It is a battle of the two best teams with the two best players in the Eastern Conference. Milwaukee faces the Toronto Raptors for a chance to play in the NBA Finals. Both teams boast a top ranking offense and defense, which should make for an entertaining series. Milwaukee will aim for payback after falling short in their playoff series in 2016. With plenty of moving parts, we were able to talk with Jacob Mack over at Raptors HQ to help us preview this series.
The Kawhi trade was a gamble that has so far paid off. How has his presence changed the perception of this Raptors team?
People are still going to get their jokes off, and, in that sense, perception hasn’t really changed. You still see “Raptors in the playoffs” jokes all the time, and Kyle Lowry still catches more slander this time of year than he has any right to. I even saw a couple national media-types act reluctant to pick the Raptors for a deep playoff run, on the sole basis that they were the Raptors, and that means bad in the playoffs.
Once they’re done getting their jokes off though, I think most people will acknowledge that this is a very different Raptors team from past years in the sense that there’s no real axis you can attack them on. In previous years, with DeMar DeRozan at the center of it all, teams could easily find weaknesses to exploit: DeRozan wasn’t an efficient scorer from the perimeter, so teams would play off him and encourage him to shoot jumpers. You can’t do that with Kawhi Leonard, he’s a complete scorer, more than capable of hitting shots from all three levels. DeRozan had defensive lapses that teams actively looked to take advantage of, while Leonard is one of the league’s elite perimeter defenders. Old Raptor teams always had flaws lurking right below the surface, but with this squad that is much less the case.
That’s translated to a higher level of confidence within the Toronto fanbase. We all had a little bit of a meltdown after game 3 of the last round, but I still felt as though the Raptors would end up winning the series even though they’d just been blown out. Lots of Raptors fans I spoke to felt the same. That wouldn’t have been true with last year’s roster. Having that genuinely unstoppable guy at the middle of it all makes a huge difference.
What are the keys for the Raptors to win the series?
I think the two main keys for the Raptors are making open 3-point shots and figuring out how they’re going to match up with the Bucks starting frontcourt. “Making open 3-point shots” sounds reductive, but the Raptors just struggled mightily with a Sixers team that is undoubtedly much worse than the Bucks, mostly because they failed to make open 3-point shots. The Sixers emulated the Bucks’ “defend by not defending” strategy, conceding an enormous number of wide-open jumpshots to the Raptors in order to pack the paint and deny them layups and dunks. The Raptors were among the best perimeter shooting teams in the regular season, and were THE best perimeter shooting team in the regular season following their acquisition of Marc Gasol, yet throughout the Sixers series no one on the team could find the range. Every single Raptor who played more than 100 minutes in the Sixers series shot well below their season average from distance.
The Raptors won their series against the Sixers by making contested shots and by locking up on the defensive end of the floor. However, the Bucks’ offense is absolutely better than Philly’s, and, as such, the Raptors will struggle to repeat their defensive dominance. And, while the Raptors will be up against a defensive scheme that is nearly the same as the one they faced in their last series, the Bucks don’t have cracks in the armor like JJ Redick and Tobias Harris for the Raps to exploit. Needless to say, the Raptors will be in over their heads if they have a repeat performance from beyond the arc. With the way the Bucks’ defensive scheme is set up, they’ll need to be much closer to their regular season shooting numbers in order to keep pace.
On the other end of the floor, the Raptors’ main conundrum will be figuring out how to handle the Bucks’ fearsome and bizarre frontcourt. Many teams choose to flip their frontcourt matchups against the Bucks, putting a center who’s better equipped to defend the interior on Giannis Antetokounmpo, and a more perimeter-oriented power forward on Brook Lopez. The Raptors likely won’t be able to do this. Raptors center Marc Gasol, is, at this point in his career, one of the slowest players in the league, to the point where he would struggle to keep Giannis in front of him even if he gives the Greek Freak an enormous amount of space. Gasol will presumably have to defend Lopez, and, as such, Gasol being able to effectively challenge shots on the perimeter without fouling - always a struggle for slower 7-footers - will be a key for the Raptors throughout the series.
What are the keys for the Bucks to win the series?
I think for the Bucks the key will be dominating the bench minutes. The starter versus starter minutes should consistently be close, with the Raptors likely winning out more often than not, as long as Malcolm Brogdon is still out of the starting five. However, the Raptors’ bench has been nightmarish in these playoffs, Serge Ibaka is the only member of the reserve group who has managed respectable minutes in the post-season. Fred VanVleet has shot abysmally throughout the Raptors’ entire run and has consistently kneecapped their offense. Norman Powell has posted more respectable individual numbers, but has had a similarly disastrous effect on the Raptors’ offense, as he’s been unable to replace the shot creation of the wings he’s subbing in for.
Meanwhile the Bucks have shredded teams with their depth in these playoffs. Lineups featuring George Hill and Ersan Ilyasova crushed the Celtics in round 2, letting the Bucks skate by with ease, even though Brook Lopez and Eric Bledsoe both had rough offensive series. Pat Connaughton has been solid barring game one against the Celtics, and adding Brogdon to that bench only makes it even more threatening. The Bucks even have totally viable options like D.J. Wilson and Tony Snell who have gone nearly unused. The Bucks are unlikely to get a repeat performance from Hill, who was playing well over his head in the semi-finals, and VanVleet simply cannot possibly be as bad against the Bucks as he was against the Sixers. Nonetheless, getting Brogdon back for the full series should theoretically give the Bucks an enormous advantage in the bench minutes, even if he’s on a minutes restriction.
Besides Giannis, who is the biggest threat for Milwaukee? Who is Toronto’s X-factor?
I think Eric Bledsoe is the key non-Giannis piece in this series for Milwaukee. The Raptors will have their rim protection pulled out of the paint by Brook Lopez, which was not the case against the Celtics, who camped Al Horford out under the basket. Bledsoe, a premier driver and finisher, will likely be the largest benefactor of this, as he’s able to finish at the basket over most like-sized defenders. The Raptors may choose to check Bledsoe with Danny Green in this series to get some extra size on him, but Green has quietly been a step slow as a one-on-one defender in these playoffs (I think he’s playing hurt). Bledsoe will likely be able to gain an advantage over Green with his quickness.
I think the Raptors’ X-factor is Serge Ibaka. Ibaka was perhaps the Raptors’ best player against the Bucks in the regular season: the Bucks’ defense is designed in a way that lets Ibaka easily get to his spots for unchallenged shots. Meanwhile Ibaka managed to remain a defensive presence at the rim. Despite being tasked with guarding floor spacers against Milwaukee, he still posted respectable block totals in the teams’ regular season matchups. Ibaka coming up big could be crucial in limiting the bleeding in the bench minutes for Toronto, which they’ll need to do in order to give their starters a chance to win games.
What is your prediction for this series?
I think that this is a weird series, there’s no doubt in my mind that the Bucks are the favourites, but I also think that the Bucks are going to let the Raptors control their own destiny to an extent. Normally if the favoured team plays at their usual level there’s very little the underdog can do to have a chance. However, the Bucks are likely going to be consistently conceding lots of open three-point shots to a good three-point shooting team, as that’s just the way they defend. If the Raptors make those shots they could very easily win. I’d feel pretty sick picking either team here in a vacuum, whichever side of the coin you take you definitely leave yourself open to looking like an idiot.
That being said, the series isn’t being played in a vacuum. The Raptors are coming off a horrific playoff series from a 3-point shooting perspective. And, with the duration and physicality of that series, playoff wear-and-tear has to be a much bigger factor for them than the Bucks. I’m pretty sure some of their key guys are playing through meaningful injuries: Danny Green, Kyle Lowry and Pascal Siakam if we’re being specific. Bucks in six.