Turning the tables: Milwaukee’s suffocating defence offers Toronto a taste of their own medicine in blowout loss

“Our impulses are too strong for our judgement sometimes.”

I myself can be an impulsive guy at times. Watching the Raptors getting blown out on Friday night set me on the precipice of unloading knee-jerk reactions galore. Thankfully, cooler heads prevailed courtesy of some melancholic post-game playlists and plenty of introspection. As infuriating as Toronto’s performance was, the Milwaukee Bucks were flawless defensively.

It is easy to lay blame—and there is plenty to go around—but after game two Milwaukee and their electric superstar, Ersan Ilyasova, need to be given credit. Ilyasova heroics aside, the Bucks game plan and intensity in every facet of their defensive approach was something to behold. If Kawhi Leonard didn’t hit a handful of jaw-dropping baskets during the third quarter, the Raptors could have finished with a points total that would have made a mid-90’s NBA team cringe.

Similar to the Warriors during the beginning of their ascendancy towards greatness, Milwaukee’s frightening defence has been oft-overlooked amidst the dazzling distraction of their supernova star Giannis Antetokounmpo and the team’s ability to light up an opponent from deep in a matter of minutes. In fact, the Bucks offensive output was not much more efficient than Toronto despite a 22 point blowout victory. Both teams only shot 31 and 32 per cent from deep respectively. Milwaukee barely outshot the Raptors from the field, 46.7 to 42.5 per cent, although it certainly didn’t feel like it. The attention to detail and energy Milwaukee brought defensively was what slingshotted them to a 25 point halftime lead. Particularly, the speed with which they recovered in transition:

Granted, in the second clip Toronto has crisp ball movement and eventually nail a three, but the point still remains. Brook Lopez and Pat Connaughton bust their ass back and get vertical to prevent an easy layup for Powell, the defence forces four passes due to strong closeouts and closing of the paint, and it eventually takes the Raptors 10 seconds to get off a shot. It’s not perfect, but the Bucks motto in transition defence is clear in both clips: you ain’t getting an easy layup, so you’re probably going to have to out-shoot us. As I’ve mentioned ad nauseam, Milwaukee have by far the best transition defence, allowing only 0.97 points per possession. Their defensive philosophy of protecting the rim at all costs extends to transition and half-court scenarios; they will absolutely sell out to collapse the paint. As a result, the Raptors had to settle for mid-range attempts and threes from non-ideal shooters.

The Bucks also worked tirelessly to make Leonard’s life hell. Leonard continued to add to his ridiculous playoff stretch, but Kris Middleton and co. are doing their damnedest to make every shot as difficult as possible. With Milwaukee dropping Lopez on pick-and-rolls in game one, it seemed logical to set some higher screens for Leonard to get some space to attack downhill. Toronto went to that immediately and Middleton was prepared, swiftly dodging Gasol’s whiffed attempt and maintaining his pressure on Leonard.

Sometimes Middleton just straight up refused to let Leonard even touch the ball:

Toronto needs to be more creative when involving Leonard. Too many times he is initiating an action at the top of the key and having to make shots through a forest of bodies. It is stale. The Raptors cannot find a screener that will improve Leonard’s options either; Gasol has gone Greg Stiemsma on us, Siakam simply draws Antetokounmpo closer to the action, and Green couldn’t even help generate mismatches to take advantage of J.J. Redick in the last series. The only option that may work would be an inverted Leonard/Lowry pick-and-roll. Toronto’s first offensive possession was actually their best set to free up Leonard. Siakam and Gasol set a double screen, the latter crunching Middleton, and Leonard was off to the races towards a dropping Lopez. Leonard inexplicably picked up his dribble (Lopez did track well, to be fair) and the Raptors rarely went back to the well on a promising look.

Not only are the Bucks dropping Lopez back on screen actions, but they are bringing the centre over towards Leonard’s direction anytime he begins to make a move to his right. Leonard feasts on the right hand side of the court and Milwaukee are determined to not let him get to his ‘spots’. Throughout the course of the regular season, Leonard ate up opponents in the right mid-range area. In game two, the only shot Leonard took from the right side of the floor was an absolutely ludicrous floater that somehow snuck past the outstretched hands of Lopez and Antetokounmpo. Milwaukee will consider this a win.

Leonard shot chart Game 2 vs. Bucks                                                          Leonard shot chart 2018/19 regular season

It speaks to Leonard’s brilliance that he dropped 31 points considering how hard Milwaukee are overloading on him. He is trying to slither back to his right hand on pick-and-rolls, but Milwaukee are just disregarding the screener to prevent that from happening. The Bucks are going to continue to throw bodies his way and bet that the other Raptors won’t torch them. The gamble has worked out so far.

Lopez has also been immense defensively. Not only has his help on Leonard been a thorn in his side, but his rim protection is killing Toronto. In a vacuum, Lopez’ verticality and shot-blocking would be a nuisance that teams could work around. He is relatively slow-footed and isn’t uber athletic. His physical capabilities are akin to Gasol’s, whose feasibility to remain a part of this series is now seriously in question defensively. However, all of those limitations are covered by the fact that the Bucks have Antetokounmpo lurking as a secondary rim protector. It is near impossible to get a clean shot at the rim without either one of them taking a swipe. I wish there was data tracking how many layups opponents bail on shooting due to Giannis’ mere presence on the weak side as a shot-blocker. Gasol was clearly rattled:

The Bucks have protected the rim like this all season. They allowed the lowest amount of field goal attempts within six feet of the rim and held opponents to 57.2 per cent from that area, also lowest in the league. That’s a recipe for success. This defensive setup does allow for cleaner three-point attempts, but the Raptors’ confidence from the outside has wavered as the playoffs progressed. Shooters are still hesitant to take clean looks from deep and attempts inside are shrinking because of Lopez and Antetokounmpo.

As a result, the Raptors are reluctantly turning to their mid-range game. During the season, 14.4 per cent of the Raptors’ field goals were from mid-range. That number has increased to 16.4 per cent in the playoffs and now to 17.8 per cent against Milwaukee. The only player that the Raptors really want taking mid-rangers is Leonard. (Ibaka was, of course, a great mid-range shooter in the regular season, but that consistency has been derailed.)

Simply, the Bucks are forcing Toronto to play offence on their terms. Theoretically, the Raptors have pieces that should cause Milwaukee to make defensive adjustments, but that has not been the case. Toronto have to regain control over the shots that they want to take if there is any hope of clawing their way back into this series.

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