Note: After saying pre-game he would change Toronto’s lineups tonight, Nick Nurse is using the same starters as he has all playoffs.
Can the Toronto Raptors win this series? It’s a fair question. They’re down 0-2, haven’t been able to create anything on offense, and the Milwaukee Bucks have yet to have a good 3-point shooting night. It’s a pickle. But Toronto still has a path to success, however theoretical. Here’s what has to happen.
We don’t know who Toronto is going to start. Nick Nurse explained yesterday what his thought process might be: “Yeah, I think there could be more than one lineup change coming at us. I don’t think it’s, well, I think your question here is this: Are you gonna dance with the one you brung to the ball. It’s not easy. You think certain series aren’t for certain guys, et cetera, but I also think that we’ve gotten, we’ve had bad biorhythms a couple times, maybe three or four times in the playoffs and then the next game our biorhythms were back intact. So I kinda trust these guys, know who they are, believe in ’em, and know they’re better than they played last night and have shown that on bounce-back situations usually.”
No matter who Toronto starts, they’ll need certain elements from whomever is on the floor.
Offensively, the Raptors need to run. The half-court offense has been miserable so far this series, scoring 0.84 and 0.79 points per half-court play in the first two games, per Cleaning the Glass. The Raps haven’t been able to get out into transition all that much, but they have scored far easier when it happens. Kyle Lowry especially has been trying to push the ball, as he’s always making the smart move; if Lowry is pushing the tempo, we should know that it’s important for the team. The Bucks’ defense is too big, too long, too ferocious in the half-court. Toronto’s has been able to create advantages, but they haven’t been able to convert that into points. Running would alleviate that pressure, and playing Norman Powell minutes with the starters would help the Raptors’ ability to run in transition.
When Toronto is forced into the half-court, there are ways to clean up the offense. Though Toronto has a reputation as a patient offensive team, they have been settling for the poor shots that the Bucks defense offers. They’ve only taken approximate a quarter of their shots this series at the rim, after taking a third of their shots there during the year. Marc Gasol, Kawhi Leonard, and Pascal Siakam have been blocked frequently at the rim, but the Raps shouldn’t stop driving it down Milwaukee’s throats. They actually improved their shooting at the rim, connecting on 52.9 percent there in game one and 68.4 percent in game two. Toronto can’t settle for midrange shots, which made up a ridiculous 41 percent of their shots in game two.
In game two, the Raps did a good job varying the offensive focus so that it wasn’t just Leonard attacking on every possession. By trying to establish other players as threats, Leonard was able to score 31 efficient points, which is a necessity in this series. But Toronto did freeze him out on some possessions. They probably went a little too far from Leonard, especially early in the game. Leonard finished a usage rate below 30 percent for only the fourth time this playoff run. There’s a fine balance, and though game two was the best Toronto has done varying Leonard’s attacks with curve balls from the rest of the roster, Toronto could still tweak a tiny bit more to maximize both Leonard’s efficiency and his usage.
Gasol has hurt the Raps in the half-court. He’s not athletic enough to get over help defenders at the rim, so when he ventures into the paint, it’s really only clogging it for Toronto’s would-be attackers. Gasol needs to linger at the top of the key and hit his triples. His passing hasn’t hurt Milwaukee because defenders know not to overreact to Gasol as a scorer. Serge Ibaka could be more dangerous in this series because he’s a far better finisher around the rim. Inserting Ibaka into the starting lineup could help the Raps both create and convert extra shots at the rim. Likewise, Norman Powell is a much better attacker and finisher than Danny Green. It’s possible that Nick Nurse makes changes to his starting lineup, which he told media yesterday. Either Ibaka or Powell could join the starters, and both moves would really juice Toronto’s off-the-bounce game.
Nurse is really focussed on attacking the rim. “We’ve got to take it in with more physicality, courage, did I say physicality yet? More physicality…”
Defensively, the Raptors were excellent in game one and unfocussed in game two. Defending the Bucks is like running ahead of an elephant. The best you can do is sometimes just make sure you don’t get trampled. The Bucks are so terrifying in transition that really no defensive alignment can work. Giannis Antetokounmpo rampages into the paint, and Toronto has to build a wall to keep a full speed Antetokounmpo from dunking. Then shooters are open. It’s really one or the other in transition, and Toronto has no choice but to concede a good shot. So don’t let them run, which means Toronto better make their shots. Surprisingly, everything that happens on a basketball court is connected.
The Raps have been better defensively in the half-court. In game one, Toronto actually scored more efficiently than Milwaukee in pure half-court sets. In game two, Milwaukee was better, but they still only managed 1.0 points per play. (For reference, the Bucks have scored 1.35 and 1.71 points per transition play in games one and two.) Defensive rebounding has been a problem all year, but Toronto fixed that problem late in the series against Philadelphia. I expect them to improve at keeping Brook Lopez and Nikola Mirotic off the glass. Otherwise, the half-court has been good. When Toronto doubles Antetokounmpo on the drive, tries to strip him, and nails rotations around the perimeter, they can actually hold off the elephant. It’s when they let Milwaukee get a full head of steam that they get trampled.
So Toronto needs to win the battle of pace. If they can force turnovers on defense and score efficiently on the break, they can keep Milwaukee in the slower half-court game. That’s the only way Toronto can cobble together enough points. Turnovers and offensive rebounds have killed the Raptors, and they have to be kept below 10 each. At the end of the day, the Bucks are probably a better team than the Raptors. There’s no shame in that. It’s not like the Raps haven’t been trying to do these things; they know that forcing turnovers, attacking the rim, and keeping the Bucks off the glass are important. They’re hard to do. Changing the starting lineup could help Toronto accomplish more of their goals. Whether Toronto can solve those previously unsolvable problems will determine whether they can get on the board and make a series of it.
Toronto Injury Updates
OG Anunoby (appendectomy) is out. Patrick McCaw remains out (personal). My guess would be that Powell and Ibaka both start over Green and Gasol, but I’ll put the usual starters in here, because we don’t know yet.
PG: Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet, Jeremy Lin
SG: Danny Green, Jodie Meeks
SF: Kawhi Leonard, Norman Powell, Malcolm Miller
PF: Pascal Siakam, Chris Boucher
C: Marc Gasol, Serge Ibaka, Eric Moreland
Milwaukee Injury Updates
Donte DiVincenzo (heel) and Pau Gasol (stress fracture) are out. Brogdon has been unbelievable, but he’ll continue to come off the bench again as he works back into game shape.
PG: Eric Bledsoe, George Hill, Tim Frazier
SG: Khris Middleton, Malcolm Brogdon, Pat Connaughton, Sterling Brown
SF: Nikola Mirotic, Tony Snell
PF: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Ersan Ilyasova
C: Brook Lopez, DJ Wilson
- The Raptors’ traditional starters were outscored by 15 in 15 minutes in game two. That can decide the game on its own. Toronto has been so dependent on its starters winning its minutes that if they are outscored by double digits, the Raptors have no hope of winning. Pretty well every starter other than Leonard underperformed in game two, and the defensive focus was shot, so it’s no surprise that they were crushed. They’ll need to bounce back in their minutes together, even if they don’t start the game.
- Toronto did win some minutes throughout the game. Their winningest lineup featured Powell and Ibaka in for the underperforming Green and Gasol. Lowry-Powell-Leonard-Siakam-Ibaka finished +6 in 1.7 minutes. They shot 1-for-2 from deep, got out on the break, and generally were fantastic attacking the rim as well. This is the lineup that maximizes initiating, finishing, and shot-making. It may not be as intelligent as Toronto’s traditional starters, but it makes up for it with more scoring ability. That’s a tradeoff that Toronto may want to consider. This group did not play a single minute in the regular season, so we’re not working with much sample size.
- Nick Nurse says he is going to change the starters, but he doesn’t say how. My guess would be this lineup starts the game. We’ll see at tip-off.
- The other positive factor in the game was the Lowry-Green-Leonard-Ibaka-Gasol lineup, which went +3 in three minutes. One quiet positive of having Siakam out of the game is that it forces Leonard to guard Antetokounmpo, (Ibaka has actually had more reps, but he’s not been able to keep up with him, and the Bucks have dominated Toronto whenever Ibaka is Antetokounmpo’s primary defender. They should stop trying it.) Siakam has actually done a solid job, with help, but Leonard is better equipped at stopping Antetokounmpo requiring help and forcing rotations. The more minutes Leonard guards Antetokounmpo, the better for the Raptors.
- Shouts to Jodie Meeks for winning his non-garbage time minutes by one point! He was thrown into a tough spot, and even though he took a couple clunky midrange pull-ups, he offered energy that Toronto lacked.
- Those were the only three lineups that won their minutes in game two. The maximize-shot-making group, the Ibaka+starters group, and a weirdo Siakam+bench lineup. This has been beaten to a pulp, but Toronto needs to find more areas of success.
- Here are the shirts in Toronto’s first home game of the Eastern Conference Finals. Taking it back to the basics.
- A little bit more about Lowry’s role so far. He’s had the highest pace so far among rotation players for Toronto, and his on-off numbers are staggering. When Lowry’s been on the court this series, Toronto’s offensive rating has been 101.2. That’s bad, but survivable if the defense is dominant. When Lowry’s been on the bench, Toronto’s offensive rating has been 88.9. That’s impossibly bad. Toronto’s margin of error is so slim that they cannot make mistakes, and they’ve made a whole bunch of mistakes, especially when Lowry’s on the bench.
- Milwaukee has defended Kawhi Leonard well. Khris Middleton and Malcolm Brogdon have drawn the bulk of the duty, but Milwaukee has defended the same way no matter the defender. The Bucks force Leonard to his left hand and into the midrange. They’re letting him pull up, but the entire team collapses into the paint to discourage any attempts at the rim. Leonard was blocked five times in game one, which is the most he’s ever been blocked in his career, playoffs or regular season. Brook Lopez and other help defenders have given Leonard trouble. He has taken 10 free throws in each of games one and two, so he’s got to the line. But the Bucks have made lift difficult for Leonard, who’s had to work for everything he’s been given. He’s shot 5-for-17 in the 5-14 foot area, which was his wheelhouse against Orlando and Philadelphia.
- As Leonard and the Raps have struggled in the half-court, Toronto needs to force live-ball turnovers in order to score. They won the deflection battle 12-7 in game two, and that’s a good start. Even though Danny Green hasn’t been great on offense, he has done a great job digging into driving lanes and creating steals. That’s big for the Raps.
- Toronto’s bench actually played well in game two, despite losing their minutes. Powell was Toronto’s second-best player, shooting 6-of-9. He finished just -5 in 25 minutes, despite Toronto getting blown out. Fred VanVleet was great pushing the pace, and he hit a triple and finished a lefty scoop layup, which bode well for the return of his confidence. Now if the starters and bench can play well at the same time, the Raptors might have a stew going.
- Refs in this one are Scott Foster, Ed Malloy, and Tom Washington.
- Raps are… favoured? Toronto is -2. Not sure what to make of that, but this sure is a mighty home swing. Over-under is 220.