By William Lou and Vivek Jacob
Here are 10 things that will go a long way in deciding who comes out of the Eastern Conference for a place in the NBA Finals.
One – Looking at the Bucks’ vitals
Unlike the Orlando Magic and Philadelphia 76ers, the Milwaukee Bucks have maintained a consistent identity over the course of the entire regular season and now into the playoffs and that’s what makes their “Fear the Deer” slogan a reality.
They finished fourth in offensive efficiency at 113.5 points per 100 possessions and first in defensive efficiency allowing 104.9 points per 100 possessions, were the only 60-plus win team on the season and executed Mike Budenholzer’s strategy to perfection night in and night out. After years of getting owned by LeBron James in the post-season as head coach of the Atlanta Hawks, Budenholzer now has his own all-world talent to add to his brilliant basketball mind.
If there is one aspect of the Bucks that has changed from the regular season, it’s that they have had to make do without the services of Malcolm Brogdon until he returned from injury for their series-clinching Game 5 win against the Boston Celtics.
He was a starter during the regular season but was replaced by Sterling Brown for the series against the Detroit Pistons, and after the Celtics dismantled the Bucks in Game 1, it was Nikola Mirotic who replaced Brown. During the regular season, the starting lineup of Eric Bledsoe, Brogdon, Khris Middleton, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Brook Lopez played to a plus-6.2 net rating in 597 minutes. The Raptors are fresh off a series against one of the best — if not the best — starting fives in the league and should be battle-tested coming up against the Bucks.
Brogdon’s return is vital. He was a 50-40-90 player (50 percent from the field, 40 percent from 3, 90 percent from the free-throw line) over the course of the regular season, and despite his 6-foot-5 frame, his 6-foot-11 wingspan fits right in with the long and rangy Bucks.
Unfortunately for the Raptors, the latest on OG Anunoby is that he is a week away from being re-evaluated, which means it is unlikely he will feature in this series. If he was missed against the Sixers, that gets ratcheted up 10 times against a team so dependent on what Antetokounmpo brings to the table.
The two teams met four times over the course of the regular season, with the Bucks taking three out of four. This can be a bit misleading, though, as both Kawhi Leonard and Antetokounmpo missed the first game and the Raptors lost a tight game at home despite a three-point lead with a minute-and-a-half remaining.
Two – How do the Bucks defend?
Their defensive principles are indeed similar to the Magic’s and despite the difference in personnel, that should serve some benefit to the Raptors. They do not look to switch (although they did so as an adjustment against the Celtics), pack the paint at all costs, drop their big man deep on pick-and-rolls and then look to contest when the time comes. As a result, they allow the fourth-most 3-point attempts in the league but the fewest points in the paint (42.2).
Over the course of these two teams’ regular-season matchups, the Bucks consistently looked to trap Lowry and take away from his impact on the game, forcing Ibaka into making a decision as he started all four games against them. They will take the trade-off of Gasol or Ibaka picking-and-popping every time.
Even though the Bucks concede so many 3s, they are extremely intelligent about who they give up looks to. In the graph below created by Madison Clower, you can see the Bucks will actually concede looks to infrequent shooters quite happily, but are great at limiting looks for those who generally like to fire away.
How might that play out in this series? Think less clean looks for Danny Green and more for Pascal Siakam or Ibaka. Siakam’s ability to hit corner 3s will be absolutely crucial, as that area is actually a slight weakness for the Bucks as they are just below league average in allowing corner 3s and one of the worst in percentage allowed. This seems counterintuitive with limiting looks for Green who thrives from the corners, so perhaps this another key to the series for the Raptors.
Yes, Gasol’s propensity to shoot the ball will also absolutely be tested and how much he seeks out his own shot will be pivotal in determining the series winner. Ditto Ibaka. Furthermore, they do not look to gamble and will rarely get caught out of position, which is why they are excellent on the defensive glass as well.
Three – How does Milwaukee look to score?
From having to find a way to deal with LeBron and shooters the past three seasons, the Raptors will now be presented with the task of dealing with Giannis and shooters. Lopez redefining his game as a shooting big has unlocked Antetokounmpo’s ceiling as both a playmaker and scorer.
Lopez averaged 6.3 3-point attempts during the regular season, cashing in on 36.5 percent of those attempts. That has afforded Antetokounmpo a clearer path to the basket, more collapses into the paint by the defence, and as a result more open looks from the outside for his teammates who will fire away with reckless abandon.
In addition to attempting the second-highest percentage of shots at the rim, the Bucks finished the regular season second only to the Houston Rockets in 3-point attempts per game (somewhere Daryl Morey is salivating), and the Raptors will have to continue to exhibit the stellar defence they’ve played with for much of this post-season to stand any chance of limiting the Bucks’ scoring.
Milwaukee also converted its 3-point attempts at a 35.4 percent rate — fifth-best in the league — so they will certainly make you pay for any defensive transgressions. Like Toronto, they are a low-turnover team that can dominate on the break, so the Raptors will have to find creative ways to fuel their transition game while keeping the Bucks’ running game in check.
Everyone is well aware of the threat Antetokounmpo presents but Middleton has had a breakout campaign, making the all-star team and playing at a level that proves he is indeed better than DeMar DeRozan, the man many made comparisons to during his time in Toronto.
As Antetokounmpo’s wing man, Middleton averaged 18.3 points, six rebounds and 4.3 assists while shooting 37.8 percent from 3. As an isolation scorer, he finished second in the league behind James Harden with 1.09 points per possession.
Four – Making life as difficult as possible for the Greek Freak
To put it bluntly, there isn’t anyone on the planet who can stop Giannis Antetokounmpo. He’s more of a force of nature than he is a basketball matchup, because there are speeds and heights that only he can humanly reach. Antetokounmpo is the most dominant presence in the NBA since young LeBron James, or perhaps even Shaquille O’Neal.
The keyword with Antetokounmpo is containment. Take away the easiest looks and make him work for everything. Scamper back in transition at all costs, and body up before he unfurrows one of his gigantic steps. Resist the temptation to double team and make him a scorer instead of a passer. And if help does come, make sure it arrives above the rim instead of sliding underneath, because Antetokounmpo is too nimble on his feet to be thwarted by charges. Even if he averages over 30 points, the physical exertion over the course of seven games must at least take some toll on his effectiveness.
Pascal Siakam will get the main assignment against Antetokounmpo. It will be the biggest challenge of his young career, tougher even than solving Joel Embiid in Round 2. Antetokounmpo shot 15-of-27 from the field with eight free throws in 93 possessions against Siakam in the regular season, which obviously isn’t ideal. However, out of all the candidates, Siakam has the most ideal combination of length and speed to match most of what Antetokounmpo does best. Siakam should be able to play up on Antetokounmpo and use his quick feet to slide around better than any other forward on the roster, and that includes Kawhi Leonard. If Siakam can deny easy layups and avoid foul trouble, the Raptors should live with the results.
However, similar to how the Philadelphia 76ers operated, the Bucks prefer to stagger their starters so that they can match-up against the opposing team’s second unit. In those instances, the responsibility will likely fall on Serge Ibaka to tackle Antetokounmpo. Ibaka doesn’t have the lateral mobility to dance with Antetokounmpo, but he does have the strength and shot-blocking ability to at least sit back and be a hurdle at the rim. The tricky issue there is that Antetokounmpo can knock down about a third of his 3-pointers, and even shoots a respectable 41 percent from the midrange. That being said, the Raptors will happily concede a few jumpers.
Again, the goal should be containment. Antetokounmpo will get his points no matter what, so the goal should be to deny the easy ones. Limit transition opportunities, and try as much as possible to not send double teams. The Bucks recorded half their losses (11) when Antetokounmpo tallied six or fewer assists.
Five – Bucks will have their hands full with The Claw
The Bucks will start with Khris Middleton on Leonard, which was a surprisingly effective strategy in the regular season. Middleton matched up with Leonard on 143 possessions – 118 more than any other player – and held him to a reasonable 35 points on 11-of-27 shooting across three games. And on top of that, Middleton did most of that damage covering Leonard in isolation.
Chances are Leonard will fare better in the playoffs. For one, when you scour the tape, it was clear that Leonard missed a lot of looks. Automatic pull-up jumpers, and even a few layups that he would normally make, just weren’t falling. Leonard is typically unguardable in isolation, and he got to all his spots against Middleton without much resistance.
However, credit must go to Middleton for giving tremendous fight. For one, he’s excellent at evading screens and cutting off drives to the basket, although navigating Marc Gasol is an entirely different proposition than eluding Serge Ibaka. Middleton is also a 6-foot-8 forward with a near 7-foot wingspan, so he can get a decent contest on Leonard’s jumper. The only concession is that Middleton isn’t as effective guarding the drive – which was something that DeMar DeRozan revealed during the 2017 playoff run – so Leonard should be able to force the issue and rack up fouls, as he did in Toronto’s lone win against Milwaukee where Middleton fouled out in 32 minutes.
There will also come a time early in the series when the Bucks will have to bite the bullet and double Leonard like every other team in the league. Ben Simmons is every bit as diligent and way more physically imposing than Middleton, and even he needed Embiid’s help. Chances are that the Bucks will treat Leonard the same way and send Brook Lopez and Antetokounmpo to cheat off their assignments and cut off Toronto’s main scorer. At that point, it becomes the same issue that Toronto faced against Philadelphia: Can their secondary options put up points?
Six – Bucks have to hope for the best against Siakam
Toronto’s forwards will have to pick up the slack if Leonard gets trapped, starting with Siakam, who averaged 25 points per game on 64 percent shooting against the Bucks this season. Part of that success can be attributed to variation in 3-point shooting, and quite simply, a lack of focus by Milwaukee’s defenders, but Siakam was definitely able to get his way.
Antetokounmpo handled the assignment against Siakam in the regular season, but that’s something of a misnomer. The Bucks treated Siakam as a non-threat, and often had Antetokounmpo cheating off to play help defense elsewhere, which is how Siakam got so many points by slipping through the cracks. Chances are that the Bucks will have noticed Siakam’s improvements since their last meeting in January, and they will apply more pressure on Toronto’s second-best scorer.
Provided that he doesn’t foul out guarding Antetokounmpo (which is a very real threat), Siakam should be able to get his points effectively in this series. Siakam’s driving spin moves overwhelmed the likes of Ersan Ilyasova and Nikola Mirotic in the regular season, and the Raptors should look to exploit those mismatches whenever possible. And if Siakam does manage to keep Antetokounmpo close, the Raptors should have an easier time scoring at other positions. Either way, Siakam’s offensive output in this series should be closer to his 22 points on 53 percent shooting against Orlando, than the 19 points on 44 percent that he put up against Philadelphia.
The Bucks might even consider switching up the assignments like the Sixers did, and have Brook Lopez guard Siakam while Antetokounmpo takes the center matchup. This way, Antetokounmpo is more directly involved in pick-and-roll actions involving Leonard, instead of conceding open looks with Lopez hanging back. However, it remains to be seen if Lopez is as effective as Embiid when it comes to absorbing contact while still affecting Siakam’s shot.
Seven – Middleton will force the Raptors to pick their poison
Middleton is a tricky cover because he can just catch fire from deep. Truth be told, he’s not particularly dangerous from any other area of the floor, but he is elite from beyond the arc. Middleton shot 39 percent against the Celtics, but he made 47 percent from deep. Go figure. Middleton can pull-up on just about anyone, and he’s even expanded his handles to become an effective pick-and-roll operator, especially with his playmaking.
The best bet would be to put length on Middleton and hope he tries to slash inside. One of Leonard of Green would ideally get the assignment here. However, given the defensive challenges elsewhere and how much the Raptors are fond of switching, don’t be shocked if Lowry takes shifts on Middleton in the same way that he did against Tobias Harris and Jimmy Butler. Lowry has a knack for getting under bigger players, and could potentially coax Middleton into backing him down in the post. Middleton does have a nice fadeaway jumper, but that’s the lesser of two evils as compared to his 3-point shot.
Eight – Lowry will have his hands full against Bledsoe and Brogdon
The main reason to put Lowry on Middleton is to avoid the normal matchups against Brogdon and Bledsoe. Both players have dominated Lowry in the past, with Bledsoe’s advantage being quickness and Brogdon using his brute strength. Both guards are hard-driving slashers and it’s best if the Raptors can limit penetration to a minimum by having their wings keep them on the perimeter. Ideally, Green would body up against the slower Brogdon, while Leonard can put a scare into Bledsoe.
The trickier matchup will be on the other end, as Lowry will be fighting an uphill battle with his scoring. Lowry went scoreless against the Bucks in December (to be fair he was dealing with a back injury) and averaged 6.3 points on 23 percent shooting in three meetings with Milwaukee. That’s not a typo – Lowry really totalled just 19 points and shot 1-of-20 from deep. He’ll be better than that in this series, but not by much. Bledsoe has reinvented himself as a shutdown defender, and more single-digit outings shouldn’t be a surprise from Lowry.
Nine – The importance of Gasol and Ibaka
The Raptors are dead in the water if they don’t get at least 30 points combined from Gasol and Ibaka. The Bucks make a point to drop their bigs back into the paint, so there will be open shots every trip down for Toronto’s centers, and they must capitalize.
Ibaka was fantastic in this role during the regular season. He averaged 22.3 points per game against the Bucks, and attempted 18.5 shots per game. Ibaka is prone to bouts of indecision, but generally speaking he is not gun shy in the slightest, and he won’t be afraid to empty the clip when given the chance. Ibaka should take the same approach in this series – the Bucks will hang back and concede the midrange, and Ibaka must knock down his favorite look.
The bigger concern is Gasol, who showed during the Sixers series that he strictly looks to pass. Despite being openly dared to shoot, Gasol only attempted more than 10 shots once in seven games. That simply cannot be the case against the Bucks, because swinging the ball to a contested Lowry or Green in the corner won’t be an easier option. Gasol must look to be aggressive with his scoring, and if it makes him more comfortable, he can even venture into the midrange for his offense. In short, he needs to replicate the mentality that he played with in Memphis.
Ten – Battle of the bench
It’s unrealistic to expect Toronto’s bench to match Milwaukee’s. The Bucks just have more weapons at their disposal, and they’re also bigger across the board. George Hill will torment both Lowry and Fred VanVleet with his length, Pat Connaughton promises to be a bouncy pest with his 3-and-D contributions, and both Ilyasova and Mirotic are better shooters than Ibaka. The Raptors’ reserves already struggled against the likes of Michael Carter-Williams and James Ennis – it’s going to be a bloodbath against Milwaukee.
The responsibility will fall on Nurse to manage his rotation so that no more than two bench players are ever share the court. The Ibaka-VanVleet-Powell combination has been downright abysmal, and even the dual point guard lineups with Lowry and VanVleet should be shelved for this series. Even though it’s not ideal for spacing, Nurse should prioritize size and staying big across the floor, unless Powell somehow replicates his heroic effort against the Bucks in the 2017 playoffs that earned him that outsized contract.
Ultimately, it will be the same story as it was all season. The starters will need to win big in their minutes, and the bench just needs to hold it together just enough to not let it go to waste.
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