Standing between the Milwaukee Bucks and their first Finals appearance since 1974 are the Toronto Raptors, a model of efficiency led by their machine-like executioner Kawhi Leonard. All season, the Raptors were neck-and-neck with the Bucks atop the standings, ultimately finishing a few wins short of the top seed. For anyone that argues that the regular season means nothing in the NBA, it certainly matters now. Whatever benefits the Raptors gained from sitting Leonard for 22 games (and this postseason has generally validated that decision), dab some truth serum on Masai Ujiri’s lips and I bet he’d wish Leonard had played a few more games to help them secure homecourt advantage. Instead, the road to the NBA Finals runs through Water Street. And what a rough road this series could be.
Before this magical run began, I warped Dean Oliver’s fundamental four factor concepts to peer at several key trends in the Detroit Pistons series. Then, Mitchell covered a lot of the ground I was interested in with his intelligent prodding of Bucks-Celtics stats. With the finals on the line though, let’s revisit a tweaked version of those four factors to account for the most intriguing statistical matchups between these squads:
- Shooting Location
- Rebounding Rate
- Sneaky Key Buck to Watch
I ditched free throws since the stats seemed like a relative wash. Toronto and Milwaukee rank 14th and 15th in terms of free throw rate offensively. Milwaukee was the finest team at avoiding fouling, while Toronto was eighth. The officiating around Giannis Antetokounmpo will inevitably enter the series discourse again. It’s also worth remembering we all saw the Celtics turn the Bucks’ defensive free throw trends on its head in that series. Let’s move on though, like Serge Ibaka at the slightest sign of an on-court scrum, let’s get after it.
As two of the league’s premier offensive units, it’s no surprise both Milwaukee and Toronto dine on favorable shot diets. They ranked 3rd and 6th respectively in terms of points per possession and were 2nd/3rd in terms of effective field goal percentage this season, per Cleaning The Glass. Quality looks are bountiful in each team’s strategy, but each also offers intriguing counters. Milwaukee bombed threes at the third highest rate in the league. Conversely, the Raptors defense allowed the 10th fewest threes in the regular season. The Bucks’ other specialty, rocking the rim, could be tempered a bit by Toronto’s propensity for deterring shots in that area.
The best way to examine these charts is initially to look for green/red contradictions, indicating a top-ten ranking in a category versus a bottom-ten ranking for the opponent. There are no such beneficial statistical juxtapositions for Milwaukee, but the corner three could represent their best chance at exploiting a Toronto weakness. For the most part, the Bucks prefer to vault above-the-break triples. Think Brook Lopez trailing a play or Khris Middleton pulling up to start a possession. Corner threes are less typical, and often result from sublime ball movement or Giannis drawing attention around the foul line before LeBronning it to a gunner waiting in the corner.
The Bucks were just a middling team in terms of percentage from the corner (17th), but poking at minor inefficiences will matter this series. For the Playoffs, they’re at just 33.3% from the corners on similar volume to the regular season. Perhaps that can tick up this round, and the Bucks will need every little advantage they can get, particularly with a much-improved rim defense this series. The Raptors are nothing like their mascot’s small-armed nature defensively, throwing limbs around at driving players like a row of wavy tube men. Posting the 5th stingiest rim defense in the league, Milwaukee will have to finish around the like of Pascal Siakam, Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol. A far cry from the likes of Jayson Tatum, Marcus Morris and Aron Baynes, who performed admirably alongside Al Horford but were punished as the series continued.
Torotno’s chilling opponent 3-point percentage is fascinating, in part because that stat can vary so vastly from year-to-year. Analytics have deemed deterring 3-point attempts more sustainable and important than the variance of percentage. Toronto contested 82% of their opponent 3-point shots in the regular season. While that doesn’t explain the poor opponent shooting given the Bucks contested 80.4% of 3-point attempts yet allowed one of the league’s leading percentages from deep, I think there’s something to be said for players, particularly role players, constantly seeing lengthy limbs when shooting from deep. Especially in the Playoffs, when the court seems to constrict. Lesser confident shooters could quake. Milwaukee can’t afford for that to happen.
Meanwhile, Toronto’s shot diet doesn’t lean too heavily on any particular location, preferring a well-balanced meal but indulging in the sugar-sweet corner threes. That bodes well for Milwaukee, who’ve avoided a traditional trait of Bud’s defenses in allowing excessive triples from the corners. Toronto takes the 11th most triples in the league, but I wouldn’t be surprised if that lessens a smidge against Milwaukee. Their complementary shooters didn’t look confident firing away against the Sixers rangy defense. Milwaukee has every bit the personnel to execute the type of help-and-recover rotations that can flummox shooting-averse Raptor players like Marc Gasol. In contrast, Bud’s squad hasn’t shown any inclination to stray from the fire away philosophy. Yet.
Keep an eye on if that midrange figure vaults upward. The Bucks will shovel Kawhi to the midrange every chance they get and while a Kawhi shot from anywhere is never a great proposition, you have to live with something. The Claw has grasped control of Toronto’s offense this postseason. Their midrange frequency is just a tick above the season average, but they’ll get those looks all day from the Bucks. Bud would prefer Kawhi vault from the elbows than kick to an awaiting Danny Green in the corner or get to the rack.
Speaking of Green, the final point among shot location brought forth the most red/green juxtapositions of any categories. I was taken aback by the marksmanship from Toronto’s shooters. Ranked in the top-five in terms of shooting accuracy from the midrange and corner three, along with 6th overall on all triples and 11th at the rim, the Bucks can ill afford to stray from their off-ball assignments. Khris Middleton has done an admirable job matching up with Kawhi in their dances thus far, but the Bucks leviathan defense that smothered Boston will have to be similarly in sync to make this Raptors team extinct.
Middleton guarded Kawhi 64% of the time (143 poss)— Mike Zavagno (@MZavagno11) May 13, 2019
Held him to 36 points on 11-27 shooting (just 3-4 from 3) and committed 5 shooting fouls.
Kawhi had 7 assists and 2 turnovers
Raptors had a 111.8 oRTG
The Transition Test
After diving well too deep into the statistical matchup, the transition battle emerged as the most intriguing dichotomy. Following game one against Boston, Milwaukee (read: Giannis) sliced the Celtics apart by ripping down the floor and attacking the rim. The Bucks had the 8th highest points/play mark in transition this regular season offensively, getting in transition at the 4th highest rate in the league. Typically, they’d have the advantage in that category. Just one issue: Toronto was the most efficient transition team in the entire NBA. With the top ranked points/play mark and the fifth highest transition frequency, quantity and quality form a potent brew for Nick Nurses’s squad.
The Bucks aren’t ones to let another team usurp their transition turf though. Indeed, they’ve taken their transition chances up a notch in the playoffs, leading all teams by a wide margin with 21.3% transition frequency. The gulf between them and the second place team (OKC at 16.9%) is roughly equivalent to the difference between OKC and Denver in 12th place. They’ve lost a little of their efficiency from the regular season though, but so has Toronto, plummeting both to the bottom third of playoff participants in terms of transition points per play. Pivotal to that aggressiveness is a tenacity off live ball rebounds, something I’ll touch on later, but here’s a taste of how Giannis is comfortable attacking immediately off the bounce:
The key point story line of this particular strategic matchup is that the Bucks offer the stoutest resistance this Raptors team will face in transition. Despite allowing a league average frequency of transition plays, Milwaukee’s defense restricts opponents to the lowest transition points/play in the league. That includes off steals and live rebounds. These are the deep trenches where a game can flip, where one hustle block in the second quarter in transition pays huge dividends when the buzzer sounds. The Bucks need their frenzied transition defense to hold up against the Raptors potent attack, particularly if Toronto’s role players freeze up in the halfcourt.
Upon first blush, this may not seem like a huge disparity between the two teams. Just like Milwaukee, Toronto eschews the offensive glass in favor of retreating to the backcourt and getting their defense set. Both teams rank in the bottom-ten in corralling shanks off the backboard. Realistically, that should translate to Toronto not being afraid of their iffy defensive rebounding rate (18th) falling prey to an aggressive Bucks team on the boards. Similarly, it lessens Milwaukee’s fundamentally sound top-five ranked defensive rebounding unit. Philly’s brute force lineup was able to pound the Raptors on the glass to post the second highest offensive rebound rate in the playoffs. Toronto likely won’t have that same problem with the Bucks.
Yet, I’m intrigued by the possibility of these two coaches eschewing the smallball tendencies of the league and going with their own jumbo-sized lineups. Nurse opted to run with a massive, rarely before seen Siakam, Ibaka and Gasol frontline down the stretch of their second round series. It paid decent dividends on the offensive glass with an above average 33.3% offensive rebounding rate. Their 13 minutes is WAY too small to draw any conclusions, but the playoffs are a series of small sample sizes. They offered Philly a different look to match their sheer size, and while the -27.4 net rating (eeks!) doesn’t reflect an effective unit, I can see Nurse tossing it out there. Bud hasn’t been afraid to shop in the Big & Tall section either. He trotted out one of the tallest starting units in NBA history earlier this year, and their frontline of Giannis-Mirotic-Lopez is a pretty like-for-like matchup to Nurse’s unit. These teams never met after Mirotic and Gasol joined their respective teams, so there’s still room to feel out how those players affect the dynamic between the two teams.
Still, those type of marginal battles between mountains will likely take a backseat to the potential for smallball lineups. In particular, I’m fascinated to see more of the Bledsoe-Hill-Middleton-Mirotic-Giannis lineups. Mix in Malcolm Brogdon in place of Hill, or slot him in for Mirotic and slide Middleton to the 4; there are some really intriguing matchup possibilities. In game five against Boston, for the roughly five minutes Bledsoe-Brogdon-Middleton-Mirotic-Giannis shared the floor, they finished +14. That’s dragonfire stuff.
Love that Bud went right to Bledsoe/Brogdon/Middleton/Niko/Giannis. Played only one minute in the regular-season, but I really like those lineups with three guards/wings around Giannis/Mirotic.— Zach Lowe (@ZachLowe_NBA) May 9, 2019
If George Hill’s is still sipping from the fountain of youth, that’s basically three guards who can attack off the dribble, at least three floor-spacers and a monster capable of controlling the court as a point-center. If Bledsoe’s having one of his temperamental nights, I could see Bud rolling out Brogdon and Hill in the guard slots too, effectively weaponizing Giannis with four elite spot-up shooters.
A primary reason I’m highlighting rebounding, despite it not being a giant disparity between each team, is the Bucks sheer force of will pushing the ball after a miss. In the regular season, Toronto and Milwaukee tied for 5th in terms of transition frequency following a team’s miss (34.2%). In the Playoffs, Milwaukee has amped their transition frequency off live rebounds to 40.3%. That’s better than the sprintin’ Sacramento Kings league-best 38.3% in the regular season. Meanwhile, the Raptors have dropped to 29.5% of transition plays off live ball boards.
In their defense, they reverted back to near season average against Philadelphia, but the point remains that Orlando was able to sludge up their transition attack. Theoretically, the slowed-down pace of Playoff play would be when transition opportunities off misses would dry up. Instead, the Bucks have flipped the turbo button. Oh ya, and they did so while demolishing a Boston team that allowed the fewest frequency of transition opportunities in the league.
Sneaky Key Buck to Watch
Connaughton warrants consideration here. The Raptors don’t have the same parade of wing players who seem capable of damaging Connaughton off the bounce. His sturdy shot returned after an iffy game one performance against Boston. He was essentially out of Bud’s rotation for the regular season Raptors games. Ultimately though, with Brogdon’s return, I can see his minutes getting marginalized to the point he won’t matter enough to serve as a swing man. Instead, I’m going with Ersan Ilyasova.
As a reminder, the savvy vet went off for a cool 19 points on 8/12 shooting in these team’s first season matchup without Kawhi or Giannis. It even warranted a highlight video!
Then, his early December concussion sent him on a strange spell. While he came through with nine points in the second matchup, including 6/6 shooting from the free throw line. He was marginalized in the subsequent January matchups. In the latter game, he ceded most of his minutes to D.J. Wilson for the one-time bust’s breakout 16-point performance. Ersan mustered 20 minutes combined in those two January contests, going 1-6 and looking passive on the court. Defensively, he looked out of sorts. In Milwaukee’s sole loss, Serge Ibaka carved them up for 25 points. Roll the tape:
There’s plenty of Brook blame to go around in that clip as Ibaka made Milwaukee pay for their zone-drop scheme, but that’s gonna happen. Milwaukee can live with those shots What jumps off the screen is Ilyasova’s lack of aggression or spacial awareness defensively. He meandered in no man’s land, unsure when to help, when to recover, where to plant his feet in the zone-drop to stymie drivers but get to the rim if needed. Not as many lapses leaped off the screen to me during the Celtics series. Warts and all, Ilyasova makes up for his lack of defensive aggression with decent discipline, taking charges and executing off-kilter tip-ins on the offensive end.
But barring the Raptors frontline rendering him unplayable, Ilyasova is likely going to get 10-15 minutes per game. Toronto will try and get him into the pick-and-roll, tasking Ilyasova with walking Bud’s tightrope of defending pick-and-pops while still maintaining flexibility to recover to the rim. If Bud opts to get switchy quickly, Toronto doesn’t have the sheer quantity of off-the-dribble threats as Boston, but there are plenty who can harm Ilyasova one-on-one. Siakam’s had wild success against the Bucks this season, averaging 24 points per game with his frenetic brand of basketball. If he gets mismatched against Ilyasova, he could get into a rhythm when Giannis is taking a breather from suffocating him defensively. This postseason at least, Milwaukee’s been able to manage a stout D even with Ilyasova out there. Funny enough, the Bucks have their best defensive rating (91.5) with him on the court in these playoffs among all the primary rotation guys.
The Bucks haven’t faced a team with the number of dynamic frontcourt athletes as Toronto though. Ilyasova’s individual defense will be tested, as will Bud’s faith in one of his favorite vets. If Ilyasova is getting roasted, expect Mirotic to get some additional burn. I can’t realistically see D.J. Wilson getting dusted off this deep into the playoff run unless there’s an injury. A run here and there can shift entire series; lyasova, minute as his contributions are, could be an underrated swing guy in that regard.
I’ve dumped entirely too much information at your feet, but hopefully it’s provided some intriguing fodder before this series gets underway. Bud answered my lingering questions last round, as did much of this roster. New matchups dictate vastly different series, but I can’t shake how staunchly I believe in this team. Bucks in six.