The Milwaukee Bucks currently hold a 2-1 series lead over the Toronto Raptors here in the first round of the NBA Playoffs. Be sure to check out Adam’s rundown of all the tidbits from Game 3, as well as my “big picture” look at what this series could mean for the Bucks going forward.
Giannis. Blocked. A. Shot. With. His. Elbow.https://t.co/EaJqm08phw— SB Nation NBA (@SBNationNBA) April 21, 2017
Things are going OK for the Bucks so far in this series, and we haven’t even seen Giannis have a signature game (yet).
The Bucks are also 100% healthy, save for the rehabbing Jabari Parker, who penned a wonderful article in the Player’s Tribune that definitely didn’t tug at my heartstrings, nope, solemn as a statue over here, yes sir, no pro- OH PLEASE GET WELL SOON JABARI WE LOVE YOU SO DANG MUCH.
The Raptors are fully healthy (despite Serge Ibaka’s ankle scare from Game 1), and it’s all hands on deck for Toronto. I had the pleasure of exchanging questions with Blake Murphy (@BlakeMurphyODC) of ESPN’s TrueHoop blog RaptorsRepublic; be sure to check out his questions (and my answers) in preparation for Game 4!
Mitchell: Your first question was about the Bucks' level of confidence moving forward. But there's two teams in this series, so let me ask this: on a scale of 1 to "shook" (relevant NSFW link), just how rattled are the Raptors?
Blake: They have to be pretty rattled. For years now, the team has kind of been protected by this veil of being able to bounce back from anything. They hadn't lost three games in a row in forever. They led the league in double-digit comebacks in back-to-back years. They came back from 0-1 series holes twice last year. And so on. The issue with having that fortitude and resiliency is that it's only there...until it's not. Resiliency is not a fact, and confidence in your ability to constantly fight through adversity is fluid. That's been the scary thing about the entire way the Raptors have succeeded the last few years — so much of the success has been predicated on soft skills (chemistry, culture, resiliency), but what are they when those things are stripped away or challenged even further? The Raptors bounced back from 0-1, sure, but not 1-2, and not defeats of that magnitude. I don't imagine they're broken just yet, but I'm very interested to see how they respond to their own lack of response now that their no-shows are snowballing.
Mitchell: The Bucks have been getting contributions from all over the roster, and nearly every player has surpassed expectations thus far. What about the Raptors? Even considering the highly-visible struggles from Toronto's pair of All Star guards (Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan), how has the rest of the team done so far?
Blake: Uhh, Delon Wright has been pretty good. Seriously, it's a really troubling sign when a guy with 54 NBA games and 78 playoff minutes under his belt has been maybe your brightest spot. But who else has come through? Jonas Valanciunas has been a complete non-factor in a matchup that could have helped swing the series. The team is shooting 34.2% outside of the paint and 33.8% on threes despite the torrid Game 2. Serge Ibaka has probably been the team's best player, and it's great that he's playing well, but that underscores how bad it's been at the top. There's really not a lot to be excited about here so far. I'm sorry I don't have a better answer for you than the team's third point guard being decent.
Mitchell: Milwaukee's defense has been vulnerable to the three-pointer for most of Jason Kidd's tenure as head coach. Does Toronto have enough shooting to find these gaps in the Bucks' armor? Who hasn't launched enough shots so far?
Blake: I don't think it's the shooting that's that much of an issue. The Raptors hit threes at an OK clip during the season, and the return of Kyle Lowry helps in that regard. Threes are high-variance by nature, and while the Raptors have a couple of particularly inconsistent shooters (namely, DeMarre Carroll and Patrick Patterson), you have to trust those shots when they come. The issue has been that outside of maybe 35 minutes of Game 3, the looks have been late, rushed, and desperate. The ball movement is at the root of the poor shooting and the offensive struggles as a whole, and despite it being an obvious point of emphasis against the Bucks, the Raptors have actually done worse in that regard for the series (their assist rate and assist-to-pass percentage are both below their regular season marks). In Game 3, they had 11 assists on 33 potential assists. That's not a great conversion rate, to be sure, but only 33 potential assists is remarkable, especially with only four secondary assists (they had zero of those in Game 1). Shooting is going to come and go, and the team has to just trust that (playing spacier lineups with an extra wing or forward, as they appear set to in Game 4, should help a bit). They can put themselves in a much better position by moving the ball, though, and it wrinkles the brain that they regressed in this regard.
Mitchell: As we go into Game 4, is this low-key one of the most important playoff games in recent Raptors history?
Blake: I wouldn't even say it's low-key. Masai Ujiri was very clear at the trade deadline that he acquired P.J. Tucker and Ibaka to give the Raptors' core a fair, fighting chance to see what they can do. He also said that he doesn't think it makes sense to spend into the tax for a team that's going to lose in the first round. Losing this series would mean three first-round eliminations in four years as the higher seed, with the one exception being a conference finals run in a weak year where they barely got through each of the first two rounds. They'll take a very holistic look at everything - their players, their cap situation, the lay of the East, and so on - but it's very difficult to see a loss to Milwaukee meaning anything but significant changes. Considering this has been the best extended run in franchise history and it's sustainability is being questioned here, Game 4 is pretty damn huge.
Make sure to join us for the game thread later today! Go Bucks!