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NBA Playoffs: Takeaways and Thoughts from a Sluggish Game Four for Milwaukee

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Was Milwaukee’s putrid performance indicative of a potential shift in the series?

NBA: Playoffs-Toronto Raptors at Milwaukee Bucks Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

Throwback jerseys and logos are cool. Throwback games are not. Anyone deriving pleasure from yesterday’s game four slog is probably still rocking a Zenith television and an overflowing stack of mid-2000’s Eastern Conference Playoff VHS tapes. Calling it a throwback game is a little disingenuous though, particularly since the resounding takeaway from the game will be Dwayne Casey going small to start, a new age tactic that clashed with the choppy flow of yesterday’s contest.

Casey tossed Jonas Valanciunas to the bench, aligning his minutes more with the post-inclined Greg Monroe. What that did was give Toronto another robust perimeter defender, and one who can alleviate the defensive duties of DeMar DeRozan, who gets to camp out on Tony Snell (who promptly responded with a stone-faced 19-point outburst). However, the change did little to juice Toronto’s offense, besides the fact Powell actually hit a few shots from deep. Despite DeRozan finding his spots more readily yesterday, Milwaukee’s defense held Toronto to a 90.2 offensive rating, a number similar to the Bucks’ game one victory.

What flipped was Milwaukee’s offense, which sputtered almost all game. Their 78.4 offensive rating is the worst of either team in this series, even trailing the Raptors’ pitiful annihilation in game two. The Raptors have taken a page out of Stan Van Gundy’s playbook and formed a freakin’ wall in the paint whenever Giannis looks to attack. It’s been effective thus far, and Giannis is shooting just 54.8% at the rim, well below his season average of 64.4%. Ibaka’s been an effective deterrent (allowing 31.7% shooting at the rim), and if Middleton isn’t splashing those contorted jumpers, Milwaukee’s offensive production will be wanting.

Given their limited nature, playoff games can create a recency bias. Grasping at the latest result can swing both a team’s percentage of winning the series (down to 33% for Bucks) and the fanbase’s perception of the series. What’s most telling about game four is that there was a tangible shift to grab onto with Casey’s starting lineup change. Before that, it was generally a series of minute alterations or altering reserve roles. Now, a new variable (and one largely absent in the series to this point) is inserted and it’s tempting to overreact and say his insertion flipped the game. Perhaps that will be true, but it just altered one half of the Bucks’ game. This wasn’t a complete flip-switcher, it just happened to stymie a Bucks’ offense that also saw its finest two players shoot 10-32 and turn the ball over 11 times. Milwaukee looked like a team with hooves out there, and lost the ball repeatedly while driving to the lane for 20 turnovers overall. Kidd talked about Toronto’s reach helping them tonight. Active hands sapped Milwaukee’s offense may times, and while there are offensive adjustments to examine, just cleaning up their play will go a long way if their defensive effort continues.

To this point, Casey’s moves (complaining about screens and shifting the starting lineup) are both the type of typical playoff moves people think about from head coaches. The impact of the first is negligible, the latter has worked in one game. Kidd’s made some great adjustments to this point too (lifting the minutes ceiling off Thon, sending additional defenders to counter the Raptors’ eluding traps in game two), but it’s been a lot of smartly positioning pawns and bishops rather than something flashy. This is Kidd’s first real opportunity to examine something that clearly wasn’t working. We’ll see whether he incorporates alterations or views it as a blip due to ineffective execution.

Finally, let’s get reductive for a second with this series. There’s three games left, the Raptors could (and probably should) feel as if they’ve finally “figured something out” for the first time this series. If there’s one thing I’m sure of though, it’s that nobody has really “figured out” a definitive way to stop Giannis at this point. He’s struggled the last few games, but pure and simple, he’ll need to play like the best player in the series going forward if the Bucks want to advance. There’s some throwback rationale for ya. Take that for data (did I use that right?).

A few other thoughts and tidbits:

  • Toronto’s preference to get back on defense rather than attack the offensive boards seems to be paying off so far, as Giannis is averaging only 0.90 points per possession on roughly the same number of transition opportunities he had in the regular season (4.8) when he averaged 1.28 PPP and ranked in the 81st percentile. He’s shooting 42.9% in those opportunities in the postseason. Granted, that’s a small sample size, but clearly the Raptors have committed to stopping Giannis in that regard. I was curious how teams would adapt to Giannis in a playoff series given several games to plan for him. Toronto, for its part, has done a pretty darn good job containing him. Giannis will have to adjust, and while I’m not advocating he stop looking to attack and draw fouls at the tin, Milwaukee’s shooters need to sprint down the floor and give him spot-up opportunities. Giannis needs to make sure he’s not wearing blinders either, the first half of this clip is a pass he’s gotta make to Delly. In the second part of it, Jason Terry is open in the corner and Delly is waiting at the left wing just off the screen. If Toronto is going whole hog on stopping Giannis in the paint, he needs to use his multi-faceted game to hurt them in other ways.
  • Mirza Teletovic defensive issues may keep him out of this series, particularly if Toronto is going small, but it Milwaukee’s offense continues to struggle, I won’t be surprised if Kidd goes back to him for a spell. Micheal Beasley’s performed admirably, even hitting 3/5 on his spot-up three-pointers, but outside of garbage time in game three, he hasn’t been unleashed to attack mismatches. With the Raptors stacking the paint, it may make sense to give Giannis another release valve on the perimeter. We haven’t seen the Mirza transition spot-up play as much lately, and that could be an opportunity for the Bucks to get some quick outside looks against an increasingly crunching Raptors’ defense.
  • Thon Maker, in his limited run this series, is having an impressive showing as a rim protector. He’s allowing Toronto to shoot just 34.6% at the rim against 6.5 shots per game. His defensive presence is short-circuiting the Raptors’ guards ability to finish in the paint, and Kyle Lowry has passed out from underneath the basket many times in this series already. His length, combined with Antetokounmpo’s capability as a weak-side shot blocker, has presented plenty of problems as the Raptors are shooting just 49.3% around the rim in this series.
  • Milwaukee rarely runs guys off screens, only 3.8% of their possessions in the regular season finished that way, a bottom-ten rate, but it may behoove them to try it a bit with Tony Snell having DeMar DeRozan guarding him in the starting lineup. Not only will it rough up DeRozan, but Snell’s been on fire this whole series, shooting 50% on 26 total three-point attempts. DeRozan isn’t one to exert maximum defensive effort, and the Bucks’ can knock him off his spot even with flimsy screens set by Maker and Brogdon in the clip below. On two other Snell three-point attempts in the second half not shown below, DeRozan either got easily blocked by Monroe for a quick transition three by Snell or he screwed up a switch, leaving Tucker to feebly leap out at Snell. He is a weak point in Toronto’s defensive chain, and Snell is not an offensive negative like Tony Allen or Andre Roberson. The Bucks would be wise to force switches onto DeRozan or use Snell in ways similar to the second half of this game.