The Toronto Raptors and the Milwaukee Bucks. Kawhi Leonard and Giannis Antetokounmpo. Mike Budenholzer and Nick Nurse. The inferiority complex of both fan bases. There are plenty of subplots going on in this Eastern Conference Finals matchup, and while the Bucks appear to be steamrolling everyone in the East, it’s Kawhi and the Raptors’ turn to stop them.
Looking back at the regular season head-to-head matchups, the Bucks smoked the Raptors 3-1, but what does that really mean? Antetokounmpo, Leonard and Lowry each missed at least one game (and Playoff Kawhi is not Load Management Kawhi). Furthermore, all four games came before the Raptors mortgaged a chunk of their assets for Marc Gasol and before the Bucks acquired Nikola Mirotic.
So it’s a fresh start, and an intriguing matchup, to say the least. And while the Bucks are favoured to come out of this series, this matchup does not have the same helpless feeling of the Bucks vs. the Pistons in the first round or even the Bucks vs. the identity-crisis Celtics in the second round.
Not that Raptors fans shouldn’t be worried. The Bucks are a great team, and Toronto’s matchup with Philly showcased a major concern: scoring from anyone not named Kawhi. If the Raptors’ offense shows up, we could be looking at a much more competitive matchup, and a balanced attack could and tilt the balance more to the Raptors’ favour.
We’ll be following the tactical issues facing both teams closely throughout the series, so before the games begin, let’s go over some tactics we expect to see from both teams heading into Game 1.
For the Bucks
The Bucks (and their fan base) should justifiably be coming into this series confident in their ability to wrap it up quickly. They’ve been dominant, and the Raptors have struggled to get to this point, so you can’t blame them for calling a sweep, or the on-brand “Bucks in six.”
The Bucks’ roster and offensive/defensive system finally got into their sweet spot this year, and they look unstoppable with Giannis Antetekounmpo leading the charge. They have been playing pretty much the same way that they played in the regular season, and there’s no reason for coach Mike Budenholzer to make any drastic changes.
Expect the Bucks to come in trying to impose their will and playing their brand of basketball, and waiting for the Raptors to adjust to them.
Who’s the Fifth Beatle?
Malcolm Brogdon started for the Bucks for the most part of the season until he got injured, and he was then replaced by Sterling Brown on the starting lineup. Brown made a seamless transition in place of Brogdon, scoring in double figures in 7 of 10 games as a starter.
In the playoffs, Brown managed to get consistent minutes as a starter but did not have the same productivity compared to his regular season stats as a starter. Perhaps it was the nagging back injury that cost him the starting spot, which went to Nikola Mirotic.
Nikola Mirotic as a starter added more size and length for the Bucks, and with him on the starting lineup, they now have Mirotic, Khris Middleton, Giannis, and Brook Lopez who all stand at least 6’8” and above, and god knows how much wingspan in total.
While all three seems to be a capable fifth Beatle for the Bucks, they all present varying strengths and weaknesses. Given how Philly’s size frustrated Toronto’s, I expect we’ll see Milwaukee stay big to start.
Keep Kawhi In Check
The question here is, do they need to?
Khris Middleton should get the bulk of the minutes trying to slow down Kawhi Leonard. Middleton is almost an inch taller than Kawhi, and he’s got the length and foot speed to potentially slow Kawhi.
All Middleton really needs to do at this point is to funnel Kawhi to where Giannis or Lopez will be waiting as a help defender. Expect Lopez and Giannis to sag off their coverage to help out on Middleton if he does (and likely will) get in trouble.
Expect Middleton to mirror Kawhi’s minutes as much as possible, as the non-Giannis alternative does not look good (Malcolm Brogdon, Sterling Brown, Mirotic, etc). It will be interesting to see how the Bucks handle Kawhi’s coverage if Middleton gets into early foul trouble.
Worst-case scenario, the Bucks can put Giannis on Kawhi, but that’s not really an ideal utilization for Giannis this early in the series.
For the Raptors
The theme for the Raptors heading into this series is how coach Nick Nurse gets the rest of the team help shoulder the scoring load from Kawhi Leonard. The Bucks averaged 120 points per game in the regular season, and 116 in the playoffs. The Raptors are averaging 103 points per game in the playoffs, which is the lowest among the remaining four teams vying for the championship.
Based on the Raptors’ regular-season matchups with the Bucks, and how the Bucks handled their opponents in the playoffs, Kawhi’s strengths play into the Bucks’ defensive strengths. It’s imperative that the Raptors can manufacture points as much as possible without involving Kawhi Leonard making those buckets.
The burden lies on the shoulder of the remaining starters — Kyle Lowry, Marc Gasol, Danny Green, and Pascal Siakam — all of whom logged heavy minutes in the playoffs but produced very little scoring outside of Siakam.
The pressure is also on the Raptors bench: Fred VanVleet and Norman Powell to generate scoring opportunities for themselves and for Serge Ibaka, while holding their own defensively.
Push the Pace or Slow It Down?
In the regular season, the Raptors have tried both approaches. They were able to slow down the pace and the Bucks in turn. However, the Bucks were able to eke out the win in crunch time.
The Raptors also were able to push the pace and ran with the Bucks. It resulted in a much more balanced attack for the Raptors, and there were plenty of transition and wide open perimeter opportunities. One of such games resulted in Siakam’s then-career high, and in a spread out/open court setting, it takes someone like Giannis to slow him down.
The Bucks will try to push the pace; that’s their offensive DNA. The question here is, will the Raptors do the same? Would it be worth the risk, if it means opening up more scoring (and higher percentage) opportunities for anyone not named Kawhi?
Get Green Going
Part of the Raptors’ scoring struggles in the postseason has been their inability to get Danny Green going. Green’s touches were few and far in between, but it was by design by their opponents. Green was rarely left alone by his defenders, and he’s not a JJ Redick, or even a C.J. Miles who is regularly tasked to sprint through routes to get into his perimeter shot, especially on the curl. He is a much better catch-and-shoot option if he’s already facing the basket.
What the Raptors can do, and it could be a bit risky, is to look for him in transition. The Bucks are aggressive transition defenders who try to take out your fastbreak opportunities. However, the Raptors have shown from time to time that they can hit Green in transition, and he rarely misses those shots.
On top of that, Nurse has to change up his playbook on how Green is getting his shots. With 12 post-season games and the regular season, the Bucks’ scouting report should already be well aware of how and when Green gets his good looks on a half-court set.
Pascal Siakam had a tough time against the Sixers and Joel Embiid because they have the perfect counter: Embiid can sag off Siakam above the break and he can still have the strength, quickness, and length to contest Siakam’s penetration.
Outside of Giannis, it’s doubtful that the Bucks can do that with him if they have Nikola Mirotic, Ersan Ilyasova (BBQ chicken), and Brooke Lopez. If the Bucks won’t collapse on Siakam’s ISOs against these defenders, Siakam should get a lot of touches and easy points this way.
Conley/Gasol PnR/PnP Actions
No, we’re not bringing Mike Conley to the Raptors this season. However, Marc Gasol has been ridiculously underutilized with the Raptors. Gasol averaged just under 16 points per game with the Grizzlies while shooting 13 shots per game. Since getting traded to the Raptors, his numbers went down to about nine points per game, and in the playoffs, it’s under nine points.
With the Raptors, Gasol’s role on the offense has been relegated into Kawhi’s personal screener and as a kickout option who would swing the ball for the most part and not take the shot.
If there’s a time for Gasol to be more aggressive on offense, now’s the time. Lowry is an excellent pick-and-roll/pop ball handler, and Gasol pretty much lived off such plays with Mike Conley with the Grizzlies.
In the two games that the Grizzlies played the Bucks, the Conley/Gasol PnR/PnP gave the Bucks a run for their money as they had trouble defending them. In fact, in their first matchup, Gasol dropped 29 points on the Bucks en route to a win over Giannis and company. The game featured Gasol shooting 6/12 from the perimeter.
For Kyle Lowry’s part of the PnR/PnP action, as Conley has shown, the midrange/floater area is there for the taking, and Lowry needs to take those shots often enough to keep the Bucks defense honest.
It’s really hard to gauge how the Raptors will play the Bucks overall; the regular season games mean next to nothing, but the Raptors’ playoff struggles are for real. The Bucks are who they are, and have not shown any signs of slowing down in the playoffs.
It will be tough for the Raptors, having had little time to rest and get enough practice time for counters against the Bucks’ tactics, and they're gonna have to do it on the road. But then again, nothing has come easy for the Raptors this post-season, and they’ve made it this far.