The adrenaline of Kawhi Leonard’s game 7 heroics have finally faded. Leonard himself said that he’d moved on from the glorious moment by the next day, though it took the rest of Raptorland a whole lot longer. (I probably still watched 15 times on Twitter this morning, weening myself off of the high.) So what is the only cure for this empty void? More playoff basketball, of course!
Next on the docket is a trip to Milwaukee to take on the #1 seeded Bucks led by the likely MVP in Giannis Antet0kounmpo. Milwaukee have been the most consistent team in the league from wire to wire, boasting the fourth best offence and number one ranked defence with their overhauled system under new coach Mike Budenholzer. Coach Bud has let Giannis loose and empowered ancillary players Eric Bledsoe, Kris Middleton, Brook Lopez, and Malcolm Brogdon to launch from deep. Every starter averaged career highs in three point attempts this season. They will present a far different playing style than the Raptors have gone up against over the past month of playoff hoops.
The speed to which these games are played may be indicative as to how the series will unfold. During the regular season the Bucks led the league in fastbreak frequency at 21 per cent, Giannis often leading the charge armored with three-point shooters dotted around him. The Raptors were third in fastbreak frequency but ranked first in efficiency, scoring 1.19 points per possession in transition. Both teams thrive in the open floor.
Most games in the playoffs have slowed in pace compared to the regular season, yet Milwaukee cranked their transition frequency up to 26.4 per cent during the second round against the Celtics, per BBallBreakdown. Their ability to up the pace and get Giannis loose in the full-court was the reason that they blew the doors off of Boston, as their own half-court offence was sneakily stagnant. Giannis is leading the league with 8.4 transition points per game and is getting fouled 34.9 per cent of the time in fastbreak situations. In short, he is damn hard to stop once he gets a full head of steam. They also have the league’s best transition defence, allowing only 0.97 points per possession in these situation. It is incredibly difficult to out run-and-gun them.
Toronto’s playoff run has been markedly different. They came up against two opponents, Philadelphia and Orlando, that grinded the pace to a halt and turned the game into a physical battle. Although it stymied the Raptors offence, they unlocked a new defensive identity in the halfcourt, posting an impressive 100.3 defensive rating. The only team better than them? The Bucks, whose rating is a ridiculous 98.2. Despite this, the Raptors have at least proven capable of winning in slow, ugly affairs. They also have a proven bucket getter in those situations in Kawhi Leonard. The Bucks do not.
If Toronto has any hope of winning this series, they must limit transition opportunities and be attentive and accurate on Milwaukee get out on the break. Under Mike Budenholzer’s system the Bucks not only fly at any given opportunity, but they also launch the second most triples in the league, behind only the Houston Rockets. A four point lead can balloon to 15 within a blink of an eye. Missed shots are the easiest way to set up transition opportunities for opponents, and boy have the Raptors missed a lot of shots. They are clanking from deep and especially on corner threes, another strong catalyst for opponents getting out in transition. Nurse repeatedly mentioned a focus on rebounding last series; stopping the ball in transition and picking up shooters will be the calling card this time around.
(A positive note on this: in the four encounters between the Bucks and Raptors, Milwaukee’s deadly transition scoring plummeted from 27.4 to 15 points per game. Seeds of hope.)
Things to watch for:
The Giannis of it all
So, what the hell do you do with Giannis? Some answers are unsolvable. (The same goes for Leonard, just ask Philly.) Giannis is currently scoring 27.4 points per game in the playoffs off of only 17.3 shots. Yikes. His unique ability to get into the paint, draw every defender to his direction, and use his length to either score or find shooters is the straw that stirs the Milwaukee offence. Giannis led the league with 17.5 points in the paint per game and 3.4 of his assists were for three pointers, behind only Russell Westbrook and Chris Paul. He is a dominant inside force that can also tear an opponent apart as a playmaker.
Realistically, you are not stopping the Greek Freak, but it’ll be interesting to see what defensive gameplan Nick Nurse starts with. Do you go one-on-one, let Giannis feast inside and stay at home on shooters? Some teams have thrown size at Giannis and sagged in the paint, similar to Embiid’s defensive approach to Siakam in the prior series, but Antetokounmpo is too powerful to be stopped given a runway to the lane. If Leonard takes the majority of that assignment, he could be the only player in the league that can stop Antetokounmpo. However, the sheer offensive burden he is shouldering may make it a difficult ask, even for a basketball machine. It may behoove Toronto to place Siakam on Giannis to start as he is the only player quick enough to keep up with him in transition. It may also allow Leonard to lock down the Bucks’ second All-Star in Middleton, which leads me to my next point…
One thing was glaringly obvious during the Philadelphia series — Leonard needs offensive help. Badly. The Sixers defended incredibly well, their size and energy completely took non-Leonard Raptors out of their rhythm. Milwaukee has less individual defensive talent, but are an even better collective unit than Philly. They pack the paint and dare opponents to make threes from above the break, far lower percentage looks than in the corners. Those are also the very looks that Philadelphia offered Siakam and he could not make them pay. Although Lopez is clearly not the rim protector that Embiid is, the looming presence of Giannis off-ball accounted for the Bucks allowing the least paint points during the regular season.
One of Gasol, Lowry, and Siakam must be consistent as a scorer in the starting unit. They each brought intangible winning plays that was instrumental to their victory against Philadelphia, but that will not be enough against Milwaukee. They need buckets. Siakam has spent a series being disrespected by Embiid and he slowly improved, so if the Bucks do the same with Giannis there is hope that he is better prepared. Lopez will frequently drop in the pick-and-roll which means — I’m sorry Raptors fans — more wide open Gasol looks from deep! Now will he attempt them? Who knows! Gasol’s reluctance to shoot has skyrocketed up the ‘Things that will shorten Raptors fans’ lifespan’ power rankings, and has notably taken a toll on our resident podfather Samson Folk.
The Bucks secondary scorer, Middleton, has been dead-eye in the playoffs. He is averaging 19.1 points per game and nailing 46.7 per cent of his threes on 6.7 attempts per game and is on my Mount Rushmore of underrated players. He also possesses the best plus/minus on the team during the playoffs at 13.7, discounting Brogdon’s lone appearance. However, Middleton’s offensive game will not wear a defender down; he doesn’t fly around off screens or bully his way into the paint. He possesses great footwork, is consistent, and can knock down very difficult shots. The hope for Toronto could be Leonard vaporizing Middleton’s offensive game without exerting too much energy on the defensive end. But hey, maybe even I’m underrating Middleton’s abilities despite my previous acknowledgment of his overlooked game.
Lowry’s offensive output may be a bellwether for this series. He has shot horrifically against Milwaukee, their width again bothering him as Lowry made one triple in 20 attempts against them. Brogdon and Bledsoe are both great defenders, but Lowry simply has to outperform them in order for Toronto to advance. We know he will making the hustle plays and put his body on the line, now Lowry can cement his cult-like status by upping his shooting performance.
Will the bench show up?
Nurse may have to send out the bat signal soon, because the bench have been missing this entire playoffs. Ibaka woke up from his slumber and was immense during the back half of the Sixers series, but the rest of the backups have been rendered unplayable. The Bucks don’t have quite the same physicality as Philly defensively which will cause a sigh of relief from Fred Van Vleet. If Norman Powell and Van Vleet can at least be neutrals in this series then that is a win for Toronto. The Raptors starters have bodied a ridiculous workload down the stretch and therefore the bench’s play for at least the first two games is critical in providing a brief rest for them.
Meanwhile, the Bucks’ bench has posted the highest net rating of the playoffs so far and are chipping in 37.4 points per game. George Hill has been magnificent thus far, even outperforming the starting Bledsoe. Brogdon will be the sixth man off of the bench and strengthens Milwaukee’s depth even further. And I guess Pat Connaughton is also good now? I’m still coming to terms with that.
Utility of the big men
Gasol’s role has been well-defined in the opening two rounds: shut down Nikola Vucevic and Embiid. Boy, has he been good at that. His ability as the defensive anchor at 34 is impressive enough, but to do it on a team that he has only spent a few months with has been incredible. Now Milwaukee presents a far different picture. Gasol’s matchup, Lopez, is one of the four floorspacers for Giannis and Gasol will not be comfortable that far from his home in the paint. Lopez is a good shooter, albeit he is only 27.9 per cent from three in the playoffs, but Gasol may leave him to impede Giannis’ driving lanes and dare the big man to launch up 10 triples per game. Once the Bucks go small, Gasol is going to have to work his ass off to remain on the floor. I don’t put it past him, but this matchup will test his limits.
Ibaka could be a focal point of the Raptors in this series. His lack of size at centre and mediocre defensive rebounding is less of a liability against Milwaukee as they rarely crash the boards. Ibaka’s athleticism and closeout speed is far greater than Gasol’s and will be necessary when toeing between Giannis and the revolving door of shooters ready to fire. Both big men sharing the floor will be a likely scenario given the rest of the bench’s poor performance and the results it brought against Philly. It may not be ideal in stopping the Bucks transition game, but Ibaka could be a nuisance on the glass which would force Milwaukee into an adjustment. Offensive rebounding was considered defunct given the focus on transition defence in the new era of basketball, yet its utility has reemerged in many of these playoff series. Ibaka showed this in game 7, let’s hope he can do it again today.
TV: Sportsnet, TNT | Tipoff: 8:30 EST
Bucks are 6 point favourites. O/U – 217.5
OG Anunoby (appendectomy) is out. Chris Boucher (back) is not expected to play.
PG: Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet, Jeremy Lin
SG: Danny Green, Norman Powell, Jodie Meeks
SF: Kawhi Leonard, Patrick McCaw, Malcolm Miller
PF: Pascal Siakam
C: Marc Gasol, Serge Ibaka, Eric Moreland
Donte Divincenzo (heel) and Pau Gasol (stress fracture) are out. D.J. Wilson is questionable (ankle)
PG: Eric Bledsoe, George Hill, Tim Frazier
SG: Kris Middleton, Malcolm Brogdon, Pat Connaughton, Sterling Brown
SF: Nikola Mirotic, Tony Snell
PF: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Ersan Ilyasova
C: Brook Lopez, D.J. Wilson