There are around 15 games remaining in the NBA season, and things have shaped up pretty well for the Raptors. They find themselves atop the conference with a 5-game lead on the second place Boston Celtics and a healthy roster to boot. A few projection sites have the Raptors with a better-than 99 percent chance of finishing in that top spot, so we’re going to move ahead under the assumption things stay the same.
With that set, let’s look at the bottom of the standings — in particular, the seventh and eighth seeded teams: Milwaukee and Miami. Milwaukee began the season with the expectation of making serious noise in the Eastern Conference, yet they (through March) have seriously under-performed; Jason Kidd was even fired for his part in the Bucks’ lacklustre start.
Miami on the other hand has been playing spoiler all year while trying to stay afloat. Prior to the All-Star Break, Detroit was in the running for the eighth spot, but has recently fallen off a cliff — so it seems Miami and Milwaukee are almost a lock to hold onto the final two spots in the standings as the season concludes.
What Does Milwaukee Do?
Milwaukee has aimed to do one thing since Joe Prunty took over — take away the three point shot from their opponent. Some games it works and they win. If they manage to control the defensive glass too, it’s usually a guaranteed win. If the other team catches fire, or dominates second chance points, Milwaukee is immediately swimming upstream. The lack of a “Plan B” game plan has placed Milwaukee in some precarious positions over the last month.
On paper, the match up and game plan makes sense: Toronto is a volume shooting team, so taking away good shots should work — on paper. The Bucks have recently discovered that this game plan has an enormous hole that need to be filled come playoff time.
Since the All-Star Break, things have not at all been working out for Milwaukee. Because Prunty is throwing everything he can at defending the perimeter, teams have become wise to crash the glass for second-chance points and a lot of times it ends with an easy put-back. Since the break, Milwaukee corrals just 75 percent of available defensive rebounds, which ranks them 27th of 30 teams in the NBA.
In the 11 games since the break, Milwaukee is allowing opponents to grab nearly 11 offensive rebounds per game. They’re essentially overloading the perimeter and leaving the post undermanned. Those missed defensive rebounds result in 12.6 second chance points given up per game — enough to easily change the outcome of a game.
When you throw a lineup of long, rangy (read: skinny) defenders on the floor, the post becomes a serious weak point. Luckily, Toronto has just the tools to take advantage of that.
Against Milwaukee, Jonas Valanciunas will be an obvious option in the post, but size in general should be a viable antidote to the way Milwaukee chooses to defend the perimeter. Toronto is also adept at getting to the rim thanks to the aggressive play of its lead guard — whoever that is at any given moment. All three of Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet and Delon Wright get into the paint at will, and from there, plays normally end in an easy bucket; more-so when the Bucks don’t have a centre on the floor who can alter shots.
While Toronto will still take its share of three-pointers, the offense should focus on getting to the paint as long as Milwaukee allows them to. From there, Prunty might adjust his defense accordingly to focus on the post — possibly throwing John Henson and Thon Maker on the floor together for some rim-protection — which in turn would unlock open perimeter shots.
This iteration of Milwaukee has shown an ability to utilize specific strengths on their roster, but seemingly not in conjunction with one another — not yet at least. Adjustments have been an incredible part of Casey’s coaching success this season, and against a newly minted head coach in Prunty, he has an obvious advantage in game-prep.
Weird Defensive Woes
A more important, and worrisome, aspect of Milwaukee’s slipping play of late is their defense; it’s been downright horrible.
Prior to All-Star Weekend, Milwaukee (in 12 games under Joe Prunty) was holding opponents to 43 percent from the field and 32 percent from deep — excellent numbers by any measure — helping them to a 9-3 record in that stretch. Since the break, it’s been the complete opposite — opponents are shooting 47 percent from the field and 37 percent from deep, and their record of 4-7 mirrors those numbers.
It’s hard to say what is causing the steep drop in results, but one could point to the level of competition; it’s gotten a lot better. However, the most viable answer for the change is teams are scouting the game plan and have come up with ways to counter the approach Prunty has taken in an effort to stop three-point shots.
Like we talked about above, once you establish post position on the floor, the defense has no choice but to collapse, opening up spots on the floor that Milwaukee was initially fighting to remove.
The Eric Bledsoe Problem
Toronto has a problem on defense that has until recently been the back-breaker in their losses. Guys like Eric Bledsoe give the Raptors fits, often using their speed to take advantage of Jonas Valanciunas on the pick-and-roll, resulting in open threes and lanes to the basket. VanVleet has recently displayed a level of intensity on defense never before seen — and he could be the saviour Toronto needs to stop Bledsoe.
Bledsoe has picked Toronto apart in two of three games they’ve matched up this season, while being ultra-efficient in all three. His shooting percentages, particularly his three-point shot, have been off the charts because he takes advantage of Toronto’s lack of speed when defending the perimeter and their willingness to throw multiple defenders at Giannis Antetokounmpo — Bledsoe’s ace-in-the-hole.
When Giannis is the roll man, things get pretty bleak for Toronto’s defense:
Giannis has the size advantage over any Toronto wing, save maybe Pascal Siakam, and the speed to blow by anyone who attempts to match that size. He’s essentially unstoppable — let’s face it. Bledsoe uses this match up to his advantage, floating from the pick to an open spot on the floor. Thanks to Giannis’ passing ability, this action is very efficient.
Here we see the Raptors’ best chance of stopping a Giannis-Bledsoe pick-and-roll (OG Anunoby and Kyle Lowry) get beat resulting in an easy Bledsoe bucket in the lane.
What about from three? As a 34-percent three-point shooter on the season, Bledsoe is shooting 9-of-15 (sixty percent!) from deep against Toronto this year, thanks largely in part to Toronto’s efforts to double and triple-team Giannis when he gets the ball. Lowry usually plays the role of “safety” in these situations (such as against Joel Embiid of the 76ers), oftentimes leaving Bledsoe wide open for a three-point shot.
Here, the Bucks get the switch — Lowry is guarding Giannis, and Anunoby digs in to help. This scenario is exactly what makes the Bucks’ offense churn along, giving them an unbelievable advantage when these two share the floor.
Defending the pick-and-roll effectively will be a crucial component of stopping the Bucks offense from lighting the Raptors up. Much like how they played Harden one-on-one in the Houston match up, Toronto needs to stick to Bledsoe (and other shooters) on the perimeter no matter the situation. Leaving him open in the corner has proven to be deadly this season.
Overall, the Raptors have less to worry about in terms of the game plan compared to last year. Jason Kidd’s switchy-trap heavy defense was tough to counter because of the sheer number of looks you could see in one game. This year, especially under Prunty, the Bucks looks as vulnerable as they ever have in the Giannis era.
Stats from NBA.com/stats and basketball-reference.com