Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks finally return to the scene of the crime.
60-win season. Best record in the league. The regular season MVP. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? While on a similar trajectory, the Bucks have somehow been even more spectacular this season, losing just eight times through 57 games and looking just as dominant on the road (23-5) as they have at home (26-3). They currently own a point differential of plus-12.2, just shy of the all-time single-season record of plus-12.3 set by the ’71-72 Los Angeles Lakers that featured Jerry West, Wilt Chamberlain and Elgin Baylor, went 69-13 in the regular season before steamrolling their way to the championship with a 12-3 post-season record (there were only three rounds back then). If the Bucks are going to follow in their giant sized footsteps, they’ll need to show they’ve learned valuable lessons from their four straight defeats at the hands of the Toronto Raptors in last year’s Eastern Conference Finals.
Their first crack at this year’s edition of the Raptors went about as well as they could’ve hoped back in early November, their early intensity opening up a 26-point first half lead courtesy of some stifling defence that had Toronto struggling to create any easy opportunities inside and firing up miss after miss from the outside. No game is ever out of reach for the defending champs, though, and led by Nick Nurse’s mixing and matching, some Box-and-One action, as well as Kyle Lowry’s overall brilliance, the Raptors made a game of it in the third quarter before falling just short in the fourth.
One would expect the Raptors to bring the energy early in this one, with Milwaukee getting into Toronto late after needing overtime to defeat the Washington Wizards on Monday night. Kyle Lowry and the Raptors as a team did a tremendous job of setting the tone in the opening quarter against the Indiana Pacers on Sunday, playing some of their best defence of the season to limit the Pacers to just three points through the opening eight minutes of the game.
How do you muddy up an offence as elite as Milwaukee’s? Toronto did so last year after the first couple games by walling off Giannis from the paint with Kawhi as the primary defender and Gasol as the secondary. This time, OG Anunoby or Pascal Siakam — who took on the assignment to start when the two teams met earlier this season — will take on the primary assignment while Serge Ibaka will be the starting centre. The strategy is dependent on the other Bucks players making the most of the open looks they receive, of which there will likely be plenty. The Raptors allow the most 3-point attempts in the league with just over 40% of the shots they allow coming from beyond the arc, but opponents have also shot a league-low 34.1% from three against them. Is there some overdue regression? Perhaps, opponents have shot just 35.2% on wide open shots (closest defender at least six feet away) — the second-worst mark in the league — when the median is closer to 38%.
Offensively, Siakam should continue to receive plenty of touches if he can remain out of foul trouble. He left the Nov. 2 contest early in the first quarter having picked up two early fouls defending Giannis and this speaks to the importance of having Anunoby start on The Greek Freak out of the gate. This is also where it helps Nurse to know that he’s got an extra body he can rely on now when it comes to options against Giannis, with Rondae Hollis-Jefferson likely to see a bit of time on him after being a non-factor on the Raptors roster early in the season.
Gasol’s absence does make me wonder if Bucks head coach Mike Budenholzer will turn to last year’s strategy — prior to the Jonas Valanciunas trade — when they would trap Lowry at every opportunity and dare Ibaka to either keep the ball moving or pull up for a mid-range jumper. Either result is likely viewed as a mathematical win for Milwaukee, but Ibaka’s improvements this season could force some changes if they do indeed go to it. While Ibaka has been a dependable mid-range option throughout his career, he shot just 29% on non-corner threes last season. In order for Budenholzer to think twice about trapping Lowry, Ibaka will have to knock down at least a few from above the break, an area of the floor where he is shooting a mind-blowing 43% from this season.
The other option is to show off some of his improved playmaking this season, as if he can roll to the basket strong enough and force the defence to collapse — they will because the Bucks contest shots at the rim better than anyone — then finding the open shooter and having them knock down shots should aid the Raptors’ offence as well.
Of course, all of this discussion about potential strategies could be for nought if Budenholzer and Nurse look to hide as much as possible before a potential playoff showdown. Let the mind games begin.
Time: 7:30 p.m. ET / 4:30 p.m. PT.
TV: TSN. Radio: FAN 590.
Patrick McCaw is questionable with flu-like symptoms while Marc Gasol remains out with left hamstring tightness, Norman Powell is still recovering from the fracture to the fourth metacarpal of his left hand and Dewan Hernandez is also out with a right ankle sprain.
PG: Fred VanVleet, Terence Davis
SG: Kyle Lowry, Matt Thomas
SF: OG Anunoby, Oshae Brissett, Paul Watson, Stanley Johnson
PF: Pascal Siakam, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson
C: Serge Ibaka, Chris Boucher
GTD: Patrick McCaw
OUT: Marc Gasol, Norman Powell, Dewan Hernandez
G LEAGUE: Malcolm Miller
Brook Lopez and Kyle Korver both sat out the OT win against the Wizards with back soreness, and while Lopez is expected to return to action against the Raptors, Korver’s status remains uncertain. D.J. Wilson has been assigned to the G League.
PG: Eric Bledsoe, George Hill, Patt Connaughton
SG: Wesley Matthews, Donte DiVincenzo, Sterling Brown
SF: Khris Middleton, Marvin Williams
PF: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Ersan Ilyasova
C: Brook Lopez, Robin Lopez
GTD: Kyle Korver
G LEAGUE: D.J. Wilson
The Raptors are currently two-point underdogs with the over/under set at 230.5.