The Raptors begin their 2017 playoff campaign tomorrow at 5:30pm against the Milwaukee Bucks. To help prepare, we asked the HQ staff to answer a few questions about their expectations for the series. Some of their answers will surprise you.
Now, on to the questions!
Who will be the biggest surprise for the Raptors in the series?
Woodley: I think DeMarre Carroll has a chance to make his detractors eat their words in this series. His off-kilter shot since the All-Star break has overshadowed the strides he's made on the defensive end in that span. Guarding Giannis Antetokounmpo is going to be a collective task for Toronto, and Carroll's going to have ample opportunity to show off exactly what the Raptors signed him to do two summers ago. I expect him to take advantage of that chance.
Teague: Biggest surprise for the Raptors in the series will be Norman Powell. He showed last year that he can compete with the finest in big games, and I feel there is a large role for him to be played coming off the bench. He can provide some shooting (hopefully, maybe), energy and an impact role defensively, particularly on guys like Khris Middleton and Malcolm Brogdon.
Robson: DeMar DeRozan: Yes he's been magnificent all season long, but I've seen a lot of preview content up over the past 24 hours suggesting that the Bucks swarming defence could trigger results closer to last year's poor playoff shooting numbers. I don't expect that happen, and think DeRozan will remain closer to his season averages than taking a plummet in the percentage department.
Park: Serge Ibaka. Two accepted truths about the playoffs is that the game slows down, and that refs call fewer fouls. Although we’ve already seen his work, I think Raptors fans will only truly appreciate Ibaka’s defensive versatility under the bright lights of the playoffs and more halfcourt basketball. While Ibaka may not be suitable as a full time cover on a dangerous wing player, he is as capable as any big man in the league at handing one off possessions off switches. If you catch Ibaka switched onto Middleton or Giannis, you can bet that Serge, in his wide defensive stance, hand up, wont give anything easy.
Iafrate: The Itty Bitty Lithuanian, Jonas Valanciunas. Greg Monroe is one if the least impressive defensive centres in the NBA. This could bode for some easy baskets for JV down low early in games when the Raps are trying to establish their offense.
Grant: It's a testament to how deep this Raptors team is that it's hard to find an answer to this question. I'm going to go off the beaten path and suggest the biggest surprise will be DeMarre Carroll. Carroll has been pretty bad for Toronto down the stretch; in 17 games since March 1st, he's shooting around 30% from three and only 35% from the floor, with a (by far) team low net rating of -2.9. In 4 games this season versus the Bucks, Carroll had a net rating of +17.2, best of anyone on the team not named Kyle Lowry. He's also shot... 35% from the field and 32% from three. Hey, it has to be a surprise, right?
Who will be the most important player for the Raptors' success in the series?
Woodley: This feels like a cop out, but it's Kyle Lowry, the team's most important player always. If his three-point shot is as fine-tuned as it's looked since his return, he'll create a long distance math problem that the low-volume Bucks might not have the firepower to contend with. When he's not given room to shoot, navigating the traps the aggressive and lanky Bucks like to deploy will be vital to keeping the Raptors' offense moving.
Teague: Kyle Lowry will be the most important player for the Raptors in the series. We have seen what the team can do without him in the lineup and although we look good at times, he is still the engine of the team and we will not be at our best unless he is at his best. The Raps have been up and down shooting wise (especially in that stretch without T-Ross and Kyle) and having him back to provide that threat and take the scoring load of DD will be crucial.
Robson: P.J. Tucker. Of course the Raps will need consistent scoring and playmaking from DeRozan and Lowry, but counting on Tucker (and to a lesser extent Ibaka and Carroll) to give Giannis short bursts of hell on defence is going to be crucial so Antetokounmpo can't pull a Paul George impression from last year. You can't stop Giannis, but if you can stop him from consistently getting into the lane, his impact offensively can be held in check.
Park: P.J. Tucker. (Thank you Masai Ujiri for all the trades). With the exception of Greg Monroe, who has had an up and down season, all of the Bucks players that are capable of getting hot and sinking the Raptors are likely going to be left with Tucker. As heavy favourites to win the series, Toronto’s biggest fear should be Giannis fast tracking his path to MVP status by going on a tear in the playoffs. Their best bet in preventing such emergence? You guessed it: Tucker.
Iafrate: Kyle Lowry is my obvious choice. The Toronto Raptors will go as far as their All-Star backcourt carries them. DeMar has had extended stretches of time to prove his worth this season, but with Lowry coming off a twenty-one game absence, it will be essential for him to find a rhythm from the get-go.
Grant: DeMar DeRozan. Look, Lowry is gonna Lowry. I don't think Matthew Dellavedova and Malcolm Brogdon, as feisty as they are, are going to give him much trouble. But when Lowry was out, DeRozan became the lodestone for this Raptors squad. With a rangy, strong defender like Khris Middleton (DeMar's only real kryptonite) probably covering him for much of the series, the Raptors offense is going to need to find ways to get DeRozan free, or scoring might become a real issue.
What's your favourite storyline heading into the series?
Woodley: I'm fascinated to see if we'll get another edition of Playoff Jonas against the Bucks. Valanciunas has his obvious flaws, but he showed against Indiana and Miami last season that he can be unstoppable when a playoff foe can't exploit his lead-footed defense. Milwaukee stinks at rebounding and has little in the way of stretchy big men to pull Valanciunas away from the rim. If he's on the court, he has devastating potential — especially as a roller — against the Bucks.
Teague: My favourite story line heading into the series, is actually something that Eric Koreen touched on and that is that this could be (but hopefully is not) the official coming our party for the Greek Freak. He compared him and this Bucks team to the 2014 Warriors who upset the Nuggets in round one and pushed the Spurs to round two, only to come back the next season and win a title. I am not saying Milwaukee is a year away from championship contention, but they certainly could be the next team to beat in the East in the near future.
Robson: Will the Raptors flex their muscles and playoff experience while putting away the Bucks fairly quickly in 4 or 5 games? Or will they fall back to the playoff norm and make it an extremely stressful seven game series?
Park: To be honest, I can’t really think of one. Lowry’s health? I’m going to reach and say the good ol’ pupil meets master of Coach Casey vs. Coach Kidd. Will Kidd know all of Casey’s tricks after years of playing for him in Dallas? [insert dramatic music]
Iafrate: Is the Raptors new Big 3 going to impose their will on this series the way many fans predict? Does Giannis Antetokounmpo have what it takes to make this series competitive?
Grant: It feels weird as a Raptors fan, but the rise of Giannis Antetokounmpo has been unbelievable to watch. He still can't shoot, but if he can improve that part of his game to an even passable level, you're looking at an all-time NBA talent. I expect him to give Toronto everything they can handle in the series, and while I think the Raptors will ultimately prove too much for the young Bucks, bearing witness to the series where Giannis first showed his teeth in the playoffs will be fun.
Rank these Bucks worries: Giannis, Khris Middleton, Jason Kidd, the bench unit, or write-in.
Woodley: 1. Giannis - He is Giannis.
2. Khris Middleton - His two way brilliance could be an antidote to DeMar DeRozan. He's one of the few twos in the league with the size to potentially hinder DeRozan in one-on-one situations. On the other end, DeRozan will have to be diligent to keep Middleton from springing open - particularly if Carroll and Tucker are occupied trying to stop worry no. 1.
3. Write in: Eric Hughes - the former Raptors assistant is as familiar with DeRozan's game as any opposing coach in the league, and DeMar has shouted out the Bucks' ability to hit him with smart traps in the past. And it's not like Raptors have Admiral Ackbar on their sideline to help DeMar identify them.
Teague: Giannis worries me the most of course as he leads his team in literally every offensive category except three-point percentage. However, just for fun, Mirza Teletovic (as part of the bench unit) is a guy that I hate playing against. Not only does he look like a James Bond villain, but he is a guy who loves to play the Raptors [cue Brooklyn flashbacks] and can turn a game around by hitting a few threes in a very short span of time. Also, Khris Middleton adds another dimension to a Bucks team who has struggled from three point range and can score in several different ways.
Robson: Obviously Giannis is the #1 threat, as he is essentially Russ of the East on any given night. Middleton is a legit 3&D wing who can stick to DeRozan or Lowry should he be asked to and if the supporting cast can shoot the three at the same rate or better than the Raptors bench it could be a real grind of a series. What would worry me a lot more about this team would be if they had a healthy Jabari Parker, as they would then possess another legit 20+ PPG scorer to go up against Lowry and DeRozan.
Park: 1. Giannis Antetokounmpo – He can impact the game in so many ways, and is the only player that the Raptors (probably) don’t have an answer for.
2. Khris Middleton – Quietly having another great season. A key piece to the Bucks attack, and trapping defense.
3. Jason Kidd – Hopefully he used up all of his “break Raptors’ hearts in playoffs” tokens in his playing days.
Iafrate: 1. Giannis - there may not be a player adequately suited to guard the Greek Freak. If you are the Raptors, you take away the paint and pray he doesn’t start seeing some jumpers go down.
2. Khris Middleton - on a team with few talented shooters, Khris Middleton sticks out like a sore thumb. The Raptors inability to guard the perimeter has been well-documented for a few seasons now.
3. Write in: Malcolm Brogdon - a more polished version of Norman Powell. Brogdon is a real ROY candidate, and a X-factor for the youthful Bucks.
Grant: Can I choose none? The Bucks had a nice March, but they're a .500 team. Jason Kidd will undoubtedly throw out some unorthodox stuff and force the Raptors to read and react, but his personnel is really pretty limited, especially with Jabari Parker out. If I were him I'd go with a super small lineup featuring Giannis at the 5, but I also wouldn't throw my drink on the court, or or smack my wife around, so we're probably not in the same head space, to be honest.
What's your prediction for the series?
Woodley: Giannis will be a terror, but I think he's a smidgen less capable of a solo series win than Paul George was last year. Raptors in 5.
Teague: I am going to say Raptors in six games. It's tradition to blow game one, so why not stop now! The Raptors will find themselves down a game, only to blow the Bucks away in Games 2 and 3, before Milwaukee responds in Game 4 after making some adjustments. The Raps counter however and take Game 5 at home before heading to Milwaukee and smothering them in their building to take Game 6 and the series.
Robson: Raptors in 5. The Raps will actually win a Game 1, but drop one in Milwaukee due to Giannis excellence and a Jason Terry resurgence for seven threes in one game at the Bradley Center, while finishing them off in Game 5 at the ACC.
Park: Raptors in 5. Contenders take care of business in the early rounds. Hopefully the team shows that they’re ready to take that leap this year.
Iafrate: Raptors in 5. The additions of Ibaka and Tucker prime Toronto for a playoff push. No Jabari Parker for the Bucks means they rely too heavily on 22 year old Giannis.
Grant: I think Giannis will have one big Giannis game, and the Raptors will have one crappy Raptors game, and thus, Toronto will win in 6.