“I love Toronto, I love this team, and we are going to the NBA Finals.”
Ugh, Drake why you gotta do us like that?
The jubilation of a momentum shifting road victory has put the Toronto Raptors firmly into the driver’s seat to earn their first ever Eastern Conference crown, but there is still a huge obstacle to overcome on Saturday night when the Milwaukee Bucks enter Scotiabank Arena. Can Toronto fans peacock some after delivering the Bucks back-to-back-to-back losses for the first time this season? Sure, but let’s not coronate the team before the series has finished. We all know what happened in 2013 when the NBA officials dragged out the Larry O’Brien Trophy during Game 6 with 20 seconds still on the clock. (I chose not to add the Ray Allen clip here as I’ve already created enough bad juju by acknowledging the biggest curse in sports within the first line of this piece.)
Still, it is hard to contain one’s excitement following the Raptors exquisite Game 5 victory that forced many notorious media members to backpedal their hot takes.
So how can the Raptors close out the series tonight? Well, keep following the recipe that has cooked up three straight victories!
The Big Three
I mentioned the three critical areas that Toronto needed to focus on in order to claw themselves back into the series in my preview for Game 4. Since that point, the Raptors have been damn near perfect in limiting Milwaukee in transition and on the offensive glass. The Bucks’ scoring dominance within the paint has persisted, but their efficiency in that area has also significantly dipped. Here’s how the per game numbers bear out:
Toronto’s ability to shrink the Bucks transition scoring by over 10 points per game has been integral to their recent success. When Milwaukee get out on the run they are still a freight train, but the Raptors aren’t presenting those opportunities. After coughing up four turnovers in the first quarter, Toronto only offered up two more for the rest of the game. During the post-game press conference Nick Nurse acknowledged that it was the intelligence of their offence’s decision making that spearheaded neutralizing the staple of Milwaukee’s offence.
“When you come down and take a quick one covered, they are off to the races and now you are flying backpedalling back trying to stop them in transition,” said Nurse. “There was no sense in going down and having empty possessions.”
What is even more impressive is the fact that Toronto has now surpassed the Bucks in offensive rebounding, all while minimizing the existence of the fastbreak. Teams that sell-out to crash the glass are often susceptible to leak outs; if there are more people around the rim then there are obviously less bodies back behind the ball. Yet the Raptors have been selective in this facet, trusting individuals to make calculated risks. It has paid off in full thus far, Pascal Siakam has turned the Bucks disinterest in guarding him into a positive, using that added space as a runway to snag missed shots off of the rim.
The added benefit of cutting the game into a half-court affair is that the Raptors are giving Milwaukee fits with their set defence. It has been widely covered for good reason — the Bucks’ half-court offence has been eviscerated in the three losses after Nurse reassigned Kawhi Leonard onto Giannis Antetokounmpo and plugged Siakam onto Eric Bledsoe. Milwaukee averaged an unsightly 0.83 points per possession in the half-court in Game 5 and failed to force the turnovers necessary to speed the game up.
If Toronto can maintain a semblance of parity in those three areas then they should be in good stead to clinch the series tonight.
Be prepared for the kitchen sink
This game is do-or-die for Milwaukee, yet Nurse’s comments that Game 6 is a “what-it-takes” encounter indicates that they are equally desperate to avoid flying back to the Cream City. The Bucks are now in an unfamiliar position after steamrolling opponents throughout the regular season and playoffs; the adversity they face is as real as it will ever be. Meanwhile, the Raptors have been through the meat grinder over the course of two months. I was hesitant that they could match Milwaukee’s energy after such a slobberknocker of a second round, but the team seems to be finding its second wind as the series progresses.
Number of times in these playoffs that a player has had to play 40+ minutes:
MIL – 3
TOR – 19
Yet the Raptors are STILL winning every hustle play and throwing their bodies around defensively. I don't know what Alex McKechnie is doing with those guys, but eat your greens kids.
— Adam McQueen (@Adam_McQueen) May 24, 2019
Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer has been reluctant to make sweeping adjustments dating back to his days manning the bench for the Atlanta Hawks. They have a system and it works. Well, usually. Toronto have dared the Bucks lesser shooters to win the game and they have not rewarded their coaches’ faith. Finally, Budenholzer submitted to a lineup change, bringing in Malcolm Brogdon for the reeling Nikola Mirotic. (The latter was removed entirely from the rotation in the second half after being feasted upon on the defensive end of the floor.) This move shortened an already underperforming bench but simultaneously raises the ceiling of the Bucks best unit, a group that went plus 19 in 15 minutes of action.
Budenholzer also made a few defensive maneuvers by making Brook Lopez impersonate Joel Embiid in guarding Siakam while placing Antetokounmpo on Marc Gasol in the hope of getting him to blow up Leonard/Gasol pick-and-roll actions. These new assignments also spurred a more switchy defence, something Milwaukee have been hesitant to do all season besides against Boston in round 2, and the results weren’t as favourable against a formidable opponent. Siakam has had a series of being ‘Embiid-ed’ to figure out ways to contribute offensively and put a lumbering big man into more difficult situations. Lopez is also 30 per cent of the defender that Embiid is. Leonard did all types of Leonard things against a defence that was playing a style they weren’t entirely comfortable with. Budenholzer suggested that he was comfortable with continuing with a more switch-heavy defence but it does go against the identity they have forged over the past eight months.
“Overall, I thought the defence was pretty good. We can get better in a couple areas. But Brook [Lopez] and his ability to defend one-on-one in tough situations, while not being perfect, overall I thought it was pretty good,” Budenholzer said.
The Bucks need to be more aggressive defensively in order to speed the game up; generating turnovers and forcing the Raptors into shooting earlier in possessions will do this. Alas, Leonard is the monkey wrench to that platonic ideal. His career-high nine assists on Thursday night displayed how comfortable Leonard was in identifying and subsequently exploiting the help defence that was being thrown his way.
At some point in the series there are no more new adjustments or schemes a team can show an opponent, it comes down to execution. Milwaukee certainly aren’t going to avert from their offensive identity and I don’t think they have many more defensive tricks up their sleeve. Toronto also possess two capable playmakers in Gasol and Kyle Lowry that will make calm decisions when sets become frantic. If the Bucks get completely desperate — or if Leonard clicks into Terminator mode — don’t be surprised to see Antetokounmpo assumed primary defensive duties as a hail mary option.
Speaking of which, I will completely dumbfounded if Antetokounmpo does not log 40+ minutes tonight. Budenholzer reiterated his desire to only play ‘Peak Giannis’ at all costs, but sacrificing those extra 2-3 minutes of playing time may not be the smartest option. You’ll have an extra three weeks to fully recover if you don’t a road win in Game 6. These are the moments in which a team leans on their stars (I’m looking at you too, Khris Middleton!) to carry them to victory. Middleton has gradually disappeared offensively; his usage rate has gone from 24.5 per cent in the regular season, to 20.5 per cent in the playoffs, and now sinking to 17.5 per cent in this series. Guarding Leonard has sapped him of energy, but the Bucks don’t have another reliable shot creator and are in desperate need of one against Toronto’s hellacious half-court defence.
Nurse has been outstanding coaching this series so far and has demonstrated a malleability with his rotations depending on which of the eight playoff regulars are performing well that night. After a week of patiently testing, the Raptors have seemingly concocted a winning formula against their opponent. It is now time to execute it once more.
Tipoff: 8:30 EST | TV: Sportsnet/TNT | Toronto are 2.5 point favourites (O/U 212.0)
OG Anunoby (appendectomy) is still out, and Nick Nurse seemed to indicate he isn’t close yet. Patrick McCaw (personal) is day-to-day.
PG: Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet, Jeremy Lin
SG: Danny Green, Norman Powell, Jodie Meeks
SF: Kawhi Leonard, Malcolm Miller
PF: Pascal Siakam
C: Marc Gasol, Serge Ibaka, Chris Boucher, Eric Moreland
DJ Wilson (ankle) is day-to-day, Pau Gasol (foot) is out, Donte DiVincenzo (heel) is out.
PG: Eric Bledsoe, George Hill
SG: Khris Middleton, Malcolm Brogdon, Pat Connaughton, Sterling Brown
SF: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Tony Snell
PF: Nikola Mirotic, Ersan Ilyasova
C: Brook Lopez