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NBA Playoffs Preview: Can Milwaukee Upset Toronto?

The Milwaukee Bucks return to the playoffs against the Toronto Raptors.

NBA: Toronto Raptors at Milwaukee Bucks Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

In the pantheon of playoff franchises to draw, few are more advantageous from a historical perspective than the Toronto Raptors. Before last year’s backslide into the Eastern Conference Finals, Toronto was haunted by Tracy McGrady syndrome. Unable to advance past the first round, their narrow series wins in 2016 sent the proverbial monkey on their back into the Canadian wilderness. Regardless, such historical precedent should be the furthest thing from Milwaukee’s mind, a team seeking to shed the first round stink from their own history.

Outside of Cleveland, Toronto is probably the worst draw Milwaukee could have asked for. The Raptors have won seven of the last eight games against Milwaukee. The Bucks’ have been outscored by 37 points overall across their four games this season. Their lone win came shortly after the Raptors lost Kyle Lowry for over a month. Suffice to say, this is not a series one can easily envision Milwaukee winning. However, they play the games for a reason, and Giannis Antetokounmpo’s mere presence means Milwaukee has a fighting chance.

Drawing broad-based conclusions from the Bucks’ previous games with Toronto would be unwise, particularly given the volatility of both rosters over the course of the year. Milwaukee played three of their games with Jabari Parker in the lineup, while Toronto’s lone game against Khris Middleton came without Kyle Lowry. Because of that, we haven’t gotten a chance to see the fully revamped Raptors take on Milwaukee’s second-half squad. There’s still plenty to glean from individual matchups though, so let’s explore how this series might shake out by breaking it into six different sections, starting with our broadest understanding of these teams.

Numerical Breakdown

Toronto owned the most prolific offense in NBA history early in the season, and while they’ve nestled into the sixth-most efficient offense in the league, their full complement of weapons matches up with the Eastern Conference’s elite. Since starting the year with rookie Pascal Siakim in the starting lineup, they’ve since upgraded by trading for Serge Ibaka and P.J. Tucker. The most treasured asset they gave up in those transactions was noted Bucks’ killer Terrence Ross, a break for the Bucks. However, those two have fortified Toronto’s defense to become 8th best for the season (104.9), and the fourth stingiest since the All-Star Break (102.3). Toronto is only two spots behind Milwaukee in terms of opponent turnover percentage. They also own the fifth lowest team turnover percentage. That’s a deadly combination for a Bucks team that thrives on takeaways and is prone to gifting it away.

Meanwhile, Milwaukee continues to have an above average offense, albeit one that’s cratered to what would be near league-worst levels in their previous games against Toronto. Overall, Milwaukee finished out the season ranked 13th in terms of offensive efficiency and 19th for defensive efficiency. Their late season swoon is pushing those numbers down a bit, particularly some of the beatings they took by Oklahoma City and Indiana. The dip in Milwaukee’s second half numbers, while Toronto’s improved defensively despite the loss of their best player, isn’t necessarily an indicator of success.

What does work in Milwaukee’s favor is Toronto’s stance as a bottom-ten team in terms of three-point attempts. Actualize their artillery with Ibaka, Lowry, Tucker, Carroll and DeRozan, and that has the makings of a near five-out team, but DeRozan’s reticence to shoot from deep deflates that number. Additionally, Toronto owns the lowest assist percentage in the league, but that hasn’t stopped their offense from humming along, powered by season two of Skinny Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan’s career scoring campaign.

Northern Star Power

The Raptors are a pick and roll team, an offensive style generally suited to the lethargic pace of the postseason. Indeed, the Raptors are a slow team themselves, playing at the 8th slowest pace in the league. That action is built around Lowry and DeRozan, both of whom rank in the top-15 in terms of possessions per game as a ball handler in the pick and roll. Play types like this fit lead guards willing to pull-up at a moment’s notice, and DeMar DeRozan has made a career on his willingness to jack from the midrange. His pull-up numbers aren’t particularly stellar though, he’s at a 43.4% effective field goal percentage, albeit on an absurd 10.8 attempts per game, second only to Russell Westbrook (12.8). Luring him into a similar rinse-repeat midrange game that teams try with Westbrook wouldn’t be the worst result. Milwaukee’s bigs shouldn’t feel inclined to hedge DeRozan too hastily on the perimeter given he shoots just 1.7 threes per game, they just have to keep him in check to prevent an open midrange pull-up or gathering a head of steam heading to the basket. Even though DeRozan hits this, if Milwaukee gets plays like this, they will live with it. (Apologies for the poor video quality of these clips)

What they can’t live with is guarding Kyle Lowry that way. Lowry is an elite pull-up shooter, with a 57.0% eFG percentage. That’s tops in the league among all players with at least five pull-up attempts per game. He’s not shy from deep either, over 23 of his pull-up shots are from three, and he’s knocking down 42.1% of those. Duck under a screen and he’ll plop one in with ease. Hang back, and it’s death from deep. Hedge too hard without weakside recovery, and Lowry will whip the ball across the court for the Raptors to find a quality look for one of their many three-point shooters. Milwaukee’s frontcourt will have to be crystal clear when communicating with Lowry’s defender on pick and rolls.

Nullifying those pick and rolls completely is an impossibility, but the playoffs are one time when the methodical pace lends itself to a more rough n’ tumble style of play. Subtle jersey grabs can go a long way towards impeding a point guards progress into the lane or past their mountainous screener. Now would be a fine time for a return to decent, borderline dirty, defensive form for Dellavedova.

Of course, the Raptors’ lead guards pull-up propensity also means they’re stout isolation players, another bastion of playoff basketball. Toronto ran isolation plays at the sixth-highest frequency in the league this year, scoring in the 97th percentile in terms of efficiency. Their points per possession (0.99) is identical to Cleveland, home of two isolation maestros in Lebron James and Kyrie Irving. For a team whose defense is designed around over committing, and can be carved up quickly by an isolation penetration, this is another area that should worry Milwaukee. Both DeRozan and Lowry love to drive too, ranking in the top-ten in terms of drives per game. If DeRozan drives, almost 75% of the time he’s looking to score. Milwaukee needs to force him to become a playmaker rather than a play finisher when it comes to reaching the basket. That’s significantly easier here because Lowry is missing from the game, but it’s better than letting DeRozan get to the line, where he averaged 8.7 attempts per game this year.

Both Lowry and DeRozan finish shots at the rim above 60%, but those are small portions of their shot profile. Despite the low assist numbers for Toronto, Lowry is a shifty, willing passer, dishing to teammates nearly 40% of the time on his drives. If he doesn’t want to go up for a finish, he’ll find any number of Raptors camped on the perimeter. Milwaukee’s push-and-pull weakside defenders will have to be extra aware of who they’re leaving on the perimeter when helping off to prevent drives at the hoop. Tony Snell will get his hands dirty with both of these guys at times, and Lowry isn’t enough of a waterbug to zip by Brogdon repeatedly. Again, they won’t stop them, but deterrence will do.

The P.J. Tucker Experience

You know that dog from The Sandlot? The one who seemed like anything you put within his vicinity would instantly become property his property? That’s basically P.J. Tucker. Even more than Serge Ibaka, this guy may be vital to Toronto’s postseason success. As an offensive player he’s limited, although he can stroke the three (35.9% for the year, 40.7% since arriving in Toronto) so he’s capable as a floor spacer. However, his tenacity on the defensive end creates the kind of menacing instability Delly probably envisions he’s creating in his mind. Tucker fights through screens like a running back shedding tacklers, and keeps his stout frame squarely in the way of any oncoming freight train dribblers.

In the one game he played against Milwaukee as a member of Toronto, he alternated guarding Khris Middleton and Giannis Antetokounmpo. What’s most striking about that game is how few times Middleton or Giannis scored against Toronto’s premier defender. Giannis took only one jump shot against him, but felt entirely confident when Serge Ibaka switched onto him near the perimeter. Ibaka isn’t nearly the defender he was a few years ago, and while he’s still a serviceable rim protector, it’s clear he can’t operate in space against the jolting athleticism of Giannis. Tucker, however, can knock Giannis off his path fairly easily, short-circuiting his penetration before it begins and forcing him to kick the ball to others.

Tucker typically guarded Middleton when both he and Giannis shared the floor, however Tucker’s bench role usually means his minutes will coincide with the late 1st-mid-2nd quarter interim period when Kidd is staggering his stars. Tucker is a tenacious on-ball defender, and will fight like hell through screens when tracking someone off-ball. If he’s following Khris Middleton around the floor, expect Tucker to be trailing him like a ghost. Tucker’s 6-foot-6-inch size makes him a reasonable match for Middleton in the post too. Milwaukee should work to get Tucker switched off of Giannis as much as possible to turn him into a help defender, forced to suck in when Giannis starts his drives. From there, Giannis can either loop up and finish, pull up for a shot if he’s feeling frisky, or dish to whomever Tucker left for a quick shot.

Transition Terror

For all the discussion about the splendor of watching a Bucks team thriving on youth power, its offensive style typically resembles a rocking chair more than a speeding go-kart. Plodding isolation post-ups where Middleton and Giannis literally rock their heron-like frames into the defender are common. Exploiting a mismatch is like catnip to this roster, and while Milwaukee certainly has several they should punish, but another solution to some of their woes lie in cleaning up their transition game on both ends.

Too many times after a miss, Milwaukee would leave Raptors shooters wide open to fire efficient shots early in the shot clock. Simply marking a man as they go down the floor will help Milwaukee avoid costly gaffes. The Raptors are in the bottom half of the league in terms of how often they use transition plays, but these are basic basketball fixes that can prevent Toronto from burying the Bucks beneath an onslaught of prime looks. The absence of Jabari Parker, a notorious defensive daydreamer, may provide a little more defensive stability too, although the Bucks roster isn’t lacking for guys who fall asleep on close-outs. Regardless, these types of sequences are frustrating lapses in judgment the Bucks can’t afford in the postseason.

On the other end, Milwaukee should try to eschew their hum-drum pace in favor of pushing the ball whenever possible. Transition plays make up 14.9% of the Bucks’ offense, good for 11th in the league, but they’re also fourth in terms of scoring efficiency in transition. Much of that is due to Giannis’ incredible finishes, and admittedly some of the Bucks’ transition terror has seemed neutered since Jabari Parker left the lineup. However, Giannis alone is enough to inspire fear in defenses, and transition opportunities will help Milwaukee either avoid Toronto’s lockdown halfcourt defense or create mismatches by forcing Toronto defenders to mark a man before the D can get set. Here, even without Giannis involved in the push, the Bucks’ get a high-efficiency look from Terry while Giannis crashes the boards before finishing with a dunk due to the size mismatch with DeRozan in the post. Rip the leash off, and good things should come. Whether that actually occurs is a much more dubious proposition.

Giannis Unleashed

Despite some of the gloomy analysis for Milwaukee, the fact remains that they have the best player in the series. In the playoffs, that’s usually a prerequisite for victory. How Playoff Giannis will manifest itself is another question, but despite my concerns about P.J. Tucker, Giannis is enough that Toronto’s entire gameplan will probably revolve around impeding the Bucks’ superstar. The Raps will likely start off with Ibaka guarding Giannis, and he must immediately impose his will upon the elder rim defender. Ibaka doesn’t have nearly the athleticism in his aged knees anymore, and he’s allowing 51.3% shooting at the rim since joining Toronto. He’s a far more savvy positional defender, but that’s still a mark almost identical to the much maligned defensive turnstile Jahlil Okafor This isn’t Bismack Biyombo of yesteryear, and Milwaukee should have no qualms about steering towards their preferred shot location in the paint. If Giannis sniffs out a switch, punish them in the post. Outside of Tucker and maybe Ibaka, no one can stop Giannis when he’s within sight of the basket.

Within those plays, they must take advantage of Toronto’s fouling propensity. They allow free throws at the seventh-highest rate in the league. Those gimme points are a necessity, particularly considering Toronto turns the ball over at the fifth-lowest rate in the league. If the Bucks’ defense isn’t able to shift that and create turnovers at the rate they’ve been since the All-Star Break, they’ll lose another prime component of their offensive makeup.

Getting Khris Middleton quality looks from three will be paramount. Too often the last few games, Middleton’s looked to play hero ball only to become overmatched while driving to the rim. What athleticism he did have probably won’t return until next year. His meditative midrange game is a fitting counter to DeRozan, albeit on far less volume. When Giannis is resting, Middleton will have to complement Brogdon or whoever else is serving as a second-unit playmaker. Middleton is overqualified to be a release valve for this offense, but he needs to make himself available at end of shot clock situations whenever Giannis finds himself stumbling around the perimeter with the possession winding down.

Once again though, it all returns to Giannis. His halfcourt offense has left some things to be desired this year, and his isolation game is still a work in progress due to his mercurial jumper. However, Milwaukee has several plays they can utilize to diversify Giannis’ halfcourt offerings. Inverted pick and rolls, as detailed in Kevin O’Connor’s piece on The Ringer, can create open looks and get Giannis switched onto smaller defenders, but its deadliness will rely on Delly and Brogdon’s jumpers falling consistently. Elbow gets will place Giannis in prime attack locations, and Thon Maker could draw impending rim protection away by popping to the perimeter. That will open the lane for Giannis to attack and finish, or dish out for an open three. His willingness to shoot from the midrange will be important too, hesitation isn’t an option for the Bucks’ star if he hopes to keep Toronto’s defenders honest. He’s looked comfortable against Ibaka, and shot 9-15 from the midrange against Toronto this year, a far cry from his 33% from that area for the season, but Giannis’ J often seems to be a product of confidence more than anything else.

Lastly, Center-Giannis was an oddity last season many enjoyed watching. In its small 126-minute sample this year, it’s been routinely slaughtered, with a net rating of -6.5. On the flipside, Toronto’s lineups with Ibaka and no traditional center are +12.7 over 231 minutes. Despite the significant gap, Milwaukee still seems uniquely qualified to counter Toronto in this department. Even if they don’t go with Giannis at center, Thon Maker has the rangy defensive tools to recover against Ibaka, and Giannis can supply enough rim protection as a roamer within their defensive scheme. However, Milwaukee shouldn’t shy away from putting their best statistical rim protector in the center position. Brett touched on this fact in his playoff rotation post, but Center-Giannis lineups seem like an elegant solution to any Toronto downsizing despite its lack of success this year. Make no mistake, any prayer Milwaukee has of winning these games rests on the muscled shoulders of their superstar.

Reserve Roulette

With Toronto presumably focusing much of their attention on Giannis, it will be up to Milwaukee’s reserves to come through if they have any hopes of pulling this series out. The fleet of three-point shooters: Tony Snell, Jason Terry, Matthew Dellavedova, Mirza Teletovic and Malcolm Brogdon should provide plenty of offensive spacing. Their defensive deficiencies, particularly those of Dellavedova and Terry, will require significant assistance from the Bucks’ help defense. I’m not as worried about Teletovic getting hammered by Ibaka, Tucker or Patterson since none of them are adept in the post, but Telly will have to keep his head on a swivel with those guys posting up in the corner.

Look for the most significant contribution from Greg Monroe and Tony Snell. Snell’s defensive acumen provided a much needed perimeter on-ball defender this year, and Toronto will be content letting Tony Snell beat them on perimeter jumpers. Meanwhile Monroe has an opportunity to feast against inferior post defenders. Valanciunas is a brute, but easily fooled with Monroe’s magic act under the basket. If Toronto goes small, Monroe should be able to pull similar tricks on whomever Toronto sends at him. If the Bucks take more than one game in this series, it will be because of this group.

Series Prediction

The playoffs are a star’s game. Many pundits prescribe to the theory that having the best player in a series often correlates to winning that series. Giannis Antetokounmpo is undoubtedly the best player in this series. Unfortunately, having the best player, and potentially third best player, doesn’t hold up to scrutiny when the remainder of your roster looks routinely outclassed at every other position on the court.

Toronto offers too many matchup issues Milwaukee simply doesn’t have the personnel to stop. The duo of P.J. Tucker and Demarre Carroll is an effective antidote to Milwaukee’s finest scorers, and I don’t trust the rest of Milwaukee’s roster to fill in the gaps over the course of a playoff series.. This series may not prove out the “star’s game” theory for Milwaukee, but it will almost certainly feature at least one star’s game from Giannis where he carries the Bucks to victory. Unfortunately, that’s all I can foresee Milwaukee stealing.

Raptors in 5.