The highs and lows of the Raptors playoff performances finally seeped into their defence

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Toronto Raptors forward Kawhi Leonard (2) gets fouled by Milwaukee Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo (34) during second half NBA Eastern Conference finals playoff basketball action in Milwaukee on Wednesday, May 15, 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn

The Toronto Raptors playoff experience doesn’t meddle with mildness. It is truly an all or nothing spectacle. Their series versus Philadelphia bounced between incredible highs and disappointing lows, they have either scorched from deep or laid a brick house of missed three-pointers. On Wednesday night, even the most stabilizing facet of the Raptors game — their defence — became susceptible to the wild swings of Toronto’s playoff existence.

This game against Milwaukee looked nothing like any of the Raptors previous 12 playoff encounters — the pace was conducted at a breakneck speed, triples were flying from all angles, and the ball zipped around with furious energy. Yet it initially seemed that Toronto had brought their smothering defensive south of the border with them as well. However, the small cracks that emerged on that end of the floor were gashed wide open in the later stages of the game. There are positives to be gleaned from the totality of the Raptors’ defensive performance, but there is an equal amount of concerns which, if not fixed, will make advancing past this stage a difficult proposition.

The fact that the Raptors didn’t steal a road win despite leading for much of the contest really hurts, especially given Lowry’s scoring output. The variance of the three-ball is much discussed, and its power was on full display during game one, blessing the Raptors in the first half only to turn on its head in the second. Pinning the loss on shooting variance is reductive, despite it being at least a partial factor. The bigger issue was the failure to close out defensive possessions rebounding the ball and maintaining their attention to detail on the fastbreak.

Brook F’in Lopez

Let’s get the most infuriating part of the game out of the way. Brook Lopez went bezerk in game one, dropping 29 points, 11 rebounds, and swatting four crucial blocks. Lopez heatchecking from deep is a tough obstacle to overcome, but Toronto were fully prepared to defend a barrage of three-pointers no matter the shooter. Gasol and Ibaka helped off of him towards Giannis Antetokounmpo and Lopez made them pay. Rotating help actually got there, he just nailed shots.

This isn’t the frustrating part. Rather, it was Lopez’ four offensive rebounds that accounted for eight points. The number the Raps lost by? Eight points. Those were unacceptable moments that discounted terrific half-court defence for 24 seconds.

Lopez wasn’t alone in the slaughter on the glass. The Bucks as a team grabbed 15 offensive rebounds, a massive increase of their average of 9.3 in the regular season. Milwaukee employ the opposite approach of the Raptors’ previous opponent, Philadelphia, by leaving the glass to get back in defensive transition. It is a formula that has helped as they led the league, allowing only 0.97 points per possession in transition. Yet in game one they managed to snag rebounds despite maintaining their philosophy — players were slipping through cracks without selling out towards the glass.

The rebounding department was supposed to be the least of the Raptors worries. It proved to be the difference maker on Wednesday night. The Bucks outscored Toronto 44-26 inside the paint, although this is more of an indictment on the Raptors’ poor inside scoring and reliance on the three-point shot.

Lost in Transition 

Nick Nurse knew that locking down Milwaukee’s transition opportunities was going to be a huge factor in the game. The Bucks score the most points in the league in transition and came out at a frenetic pace, scoring the first six points of the game in the fastbreak. Despite this, Toronto were playing Giannis Antetokounmpo well in the full-court. Pascal Siakam matched Antetokounmpo stride for stride, while Gasol and others helped build a defensive wall and quickly scurried out to contest shooters. Their set defence was forcing Giannis to pick the ball up earlier than he wanted to:

But the wheels fell off in the critical opening moments of the second half, allowing the Bucks to shrink the double digit gap. There were a plethora of reasons as to why the Raptors struggled to contain them — poor turnovers put them in compromising positions, Giannis was relentless leaking out, and the Raptors energy noticeably lagged while the Bucks began to surge. The confluence of those factors allowed Milwaukee to score 10 of their 25 fastbreak points in the third quarter. There was plenty of quality moments in defensive transition by Toronto, but in response Milwaukee just dialed the pace up even further (similar to their response to Boston the series prior). The attentiveness has to be there for the entirety of the game, which is a difficult ask for a team that had four starters play 40+ minutes on Wednesday.

Giannis doesn’t stop

Toronto were just as solid at defending Antetokounmpo in the half-court during the first half. The Greek Freak did not even manage to earn a single free throw attempt in the first stanza! Defensive hands were aplenty in the lane once Antetokounmpo took off towards the rim, forcing him into a game-high five turnovers.

But it didn’t deter Giannis. As Toronto tired he began to force himself into the paint, driving through bodies enroute to trips to the free throw line. But still, the probable MVP only got one damn bucket in the second half… James Harden would get crucified for this! Overall the Raptors were solid, an A-, on their handling of Antetokounmpo but he simply cannot be denied for 48 minutes. They got the outcome that they hoped for — force him into a playmaking role and then bust your ass to close out shooters after helping off. The results weren’t bad either; Milwaukee finished only 25 per cent from deep, and Giannis finished with 24 points on 43.8 per cent from the field (granted, the Bucks did miss quite a few wide open looks as well.) Again, this is what makes the loss doubly frustrating. Toronto were exceptional in the half-court defensively and for chunks in transition, but those momentary blips and horrific rebounding were all that Milwaukee needed to claw their way back into the game.

One word of caution: be careful where you double-team Antetokounmpo. The best opportunities to throw him off are as he makes his move to the hoop from a post-up. If he is a little further away (or facing the basket) his vision, speed, and length will bust apart any defensive harassment. He stomped out a potential Gasol/Siakam trap without batting an eyelid:

The Raptors really did have plenty of quality defensive possessions. They contested 27 of Milwaukee’s three-point attempts. The closeouts were absolutely airtight, most notably Lowry flailing every inch of his 6’1″ frame in front of shooters. On other possessions, they closed the space to force the shooter to hesitate and then managed to shorten their steps quickly enough to stay with their opponent on the drive, with a rim protector ready to contest the shot. Fred Van Vleet’s recovery on George Hill in the corner exemplified this:

The smooth offensive performance aided their energy on the defensive end of the floor in the first half. The intensity waned slightly as the game progressed, but it was more due to capitulation of their offence, which forced them onto their heels. Besides the 10 field goals they allowed on offensive rebounds, the Raptors limited Milwaukee’s ability to score inside through the half-court.

It will be difficult to respond in game two. Both teams’ performances veered in opposing directions as the game went on. Milwaukee got their feet underneath them and did just enough to squeak by, reminiscent of Toronto’s wins in game three against Orlando and game four against Philly. But they aren’t outmatched. The Raptors can stifle Milwaukee once the pace slows and can hang in transition for spurts. If they can lessen the silly turnovers and shooting drop-off as the game progresses, then there is a chance that Toronto snags a vital road victory on Friday night.

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