Milwaukee’s hyper-aggressive defensive scheme, at its best, adds stress and risk to every action an opposing offense runs. At its worst, it’s an invitation for self owns.
Toronto experienced both shades of the Bucks’ defense in last year’s playoffs. Games 1 and 3 — and the agonizing final 18 minutes of the deciding Game 6 — showcased how disruptive Jason Kidd’s defense can be when A) his players are making well-time rotations in recovery after springing traps, and B) opposing ball-handlers are scared shitless of the giant Condors flying their way.
Norman Powell’s entry into the starting five in Game 4 was something of a check mate move by Dwane Casey. With an extra ball-handling and shooting threat on the court, the Raptors squeezed just enough juice to eek out an uncomfortable series win. Those six games were the final bullet in the old Raptors’ offense’s pros and cons list. Five playoff series of diminishing returns was enough, and the Raptors made an earnest commitment to evolving over the course of the summer.
Evolve, they have, and the results have been flowing and shooty and entertaining as hell. Where it might have been lede-worthy whenever the Raptors dropped 25 assists in years past, Monday night’s win saw them reach that mark in ho hum fashion, all the while somewhat reverting back to a more maligned style of play.
For the last four years, Toronto’s offense has been like pizza, which is to say it’s been unconditionally good. Except prior to this season, it resembled a Brooklyn-style pepperoni pie — excellent if a little monotonous, with the role of the starring meat being played by Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan-run possessions. Between running the sixth-most ISOs in the league last year, and having almost a quarter of all their possessions finish with a pick-and-roll ball handler taking a shot (highest in the league, per NBA.com), the Raptors’ offense was one-topping slog in which DeRozan and Lowry ruled.
This year’s offense looks more like a deluxe slice — pepperoni’s still a feature item, but it’s accented by mushrooms, peppers, onions and olives standing in for cuts, spot-ups, hand-offs and networks of screens. Flavour diversity is now the M.O., and Toronto’s offense remains as good as any collection of dough, cheese and briny preservatives out there.
Against the Bucks on Monday, though, Toronto’s offense had that old heartburn-preceding taste. DeRozan and Lowry ran the show through pick-and-rolls and ISO-ball, and it ... uhm ... worked.
NBA.com doesn’t provide figures on what play types a team utilizes over the course of a given game (although it’d be friggin’ swell if it did), but in watching the Raptors beat the Bucks, you couldn’t help but feel a twinge of deja vu as Toronto’s All-Star guards dictated the action.
Perhaps more than in any of the Raptors 35 games this season, the Raptors returned to their roots. DeRozan scored a career-high 52 points, Lowry chipped in 26; 24 of the team’s 45 made shots came from the hands of one of its two best players, as did 14 of the 25 assists. Lowry and DeRozan screening for each other — once a staple of the Toronto attack that has appeared more sparsely this year — took place on the regular. You even saw a trusted secondary player, Serge Ibaka, brick a bunch of shots. In many ways, the New Year’s Day win was a tribute to all the habits the Raptors had suggested they wanted to leave behind in 2017.
Self-improvement isn’t linear. This year’s Raptors were and still are prone to relapsing from time to time. What’s interesting about what happened Monday night is that Toronto’s reversion seemed more calculated than subconscious. Further peppering in intrigue: the call to dress the offense in its throwback uniforms came against the team that so dramatically exposed its ugliness last spring.
This year’s Bucks might even be more equipped to blow up teams that funnel their creative duties through one or two guys. Starting in place of the inconsistent Thon Maker this season has been a revived John Henson; length is to him what shooting is to Marco Belinelli. It’s all he really has, but he has it in excess.
“When he blitzes, he’s long,” said Dwane Casey before the game when asked about the challenge Henson would pose for the Raptors. “He’s a lot to see over, see around. When he and Antetokounmpo get in a blitz... looks like an eclipse.”
“[Eric Bledsoe’s] arms are, I dunno what his wingspan is, but he fits in with that,” Casey added of Milwaukee’s early-season acquisition. “And also Brogdon, same thing — he adds to that length factor which they use quite well with their defensive attacks and their blitzes and their corrals.”
Milwaukee’s length nearly sent the Raptors into a rebuild. Where logic might have suggested Toronto avoid the Bucks’ swarming pick-and-roll defense at all costs on Monday, it appeared as though DeRozan and Lowry were instead calling over multiple Bucks defenders with waving middle fingers.
When the traps and doubles came, the Raptors put their growth on display. Eight months ago, this possession would have taken ten extra seconds to initiate, Lowry might have gotten consumed by arms, and there’s a not insignificant chance it would have resulted in a turnover. Instead, it’s a skip pass to the corner for a DeRozan three — yeah, he apparently hits those now too.
Different ball-handler, same idea. A year ago DeRozan routinely flubbed this type of play by hanging on to the ball too long or making an ill-advised pass. In 2018, it’s a textbook example of why Bucks fans want Jason Kidd and his aggressive defensive system to get canned.
If you trust in your abilities to skirt around the thickets of over-committed limbs, there’s no reason not to draw the Bucks out with high screen after high screen. Beating Kidd’s scheme means a wide open shot is lurking somewhere on the court. In their OT win, the Raptors carved up the ever-rotating Milwaukee defense to the tune of a 116.4 offensive rating. Kyle Lowry’s entirely contested three to tie it at 112 in the final minute was 100 percent the result of two Bucks converging on DeRozan, and DeRozan’s ability to subsequently make a pass he might not have made a year ago.
I would like to know who exactly is expected to rotate on Lowry, under the following conditions:— Dean Maniatt (@AllTheBucks) January 2, 2018
1. The left side has been cleared
2. Ibaka cuts to the basket drawing Giannis with him
3. It takes 1.9 seconds from the time Middleton leaves his man to the time that Lowry releases pic.twitter.com/qAifSSqXIN
Seriously, Bucks fans hate Jason Kidd more than dudes on mop duty.
Of course the high-wire act of out-maneuvering one of the lengthiest teams assembled in NBA history isn’t without precariousness. A few plays from last night should be enough to scare the Raptors away from a full slide back to the bad old days. A simplistic offensive approach nearly cost Toronto the game on its final offensive possession. If you showed a non-fan this clip and any possession from Game 1 of last year’s playoff run, they’d probably just think you were screwing with them by showing them two identical videos and saying they’re different.
Single digits on the clock when the action starts, DeRozan hemmed in a corner, a delayed reaction by the guy receiving the trap-evading pass — that’s some hauntingly familiar shit. Lowry’s contested air-ball should serve as a reminder of why the Raptors threw themselves into a more five-pronged offensive philosophy this season.
That said, Casey and his staff have introduced a few wrinkles that inspire some confidence that the Raptors might be able to survive if match-ups or game flow necessitate more primitive offensive stylings come playoff time. The gears of a smooth egalitarian offense can get jammed by playoff sludge; being good at multiple things is an asset. Casey himself discussed before the season his desire to maintain the best elements of past iterations while embracing a new playing style.
Instances like this one provide another look at how the Raptors have broadened their approach to dealing with extra attention getting pointed toward Lowry and DeRozan. Meet Fred VanVleet, master roller:
VanVleet assumed the role of unorthodox DeRozan outlet a handful of times down the stretch on Monday. It was an neat little workaround to the problem the Raptors faced in the seconds after DeRozan or Lowry broke a trap last year. If a big man can’t make a concise read in the moment, why not put in a point guard in position to guide the offense through its next steps?
“It goes back to our playoff series, all of last year, things that slowed us down or made it difficult on us,” said DeRozan of the tweak that made numerous appearances in overtime. “You kind of learn from your mistakes. You kinda understand when you get back in the moments how to beat it, how to use it to your advantage.
“It’s all about experience, that’s a perfect example tonight, understanding a team, how they’re gonna play, how they coach, how they’re gonna prepare for you.”
Kidd has a chance to pull a Casey and deftly adjust to an obvious flaw in his system when the Raptors and Bucks rematch on Friday in Milwaukee. If he doesn’t — and, I mean, come on, he won’t — the Raptors will enter the game knowing they’ve now got a firm handle on the riddle that almost ended the franchise’s Golden Age.