NBA playoff series are kind of like the time when Bugs Bunny and Yosemite Sam kept pulling bigger and bigger guns out of their pockets. The Bucks were the better team when both teams were boxing with their fists, taking a 2-0 series lead. But the Raptors were the first to draw a weapon, upping the ante, and using Kawhi Leonard as the primary defender of Giannis Antetokounmpo. Leonard did an inconceivably great job, and the Raps won their first game. Now it will be the Bucks’ turn to draw the bigger gun.
There are options. They could insert Malcolm Brogdon into the starting lineup instead of Nikola Mirotic, giving the Bucks another initiator who could punish Toronto for quadruple-teaming Antetokounmpo in the paint. They could use Brook Lopez as Pascal Siakam’s primary defender, using even more size to stymie Siakam’s frantic forays to the rim, much like the Philadelphia 76ers did after losing a game to the Raptors. They could even mimic the Raptors in using their MVP-caliber star, Antetokounmpo, as Leonard’s primary defender. Or the Bucks could just hope that their 3s start to fall, and not change anything. That wouldn’t map well onto a Looney Tunes metaphor, but it might be the smartest basketball solution. I chatted with Anthony Doyle, Adam McQueen, and Josh Howe about how the Bucks could improve, among other things, in the most recent Raptors Republic group chat. The point is the Bucks should improve in game four, and the onus would be on Toronto to survive that counter punch.
Or, to dispense with analysis and use traditional logic, the home team has won every game so far. The Bucks took care of business at home with far less trouble than the Raptors, who required double-overtime and heroics from Leonard to win game three. Game four is, of course, in Toronto, so holding court will be critical.
One major question for Toronto at this point is how will they hold up physically to the toll that this series requires. The only style that has allowed Toronto to win its minutes is draining. Leonard probably can’t defend Antetokounmpo, and score 30 points a game, for a full series on a gimpy ankle. He seemed to be limping around the court for the majority of his 52 minutes, a career high in the regular season or playoffs. While Leonard, Siakam, and co drove fearlessly into the paint in the first half of game three, their paint touches dwindled in the second half. As a result, their scoring touch dwindled as well. After scoring 58 in the first half, the Raptors scored 38 in the second half. Siakam and Leonard started settling for more difficult shots. (Of course, Leonard scored eight points in the second overtime, all coming in the paint or from the free throw line. So he recovered his physicality nicely just when fatigue should have been at its most taxing.)
Partially as a result of Toronto’s manic defensive pressure, game three was a race to the bottom. Both teams played poorly on offense, and it occasionally drifted into mockery of the clean basketball we’ve come to expect from two veteran teams. Midway through the game, Gasol received the ball on the short roll and drove uncontested until a helper met him in the paint. He seemed to have a layup, but he tried a wraparound pass to the corner. But a Buck jumped in the lane before Gasol let go of the ball, so at the last second he adapted and flung the ball as far as he could towards half-court. It resulted in an Eric Bledsoe fastbreak. Fatigue can make players do crazy things. Gasol’s 45 minutes played were his most since 2017, and he probably can’t hold up to those minutes every night.
A note on fatigue from Milwaukee’s perspective. Coach Mike Budenholzer was speaking to media before the game about his team’s fatigue level. He acknowledged that he was forced to stretch his team’s minutes in the double overtime. Bud’s hope is that with the Bucks blowing out opponents in the regular season and first two rounds of the playoffs and not needing to give their main guys big minutes, they “have money in the bank” when it comes to stamina at this point in the season.
Regardless, ugly basketball gives the Raptors a better chance. Their offense probably doesn’t have the arsenal to keeping drawing larger and larger guns with the Bucks. As long as it’s a slow, defensive struggle, the Raptors can do well. Whether their bodies can maintain that physicality is another question. All three of Toronto’s best players, Leonard, Lowry, and Siakam, are hurting. They’ve played far more minutes in the playoffs than the Bucks, who are a deeper team anyway. This series is not getting any easier for Toronto.
Toronto Injury Updates
OG Anunoby (appendectomy) is out. Patrick McCaw remains out (personal). Leonard tweaked his ankle early in game three, but it’s not affecting his availability, and both Leonard and Nick Nurse are stressing that he’s fine.
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. DJ Wilson is listed as questionable with left ankle soreness, but it shouldn’t affect the game either way.
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
- Before the game, Nick Nurse threw the media a curveball, saying he would change his lineups. We assumed he meant starting lineups, which had been the implicit subject of the question. He didn’t, and he coyly said after the game, “Well, I said lineup changes; I didn’t say starting lineup changes.” Regardless, the Raptors were sort of forced into changes more as a result of foul trouble – with Norman Powell and Kyle Lowry fouling out – than overt choices.
- Because Lowry fouled out before the stretch run and two overtimes, VanVleet with the starters actually played more time than the five starters. VanVleet+starters played 13 minutes, which they won by four points. The starters played 12 minutes, which they won by one point. Foul trouble was a problem, but it’s encouraging that the Raptors won the game without a dominant showing from what has become, to be simplistic, their only trustworthy lineup. The starters won’t always be able to blow out their opponents, and the Raptors won anyway. That’s a good thing.
- The winningest lineup saw Powell in for Danny Green, alongside the other four starters. This lineup maximizes initiation, athleticism, and finishing, while still keeping Gasol on the floor for extra shooting and defense instead of Ibaka. They went +9 in 5 minutes, and they were only limited because of foul trouble for Lowry, Powell, and Gasol. Even if Nurse isn’t starting this lineup, it could be the most-played group in game four.
- Powell has been unbelievable this whole series. He finished game three with 19 points on 7-of-13 shooting, including 3-of-5 from deep. Because the Bucks load up so heavily on Leonard and Siakam, the Raptors’ tertiary attackers have plenty of space. Powell used that for open 3s and straight-line drives; as long as he doesn’t have to change direction while attacking the rim, he’s a fantastic finisher. He’s super athletic, which the Raptors can lack because of their maximization of veteran experience on the roster. So far in the series, he has averaged 13.0 points, after averaging 5.9 in the previous two series and 8.6 in the regular season. His importance in putting pressure on this Bucks defense cannot be overstated.
- Another fantastic lineup was Lowry-Powell-Leonard-Siakam-Ibaka. It saw eight minutes on the court, which it won by four points. This is what I thought Nurse would change the starting lineup to, when I thought he was changing the starting lineup. It maximizes athleticism and finishing. Toronto will certainly use this lineup more and more going forward. Its minute totals have been 0 in game one, 1.7 in game two, and 8.4 in game three, so Nurse has been turning more and more to the look. This lineup gives the Raptors, maybe, their best chance of scoring in the paint against the Bucks’ defensive strategy. The lineup has outscored Milwaukee by 10 points total, which is sizeable.
- Another creative choice was Lowry-VanVleet-Green-Leonard-Gasol. Leonard thrives at power forward (really, he thrives anywhere), and here Toronto surrounds him with as much shooting, or at least the threat of shooting, as the Raps can feasibly offer. This group went +1 in four minutes.
- On the negative side, the twosome of VanVleet and Powell together were -13. They cannot be the only guards on the floor for Toronto, and the Raps are too small when they’re together with Lowry. VanVleet and Powell are both important pieces for Toronto, but they should probably have their minutes separated as much as possible. Of course, that’s impossible when Lowry fouls out, but going forward, we’ve seen about enough of VanVleet and Powell forming the Raptors’ backcourt. It probably won’t work, no matter who else is on the floor. They are both below-average primary initiators, and Toronto’s offense grinds to a halt whenever they alone are tasked with the controls.
- Let’s talk about shooting. It seems we’ve been harping on Toronto’s shooting woes since the start of the playoffs. But in game three, they were actually quite solid, finishing at 37.8 percent from deep. They showed no hesitation, especially Gasol. (Now if VanVleet and Green get going, Toronto would be laughing all the way to the bank.) But this time we’re not actually talking about Toronto’s shooting. More significant in game three was the shooting from the other guys. The Bucks have been shooting incredibly poorly this series, connecting on only 38-of-129 (29.5 percent) this series. But is that expected, or were our priors about the Bucks’ shooting ability incorrect?
- In this series, almost one-quarter of the Bucks’ 3-point attempts have been pull-ups, rather than catch-and-shoots. Similarly, their shots have been better contested and taken later in the shot-clock. Yes, they’re shooting poorly, but they’re not a team with world-beating shooters. Everyone on the roster is a good shooter, but they don’t have any player who can create a high-level triple out of thing air, a la JJ Redick or Steph Curry. Khris Middleton is closest, but his shot selection has been iffy, and he’s had a rough series on the offensive end.
- Adam McQueen talked about this in great depth in his excellent gameday post. Here’s a relevant quote: “Milwaukee are shooting 35 per cent on wide open threes in playoffs, which NBA.com defines as a shot with the nearest defender six feet or more away, and 31.3 per cent on the series. In the regular season they were fourth worst in the league at nailing wide open looks from deep at just 36.3 per cent. So yes, there is a slight regression, but it is not otherworldly like the Raptors plummeting outside shot during the Philadelphia series. Milwaukee may launch the second most threes in the league, but they don’t truly possess dead-eye shooters, outside of Malcolm Brogdon and Khris Middleton. They barrage opponents with quantity over quality.”
- It’s possible that the Bucks hit 20 triples or more in an upcoming game. That’s what happens with high-variance probability. But it’s not likely. The likeliest outcome, in terms of the Bucks’ shooting, is that they continue to struggle. That’s because the Raptors have done an excellent job making the Bucks’ attempts as difficult as possible.
- Leonard’s defense on Antetokounmpo was the single biggest reason the Raptors won game three. Let’s look at some numbers.
- Through all three games, here are the Bucks’ points per possession when anyone other than Leonard is guarding Antetokounmpo: 1.15.
- Through all three games, here are the Bucks’ points per possession when Leonard is guarding Antetokounmpo: 0.92.
- In game three, he held Antetokounmpo to 2-of-12 shooting in 41 possessions. He shot 3-of-4 with any other primary defender, and he got going in transition a little bit with Leonard off the floor. Leonard is a monster, and Antetokounmpo cannot rampage through him to the rim. If Toronto can keep that advantage, then the Raptors have a real shot at this series. Of course, Al Horford was proclaimed an Antetokounmpo-stopper after the first game of last round, and we all saw how that turned out. No guarantees for the future, but props to Leonard for his incredible job so far.
- So, Fred. Before this season began, I was calling VanVleet a top-50 player in the NBA. The argument was that his off-ball movement, shooting, and defense were critical. Since then, he spent all season moonlighting as a real point guard, and he’s not a great pull-up shooter yet, nor is he fantastic at breaking down a defense with his dribble. He remained a great off-ball threat whenever he played next to Lowry. In the playoffs, he’s gone through a cold streak shooting, and he’s responded by making very poor decisions with the ball. Though his defense has actually remained great, it seems like his offensive confidence has taken a hit. Then Kyle Lowry fouled out with 6:12 remaining in the fourth quarter of game three. The Raptors still won, for which VanVleet deserves absolute credit. But he continued to shoot poorly, going 1-of-6 from the field during the end of the fourth and both overtimes. On the other hand, he was far better making decisions, choosing to give the ball up earlier in the clock, and letting his more talented teammates initiate the offense. He relocated well without the ball to get good shots, but they didn’t fall. That’s a step forward. Yes, VanVleet’s offense has been problematic for Toronto against the Bucks, and truly during this whole playoff run. But they won with him on the floor in both overtimes. That’s a positive. VanVleet will remain a part of the rotation, and he has nowhere to go but up.
- Nick Nurse recognized that VanVleet shot poorly in game three, but he had nothing but praise for his level of play. Both defensively and in providing leadership and play-calling from the point guard position.
- The shirts remain unchanged. Here’s a reminder.
- Refs in this one are James Capers, Ken Mauer, and Kane Fitzgerald.
- Raps are +3 after being -2 in game three. They’re still at home, and they won, and there are no major injuries, so what gives? This actually has to be one of the weirdest swings I’ve ever seen in a Vegas line. The over-under is 217.5.