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Previewing the Raptors-Bucks Playoff Series

At last, the Gasol-bowl! I can only assume that it will go like this. (Please note, spoilers for a certain popular TV show exist in that link.)

It hasn’t been an easy road to get here, but it has been a rewarding one. There have been flashes of fear, blips of familiar terror, throughout the the Toronto Raptors’ playoff run. Toronto’s loss to the Orlando Magic in game one was familiar. Joel Embiid’s mocking of the Raptors during the game three rout felt familiar. But despite the Sixers’ persistence, the Raptors eventually proved that they have closed the book on playoff failures of years past. Kawhi Leonard’s game-winning shot was the bookend to Vince Carter’s miss, 18 years ago. The Raps have emerged unscathed. The Bucks, however, are better than either the Sixers or the Magic. Milwaukee beat Toronto 3-1 in the regular season series. The Raps are decidedly underdogs in this one. Can the Raptors overcome a perceived talent disadvantage? What are both teams’ styles, advantages, and weaknesses? Who will win and why? Strap in folks, let’s dig into the numbers.

Injuries

Pascal Siakam continues to have his mobility limited by a right calf and hamstring contusion. He’s no longer listed on the injury report, but he is absolutely still banged up.

Kyle Lowry dislocated his left thumb against Orlando, and he aggravated the same injury while spraining the thumb against Philadelphia. He said it limited his ability to pass.

OG Anunoby remains out with no timetable to return after an emergency appendectomy.

Malcolm Brogdon tore the plantar fascia of his right foot in mid-march, and his first game back was in game five against Boston. He played well, and Milwaukee is toying with moving him back into the starting lineup. He continues to ramp up his workload in practice.

DJ Wilson is day-to-day with a left ankle sprain, and Pau Gasol is out for the playoffs with a navicular stress fracture in his left foot. Donte DiVincenzo is also out for the series with a left heel injury.

The Basic Numbers

The Milwaukee Bucks’ numbers are a frightening sight. The second-place Raptors finished 58-24 in the regular season, while the first-place Bucks finished 60-22. They were the best team in the NBA over the regular season, and they have been the same in the playoffs, rampaging to a 8-1 record in massacres of the Detroit Pistons and Boston Celtics. Here are some of the foundational numbers for both teams in the regular season and playoffs.

For the first time in the playoffs, Toronto is facing a better team, at least on paper. The Bucks were the best team in the league in the regular season, and they’ve only improved in the playoffs. It is fascinating that despite losing three games in the second round, Toronto has the second-best net rating among playoff teams, better even than the Golden State Warriors. The Bucks’ +15.2 net rating in the playoffs is outrageous, and they haven’t been so dominant simply because Detroit and Boston were dysfunctional. The things that the Bucks do well, they do very, very well. All of the numbers that favour Milwaukee point to their singular uber star, Giannis Antetokounmpo.

Antetokounmpo is brilliant isolating with the ball, driving towards the rim, handling in the pick-and-roll, screening, cutting, rebounding, I could go on. He’s so fantastic and deadly attacking the rim that Milwaukee can create a paint touch whenever it likes, opening up space for its stable of shooters to ride. That’s the whole thing, the whole concept. They run, they shoot, they play the defense. It all works because of Antetokounmpo.

The Bucks were the best team in the league at limiting fast-break points for opposing teams in the regular season. They are a ridiculously long and focussed defensive team, and Antetokounmpo is a one-man wrecking machine defending fast-breaks. He has the Tayshaun Prince / LeBron James chasedown block mastered, and his teammates are great at running through offensive gathers, forcing early pickups, and altogether disrupting transition opportunities. They hit their spots early and absolutely eschew the offensive glass in order to take away fast-break opportunities. That being said, the Bucks have slipped a little bit defending transition buckets in the playoffs, and the Raptors will surely test them there. (If this series had started a week ago, I would have said that the Bucks’ not attacking the offensive glass would be a positive for Toronto, but the Raps cleaned up their defensive rebounding to such an extent that even a hard-crashing team wouldn’t worry me at this point. They box out like maniacs.)

Milwaukee having a fantastic fast-break defense is important because it just so happens that transition is Toronto’s most important source of offense. Nick Nurse said as much multiple times during the series against the Philadelphia 76ers. If Milwaukee can take Toronto’s fast-break chances away, Toronto is in trouble. To Toronto’s positive, Philadelphia also boasts a great transition defense, but Toronto managed to crack that towards the end of the series. If Toronto can get Siakam a few easy dunks on run-outs, the Raps will be overjoyed. That being said, Milwaukee is equally talented at transition scoring – though they tend more towards 3s on kickouts in the fast-break – and Toronto equally talented at transition defense, so both teams will try to walk the tightrope in scoring quickly but forcing their opponent into the half-court.

Beyond the transition game, both teams’ shot spectrums will be another area on which this game turns. Milwaukee takes a whole ton of triples (even more when Antetokounmpo isn’t on the floor), and they are also the best in the league at creating great shots around the rim. Similarly, their conservative defense forces opponents away from those areas and into the midrange. If Toronto obliges and guns away from the midrange, while Milwaukee hoists 40 triples and scores 50+ points in the paint per game, the Raptors will face a huge mathematical disadvantage.

Starter Matchups

Toronto:

PG: Kyle Lowry
SG: Danny Green
SF: Kawhi Leonard
PF: Pascal Siakam
C:  Marc Gasol

Milwaukee:

PG: Eric Bledsoe
SG: Malcolm Brogdon
SF: Khris Middleton
PF: Giannis Antetokounmpo
C: Brook Lopez

I may have this entirely wrong, and with Brogdon only recently returning from tearing his plantar fascia, the Bucks may continue to start Nikola Mirotic. That would shift the matchups dramatically. But word out of Milwaukee makes it seem like Brogdon will remain the starter, and the only question is how soon he’ll be re-inserted there. Regardless, the principle of both players’ roles would be the same: shooters who launch at will and attack and initiate as tertiary options. With that out of the way, let’s dig into how the starters might match up, because this is the meat of the series. Everyone loves matchups.

How did they match up in the regular season? The two teams have not yet played at full strength, so I’m using more than Toronto-Milwaukee data. I’m also using games between Milwaukee and Memphis (for Gasol data), so take from this what you will. It’s worth mentioning that neither side played at full strength during the regular season series. Leonard and Lowry both missed a game each, while Antetokounmpo missed one of his own. Gasol, meanwhile, didn’t play a single game with Toronto against the Bucks, and neither did Toronto against Mirotic with the Bucks.

Here’s the data with Toronto on offense and Milwaukee defending. Note, the unbracketed numbers in the tables are possession totals, and the bracketed numbers are field goal attempts-field goal makes.

Now the same data with Milwaukee on offense and Toronto defending.

So, some takeaways. First, it’s worth mentioning that both teams played the season series fairly straight up. Though Toronto did far more switching, both teams had their point guards spend the majority of time on point guards, shooting guards on shooting guards, etc. So here were the normal matchups both ways:

Lowry-Bledsoe

Green-Brogdon

Middleton-Leonard

Siakam-Antetokounmpo

Gasol-Lopez

We can expect more of the same, at least to start. First, let’s go into Toronto on defence. Let’s dig into who had success, and who didn’t, within those matchups.

  • Starting with a possible negative, who is Gasol going to guard? Gasol’s utility has been huge in the first two rounds, potentially second only to Leonard’s. His ability to neutralize Vucevic and Embiid on the block has been one of the most important factors to Toronto’s success. But the Bucks don’t have a single proper post threat. Gasol will match up against Brook Lopez, but is he comfortable defending 3-5 feet behind the three-point arc? Will he still be useful as a rebounder? Those are real questions for Toronto. Through two rounds of the playoffs, Brook Lopez has posted up fewer than once per game. That limits Gasol. It’s on him to prove that he can still be a huge defensive positive. His quick hands, ability to interrupt passing lanes, vertical rim protection, rotational awareness, and quarterbacking communication are all important skills that he’ll need to flex in order to make up for his inability to guard a proper big in the post.
  • What should stand out the most in the positive for Toronto is Leonard’s unparalleled defensive ability. He’s such a terror that people just don’t shoot when he’s nearby. Using very rough estimates, one would expect the Bucks starters to have combined for 35 shot attempts in 163 possessions (divided into the number of possessions above, for example 107 of those 163 are used by Middleton) against random defenders. If you used their 2018-19 average field goal attempts per 100 possessions, their attempts against any defender (rather than Leonard) in those 163 possessions would be 2.1 expected attempts from Bledsoe, 2.8 from Brogdon, 21.3 from Middleton, 7.7 from Antetokounmpo, and 1.4 from Lopez, or 35 total attempts in 163 possessions. Instead, they shot only 23 times, far below that expectation. Leonard doesn’t just force opponents to miss shots, he doesn’t even allow them to take shots in the first place.
    • Of course, Middleton shot well, despite taking fewer shots than expected. 9-for-16 is terrific shooting from anybody, even if Middleton is known for his shot-making ability while under duress. If Middleton stays hot (he shot 17-of-36 from deep against Boston, though he did cool off towards the end of the series), that would be a big problem for Toronto.
  • Another interesting note is that Siakam was by far the most switchable defender between the two teams. He is the only starter to have defended every opposing starter for at least 18 possessions each. (Leonard was the only other defender to have spent double-digit possessions against every opposing starter.) Siakam was actually excellent, holding every player to below their expected field goal percentage, other than Antetokounmpo. Siakam’s switchability is big in this series. If he can erase guards when switched onto them, and even defend Middleton in isolation, that would go a long way towards Toronto taking away Milwaukee’s easy points. It would also allow Leonard to do what he does best, which is eliminate an opposing team’s best player.
  • Green should have a more varied defensive role against Milwaukee. Against the Sixers, he was limited mostly to Butler, and he made some errors that he doesn’t usually make. But Green is a viable option against all of Bledsoe, Brogdon, and Middleton, so Green will likely switch far more regularly in this series. He is fluid enough to stay with the guards and strong enough to stick with Middleton. Green should have a much larger role in this series.

There are curveballs we can expect to see at some point in the series, variations from the vanilla defensive gameplans that both teams employed in the regular season.

  • The most obvious potential change involves Giannis Antetokounmpo and Kawhi Leonard, who are both teams’ best defensive players. We can expect to see them guarding each other at some point in the series.
    • The numbers point towards Leonard actually being a far better option than Siakam on Antetokounmpo. Siakam may not have the strength to stay with Antetokounmpo. Antetokounmpo is secretly one of the strongest players in the league, and Siakam can be moved by players with low centers of gravity and great core strength. The Raptors could not exist with Siakam on Antetokounmpo in single coverage over the span of a whole series. Though Siakam is longer, and potentially quicker, Leonard’s incredible strength and hands make him not only a possibility to limit Antetokounmpo, but actually to force him into difficult situations. Over the regular season, the Bucks on the whole scored 1.13 points per possession in the 105 that Siakam spent guarding Antetokounmpo, but they only scored 1.00 in the 31 possessions that Leonard spent on Antetokounmpo. So it’s quite possible that the Raptors go to this look in high-leverage situations.
      • If Leonard can actually shut down Antetokounmpo, that’s sort of the series right there. Milwaukee has a lot of trouble scoring if a team can safely defend Antetokounmpo in single coverage. It’s worth trying to see if Leonard can do the job.
  •  Double-teams are also an option whenever Antetokounmpo has the ball below the arc, and the Raptors showed how brilliantly they can nail those rotations behind the play. Toronto double-teamed practically every action in game seven against the Sixers, and they were perfect. Gasol is an excellent and varied defensive big, and even if his biggest utility is in the post, he’s also great at traps and doubles. But the Bucks are far more willing shooters than the Sixers, and my bet is that Toronto doesn’t want to enter those complex rotations unless they have to.
  •  Another option, popularized during the regular season, is for teams to put their centers on Antetokounmpo. He scores like a center, taking 66 percent of his shots during the season at the rim, and converting on a Shaq-like 74 percent there.  Al Horford was solid on Antetokounmpo in round two. In the 175 possessions Horford spent on Antetokounmpo, the Bucks scored 185 points, good for 1.06 points per possession. The Bucks scored 347 points in 311 total possessions without Horford on Antetokounmpo, or 1.12 points per possession. So despite Boston getting shellacked by Milwaukee, the idea of having a mobile big man guard Antetokounmpo was proven to be a good one. (Aron Baynes did far less well in his minutes on Antetokounmpo.) But does Toronto have the personnel to make that work?
    •  Ibaka guarded Antetokounmpo for 23 possessions in four regular season games, and the Bucks scored 33 points. 1.43 points per possession is ouch city.
    •  Gasol guarded Antetokounmpo for 5 possessions in two regular season games between Memphis and Milwaukee, and the Bucks scored 4 points. 0.8 points per possessions is victory city, so … maybe? It’s such a small sample size that it means nothing, but if Siakam and Leonard are both having trouble containing Antetokounmpo, and forced into foul trouble, then it’s possible that Gasol gets a chance. He’s far less mobile than Al Horford, so my initial assumption would be that this isn’t a great idea. But who knows? Anything is possible.

Now let’s go to who did well and poorly in the starter matchups with Toronto on offense.

  • Wow, Kyle Lowry had a bad series against Milwaukee. Bledsoe held him to 0-of-11 shooting, and Lowry had trouble defending pretty well everyone else on the other end. His overall field goal percentage from the series was 23.3 percent, as he offered Toronto’s second-worst plus-minus among starters, at -13. He shot 1-for-20 from deep. Lowry definitely had some cold spells in the regular season, but he has rebounded well in the playoffs. He has, for the most part, been brilliant in the playoffs on both ends. That being said, we just saw Philadelphia bother his with its length, and Milwaukee can simulate the same experience. If Lowry can’t create his own shot with any consistency, we’ve seen how much trouble that causes Toronto’s offense. I would expect Lowry to be fine, but Bledsoe is an excellent defender, and this is at least something worth monitoring.
  • On the other hand, Green and Siakam were consistently strong no matter who defended them. Siakam had the team’s worst plus-minus among rotation players, but that was mostly because he went up against Antetokounmpo in the lion’s share of his minutes. He shot over 60 percent from the field, and the takeaway is that Milwaukee’s defense really didn’t bother him. He frequently used the extra space as a runway to attack the rim. Green shot 6-for-11 from deep in the regular season series, and he’ll probably need to offer something similar. His jump-shot abandoning him in the playoffs has been a frightening vision, but he’s too good to not bounce back.
    • Milwaukee has a lot of long, talented on-ball defenders, but most of their defenders aren’t known for their ability to track offensive players who dart around off-ball screens, reposition, and find the seams without the ball. (Boston and Detroit boast zero of those players on their roster, so this hasn’t been an issue for Milwaukee thus far in the playoffs.) But like JJ Redick and Terrence Ross, Toronto’s Green and VanVleet are excellent movers without the ball. That’s part of the reason they shot so well in the regular season series against the Bucks. (VanVleet shot 12-for-19 from deep.) If both Green and VanVleet can free themselves for open triples, that would be huge for Toronto.
  •  Leonard had a difficult shooting series, shooting below 50 percent with either of Middleton or Antetokounmpo guarding him. He still was Toronto’s best player, going +23 in three games. His defense is absolutely critical. That he went +23 despite shooting poorly is a huge positive for Toronto; there’s lots of potential yet to fill. If Leonard is able to continue his ridiculous scoring streak, adding in the efficiency he attained early in the Sixers series, Toronto would have an easy well of offense. Middleton and Antetokounmpo are probably both better defenders than Ben Simmons (who did an excellent job on Leonard, to be fair), so Leonard will have a more difficult time of it.
    • One positive is that Joel Embiid will no longer be on the floor. Toronto had a ton of trouble scoring at the rim whenever Embiid was playing, and Leonard-Gasol pick-and-rolls created nothing against Philadelphia. Leonard could have much more space in the paint against the Bucks.
  • Marc Gasol only shot 4-of-9 in two games between Memphis and Milwaukee, but his offense will again be critical. More on this later, but the Bucks mimic the Sixers in their drop coverage, playing their center very conservatively below ball screens. That gives opposing centers tons of free space. Gasol was forced into shooting against Philly, and he did not perform as well as he could have with that space. He turned down the majority of open looks he saw from behind the arc, and he shot only 32.1 percent from deep against the Sixers. Gasol will likely face a similar defense, at least from his perspective, against Milwaukee. If Lopez sinks to clog the lane and double-team Leonard and Siakam near the rim, Gasol will need to gun away from behind the arc. Whether he will or not remains to be seen.

The Bench

One would be forgiven, after looking through the starters’ matchup data, for thinking that Toronto held an advantage in this series. After all, Leonard was dominant in his time on the floor, and Toronto won those minutes by a dramatic amount. Wouldn’t that carry over to the playoffs, especially when Leonard only plays more minutes?

Maybe, but maybe not. Toronto’s starters are great. But we haven’t yet gotten to Milwaukee’s greatest strength and Toronto’s greatest weakness. Toronto’s starters have been the best unit in the playoffs, but they’ve been held back from absolutely blowing the doors off opponents in every game because of the weakness of Toronto’s ability to hold leads when they have multiple bench players on the floor. And those bench minutes, unfortunately for Toronto, are one of Milwaukee’s greatest strengths. Here’s who we can expect as far as performers go.

Toronto:

PG: Fred VanVleet
SG: Patrick McCaw
SF: Norm Powell
PF: Kawhi Leonard
C:  Serge Ibaka

Milwaukee:

PG: George Hill
SG: Pat Connaughton
SF: Sterling Brown
PF: Ersan Ilyasova
C: Nikola Mirotic

Everyone who steps onto the court for the Bucks is enabled to fire at will. Hill is still a solid defender, and Raps fans should still have nightmares about his defense on Lowry during the Raps-Pacers series of 2016. Because the Bucks have had so many blowouts in the playoffs so far, Connaughton has been third on the team in minutes in the playoffs, which goes to show that Antetokounmpo (31.5) and Middleton (32.7) are incredibly well-rested coming into the series. Milwaukee has more reliable bench players than they can reasonably play in a game, and they have gone 10 deep so far in the playoffs. (All 10 guys have net ratings in the playoffs of +10 or more, with bench players Hill and Ilyasova leading the team at +22.0 and +21.6, respectively.) Those are great numbers, but Milwaukee could easily cut down on bench minutes and just give more time to Antetokounmpo; Milwaukee has room to improve.

Even though they probably won’t see the floor, Snell is a tried and true Raptors killers. DJ Wilson is a solid performer. Milwaukee has tons of guys who could give Toronto problems, so the Bucks don’t have to punt any sections of a game. If Toronto opts to lengthen its rotation in game one, and plays all of VanVleet, McCaw, and Powell for a 1-2 minute stretch, Milwaukee could easily outscore them by double digits. The Bucks are just far deeper than the Raptors. That Toronto has two days of rest coming into game one is significant.

Here’s how both teams have performed, by net rating, with 0-5 starters on the floor in the regular season and playoffs. Stats taken from the excellent pbpstats.com.

Throughout the regular season and playoffs, the Bucks have been better than the Raptors with any of 1-4 starters on the floor. The numbers back up Milwaukee’s advantages in depth; from the 6-10 spots on the roster, the Bucks are more talented and more consistent than the Raptors. The 2017-18 Raptors proved that depth doesn’t always equate to wins, but it’s still an advantage for Milwaukee. The Raps need to find a way to beat the Bucks when both teams have some bench players in the game, or at least hold the fort.

Milwaukee is happy to go small with Mirotic or Ilyasova as de facto centers. They are happy to run 2- or 3-starter lineups buoying the transitional minutes. There aren’t really any combinations that they don’t try, and that haven’t had success. Turning to pbpstats, Milwaukee actually uses three starters (28 percent of the time) and two starters (24 percent) more than four (15 percent) or all five (20 percent). Toronto is the total opposite, with 40 percent of their minutes used with all five starters, and the next most frequent lineup iteration is two starters (20 percent). All that to say, Milwaukee could seriously do some damage whenever Toronto has even a single starter leave the game.

When Antetokounmpo hit the bench in the regular season, the Bucks changed slightly. They weren’t much worse as a team, but they did play differently. They did more stuff on the offensive end, using more pick-and-rolls, passing the ball more, and just working harder to get shots. They still created very efficient looks, as 3-point attempts and assist rates rose. The change was really only because the Bucks don’t have to work hard for good shots when Antetokounmpo is on the floor. With him gone, they threw more passes, and they became far slower (obviously, as Antetokounmpo might be the best transition player in the history of the NBA.) Basically, they worked more as a team because they had to. Even though they shot far more from distance, the Bucks’ shot quality dropped from expected field goal percentages of 54 percent to 53 percent without Antetokounmpo, reflecting how incredible he is at creating layups for himself and teammates. The offense dropped from 117 points per 100 possessions to 111, while the defense gave up 108 points per 100, versus 105 per 100 without. Those numbers were all very similar in the playoffs, though the differentials were a little bit less steep.

As for the Raptors, the differences have been stark with and without Kawhi Leonard. In the regular season, the Raptors experienced the same differences as did the Bucks. When Leonard hit the bench, assist rate and 3-point attempts rose, while actual scoring dropped. The defense took a hit. But in the playoffs, those differences have been far more dramatic. The offense has scored almost 30 points per 100 possessions more with Leonard on the floor than without, which is an outrageous number. If that continues, Toronto will need to play Leonard 48 minutes a game to compete with the Bucks. They need the offense to hold up when Leonard gets rest, and Siakam will be critical there, especially with someone other than Embiid guarding him.

Milwaukee will be the first team Toronto faces with versatile bench players who cannot be played off the floor. In past series, opponents like Michael Carter-Williams and Boban Marjanovic were so limited and one-dimensional that Toronto took huge advantage whenever they were on the court. That meant Orlando and Philadelphia were limited in the lineup combinations they could use. Milwaukee has no such problems. Their bench players are diverse and adaptable; Hill, Mirotic (or Brogdon, depending on who starts), and others are two-way players who can thrive in any situation.

For Toronto, VanVleet will need to respond. He dominated against Milwaukee in the regular season, and that will need to continue. Powell, similarly, is a two-way wing who can have a big impact. However, the most important bench player for Toronto in this one is Serge Ibaka. He’s coming off of an incredible game seven against the Sixers, and he’ll need to bring the same focus and intensity.

Ibaka was Toronto’s second-best player in the regular season series against Milwaukee. He finished +23 (tied with Leonard and VanVleet for best on the team), posting per game averages of 22.3 points, 8.5 rebounds, 3.0 assists, 1.8 blocks, and 1.0 steals. That’s outrageous production. Ibaka isn’t as strong a post defender as Gasol, but Milwaukee presents no such post threat. (All of Middleton, Antetokounmpo, Lopez, and Mirotic have scored fewer than 0.75 points per possession when posting up in the playoffs, which limits Gasol’s utility, as one of the NBA’s premier post-up defenders.) That means there shouldn’t be any stretch where Ibaka would be a negative on the floor. The Ibaka-Gasol lineup may not be playable because of Milwaukee’s superior shooting, but Ibaka deserves plenty of minutes. His ability to stretch the floor in the midrange is important, as is his ability to crash the offensive glass and score in the post. A dominant Ibaka would be huge for Toronto, and he’s coming into the series with great momentum after huge showings in the last few games against Philadelphia.

Offensive and Defensive Styles

Some of the stuff in this section has sort of leaked into every other section of the deep dive, but it’s worth getting as granular as possible in order to understand how both teams play.

Not to be overly simplistic, but the Raptors have sort of had three different stages. For the first months of the season, the offense existed in two separate spheres, thriving on Kyle Lowry’s pick-and-roll attacks and Kawhi Leonard’s isolations and post-ups. The twain rarely met. Since the trade deadline, with the acquisition of Marc Gasol, those two basically merged into the same offense. Toronto was fantastic at blending its styles into one successful offense, with Lowry and Leonard co-existing fabulously. They created open 3s and converted them like a likeable version of the Warriors. But in the playoffs, Toronto has returned slightly more to their post-up and isolation roots. They’ve been clever about entering those plays, with Leonard frequently using ball screens from Gasol or Lowry (or Green earlier in the Philadelphia series to involve Redick) to create mismatches or defensive rotations in advance of his attacking. The shots just haven’t been falling as consistently, and the ball hasn’t been as energetic whipping around the perimeter. Basically, the easy stuff has vanished, which happens in the playoffs.

Toronto’s been solid in the playoffs, creating mostly open shots for shooters. A problem has been that their shooters have been in something of a cold streak for the entirety of the playoffs, with the exception of game five against Philadelphia, when they broke out and hit 16 3s. But even if the outcome of the offense was suspect, the process was good. Like the Bucks with Antetokounmpo, the Raptors do a good job of leveraging Leonard’s unique one-on-one scoring ability and using it to create better shots for the whole team.

Let’s break down both teams’ frequency and efficiency in several types of plays into another handy table.

 Isolation possessions per game (points per possession)Transition possessions per game (points per possession)Pick-and-roll with either handler or roller shooting possessions per game (points per possession)Post-up possessions per game (points per possession)Put back possessions per game (points per possession)Spot-up possessions per game (points per possession)
Toronto regular season7.7 (0.94)22.5 (1.19)24.8 (0.93)7.3 (0.94)5.5 (1.09)22.8 (1.05)
Toronto playoffs8.2 (0.91)19.4 (1.08)24.6 (0.94)7.1 (0.88)2.9 (1.29)24.0 (0.98)
Milwaukee regular season9.6 (0.98)24.5 (1.12)19.5 (0.97)6.0 (0.95)5.0 (1.10)26.1 (1.05)
Milwaukee playoffs10.6 (1.02)28.4 (1.12)19.1 (0.93)5.0 (0.64)5.2 (1.34)25.0 (1.05)

(This data is from nba.com’s publicly available synergy data, which does not include passes away from plays. This limits the usefulness of data. For example, Toronto’s post-ups are most threatening because if Leonard or Siakam achieve deep position, they draw help and kick the ball to a waiting shooter. Though the shot is created through the post-up, this data only includes it in the spot-up category. That’s why Toronto’s post-up and pick-and-roll numbers are so low, because the real meat of those possessions – hitting perimeter shooters after the ball touches the paint – isn’t included in the data.)

This is another potential overload of data, so let’s go through some of the information in order.

Milwaukee is similar to Toronto and Philadelphia in that they are at their best flying down the court in transition, and they are elite at stopping the fast-break. The Bucks play a little bit like the Rockets in transition, in that they are overjoyed to take a quick 3 early in the shot-clock. Boatloads of their open shots come when Antetokounmpo is rumbling down the lane, forcing the defense to create a wall in the paint, and pitches the ball to a trailing shooter before he even creates contact in the lane. Those pitch-outs are deadly, and Milwaukee doesn’t have a player in the rotation who won’t fire away in those circumstances. The Bucks were one of the best transition teams in the league in the regular season, and they’ve only improved in the playoffs, accomplishing a feat that is supposed to be impossible. Even in the half-court, they play fast and shoot early. Milwaukee’s pace, not just their fast-break scoring, is their greatest stylistic weapon.

In the half-court, the Bucks don’t run a ton of stuff. They don’t throw many passes or drive the ball all that often. They have middling amounts of ball and player movement. They don’t run many pick-and-rolls, and when they do, it’s generally to create open shots for spot-up shooters around the arc. Milwaukee’s most-used offensive tool is the simple, catch-and-shoot triple. They’ve attempted the third-most of any team in the playoffs, with 25.9, and as a team they are shooting 36.1 percent from deep off the catch.

Furthermore, almost every player in the starting lineup is comfortable handling in the pick-and-roll, so funky sets with Antetokounmpo as the screener and Mirotic as the handler, for example, can contort a defense to create corner 3s. The Bucks will surprise you in their simplicity, sometimes. Toronto needs to be ready to have every player, including Gasol and Ibaka, defend the handler in the pick-and-roll. The Bucks don’t post up and don’t crash the glass, so Gasol’s value could be a little lessened in this series.

Milwaukee uses plenty of isolations when their first options don’t work, and they have three proper weapons there. Antetokounmpo is the highest-usage option in isolations, using 3.8 possessions per game in the playoffs, and scoring a ridiculous 1.06 points per possession. He’s fantastic at finishing or drawing a foul. Middleton is probably their best weapon in late-clock situations, using 3.4 isolations possessions per. He doesn’t turn the ball over (literally, doesn’t have a turnover when isolating in the playoffs, per nba.com) and is the team’s best contested shooter. He’s converting at an efficient 0.97 points per possession in isolation. Bledsoe is the third hydra head, scoring 1.23 ppp on 1.4 possessions per as a speedy handler who finishes through contact. Even though isolations aren’t the crux of Milwaukee’s offense, they are more than capable when the game slows down.

If Milwaukee has an offensive weakness, it could be in their dearth of high-level shot-makers. They have plenty of good shooters, but no great off-the-move shooters like a JJ Redick. If Toronto bottles up Milwaukee in transition, takes any airspace away from shooters off their initial actions, and forces the ball out of Antetokounmpo’s hands, it’s conceivable that Milwaukee’s shooters are forced into bricky, off-the-move attempts. Middleton is not a great pick-and-roll handler, and him attacking Leonard or Siakam in isolation or in the post as a bailout option would be hugely in Toronto’s favour. That being said, it’s tough to see Milwaukee being bottled up over a series, like Toronto has done to Orlando and Philadelphia. Their offense is just too consistently awesome.

Toronto’s offense is slightly more focused on the individual than the collective when compared with Milwaukee’s. They want to create paint touches however possible, usually from the drive. Toronto’s 48.1 drives per game in the playoffs are far more than any of the remaining Conference finalists were able to create. Toronto runs a boatload of pick-and-rolls, with either Leonard or Lowry handling. Leonard is incessant in attacking the rim. The Raps ideally want to finish in the paint, with Leonard and Siakam as brilliant finishers, but if not, the other option is to kick the ball our and whir around the perimeter until an open shot is created. The Raps’ starters have five viable shooters, so in theory defenses won’t be able to rotate as fast as the ball. (Philadelphia tested that theory, of course.)

Orlando and Philadelphia did a great job taking Toronto’s offense out of its comfort zones, but the Raps are still potent. Milwaukee will want to borrow Philadelphia’s principles. Transition defense requires multiple, disciplined efforts, with bodies flying back already with foreknowledge of what is required. It also requires athletes equal to the offense’s fast-break. Milwaukee has all of that in the bag, so expect Toronto to have another tough series on the break. Any slip-up, and Leonard, Siakam, and Lowry are hyper-aggressive scoring in transition. Toronto will continually test Milwaukee’s focus in that regard.

In the pick-and-roll, Toronto’s playoff numbers have been poor because VanVleet, Siakam, and Lowry have all posted horrific shooting splits when trying to score out of ball screens. Of course, Lowry does his damage in the plays hitting shooters, which is captured in the spot-up section, where Toronto has performed well, surprisingly. (Spot-up shots include shots in the midrange would be my attempt at an explanation there.) Leonard remained excellent as a scorer and passer when handling in the pick-and-roll, which, surprise surprise. He’s amazing.

Milwaukee’s defense was similar to Philadelphia’s in the regular season. They dropped their center far below the level of ball screens and invite offensive players to attack size waiting in the paint. It leaves open shots for ball-handlers, so if Milwaukee uses that style, Lowry and Leonard could heat up on pull-up triples coming around ball screens. However, Milwaukee turned to switching some screening actions against Boston, which vaporized the Kyrie Irving-Al Horford pick-and-pops. The Bucks were good at it. If the Bucks do switch against Toronto, Leonard will happily isolate and dance in the midrange. He’s such a unique scorer that no defender really bothers him. Middleton and Antetokounmpo are Milwaukee’s best defensive options against Leonard, but if the Bucks begin switching on defense, Toronto will happily use Lowry, Green, and Gasol as screeners to create Leonard isolations again less capable defenders. No matter what Milwaukee does, Toronto will have a counter.

The Bucks do have multiple versatile rim protectors. Antetokounmpo and Lopez both held opponents to more than 10 percent below expected field goal percentages around the rim in the regular season, and those numbers improved to 20 percent below in the playoffs. They’re excellent rim protectors, even if they aren’t quite at Embiid’s level. The Raptors will not have an easy time creating looks at the rim, but the offense should be smoother without Embiid sagging off Siakam.

Toronto is marked by defensive versatility. Milwaukee has a great defense, but Toronto has a much higher ceiling on that end. They switch much more often through every position other than center, and Toronto is at its most comfortable when a wing – Green, Leonard, or Siakam – is guarding the ball. Lowry is a more threatening off-ball defender, anyway. He’s a monster in the post, as well, even stripping Joel Embiid late in the fourth quarter of game seven during a post-up. Toronto uses the switch as a proactive weapon rather than a reactive salve. Siakam at his best switches three or four times in one possession, always staying as close to the ball as possible, wreaking havoc with his anticipation, quickness, and athleticism. Siakam will be the Raptors’ counter to a lot of Milwaukee’s actions; he’s quick enough horizontally that he can completely eliminate shooters from a play and force Milwaukee into attacking the rim without an advantage. Gasol is an absolutely bruiser with ridiculously fast hands, but Toronto is still comfortable with either him or Ibaka blitzing pick-and-rolls on occasion. Toronto blitzed almost everything in game seven against Philadelphia, and Gasol’s hands were incredible at forcing wayward passes from guards that hit targets around the ankles or not at all. Gasol isn’t going to clean up messes on the defensive end with weak-side blocks, but his incredible ability to read plays means that when every other defender is doing his job, Gasol walls off all the remaining crevices. He picks up a lot of steals when Toronto contains the ball at the point of attack. He finished third in the league in defensive PIPM this year. His alter ego of brick wall will be difficult for Antetokounmpo to penetrate.

Toronto will probably blitz far less against Milwaukee than they did against Philadelphia. Blitzing ball-handlers forces difficult, snap decisions, but it also makes forces other defenders on the floor to rotate accurately. Blitzes will give up open shots more often than conservative defences. Philadelphia is not a great shooting team, but Milwaukee is. Toronto is probably more concerned with limiting open shots than creating turnovers. So the Raptors will likely switch fairly regularly. If Milddleton or Antetokounmpo start obliterating Gasol or Lowry in isolation, the Raptors can change it up, but the Bucks will have to prove it first. Toronto will start by choking off Milwaukee’s oxygen, eliminating open space, and forcing the Bucks to drive and score at the rim against contests. Philly couldn’t do it, and we’ll see if the Bucks fare any better.

Prediction

There are scenarios in which Toronto could beat the Bucks. The Raps’ starters have boasted better net ratings in the regular season and playoffs, so Toronto will need to dominate whenever all five starters are on the court. The Raps boast a physical defense; they need to maul and thresh Milwaukee on that end, forcing as many turnovers as possible without compromising their defensive integrity. And Toronto’s shooters need to consistently take and make the open shots that the offense creates. That’s a lot of ifs. All seem easy enough to accomplish on their own, but it’s difficult to parlay them all together at the same time. Toronto has a thinner margin for error than Milwaukee. Like I said, it’s possible, but most numbers favour the Bucks. I’ll choose Milwaukee in six and hope against hope that I’m wrong.

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