Even the most ardent NBA heads have trouble watching every team on a consistent basis, so heading straight to the source for all-encompassing Raptors knowledge seemed like a prudent idea. Sean Woodley of Raptors HQ was kind enough to answer some of our questions, and give Bucks fans a better idea what this Toronto team is all about. If you can’t get enough of Sean’s Raptors takes, make sure to listen to his crossover appearance with Eric and Frank on Locked on Bucks.
1. What kind of expectations do Raptors fans have for this team after making the Eastern Conference Finals last year for the first time and adding significant upgrades during the trade deadline?
Raptors fans always tend to enter the first round with a tinge of apprehension. After a sweep at the hands of the Wizards in 2014 and a pair of anything-but-easy series en route to last year's Eastern Conference Finals, the last month or so has been an exercise in trying to predict how it will go wrong this time around. That said, with the deadline additions of Serge Ibaka and P.J. Tucker and the return of Kyle Lowry, there's more of an air of confidence around this year's iteration of the team than in season's past. A first round win is expected. An early exit would be a borderline disaster, and would potentially throw free agent to be Kyle Lowry's future with the franchise into question.
Beyond round one, most people following this team are realistic. Cleveland remains an overwhelming favorite in a potential second-round series. A loss to the Cavs is probably destiny, but a more competitive series than last year's Conference Finals, in which the Raptors were outscored by more than 100 points, would be relatively positive end to the Raptors season.
2. How have Serge Ibaka and P.J. Tucker improved this team, and has it changed their fundamental style at all offensively or defensively?
The beauty of the Ibaka and Tucker additions is that they've seamlessly blended in to the Raptors guard-centric attack. Ibaka has essentially filled Terrence Ross's vacated role as the team's predominant three-point gunner, while Tucker has drained about 40% of his corner threes on a low usage rate. They both know the spots they need to find to get shots within the flow of the offense.
The transformation has come on defense. Before the trades, the Raptors were scuffling between 15th and 20th in defensive efficiency. In games against top competition, their inability to get stops neutralized their offensive potency. High scoring losses to teams like Cleveland, Golden State and the Clippers dot the early part of the schedule.
Tucker and Ibaka's arrival coincided with a notable uptick in the team's defensive prowess. Toronto was the third-best post-All Star defense in the league thanks in large part to the versatility those two provide. A front court look of DeMarre Carroll, Tucker and Ibaka has been particularly stingy in a small sample - posting a +36.6 NET Rating with a 95.4 Defensive Rating in 38 minutes - many of which have been in crunch time moments. Look for that configuration in this series.
Toronto lacked a level of nastiness on defense before Masai Ujiri made his moves. That's not a concern anymore -- just ask Robin Lopez and Lance Stephenson.
3. Over the last two years, Toronto is 7-1 against the Bucks and Milwaukee's lone win came with Kyle Lowry out. Why do you think they've matched up so well against Milwaukee?
This one is as perplexing to me as I'm sure it is frustrating for Bucks fans, Milwaukee seems to have all the ingredients of a team that would give the Raptors problems. Hyper-aggressive traps like the ones the Bucks deploy have long been the way to throw DeMar DeRozan off his game -- although that's been a less pronounced issue this season. In one-on-one situations, Khris Middleton fits the profile of someone custom-built to guard DeRozan as well. They've also had big, defense-first point guards who have been unable to rein in Kyle Lowry.
I mostly think the disparity in record in the last few seasons (the Raptors are 13-2 in their last 15 against the Bucks) has simply been a case of two teams at different spots in their trajectories. Toronto was a 56-win team last year, and swept the season series with plenty of Eastern Conference teams in addition to Milwaukee. As Giannis continues to develop and the Bucks' roster continues to take form around him, I'd expect a much more even playing field between these two teams going forward.
4. How close to 100% is Kyle Lowry after returning from his wrist injury?
Toronto's hopes for a deep playoff run hinge on this question. Lowry's first four games back have been mostly encouraging. His first game out of the chute saw him drop 27 points while hitting 2-of-5 from deep and a perfect 7-of-7 at the line, with his first shot of the game coming in the form of a patented pull-up three around a screen. He's currently 8-of-24 from deep since returning -- not his typical 40-plus percent clip, but promising enough to not be overly concerned that he's lost his stroke. And as Lowry showed in last year's playoffs, he's still capable of being the most dominant player on the floor even if his shot is wayward.
On defense, Lowry has looked a touch slow. It's hard to gauge whether or not it's tied to wobbly, tired legs or the apathy that April basketball inspires. Lowry has been prone to spells of dampened defensive intensity, but tends to ratchet it up in times of need.
If I had to put a number on it, I'd say Lowry looks to be about 85-90% of his usual self.
5. What under-the-radar player should Bucks fans look for to step into the ceremonial "Bucks Killer" role that Terrence Ross once held?
As the world's foremost Terrence Ross supporter, I can't describe how sad I am that Ross won't get the chance to take on the Bucks in the playoffs. As far as who might take his place as the team's head venison chef, my money's on Jonas Valanciunas. With the Bucks being such a porous rebounding team, and not having a great, stretchy option at the five to pull Valanciunas away from the basket, the stage is set for Playoff JV to make a comeback (he averaged 14 points and 11 rebounds (4 offensive) per game before getting hurt in the second round last year). Jason Kidd getting creative and sticking Giannis at center could put an end to that, though.
A sleeper candidate could be Norman Powell, who the Raptors acquired from the Bucks along with a first-round pick in exchange for Greivis Vasquez two years ago.
I'm sorry, that was a low blow.
6. What's your prediction for the series?
Raptors in 5. This year' Raptors team is simply more talented with more depth and versatility than the team that reached last year's Eastern Conference Finals. And while Giannis is going to be a major problem, I think he's still slightly below the level that Paul George was at last season when he almost single-handedly upset the Raptors in round one. Milwaukee might be the future of the East, but I think it's a year too soon for an upset pick.