It arrives for every team with continued success, and it’s about to arrive for the Toronto Raptors. The burden of expectation. No longer a “show me” team that hasn’t won a first round series (that goes to the Isaiah-led Boston Celtics), the basketball community is looking at Toronto this spring with expectations of something greater.
The idea that the Raptors are the biggest challenger to the LeBron James empire is no longer a hot take. Like a little jalapeno seasoning spread over two dozen chips, if a “bold prediction” is repeated by enough people, it loses its spiciness.
So when the Raptors take the floor on Saturday to face the Milwaukee Bucks, they won’t just be facing a young, exciting star in Giannis Antetokounmpo. They’ll also be facing the expectation of finding a way to beat him, while also disposing of Milwaukee’s flimsy supporting cast.
There’s no time for Michael Beasley heroics, bad shooting nights, or sloppy play. Toronto saw last year what can happen when you mess around and get into two unnecessary seven game series. Two months of basketball without more than a day off later, and Cleveland was able to sleepwalk them into their elimination.
While Milwaukee presents challenges, the Raptors are favourites against the Bucks for plenty of reasons. Here are five keys for Toronto as they try to beat the deer.
Containing the Freak
The first man the Raptors need to concern themselves with is the Greek Freak himself, Giannis Antetokounmpo. The 6’11” 22-year-old has taken an enormous leap this season, and is the inside favourite to win the NBA’s Most Improved Player award. Averaging 22.9 points (52.2% shooting), 8.7 rebounds, 5.4 assists, 1.9 blocks, and 1.6 steals, he’s the stat-stuffing heir to LeBron’s throne — the do-everything wing that can overwhelm opponents through size and skill.
The Raptors’ first concern with Antetokounmpo is limiting his transition opportunities. He’s top six in the league in both transition points and transition possessions per game, and if you’ve seen him before, you understand why. He’s a freak of nature in open territory, with long, violent strides toward the bucket.
The Raptors need to limit Giannis to the half-court game. While his drives are still deadly, his shooting is abhorrent. He averaged 33.5% on midrange jumpers this season, and that number’s been slipping post-All-Star. He’s even worse from three, averaging 27.2% on 2.3 attempts per game.
To his credit, though, Antetokounmpo knows his weaknesses, and the Bucks are deftly able to get him drives to the rim. Play him straight up and aggressive? Giannis has the ability to beat you, either with his first step, spin move, or back-down against a smaller defender.
Play him soft? The Bucks will get you into a pick and roll situation, where Antetokounmpo can patiently await an opening or whip a pass to the weak side.
In comments on Thursday, Dwane Casey seemed to allude the Raptors would go with the aggressive approach.
Dwane Casey's strategy against Giannis: Don't be a softie pic.twitter.com/ScfDraTQD2— Ai Willwill (@william_lou) April 13, 2017
With P.J. Tucker in the fold, this seems like the better way for Toronto, but it will call on defensive communication and aggressiveness from their bigs. The Bucks are sure to target Jonas Valanciunas in the pick and roll (as every team does), and Toronto’s wings will need to scurry around to stop the Greek freight train from getting easy shots at the rim.
While Milwaukee doesn’t blow you away with basketball talent, they do boast length and switchy defenders. The Bucks are a top ten team in steals per game, mostly thanks to the very long arms of Giannis, Khris Middleton, and Malcolm Brogdon.
Jason Kidd’s defense is young, and can be haphazard and inconsistent (they’re 19th in defensive rating), but they’ll drive you bananas through raw talent alone.
This is where experience can help the Raptors. Last year, sloppy play allowed the Indiana Pacers’ backcourt size to influence the series. Toronto is a top five team in turnover percentage, as just 13% of their possessions end in a turnover. They are really good at handling the basketball, and need to continue that in this series.
Milwaukee’s size will also influence how the Raptors’ stars play, beginning with the series’ marquee matchup.
A Test for DeMar DeRozan
It took a shoelace on DeMar DeRozan’s finger to fix his shot in last year’s playoffs. This year, he hasn’t needed creative fixes — the best season of his career has been powered by unbelievable shot creation.
In previous years, DeRozan would be flummoxed by larger or stronger defenders, forcing difficult and frustrating midrange shots. This year, he’s patiently (and powerfully) worked to his spots, and shown a better vision to pass when the shot still isn’t there. He’s averaged 22.3 points and 3.7 assists in three games against the Bucks this season. While that’s below his season averages, it’s respectable.
Milwaukee will be the ultimate test for whether DeRozan’s maturity translates from regular season to playoffs. He’ll get a myriad of looks — Antetokounmpo, Brogdon, Snell, and Middleton — all of whom stand with a size advantage. With that in mind, it’ll be important that he knocks down looks with just a bit less space than he usually enjoys.
Can Raps’ Role Players Shoot Consistently?
Through the first three months of the season, the Raptors’ offense was on a historic pace. Since their January struggles, though, the team has struggled to regain its former status. Most of this is due to the Kyle Lowry injury and two new players trying to find footing, but it’s still frustrating to see Toronto’s supporting players miss shots they normally make.
The Raptors are at their best when they can rip off quick-hitting scoring runs. Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan can be counted on for the methodical, self-created forms of offense, but they can’t do everything. Other guys have to make the open shots they’re provided by the two creators.
While P.J. Tucker (40%) and Serge Ibaka (39.8%) are shooting the three at a helpful level, the other two volume long bombers are not. DeMarre Carroll and Patrick Patterson need to make open looks to keep the groove going. Carroll, in particular, has been abysmal. He’s shooting just 30.3% since the All-Star break on 3.8 attempts per game, part of an overall 35.8 field goal percentage.
The difference between his shooting at home and on the road is enough to watch League Pass like the Zapruder film. Since All-Star, he’s made 44.7% of threes shot at home, and just 15.8% of those on the road.
Patterson, meanwhile, is still going through a crisis of confidence. Since All-Star, we’ve seen a slight uptick in his shooting percentage (from 36.3 to 39.0%) and his attempts per 100 possessions (from 7.6 to 8.1). The Raptors need to hope that momentum continues into the postseason.
Elsewhere, Norman Powell will need to prove he can make a shot in order to be a rotation player in this series. Right now he appears to be this year’s winner of the James Johnson 10th Man Award, and a 32.4% three-point percentage hasn’t done him any favours. He may be an offensive change-up, but only if his game comes with some semblance of consistency.
Experience Versus Baby Bucks
There’s understandably some nervousness going into this matchup. The Bucks are everything a primary source of Raptors angst should be. They’re an NBA darling team, a youthful unknown led by a 22-year-old freak of nature. They’re coached by a former player, whose coaching resume is glorified beyond its raw numbers. They have gritty dudes like Matthew Dellavedova and Greg Monroe, along with explode-at-any-moment dudes like Michael Beasley.
The Bucks can seem scary, but on the surface, they’re still babies. There’s no established superstar like Paul George here to stoke fears. Their two best players are both under 25. Their starting centre is 19, and their best bench wing is a rookie. Their veteran presence is Jason Terry, who isn’t good for much beyond moral support. Milwaukee is a shallow team beyond their stars, and even they’re dealing with the pitfalls of youth.
Toronto, meanwhile, has a long playoff run under their belt and an understanding of what’s needed to repeat. A few players, Kyle Lowry in particular, lamented the fact that they should’ve finished Indiana and Miami quicker in order to have a better chance at a deep playoff push. Messing around with bottom-ranked teams has a way of catching up with you, and while Cleveland was messianic in 2016, fatigue still had a role in the Cavaliers outscoring them by 94 in the Eastern Conference Finals.
The Raptors have the experience of winning by fire. Now, they should be able to recognize the importance of playing to expectations. They’re better than the Bucks. Their stars have the offensive maturity to create amidst trees. Their defense has the ability to snuff out the weak Milwaukee role players, and hopefully stymie their Greek Freak.
Toronto has all the tools, it’s just about execution now. Let’s see how it plays out.