11 things to know about Raptors vs. Bucks
The Raptors have finally arrived at the playoff after a tumultuous regular season.
After all the angst, all the acquisitions, and all the injuries, the Raptors find themselves exactly where they expected to be: 50-plus wins and with home court in the first round.
Standing in their way are the Bucks, who finished the season strong and boast a future MVP in the making. The Raptors are heavy favorites, but the Bucks can be a tricky out for all the reasons below.
1. Season series
The Raptors have dominated the Bucks in the post-Rudy Gay era with a record of 13–2 over the past four seasons.
This year was no different, with the Raptors winning the season series 3–1. But since both teams have undergone significant changes throughout the season, these scores aren’t necessarily predictive. Nevertheless, Raptors fans should feel quite confident in this match-up (Bucks fans are fretting this draw if that helps.)
Here’s how their four meetings went (click through date for 10 things notes)
Nov. 25: Raptors got down early since it was the fifth game of a road trip, but Raptors battled back. Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan moved the ball to open shooters who made their shots. Routine win.
Dec. 12: Raptors slaughter the Bucks at home. They forced a bunch of turnovers, scored in transition, Jonas Valanciunas dominated and everyone hit their shots. Pour one out for Terrence Ross who had a personal 10–0 run in the fourth. We miss you buddy (not really).
Jan. 27: Lowry was a monster from the jump while DeRozan sat out with an ankle injury. This was at a time when the Raptors were really struggling, and Lowry wanted to set the tone. Tremendous defensive effort behind Lowry: Bucks shot 15–40 at the basket, 7–23 from deep and coughed up 19 turnovers.
Mar. 4: Second night of a back-to-back, no Lowry, still integrating new players into the system. Defense was mostly fine outside of losing track of Spencer Hawes, but the Raptors couldn’t get good shots. A noticeably exhausted DeRozan had one of his worst games of the season.
2. A brief history of time
Let’s take a quick history of this young Bucks team.
Everything came together in 2014 when Jason Kidd settled in Milwaukee by way of a failed ultimatum in Brooklyn (threatening a Russian tycoon was a bold decision). Kidd instilled his signature smallball principles with the team, thus putting Giannis Antetokounmpo on the path to superstardom, while the team learned to play a swarming style of defense. They were fun early in the season, but couldn’t pass up the chance to swap Brandon Knight for Michael Carter-Williams (Kidd loves those point guards who resemble himself in the slightest). This derailed their offense and a decidedly average Bucks team lost to the Bulls in six games. Shoutout to Giannis for bodying Mike Dunleavy in that series — he did that shit for the culture.
2015 was was miscalculation for the Bucks. They made the classic small franchise mistake by spending too much money on a free agent that didn’t quite fit in Greg Monroe. Accommodating a plodder like Monroe detracted from the Bucks’ greatest strength (athleticism) and their other acquisitions also flopped. Swapping a disgruntled Greivis Vasquez for the cap space to sign Cory Joseph, a future 1st (that became Serge Ibaka) and a second-round pick that was Norman Powell is one of Masai Ujiri’s best moves. Bucks struggled all season to find their identity and honestly, having O.J. Mayo as the veteran voice in their locker room was a stupid idea.
Milwaukee rectified most of their mistakes this season. They went back to playing an open court game with their wealth of athletes. However, their season went sideways in training camp as Khris Middleton tore his left hamstring (gross). This left the Bucks short on outside shooting, especially since giving $38 million to Matthew Dellavedova turned out to be a flop (learn from your mistakes, small market teams!).
Losing Jabari Parker to a second ACL tear looked to be the finishing blow. However, Middleton returned ahead of schedule to essentially take Parker’s spot in the lineup, and quite frankly they fit better in this arrangement. Parker is fantastically talented (he really is a poor man’s Carmelo Anthony) but he needs the ball in his hands to thrive. Losing Parker meant more of point Giannis, more of Malcolm Brogdon, while Middleton provided better spacing and wildly superior defense.
Milwaukee went 17–10 after the All-Star break for the fifth-best record in the league (Raptors were fourth at 17–7). However, this is a bit misleading since the Bucks’ net rating was minus-0.2, which translates to a .500 team. Credit the Bucks for getting those wins, but some measure of luck positively influenced their results.
3. The Giannis problem
Everyone knows about Giannis by this point.
He’s basically a less ball-hoggy version of Russell Westbrook. Giannis led the Bucks in points, rebounds, assists, steals, blocks, free throws, field goals, yogurt smoothies consumed, you name it. The guy is ridiculous.
Giannis’ dominance in the boxscore categories is a reflection of his unparalleled versatility. Standing at 7-foot, with a 7-foot-3 wingspan, an inexhaustible motor and great awareness, Giannis can play any position. He’ll play center defensively then run the show as a point guard. There really isn’t anyone in the league like him, other than LeBron James.
However, the Bucks might be a little spoiled for choice. Giannis doesn’t have a defined role since he can literally do everything. It still remains unclear in his fourth season if offense should feature Giannis as a ball-handler, or Giannis as the screen-setter. He’s good in both roles, but what is best for the team? This confusion stalls the Bucks’ halfcourt offense at times.
What we do know about Giannis is that he is a nightmare in the open floor and on defense. Milwaukee is at their best when they leverage these skills out of Giannis.
He is the league’s best player in transition (even better than LeBron in this regard) since Giannis can literally dunk without a dribble inside the 3-point line. He’s similar to John Wall— you’re toast once he gets momentum on his drive. He can finish through contact, he shields his dribble effectively despite being 7-feet, and he dunks like this:
This doesn’t only apply to transition scenarios. Giannis is effective anytime he can make use of his athleticism. Just think about it this way: Giannis is a highly active, endlessly mobile center with the wingspan of a pterodactyl. The sheer physical space in which he operates is second to none in the league. Picture the Leonardo da Vinci human anatomy sketch, only double that circumference of influence.
4. How to contain Giannis
You’ll never completely eliminate a superstar like Giannis, but the Raptors could at least contain his effectiveness on offense by doing the following:
Limit his legs
Giannis is fairly strong all around, but he’s still rather skinny in the upper body. He generates most of his power from his legs, therefore it’s imperative to keep a body on him at all times.
What P.J. Tucker does here is perfect. He forces him to drive baseline, then uses his body to deny the rim and forces Giannis into throwing a kickout pass. Tucker then sticks with Giannis for the boxout before collecting the board.
What the Raptors need to avoid is scenarios like this, where Giannis is allowed to dribble with a head of steam towards the basket in a semi-break. Carroll should have picked him up tighter and hopefully disrupt the dribble.
Switch pick and rolls
Giannis is a deadly roll threat because you never know what he might do. He sees the floor beautifully on this play and gets the assist. But these temporary 4-on-3 scenarios wouldn’t exist if the Raptors switched this action. Giannis might end up on a mismatch, but let’s be real — any defender is at some kind of a mismatch against Giannis.
The Raptors’ best bet would be to guard Giannis with one of Tucker, Carroll or Patterson in that order. All three have been decent in that role this season. You’ll live with Giannis shooting the jumper so long as he doesn’t get to the basket, or collapse your defense and finds shooters.
5. Khris Middleton will be a problem
Middleton (the backcourt partner to Lou Williams on the All-Wallahi team) is the new Mike Conley, in that basketball twitter loves to trumpet him as an underrated player to signify how knowledgeable they are about the NBA.
Yes, it’s true that Middleton is very good. He doesn’t dominate the ball so he doesn’t end up on highlight reels, but he is essentially the perfect complimentary player. He is the best case scenario for a 3-and-D wing that can also occasionally create his own shot.
First the defense. Middleton will draw the defensive assignment on DeRozan. Middleton has the advantage in length and in strength, and he is a disciplined defender who will stay down on DeRozan’s pump fakes. It’s not going to be easy for the Raptors’ leading scorer.
Second, Middleton is a willing and accurate off-ball threat. He’s pretty weak off the dribble, but he’s shooting 46 percent from deep on catch-and-shoot opportunities. He understands where the open shots are coming from and is dangerous in scramble scenarios.
Middleton can also get his points off post-ups. The Bucks resort to this option when Middleton has a smaller defender switched onto him. He’s not much of a threat to drive, but his length and high release point gets him open looks from the midrange.
The Raptors should run Middleton off the line, body up when he’s in the post, and entice him to dribble towards the baseline. As for DeRozan, he’ll find it difficult to attack Middleton in isolation, so expect 2–1 or 2–4 screens to get a more advantageous match-up.
6. Yung Bucks why you trappin so hard
The Raptors shouldn’t have too many problems with the Bucks offense. If they control the defensive glass, prevent transition opportunities, and force the Bucks into a slow half-court game, the Raptors will be fine*.
(*Fine in so much that Giannis is a superstar and nothing will be fine if he elevates his game)
Where the Raptors will struggle is on offense. In so many words, the Bucks are annoying. Their whole team is long, athletic, switchable players who will swarm the ball give half an opportunity.
The Bucks have three reasons for playing so aggressively on the perimeter. One, any scheme that leverages their size and athleticism is good. Two, their interior defense is softer than baby shit. Three, the Bucks need to force turnovers to activate their open-court attack, otherwise they will struggle to score.
Milwaukee will zone the strong side on pick-and-rolls and force action towards the baseline. They’ll cut off penetration and dare you to throw cross-court passes over their lanky athletes. The Raptors will need to be cognizant of where the help is coming from, and make short, decisive passes to break the zone and find the open man.
On this play, the Bucks station Giannis in the middle of the lane in addition to the two initial defenders involved in the pick-and-roll. Fred VanVleet should make the pocket pass to Serge Ibaka, who should draw help on the three, which should then activate a series of swing passes around the perimeter to hopefully beat the help rotation.
The Raptors need to avoid is scenarios like the one below in which the ball-handler dribbles into the baseline area which then activates the Bucks’ traps. DeRozan has no good passing options there. His one play is to throw a risky pass over two defenders to the opposite corner.
One way to beat this type of defense is to attack through middle pick-and-rolls instead of action on the sideline. It’s harder to help in the middle of the floor, especially if there are shooters around the perimeter. Milwaukee’s centers are also really bad in pick-and-roll defense (more on that below).
As always it would help if the Raptors’ supporting cast made their shots. Milwaukee will focus on DeRozan and Lowry, therefore leaving tertiary players with plenty of chances to score. Valanciunas should be a major factor since he’s stronger than anyone the Bucks have down low, and Ibaka will be counted upon to stretch the floor.
If the Raptors can find driving lanes to the basket, they’ll solve Milwaukee’s defense. If they can’t gain penetration, then they’ll really need some threes to fall.
7. The problematic president
As with any offense, the Bucks are at their best when they can play multiple players who can drive, shoot, and pass. Giannis checks two of those boxes, Middleton checks two, but the Bucks don’t really have anyone else who can consistently create.
Malcolm Brogdon is Milwaukee’s X-Factor. He brings an added dimension to the Bucks’ offense when he’s making quick, decisive moves. Milwaukee’s other role players are fairly limited to either slashing or being standstill shooters, but Brogdon can do a bit of everything.
He plays at his own tempo, he’s strong enough to take contact, he can get to the rim, the outside shot is decent and he’s a willing passer. That extra bit of playmaking forces one extra round of rotations out of the defense, and that might be all the Bucks need to salvage an otherwise poor possession.
(Most importantly, Brogdon isn’t Dellavedova, who high key sucks.)
Brogdon can be prone to off nights as with most rookies, but he does stand out as an outlier. The 24-year-old became a complete player after four years at Virginia. He competes on defense, plays within himself and rarely gets rattled. Expect him to log over 30 minutes per game in the playoffs.
8. Who can really hurt you?
The Bucks’ supporting cast is littered with one-dimensional specialists who rely on others to get their points within the offense. It’s easiest to think of them in terms of categories.
Completely inert: Thon Maker, John Henson
Maker is talented but he’s not ready yet. He’s skinnier than rookie Bruno Caboclo. His activity is impressive, and he can even hit an occasional three, but his contributions are almost random. He’s on-par with Pascal Siakam in terms of effectiveness, although Maker holds more potential.
Henson might have lost his spot in the rotation after suffering a thumb injury. He’s basically an unmotivated Ed Davis. This is not a compliment in case anyone really liked ED’s work in Toronto. Henson is like if someone paid Bebe Nogueira eight figures a year.
Annoying but harmless: Jason Terry, Matthew Dellavedova
Terry is a great veteran to have in the locker room and if I’m being totally fair, he can still do some positive things like move the ball, hit standstill shots and make smart cuts. But I really haven’t been able to respect Terry ever since this happened.
Dellavedova tries hard and can make open jumpers with his funky shooting form but is completely inert within the arc. He wears the label of a defensive stopper but doesn’t actually shut anyone down. At his best he manages to be a pest, but effort only gets you so far in life. He would fit in perfectly on the Celtics.
Limited but capable: Tony Snell, Mirza Teletovic
Snell is the bare bones 3-and-D player from Ikea. He’s strong and rangy but his defensive awareness is mostly limited to the man in front of him. He can make standstill threes if you leave him open, but he’s no Middleton and Snell can’t do much off the dribble. The defense should be there each night but his scoring will fluctuate. The most dangerous thing about Snell is that he is an ex-Bull so there’s a 134 percent chance of some bullshit going down.
Raptors fans should be familiar with Teletovic from the Nets series in 2014. Fearza hasn’t met a jumper he hasn’t liked, and will most likely leave a mark as a stretch four. More shooters means more space for Giannis and Brogdon to drive, and we know how the Raptors like to collapse the paint whenever possible. Dwane Casey should try to match Teletovic’s minutes with Patrick Patterson, but you’re not that worried if there’s a mismatch like Carroll checking Teletovic for a few minutes. The key will be to attack Teletovic as much as possible on defense to force Kidd to bench him.
9. Trying to make it work at center
The Bucks are generally willing to trade defense for offense at the center spot to spark their dormant halfcourt sets.
Maker will draw token starts, but it will be the tandem of Spencer Hawes of Greg Monroe that will mostly see time based on the match-up. Both are bench centers with major flaws, but Kidd has found effective roles for both players.
Monroe draws the bulk of minutes at center. He directs traffic for the second unit as a classic mid-post player. Monroe has good touch to finish with either hand around the hoop, and is a nice distributor who sees the whole floor. Milwaukee will run him in screen action, have him short roll, then have Monroe switch the floor. The Bucks also calls on Monroe to create individual offense out of the post, but his lack of athleticism mostly limits him to contested shots below the rim. He mostly uses his strength and bulk, as evidenced by his brutal schooling of Bebe earlier this year. Put a decent defender on Monroe and you can live with his post touches.
On the other end, Monroe is a bad defender that provides little resistance at the basket. Putting him in a pick-and-roll should should result in open looks. But he can be somewhat hidden in zone schemes acting as a scarecrow to deter rather than defend.
Hawes is a total wild card. He hardly plays since he is so erratic, but he does match up well with the Raptors on paper. He’s a floor-stretching center with a decent inside game. Not to rely on these lazy race-based comps but Hawes is the Pidgeotto in the Frank Kaminsky-Kelly Olynyk evolution chain. (For non-Pokemon fans: this is a sneak diss). All three of these dues have burned the Raptors’ second unit at some point this season.
The shot comes and goes for Hawes, but he does make enough threes such that the defense needs to honor it. Plus there’s the Andrea Bargnani-Jonas Valanciunas corollary: in the heat of the moment, NBA defenders will always default to closing out on white guys who threaten to shoot, regardless of their actual shooting proficiency. Yes, white privilege even exists in basketball.
10. The center Kidd told you not to worry about
The dirty secret with the Bucks is that their centers generally suck. You’re not winning a series relying heavily upon contributions from Hawes, Maker, Monroe or Henson.
Jason Kidd should play Giannis at the five in all the moments that matter. This sounds crazy since Giannis is typically their point guard, but most point guards aren’t 7–feet tall that also block 1.9 shots per game. Milwaukee will be weak on the inside regardless of who they play at five, so they might as well maximize their own advantages.
First off, this would be deadly on offense. Putting four shooters around Giannis (something like Brogdon, Middleton, Teletovic and Snell/Dellavedova) means you can’t send help without scrambling yourself into a mess or giving up an open three.
The simplest answer for the Raptors would be to switch these actions as much as possible, but what happens when Giannis gets isolated against Lowry or DeRozan, and Ibaka can’t help at the basket since he’s checking Teletovic in the corner?
Second, the Raptors can’t fully exploit this alignment on defense. Having five wings on the floor will only entice the Bucks to become even more aggressive with their traps, and these double teams will force Lowry and DeRozan to swing the rock quickly into the hands of players like Tucker, Carroll and Ibaka who can’t really attack a closeout effectively (this is where Joseph or Norman Powell could really help).
The Bucks will also be weak on the inside, but who is exploiting the offensive glass? If Tucker crashes he risks letting Giannis loose on the fast break and Ibaka isn’t a hustle player who can own the boards. The other solution would be to play Valanciunas, but the Bucks would surely double him when he’s in the post and look to attack him in pick-and-roll scenarios where he needs to defend in space. At the very least it’s worth a shot.
This could be much ado about nothing. The Bucks don’t have a single lineup with over 70 minutes that features Giannis as the center. The most evidence I could find is when Giannis played five briefly in a win over the Boston Celtics on Mar. 29, but he struggled to score against Amir Johnson, so make of that what you will.
But Kidd tends to downsize in moments of desperation, and if nothing else is working, I could see him trying to spark a comeback with Giannis at the five. Some iteration of this lineup working is the only way I can see the Bucks scoring enough to win this series.
11. Prediction: Raptors in 6
I only say six games because we have been hurt before. Generally speaking. the Raptors that we see in the regular season doesn’t quite translate to the playoffs. The Bucks also have the best player, so this could end up quite similar to the Pacers series last season.
My general thought is this: the Bucks can’t score enough, and quite frankly, the Bucks can’t defend that well either. They’re funky, they’re creative, and they’re talented, but they’re also flawed. The Raptors have more depth, more experience, better offensive talent, home court advantage and versatile defenders who can guard in any scenario. The Raptors have also flat-out dominated the Bucks in recent years.
We should be set for an easy win, but never forget that these are the Raptors. Never trust them because they will break your heart.