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Series preview with Bucks’ writer Brian Sampson

The turnaround between the Philadelphia and Milwaukee series is slim for Toronto, but that won’t stop us at Raptors Republic from an extensive preview. You can read my preview for the series in all its bloated glory here, and all the RR writers came together to chat about the upcoming series as well. You can find that here. But what of the other side? Any preview is incomplete if it doesn’t include some words from the Milwaukee perspective, so for that purpose, I sought out the best. Brian Sampson, aka Bucks Film Room, writer for Forbes sports and BrewHoop, was kind enough to help out and lend his expertise. Here’s my conversation with Brian.

Louis: Milwaukee won the season series 3-1, as Lowry especially struggled for Toronto. That being said, neither of Gasol nor Mirotic were on their respective teams’ roster in any of the four matchups. Leonard and Antetokounmpo both missed a matchup, to boot. Should we just throw out the season series data, or is there still something important to learn?

Brian: I don’t think we throw out the season series altogether, but it’s certainly worth noting the differences in these two teams. The biggest takeaway is how each team might guard the other’s star player. Pascal Siakam is likely to take on primary responsibilities in defending Giannis Antetokounmpo. And Khris Middleton will be tasked with slowing down Kawhi Leonard. Anything gained beyond that should be taken with a grain of salt.

Louis: Well, if what we learned from the regular season is so minimal, then has anything changed since then? Put another way, Milwaukee and Toronto are the 1-2 seeds, so in a sense this series is what we expected from the regular season. But has this playoff run taught anything we didn’t know about either team?

Brian: It’s showed us that the Bucks are truly the elite team they showed in the regular season. People will try to discredit them and say they haven’t been tested or that Boston was a cluster. And they might not be wrong. However, it’s a testament to the Bucks that they walked all over the Celtics especially after going down 1-0. Elite teams generally face less adversity, and that’s what we’ve seen out of the Bucks so far.

As for the Raptors, they’ve done what was needed to advance to the Eastern Conference Finals. It hasn’t always been pretty (it’s been downright ugly at times), but they grind out victories. They’ve yet to hit their stride and could do so at the perfect time for the franchise.

Louis: I would disagree a little bit about Toronto hitting their stride. They haven’t as a full roster, but one specific lineup – Toronto’s most-used lineup – has been excellent. Toronto’s starters have been the NBA’s best high-minute lineup so far in the playoffs. In fact, Kyle Lowry and Kawhi Leonard both have higher total plus-minuses than any Bucks so far in the playoffs. On the other hand, the Bucks’ different starting groups have been a little less consistently brilliant (though still amazing). Will Toronto’s starters have an edge here, or do you expect Milwaukee to be able to match them? (Side question, would you expect Brogon, Mirotic, Brown, or some mysterious other player to start against Toronto?)

Brian: It’s odd. Despite Milwaukee’s brilliance, their starting lineup has been somewhat in flux. Sterling Brown started the first five games of the playoffs, but has barely played since. Mike Budenholzer has inserted Nikola Mirotic into his spot and the results have been mixed. Mirotic is a natural four and the Bucks already have Antetokounmpo at that positions. It’s given them more shooting, but also an awkward fit defensively.

Of course, none of this would be a discussion if Malcolm Brogdon would’ve never gotten injured. He’s back now, but only played 17 minutes in Game 5 against Boston. He’ll need some more time to get back into playing shape. Budenholzer will likely start Mirotic in Game 1 and then adjust from there. If he’s proven to be a liability, Brogdon could easily be brought back to the starting lineup once he gets his legs under him.

Louis: Yeah, Brogon returning is definitely a bad thing for Toronto. Aside from the starting group, Milwaukee has a surplus of two-way shooters coming off the bench. Across the playoff run, their 2- and 3-starter transitional groups have given the Bucks the most minutes and won the most points. Toronto, on the other hand, has proven to be quite thin so far past their top-6 or -7. Could the non-starter minutes be what swings the series either way?

Brian: It’s definitely a clear advantage Milwaukee has. They are two deep at every position and the Raptors only have a two-man bench (at least two players that Nick Nurse can consistently trust at this point). Milwaukee has so much versatility off their bench that they can pick and choose who to play in what situations. This allows Budenholzer to adjust his personnel depending on the matchups. The Bucks’ starters are so good to begin with that adding great bench minutes only props this team up as a whole.

Louis: As far as specific players go, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Kawhi Leonard have been some of the best so far in the playoffs. They didn’t guard each other much at all in the regular season series, but will that change in the playoffs? And if so, will either have an advantage?

Brian: I don’t think they’ll guard each other much. Especially not on the Bucks’ end. Antetokounmpo defended Leonard a few times this season and it didn’t go well for the Greek Freak. Toronto targeted him in the pick-and-roll with Leonard, and Antetokounmpo kept getting stuck on screens.

As for Leonard on Antetokounmpo, I’m sure the Raptors will dabble in it, but I don’t expect to see a lot of it. Leonard has been Toronto’s only consistent offensive player and they won’t want to wear him out or risk him getting into foul trouble on Giannis. They’ll likely stick with the assignments I referred to earlier.

Louis: Some things might not be the same though. Matchups, I agree, will likely be the same, or at least start out the same, as the regular season. But schematically, I expect some differences. Milwaukee had to alter its regular season pick-and-roll drop coverage against Boston, at times switching to eliminate Horford’s open looks on pops. How do you expect the Bucks to defend the Raptors? Ibaka killed the Bucks in the regular season; will he and Gasol continue to find open jumpers?

Brian: The beauty of the Bucks’ personnel is that they can throw multiple looks at you. They ran their drop pick-and-roll coverage all season long with a little switching sprinkled in. Then they showed they could quickly adjust to a switching defense when the pressure is high, and they played it very well against Boston.

I believe Budenholzer will start with his drop pick-and-roll coverage in Game 1 and see how Toronto reacts. If they can’t knock down their shots, he’ll stick with it. If they can, he’ll react accordingly. With that being said, it’s worth noting Toronto will definitely be spending time discussing each coverage while Milwaukee can solely game plan around Toronto’s switching.

Louis: OK, so it looks like we’ve actually got some similar takes, at least as far as specific expectations. But let’s zoom out to end this thing. Call it.

Brian: Bucks in 5. I’m torn between Bucks in 5 or Bucks in 7, but I’ll go with my bias on this one. Everything we’ve seen from Milwaukee over the past 91 games tells us they are a historically elite team. Don’t get me wrong, the Raptors are great and deserve to be here. However, as Khris Middleton put it, “It’s not about them, it’s about us.”

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