ECF Game 1 Tonight
Rotations and lineups
Toronto: It feels like ages ago now that the unfamiliarity of the Raptors’ roster together was a talking point. Playoffs are quite a breeding ground for chemistry or whatever ethereal bond gets built after repetitions together, and the Raptors have looked better — in most forms, at least — as the postseason has rolled on. OG Anunoby’s emergency appendectomy before the start of the playoffs still confuses things here. He’s still only doing light conditioning work, and it’s probably best to assume he won’t be a factor here and treat it as a bonus if he is later. That means the Raptors will probably roll with the same eight players they’ve been leaning on, plus possible spark appearances for Patrick McCaw. Milwaukee might be a little easier to play against without the size Anunoby provides off the bench, but it’s paramount that Fred VanVleet and Norman Powell have better series here.
In terms of rotation patterns, the two biggest changes for Round 2 were tethering Marc Gasol to Joel Embiid and (mostly) abandoning any lineups with three bench players on the floor together. The latter should continue, though Milwaukee plays more traditional bench groups. Milwaukee just doesn’t really play bad lineups, and the Raptors figured out a solid enough rotation pattern for keeping three of their starters on the floor at a given time. That gets a bit more difficult if Gasol’s minutes aren’t staggered the same, but even without Embiid there’s a good case, as it gives Serge Ibaka more time with Lowry and keeps the centre shifts shorter to keep both fresher. The dual-centre look is also a possibility due to the lack of frontcourt depth.
Milwaukee: Despite employing a potential MVP, the Bucks still profiled as a pretty solid depth team. Antetokounmpo’s impact was pronounced, but the team still won the minutes in which he was on the bench, which is a pretty big deal. Part of that is smart rotation juggling — Antetokounmpo usually gets an early breather and then re-enters to help prop up bench-heavier units — and part speaks to Milwaukee comfortably running nine deep, if not deeper. The return of Brogdon for Game 5 against the Celtics could be big, as well, as he’s a player who’s historically given the Raptors a fair amount of trouble. Ersan Ilyasova and Tony Snell are both members of the Raptor Killer All-Stars, too, although Snell is mostly out of the rotation at this point. It seems likely that Sterling Brown, who started four playoff games, is the odd man out with Brogdon back, and that George Hill’s minutes won’t decline much from their elevated playoff levels. The biggest question might be whether Brogdon eventually reclaims his starting role, shifting Nikola Mirotic to the bench.
Whatever you think of the samples, it has to be encouraging for Budenholzer that most of the players he might turn to had strong net ratings during the season and the playoffs so far and that most played well in the meetings with the Raptors.
Something to watch for based on the playoff rotation is whether the Raptors are interested in matching Gasol’s minutes to Brook Lopez’s or if they’re unconcerned. The Bucks will usually have Ilyasova on the floor in those minutes but looks with Antetokounmpo as the centre could challenge Gasol’s defensive range. (They have not gone to this look much, and so long as one of Ilyasova, Mirotic or Lopez was on the floor, the Raptors wouldn’t necessarily need to match up small.) Milwaukee will also roll with two point guards fairly often, but because they’re all quite large, that’s not exactly a free pass for Toronto’s own dual-point guard looks.
On this week’s bonus episode, Vivek Jacob joins the show to preview the Eastern Conference Finals matchup against the Milwaukee Bucks.
- What’s the plan for containing Giannis Antetokounmpo?
- How will the Bucks guard Kawhi Leonard?
- The importance of Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol
- Can Pascal Siakam get his offense?
- What Kyle Lowry’s role should be
- Series prediction
As an organization, the Bucks haven’t been to the Conference Finals since 2001 – the year Toronto came one game, and one Vince Carter shot, away from facing them. In each of the last two years they were eliminated in the first round. They’ve made a few notable changes, including the hiring of head coach Mike Budenholzer, and brought in some good veteran role players, but the core – led by Giannis Antetokounmpo – remains the same. None of the starters have played in a Conference Finals game.
Over the last 20 years, seven teams have gone from losing in Round 1 – or missing the playoff altogether – to making the Finals the following season. Five of them added a future hall-of-famer (or two) between seasons: the 2015 Cleveland Cavaliers (LeBron James and Kevin Love), the 2011 Miami Heat (James and Chris Bosh), the 2008 Boston Celtics (Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen), the 2008 Los Angeles Lakers (Pau Gasol) and the 2002 New Jersey Nets (Jason Kidd). Another, the 2011 Dallas Mavericks, added a future Defensive Player of the Year winner (Tyson Chandler).
The one remaining team, the 2015 Warriors, may be the best parallel to these Bucks. Like Milwaukee, those Warriors replaced their coach (firing Mark Jackson and hiring Steve Kerr), changed the way they play, brought in a few solid vets and benefited from internal growth. They went on to win the title that season and have won three championships in the four years since.
So, if you’re looking for precedent, that’s it. It can be done, but the Warriors are the exception, not the rule.
The Bucks are no fluke. They led the NBA in point differential during the regular season (+727) and are doing so again in the playoffs (+138, +47 better than the Raptors, who rank second). They’re the league’s second-ranked offensive team in the postseason and have the best defence, which they carried over from the regular season. They’re really good, but are they ready for what comes next?
The Raptors starters come into this series with 10 career Conference Finals appearances between them. Eight of them belong to NBA champions Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green. Leonard and Green have each won as many playoff series as the entire Bucks starting lineup combined (13). Together, Toronto’s starters have won 43 playoff series.
If the Raptors have an advantage over Milwaukee it’s experience. How much of a factor that plays in this series remains to be seen, but this is the time of the year when experience generally makes a difference.
The Transition Test
After diving well too deep into the statistical matchup, the transition battle emerged as the most intriguing dichotomy. Following game one against Boston, Milwaukee (read: Giannis) sliced the Celtics apart by ripping down the floor and attacking the rim. The Bucks had the 8th highest points/play mark in transition this regular season offensively, getting in transition at the 4th highest rate in the league. Typically, they’d have the advantage in that category. Just one issue: Toronto was the most efficient transition team in the entire NBA. With the top ranked points/play mark and the fifth highest transition frequency, quantity and quality form a potent brew for Nick Nurses’s squad.
The Bucks aren’t ones to let another team usurp their transition turf though. Indeed, they’ve taken their transition chances up a notch in the playoffs, leading all teams by a wide margin with 21.3% transition frequency. The gulf between them and the second place team (OKC at 16.9%) is roughly equivalent to the difference between OKC and Denver in 12th place. They’ve lost a little of their efficiency from the regular season though, but so has Toronto, plummeting both to the bottom third of playoff participants in terms of transition points per play. Pivotal to that aggressiveness is a tenacity off live ball rebounds, something I’ll touch on later, but here’s a taste of how Giannis is comfortable attacking immediately off the bounce:
The key point story line of this particular strategic matchup is that the Bucks offer the stoutest resistance this Raptors team will face in transition. Despite allowing a league average frequency of transition plays, Milwaukee’s defense restricts opponents to the lowest transition points/play in the league. That includes off steals and live rebounds. These are the deep trenches where a game can flip, where one hustle block in the second quarter in transition pays huge dividends when the buzzer sounds. The Bucks need their frenzied transition defense to hold up against the Raptors potent attack, particularly if Toronto’s role players freeze up in the halfcourt.
4. How good is Kyle Lowry, really?
Pascal Siakam broke out this season, becoming Toronto’s best two-way player and the team’s second-leading scorer. He’s a big reason why the Raptors have been as good as they have all season.
So what of longtime Raptor point guard Kyle Lowry? He’s moved a rung down the pecking order, no doubt, as the clear third option on offense. He also has an up-and-down (and mostly down) history in the playoffs. He’s averaged only 12.4 points per game this postseason on poor shooting efficiency (41 percent, 28 percent on threes). He doesn’t really get to the free-throw line anymore. Sure, he’s a good passer and does the little things well and is an above average defender, but is that enough from such a crucial player at this point in the season? Is he really someone you can trust?
Lowry will be matched up with Eric Bledsoe, who has been inconsistent in the postseason, but is one of the best defenders at his position and has a monstrous athleticism advantage over the 33-year-old Lowry. Bledsoe also held Lowry to zero points in one of the Bucks’ three victories over the Raptors this season. The Bucks also have the luxury of Hill being Bledsoe’s backup, so if he does falter (which seems less likely in this series than vs. Boston), the team is still in steady hands.
If Lowry gets crushed in the point guard matchup, Toronto is in real trouble. With VanVleet struggling and Siakam likely to be guarded by Giannis, the Raptors need someone other than Leonard to handle the ball, make plays and knock down open threes. Whether or not Lowry rises to the occasion will go a long way toward determining Toronto’s fate.
As great as Sunday night was, the win was result over process as much as the reverse, at least on offence. There was a tangible chicken-or-egg feeling that developed over the course of 48 minutes: The Raptors missed 3-pointers, Kawhi Leonard lost trust in moving the ball to his teammates, and his teammates, who had been several degrees too passive for most of the series as it was, became even more reticent to make a play. Forget shooting — the Raptors were relying disproportionately on dribble handoffs to Leonard, lest a pass actually have to travel through the air and be ripe for a turnover. In Game 7, Leonard’s usage rose by the quarter, starting at a reasonable 35.5 percent and going up from 36.4 to 50 to, finally, 55. That he was able to post a 72 percent true shooting mark in that final frame drives home just how remarkable he was in the fourth, and falls in line spiritually with Leonard’s tendency to raise his efficiency in higher-leverage moments.
“A hundred percent. A hundred percent,” Nurse said when asked if the Raptors would need to distribute shots better than they did at times in Game 7, and against the 76ers in general. “I think all the way leading into the fourth quarter of the game the other day, we were trying to keep more people involved offensively. I think somebody told me in the first eight minutes of the game the other night we had 22 uncontested shots and we made eight of them, (the latter of) which isn’t good. So we need to keep creating those and spread those around a little bit and make some of those. I’m hoping that we do.”
The Raptors should not want to push Leonard’s high-usage, high-efficiency bona fides to their logical extremes for many reasons. Among them: The Bucks are a better defensive team than the 76ers. The Bucks led the league in defensive efficiency in the regular season, allowing 104.2 points per 100 possessions, and have suppressed that number to a playoff-leading 98.2 in their games against Detroit. (Neither of their opponents was an excellent offensive team in the regular season, but the same can be said of the Raptors, who have the second-best defensive rating in the playoffs. In Boston and Philadelphia, both teams have faced one very good, if not great offence. In Detroit and Orlando, both teams have also faced one sub-standard offence for a playoff team.)
And while there are holes, by design, in that Milwaukee defence, they are ones that the Raptors just failed to exploit against the Bucks. Over the course of the season, Milwaukee allowed the highest percentage of 3-pointers among the shots their opponents took, which seems counterintuitive in a spacing-obsessed league. However, their opponents hit just 32.4 percent of those attempts, seventh-stingiest in the league, which indicates a combination of luck and an intelligent selection about who takes those shots.
On this week’s episode of Hot Takedown, we evaluate the NBA and NHL conference finals. Despite the celebration of Kawhi Leonard’s historic buzzer-beater to put the Raptors into the Eastern Conference finals, Toronto head coach Nick Nurse thinks the Raptors need to get better before facing the Milwaukee Bucks. We look at how our projections compare with the Vegas betting markets in anticipation of this matchup and the Golden State-Portland series.
Slow the Pace
For anyone who’s watched Milwaukee’s first two rounds (I forgive you if you didn’t), it should be no surprise that they’re leading the playoffs with 20.6 fast break points per game and a 103.28 pace. The Raptors? Well, they’ve been opportunistic in transition — 8.3 steals per game have helped here — but are playing purposeful offence otherwise, doing so at a playoff-slowest pace of 95.58.
Obviously, we have a contrast in styles here, and pace is even more a factor when you consider the series the Raptors are coming off of. A physically demanding, emotional series against the Sixers where the rotation was whittled from nine to seven over the course of seven games must’ve taken some toll. There has to be an emphasis on controlling pace and slowing the Bucks down. Part of this is making shots (see point two above).
Why slow the pace? Well, the Raptors’ half court defence has been phenomenal. The Raptors have a defensive rating of 100.3, second to the Bucks in the playoffs (thanks Detroit), and are the best remaining team at both opponent points off turnovers (14.2) and points in the paint (37.3).
For an example of this, look no further than the last three meaningful Philadelphia possessions in Game 7. This wasn’t the Sixers failing to run offence, it was the Raptors blowing up primary action. On this possession, you get it all in 24 seconds. Kyle Lowry chasing Redick out of a shot, Serge Ibaka recovering onto Joel Embiid, Marc Gasol owning the paint, Kawhi Leonard deflecting a pass to Jimmy Butler in the corner, then closing space. The communication and recovery by this Raptors team, when engaged, is frighteningly good.
Toronto has shown an innate ability to slow down primary action against both Orlando and Philadelphia. This means their opponents are forced into an area of discomfort: Jonathan Isaac taking corner threes, Joel Embiid creating from the three-point line, even Greg Monroe popping a corner jimmy.
They have the tools to do the same against the Bucks. If the Raptors can slow the pace, make shots to limit run-out opportunities, stymie extended Milwaukee scoring runs, and keep a game close — well, we’ve seen what Kawhi Leonard can do then.
TSN Raptors reporter Josh Lewenberg joins Kate Beirness to talk about why the Raps see themselves as the favourites against the Bucks and the important role that Serge Ibaka will play in the East Finals.
It’s not that the Raptors hadn’t produced tinges of euphoria before, even in the playoff crucible that’s been so unkind to them. There was the 13-point fourth-quarter comeback in Game 5 against the Indiana Pacers in 2016, a swing that likely rerouted the franchise’s course in myriad ways. There was Lowry’s masterful performance in Game 7 of the second round in that same postseason, when the Raptors blew out the Miami Heat to advance to their first-ever conference final.
There were the two stirring home wins that evened that very conference final against the Cleveland Cavaliers. There was DeRozan’s series-clinching dunk in Game 6 of the first round against the Milwaukee Bucks the following year. There was Lowry’s three-quarter-court prayer, the Greivis Vasquez shimmy, the Norman Powell games, and, to go back further, the Alvin Williams shot and the Vince Carter 50-point game. They’d had moments, without a doubt. Successes, even.
But the failures were more pronounced, as they tend to be. There was Chris Childs’ misbegotten heave to end the decisive Game 5 against the Detroit Pistons in 2002. Jose Calderon’s lob-turned-turnover in the dying seconds of a series-ending, one-point loss to the New Jersey Nets in 2007. Paul Pierce’s block of Lowry’s floater at the buzzer of another one-point loss to the now Brooklyn Nets in Game 7 in 2014. Pierce’s Game 3 dagger that extinguished all hope in an eventual Wizards sweep in 2015. The four missed putbacks at the end of regulation that doomed the Raptors in Game 1 against the Cavs last year. LeBron James’ running, one-legged, buzzer-beating bank shot that effectively ended their season two games later.
Above all, as the Raptors came out of their final timeout Sunday, there was the memory of Carter’s miss 18 years earlier. It had happened at the same stage of the playoffs, against the same team, in virtually the same situation (though they’d trailed by one in 2001, rather than being tied): Raptors ball, sideline out-of-bounds, just a couple seconds on the game clock, one shot to send them to the conference finals.
Carter’s shot caught back iron and bounced out as time expired, creating a moment of demarcation for the then-ascendent franchise. It marked the beginning of the end of Carter’s relationship with the team, and the last time Toronto would even play past the first round for a decade and a half. From then on, there were the Pre-Shot Raptors and the Post-Shot Raptors.
Of course, none of that history had anything to do with Leonard, and he’s always seemed impervious to external forces of any kind. Surely none of Vince, LeBron, Pierce, DeRozan, Calderon, Childs, or any other bygone Raptors tormentors or scapegoats were in the vicinity of his mind as he gathered in the corner to hoist an impossible fall-away jumper over Joel Embiid just before the horn. But to so many others who watched it leave his hands and sail toward the rafters before coming down for its miraculously soft landing, that ball carried nearly two decades of false hope, thwarted ambition, and dreams deferred.
So of course that ball had to hit the rim four times – twice on the front side, twice on the back – before plopping through the cylinder. After 18 years of delayed gratification, what’s another second or two? In 2001, Carter had a chance to become the first player in NBA history to hit a walk-off shot at the buzzer in a Game 7. All these years later, it had still never been done … until Leonard did it.
LESSONS THROUGH TWO ROUNDS
Nurse has liked a lot of what he has seen from his team to this point in the playoffs. He hopes they keep learning. “I hope we learned how proportionate our effort is to how well we play, and learn to not have any more of those games,” Nurse said. “I thought we learned from that Game 1 loss against Orlando, because we ripped off about six tough-ass, hard-playing games right? Six in a row, and then we took a step back in Game 3 in Philly, and maybe Game 6. So I’m hoping we learned that.
“I think we’re growing defensively in what we can do as far as our aggressiveness in our rotations,” he added. “I think we’re growing as a rebounding team. I saw us putting bodies on people a little bit more. I think we’re growing in our rotation. I know it’s short, but the many differences it’s now presenting with Kyle (Lowry), Kawhi (Leonard) at the two, Pascal (Siakam) at the three, Serge (Ibaka) at the four, Marc (Gasol) at five. There’s lots of variation and we don’t know which of those turn out in this series.”
Eric Bledsoe vs. Kyle Lowry – I’ll give the edge to Lowry here, but it comes with a warning – The Bucks love shutting him down. Lowry is shooting just 23 percent against the Bucks this season, scoring 6.3 points, but handing out 8.3 assists in the four games they’ve played. He also hasn’t been killing it lately, averaging 13.1 points, 5.1 rebounds and 6.0 assists on 40 percent shooting against the Celtics. But Lowry’s been doing more in real life than in fantasy in these playoffs, and that also means he’s due. I expect his play to improve in the ECF. Bledsoe is averaging 13.5 points and 6.8 assists against the Raptors this season, and averaged 13.4 points, 2.8 rebounds and 3.6 assists against Boston in the last round. The Bucks will be looking for more out of Bledsoe in this series, as Giannis won’t be able to go 1-on-5 like he did against the Celtics. These two point guards are both pesky and should mostly cancel each other out in this series.
It should help that while the Bucks are big, they are not as big as the 76ers, who spooked Toronto’s perimeter shooters at times, and still had Joel Embiid eating up so much of the floor within 15 feet of the basket.
Norman Powell and Fred VanVleet should be able to play in this series. Danny Green should be able to get more than the three shots he attempted in Game 7. One thing that struck terror in Philadelphia for most of the series was that since acquiring Gasol, the Raptors were the top three-point shooting team in the NBA. Well, Toronto is shooting 32.7 per cent in the post-season, and shot a miserable 29.8 with Philadelphia’s giants flying at them.
“I’m probably most surprised that we just haven’t shot the ball better,” said Nurse, late in the Sixers series. “I really believe we’ve got a good shooting team.”
He’s right. He just hasn’t been right. Nurse said at one point that his team’s identity is “to play our butts off, to guard ya and to move the ball.” Maybe the chicken and the egg works that way, too. Kawhi needs to trust the pass; the Raptors need to trust their shots; if they defend like demons and find a working balance, it’s a series.
But when Milwaukee came to Toronto in late January, their all-star forward Khris Middleton said, “We know who we are.” And in that game Kawhi played poorly, and not enough other Raptors made shots, and he said, “I was saying at the beginning of the season we need to get better. We still need to get better. But it’s not about the first unit. It’s about the whole team. That’s how you win games. Everybody being connected, linked together, having the same mindset, the same goals, the same energy. You can’t have your first unit clicking and have the second unit come in and play bad, or vice-versa. Or even three guys. Everybody has to be linked together.”
That was the Philly series, and it will be this one. They’re at least halfway there. It’s just that the Bucks have known who they are all season long, and the Raptors will have to catch up.
When asked about the challenge of Game 1 and the separation from Game 7 against Philadelphia, he said: “Not really. When you have your mind focused on one thing — and that’s winning the game — it’s time to shift over from there. That’s why you have to stay even-keeled in this league. That’s what I try to do, stay level-headed to the next game.
“It comes from past experiences, playing basketball, being in these situations before, just learning from them. I was fortunate enough to play for winning teams when I got into the NBA. Rookie year, we made the semifinals. We were going for it year after year. I think that helped.”
He was excited about hitting the shot. About being the first man to win a seven-game series with a buzzer-beater. He was emotional. And then he woke up on Monday morning back to the calmness and peace that is Kawhi.
His teammates don’t ask him for a lot of advice and Leonard shares most of it with actions rather than words. This is how you prepare for a big game. This is how you play a big game. This is how you react after a win or a loss. They watch and learn.
This is a new series after seven topsy-turvy games against the Sixers. The Bucks are different, deeper than Philadelphia, not as strong in the starting lineup, better with depth, better shooters, better defensively, better superstar, maybe better-coached.
The challenge is enormous for Leonard and the Raptors. Milwaukee is 8-1 through two playoff rounds, with most of their games blowouts.
Now comes a challenge for them and a challenge for the Raptors — two teams without much history between them, but some quiet animosities that have built up over the years.
Jeff Weltman was with the Bucks when they drafted Giannis Antetokounmpo. He personally scouted Giannis in Greece. Almost immediately after the draft, he left the Bucks to become vice-president of basketball operations for Masai Ujiri and the Raptors and, after that, was named general manager.
Describe Kawhi’s game-winner in 150 words or fewer.
Dan Devine: Four dribbles; four bounces; forever. Whatever happens for the Raptors the rest of the way, and whatever Leonard decides to do this summer, they and he will always have this. It’s not winning a championship. But that moment—that hearts-in-your-throat pause, the explosion once it plinked through, the exultation of Raptors fans getting 18 years of history off their backs—might not have felt all that far away from one.
Jonathan Tjarks: Kawhi is Thanos: “Fun isn’t something one considers when balancing the universe. But this does put a smile on my face.”
Rodger Sherman: It might have cost the scientists who engineered Kawhi Leonard $100 billion to install the “quadruple-doink a ball through the hoop” technology, but damn, it was worth it.
Nothing says “unbridled enthusiasm” like an out-of-breath announcer whose voice cracks while making the call.
Leonard’s postseason has been a return to form. Way back during the regular season, I wondered if he could decide the East by himself, and he’s been on that kind of path so far. His miracle shot took down the Sixers, and he’s been an absolute workhorse for Toronto. Kawhi is averaging 32/9/4 on 54% shooting—he’s also over 40% from three—and last series he was frustrating Ben Simmons to no end. Leonard’s most convincing argument is the burden he’s had to carry for the Raptors. In 128 minutes with Kawhi off the floor this postseason, Toronto has a -13.3 net rating, with an offense that’s incomprehensibly awful. The Raptors are an astounding 27.1 points per 100 possessions better with Leonard on the floor.
Kawhi would have had a great year if he even resembled something close to the 2017 version of himself. He’s been even better through the playoffs so far. And it’s worth remembering that Spurs team had a huge lead on a much less rickety version of the KD-led Warriors before Leonard missed the rest of the series.
Lowry 2019 NBA Playoffs – 13.1 PPG – 40FG% – 25.6 3P% – 107 ORtg – 45.8 eFG%
Bledsoe 2019 NBA Playoffs – 13.4PPG – 43FG% – 25 3P% – 92 ORtg – 48.3 eFG%
Apparently, both of these players forgot how to shoot a basketball.
Lowry’s 3-point percentage dropped 10 percent and Bledsoe’s dropped eight percent. Raptors fans gave Lowry a lot of hate for his inability to provide space on the court, as his jumper’s been beyond broken in the playoffs. Bledsoe has escaped similar criticism due to his team’s success but has been shooting just as bad from long-range
Besides the 3-point percentage, Lowry’s kept everything else steady, shooting better from inside the arc than the regular season. Offensively, Lowry operates as the primary ball-handler, getting the offense in rhythm and delivering the ball to his primary scorers in key areas. He doesn’t do much in the pick-and-roll sets, averaging only three actions a game.
Off-ball Lowry operates as a floor spacer, with the potential to drive on the catch if a lane presents itself. Most would think a shorter player like Kyle will have trouble finishing near the paint, as the playoffs bring increased physicality and swallowed whistles, but he is shooting comparable at the rim( 60% vs. 64.5% regular season 0-3 feet), and is somehow shooting better from 3-10 feet(+9.0%) in the postseason.
Bledsoe’s story is similar, as his efficiency inside the paint has increased by two percent. His dynamic rim attacks punish the lanes that inevitably open as defenses swarm Giannis. Bledsoe’s as gifted athletically as any guard in the league minus Russell Westbrook, and can contort his body to finish over taller and stronger defenders near the rim.
Eric is shooting 58.1 percent on drives this post-season, tied for seventh overall(>20mpg), with Lowry at 13th (55.3%). Bledsoe similarly has not used the PnR at all this postseason, averaging only 3.8 actions per game. He is content to let Giannis attract the help defense, and play off whatever compromised position the defense is in. Not a bad strategy.
Lowry is unequivocally the better facilitator, ranking top 6 in assists, secondary assists (pass before the assist) and potential assists (passes leading to shots that missed) these playoffs. His assist to turnover ratio is top 10 as well, and indicative of his 107 ORtg. In terms of setting teammates up, Lowry blows Bledsoe out of the water.
The complicating factor at PG for the Bucks is that George Hill caught fire in the latter half of the Boston series, shooting a scintillating 47 percent from deep. Hill should see a lot of time as well. Hill’s ability to space the court is invaluable when the Bucks need spacing for Giannis drives, and he could easily supplant Bledsoe given the right situation.
While Bledsoe attacks the rim at a more efficient and effective rate, Lowry holds the edge in control and facilitating. His ability to run the offense without turning the ball over for extended stretches gives him the edge over Bledsoe on this end of the court.
As critical as both Bledsoe and Lowry have and continue to be to their respective offenses, their play on the defensive end may be the most heralded from both fans and followers around the league.
Lowry has long been recognized as a bulldog defensively and that still continues to ring true even at this stage in his 13-year career. His physicality, in terms of aggressiveness and stature, combine to make Lowry a tough cover to beat on his primary assignment or on mismatches, especially in the post.
The same goes for his intelligence on that end of the court as he’s an incredibly savvy team defender who’s quick to recognize switches and be one step ahead of developing plays and/or scoring opportunities. The 10 charges he’s drawn so far in the postseason speaks to that point and Lowry can certainly give Ersan Ilyasova a run for his money in a charge-off throughout the series.
To that end, Lowry’s presence defensively has been pivotal to the Raptors’ success on that side of the court throughout the postseason as he posseses a 96.8 defensive rating. In the 128 minutes Lowry has been off the floor in the playoffs, the Raptors are surrendering 106.4 points per 100 possessions, which gives Lowry the second-biggest defensive drop off on the Raptors’ roster behind Serge Ibaka.
Many of Lowry’s defensive qualities overlap into Bledsoe’s skill set on that end, all of which has been a fixture behind the Bucks’ top ranking in defensive efficiency for the regular season and the playoffs.
Of course, the biggest difference in comparing the two is that Bledsoe’s athletic abilities and length supercharge his defending as he’s quick to maneuver around screens when checking on the ball as well as disrupt plays and shots with his excellent recovery blocks, steals and deflections.
Milwaukee’s tactical change to a switching defense in their second round series win over the Boston Celtics also provided an excellent spotlight for Bledsoe’s defensive versatility where he more than held his own on mismatches or covering areas of the floor that had been out of his comfort zone during the regular season.
All of that has given way to Bledsoe being an absolute defensive monster throughout the playoffs, judging by the 92.9 defensive rating he holds currently. While the Bucks are giving up a still very sturdy 98.5 points per 100 possessions in the 186 minutes Bledsoe has been off the court in the first two rounds, it’s the second biggest difference behind Ersan Ilyasova for Bucks players that have seen regular action throughout the playoffs.
And this is only what we know of. Lowry’s long battled back injuries, including a recurrence that caused him to miss nine games in a 10-game stretch this winter. Then, there were two separate ankle injuries during the regular season’s stretch run in March and April, which held Lowry out of five of his team’s final 14 games. No one’s healthy at this time of year, of course. But Lowry, who turned 33 last month, is carrying damage that goes beyond the expected.
This is merely the toll paid for the way he plays. Lowry’s leading the playoffs with 10 charges drawn (the Bucks have six as a team) and 32 loose balls recovered. He’s third in deflections with 37, trailing only Ben Simmons (47) and Damian Lillard (40). His 41 box outs lead all guards, and the 59 fouls he’s drawn rank seventh among those still playing. He’s just throwing his body into everything.
“He plays all out — that’s what makes him the player he is,” said Marc Gasol, no stranger to physical play himself. “That’s why he’s special.”
And he looks almost a little too excited when he gets switched onto a body much bigger than his while defending, which happens often considering how fluidly the Raptors can rotate with matchups one through four. Over the last two weeks, it wasn’t unusual to see the six-foot, 196-pound Lowry digging his heels into the floor in the post against the six-foot-nine, 235-pound Tobias Harris, who he was the primary defender on for 73 possessions in the series, according to NBA.com.
It’s actually remarkable to look at that NBA.com matchups data and see what a solid job Lowry did in the series defending such a wide array of players. He spent at least 45 possessions covering five different Sixers, and all of them turned the ball over three or more times, and nearly all — save for Ennis by the slightest of margins — averaged fewer points per 100 possessions than their season average (PTS DIFF in the chart below)
So far this post-season, the Toronto Raptors rank just ninth out of 16 teams with an offensive rating of 108.5. To put that in perspective, that’s the worst rating out of the conference finalists. Specifically, it’s 2.3 points worse per 100 possessions than Portland (110.8), 4.9 points worse than Milwaukee (113.4), and 8.9 points worse than the league’s best offense in the playoffs in Golden State (117.4).
Toronto has been forced into a situation where they’ve needed to reduce the number of possessions there are in a game in order to win. The Raptors know that, if they’re forced into a faster game with more possessions, they probably won’t be able to keep up with their opponents scoring because they’re not as efficient at doing that.
By limiting the number of possessions there are in a game, they’re banking on their elite defense generating turnovers and forcing their opponents to miss their shots. Fewer possessions means that even slight struggles in field goal percentage or turnovers by their opposition have an even greater impact than they already would.
Playing slower also helps maximize Kawhi Leonard’s offensive impact, while mitigating the struggles of others. Fewer possessions in a game means that a star player can exact a greater impact on a game without having to take on even greater responsibility.
If Toronto played at the pace of Milwaukee, for example, they’d have to figure out how to continue to get Leonard’s efficiency over 6-8 additional offensive possessions per game than they have now. These extra possessions would force them into a situation where, either Leonard would need to do even more on offense than he already does, something that could certainly affect his energy level for the defensive end, or others would have to make up for his production. Given that their points per 100 possessions is nearly five points behind Milwaukee, this suggests their offense couldn’t make up this burden.
Toronto has, thus, evolved into an iso-heavy offense in the post-season, particularly late in games. Leonard has been tasked with handling the ball in many of their possessions, often driving to the lane to attract double teams, then kicking it out to his teammates when they’re left open.
Leonard has also been creating space for himself to hit difficult shots. Of his 137 made field goals so far in the post-season, 91 have been unassisted. Additionally, almost three fourths of his shot attempts are coming after two or more dribbles, a sign that he is creating most of his offense himself.
Leonard has evolved into an old-school monster on the offensive end. He’s slowing everything down and dictating the pace of the game. His play thus far has mirrored that of some of the other great post-season performances we’ve seen. Specifically, Leonard’s play has been comparable to LeBron James‘s run in Cleveland in 2015