poor defender, so it will be incumbent on the Raptors’ role players to step up against quality opposition in what should be a steady diet of 4-on-3 scenarios – Milwaukee will trap and blitz ball-handlers aggressively, and this should be a nice test of the new offense. Really, it was Milwaukee’s defense that sort of closed the book on the functionality of the old style against certain defensive approaches, and it’s a team like Milwaukee that would – and could – really measure it come playoff time.
PG: Eric Bledsoe, Matthew Dellavedova, Malcolm Brogdon
SG: Tony Snell, Jason Terry, Sterling Brown, Rashad Vaughn
SF: Khris Middleton, DeAndre Liggins
PF: Giannis Antetokounmpo, D.J. Wilson
C: John Henson, Thon Maker
OUT: Jabari Parker, Mirza Teletovic
Wisconsin: Sean Kilpatrick, Joel Bolomboy
The Raptors are 6.5-point favorites with a 214.5 over-under.