If the Raptors drop Game 4 this afternoon in Milwaukee, post-game eulogies will no longer be premature. Even with at least one more home game guaranteed, Toronto’s play through three games against the Bucks has inspired little confidence that a 3-1 deficit would be surmountable.
Most pre-series prognostications pegged the Raptors as a superior team to the Bucks; a team potentially capable of being more than just a thorn in the side of the Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference. Top to bottom, the talent edge in this series remains on Dwane Casey’s sideline.
That advantage of course matters less when Toronto’s players and coaches can’t execute a game plan. Whether it’s working out of Milwaukee’s swarming thickets of trapping limbs, defending the Bucks’ collection of steady three-point shooters or pulling in the rebounds that should theoretically be up for grabs against one of the NBA’s worst rebounding teams, the Raptors haven’t found the right mix of winning ingredients for long enough stretches to be successful in this series.
If you’re feeling apprehensive or nervous ahead of today’s game, congratulations — you’re alive. Without the prospect of official elimination looming today, it feels a tad hyperbolic to suggest the future trajectory franchises hinges on Game 4. But if the Bucks continue to play at a higher level than they’ve reached all season; if Casey can’t coordinate an effective and sensible rotation; if the Raptors go down 3-1 en route to an eventual first round exit, we very well could be witnessing the final days of the franchise’s first Golden Age.
Here’s what to watch for in today’s game — although I might advise you don’t watch at all, lest you become overcome with crippling anxiety.
The Thon Song
In many ways, Thon Maker’s play in this series has been a barometer for the Bucks. When their ambiguously aged rookie has been at his his hedging, flashing and rim-protecting best while defending the pick-and-roll, Milwaukee has smothered the Raptors’ go-to offensive kindling. When he’s been grabbing rebounds over the back of Jonas Valanciunas, he has cut into one of the glaring edges the Raptors have over the Bucks on paper.
Jason Kidd’s trust in Maker is clearly expanding. After a dizzying stretch of defense in the third quarter of Game 1, Kidd uncharacteristically called on Maker for crunch time minutes in Game 2 — minutes that coincided with the Bucks nearly stealing a second win at the ACC. Game 3 saw Maker be one of the catalysts of Milwaukee’s 32-12 first quarter explosion.
While Maker’s stat line in the series — 6.7 points, 2.7 rebounds, 2.0 assists and 2.0 blocks in 19 minutes a night — is modest in a raw counting sense, it’s impressive in it’s multifaceted-ness. He has helped solve Milwaukee’s issues with big man depth and shot-blocking while being another dynamic athlete for Kidd to deploy in his traps of Lowry and DeRozan at the point of attack. Plays like his first quarter dunk on Serge Ibaka Thursday are gravy for the Bucks.
A brief look at the history of rookies in the playoffs would suggest a blip is coming for Maker. After all, he entered the post-season as little more than a D-Leaguer being shoehorned into NBA minutes for developmental purposes. If the Maker we’ve seen through the first three games is simply the new norm, then the Raptors’ uphill climb will be that much steeper.
Raptors games over the past few seasons have typically followed familiar beats, with Casey and his regimented rotations pounding the kick drum. His scripted sub patterns have had their virtues — so much of the team’s success early in seasons can probably be attributed to guys knowing the cadence of each game well beforehand. Casey has forged comfort via consistency.
Through three playoff games, the hope for finding continuity is sufficiently out the window. Such is life when your best player returns from injury with four games left in the regular season. Casey has had years to craft his typically strict rotations. The deadline additions and Lowry’s return have eliminated the most precious element of lineup consistency: marinating time.
With that in mind, Casey needs to ditch the old playbook. Reinventing the wheel in the middle of a series in which you’re trailing is a risky move, but when Plan A is sputtering, maybe going nuclear on his lineup chart is the way to prosperity for Casey.
There are some alterations for Casey to make that have been painfully obvious fixes to the Raptors’ issues — slow starts, matchup-prone defenders, etc. — since the start of the series.
It might be time to abandon the DeMarre Carroll experience, at least for the remainder of round one. It’s not like the prize of summer 2015 isn’t trying to affect winning. Carroll still makes the odd effective play here and there even in his worst of games. Shit, he somehow had two blocks in Thursday’s blowout. At some point though, the Raptors are going to need positive production from the starting small forward spot. Among the disaster zone that is the Raptors’ playoff On Court/Off Court sheet, Carroll’s -27.4 on-court NET Rating stands out as the teams’ worst figure in this series. Toronto has been a full 22 points per-100 possessions better with Carroll riding the pine.
If Casey wants to make the easy fix, he’ll insert Tucker into the starting five, play him 35 minutes — in which he’d preferably guard one of Giannis Antetokounmpo or Khris Middleton at all times — and relegate Carroll to 12 to 15 minutes of spot duty. If the coach wants to fully break the emergency glass, he’ll give those 12 to 15 minutes to Norman Powell, and bench Carroll entirely. I’m not even sure if I believe the latter move would work; Powell’s season-long unevenness is a big reason why he’s barely factored into the playoff rotation thus far. His skills however, are more tangibly helpful to the Raptors in this particular match-up. One way to mitigate the incessant trapping of the Bucks is to move away from such reliance on the pick-and-roll. It’s tougher to trap when you’re not inviting an extra defender to the party with a screen.
Powell might be the most explosive driver on the team. Asking him to put his head down and blow by some deer in second unit scenarios might be one way to cut down on the total number of traps the Raptors are forced to split over the course of a game. On top of that, he’s probably more of an attention-grabbing threat to have lurking on the weak side waiting for a ball swing than Carroll. Carroll’s shot has been iffy since February, and his drives are clunky on a good day. Powell’s tool-kit is limited to mostly catch-and-shoot triples and lefty finishes at the hoop, but it’s still a more impressive ensemble than Carroll has shown of late.
Beyond a shake-up on the wings, an ideal world would see Casey mix up his front court rotation and start Patterson and Ibaka at the four and five next to Tucker. That is this team’s most Bucks-proof front court, full-stop. In 20 minutes together in Game 2, the trio posted a NET Rating of +16.0. It’s inexcusable — and entirely telling — then, that they’ve shared the floor for just five minutes total in the Raptors’ two losses.
Maximizing lineup output is inevitably going to eat into the minutes of guys who are usually mainstays in the rotation. Not starting Jonas Valanciunas for the first time in, I don’t know, forever, seems like a move that could poke the Raptors’ big man in the ego. But Game 4 is an all-or-nothing game for Toronto. Feelings should be secondary to results. Sprinking Valanciunas in on some second units to see if he can finally make use of his hulking size and offensive touch could help balance the bench. Jakob Poeltl and his “grab every offensive rebound there is” mentality is also probably deserving of some run as well if the Raptors continue to be merely even with the Bucks on the boards.
Continuity is a novel concept. In Game 4, desperate experimentation should be Casey’s M.O.
Future of the Franchise
Even with a successful playoff run, this summer — in which the Raptors will have four unrestricted free agents and a salary cap crunch to juggle — was going to require some tricky maneuvering on the part of Masai Ujiri and his front office. An early playoff exit to an inferior team would add multiple layers of complexity to that already convoluted off-season to-do list.
Ujiri’s deadline deals for Tucker and Ibaka were intended to erase the questions the Raptors have faced in playoffs past — Lowry and DeRozan’s supporting cast was supposed to be solidified, Casey’s past limitations in regards to flexibility no longer a concern.
With the contracts of Lowry, Ibaka, Tucker and Patterson ending, the potentially off-loadable contracts of Carroll, Cory Joseph and Valanciunas on the books, and the youth movement at the back of the bench, there’s no shortage of choose-your-own-adventure books for Ujiri and Weltman to flip through should the worst happen in round one.
Just listened to Masai's 14-min post-deadline presser. His message was pretty clear: here are the pieces you need/asked for, now it's on you— Josh Lewenberg (@JLew1050) April 21, 2017
If the Raptors lose in 1st round, expect changes. Too early to get into specifics, but guys are playing/coaching for their future in Toronto— Josh Lewenberg (@JLew1050) April 21, 2017
Masai at deadline: "I dont think it makes sense [for] a team thats not making the playoffs or getting beat in the 1st round to go into tax"— Josh Lewenberg (@JLew1050) April 21, 2017
Being on the precipice of the possible end of this Raptors team as we’ve known it is a surreal and sobering reality right now. There’s no telling how the front office will view the idea of investing big money in running the roster back if this team falls well short of last year’s bar. Maybe a five-year max for Lowry becomes less justifiable; or perhaps he’ll feel compelled to leave for some other team with a better path to a title. It’s impossible to predict just how the off-season might unfold if the Raptors lose in round one for the third time in four years.
Something that might make the summer easier to forecast: the Raptors pulling themselves together and storming back in a series they’re supposed to win. The recovery starts today.
Where to Watch: Sportsnet / Jurassic Park, 3:00pm EST