If you’re a Milwaukee Bucks fan, there’s really nothing surprising or alarming about Game 1. The Bucks are well known to start slow and turn it up a notch throughout the run of a game — even one in the playoffs, and on as big a stage as the Eastern Conference Finals.
For the Toronto Raptors fan, Game 1 felt like a lost opportunity. That the Raptors came to play, kept the pace up, and held the Bucks at bay for three quarters, while also having a great Kyle Lowry scoring game, made it all the more difficult to digest when they lost.
Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer made incremental adjustments throughout the game, and Raptors coach Nick Nurse came in with an excellent game plan to start. Unfortunately, the latter stepped on a landmine starting late in the third quarter and failed to counter some of Milwaukee’s moves down the stretch.
So what did Game 1 tell us? That the Raptors are not easy meat? Or no matter what other teams do, the Bucks will find a way to beat them? Could this be a long series or four really close games en route to a sweep? First, let’s figure out what happened, and then what could change in Game 2.
For the Bucks
It wasn’t pretty, but they got the job done. Seeing the Raptors run and gun with Milwaukee might have been a bit of a surprise after watching them slug it out in a defensive grind with the Sixers in round two. That and watching the Raptors take and make wide open shots.
Having Brook Lopez break out of his slump was a welcome addition for the Bucks, and his two-way contribution helped them steal the game back from the Raptors.
The Great Wall
The Bucks knew it coming. The Raptors knew it coming. Heck, everyone knew it coming. As soon as Kawhi Leonard makes a move and gets past the free throw area, there’s a good chance that he’ll try to score.
The Bucks gambled on this probability as part of their defensive game plan, and they formed a wall that Kawhi tried his best to get around. Whether he’s turning left, right, or straight up, there would be multiple bodies waiting for him.
To execute this, Bucks sagged off pretty much anyone not named Danny Green, challenging Kawhi to kick the ball out (which he didn’t do much or early enough) and letting someone else on the Raptors try to score.
Will We See This Again: For the entire series, yes.
Get the Ball out of Lowry’s hands
This adjustment was much more apparent in the second half, when Eric Bledsoe was hounding Kyle Lowry to prevent him from getting Toronto’s offense started.
The way Lowry played, it was warranted. Not only was Lowry effective in scoring, but he was the ball of energy the Raptors fed off of to get their offense going. Toronto was just not the same when it was Kawhi or Pascal Siakam trying to initiate the offense in his stead.
The Raptors’ offense looked shaky in the second half, and evolved into more of Kawhi ISO possessions that were negated more often than not.
Will We See This Again: Expect the Bucks to use their deep backcourt to keep Lowry labouring.
Potential Adjustments for the Bucks
It wasn’t a perfect game for the Bucks, but they were able to do more than enough to come up with the win. Still, they should expect the Raptors to tighten up some loose screws heading into Game 2. Likewise, the Bucks still have a few things to figure out.
Get Bledsoe/Middleton Going
Part of the Bucks’ sub-par game was the combined poor shooting for Eric Bledsoe and Khris Middleton. The two combined for 7-of-24 shooting, including a combined 1-of-12 from three-point range. Middleton’s perimeter shots were contested for the most part, but Bledsoe’s were wide open. The Raptors made the decision to challenge Bledsoe on whether he could hit his perimeter shots.
What the Bucks can do to counter this is target Lowry. Coach Bud had the right idea — he had Bledsoe attack and post-up Lowry, and it proved to be a bit too much as the second half wore on. Nurse countered this by having Kyle Lowry and Danny Green switch before Bledsoe got the ball on the post.
Bledsoe doesn’t have an overwhelming mismatch over Green, but if he can kick out to Middleton, he can shoot over Lowry, who’s at least half a foot shorter than him. With Lowry’s tendency to help, Middleton might have enough space and time to get an open shot.
Will We See This: 50/50.
For the Raptors
The Raptors came out swinging but appeared to run out of gas in the fourth quarter. Was it merely getting tired or was it regression to the mean? Could it also be Nurse’s inability to come up with an easier way for Kawhi and the rest of the squad to score? How about their gradually faltering defense in the second half?
For a game that Toronto almost stole, coach Nurse seems to have more puzzles to solve than had they just lost the game in a blowout.
Match the Pace
For my Game 1/series preview, I wrote about the possibility of the Raptors choosing between slowing the pace down or keeping up with the Bucks. I noted that the Raptors found more open shots and got into their rhythm playing an open court style, and that is what we got in Game 1.
It worked partly because Kyle Lowry was constantly pushing the pace, and because everyone else was a willing shooter. That the Raptors were also hitting them for the most part also helped. Unfortunately, they weren’t able to sustain it and cooled off in the fourth quarter.
Will We See This Again: I would love to see this again. But as a wise man once said: it’s a make-or-miss league.
BBQ Chicken Ilyasova
I also noted on my Game 1 preview that Pascal Siakam should feast on Ersan Ilyasova. While the Bucks’ big man can sag off Siakam just like Joel Embiid did, he does not have the same defensive range that Embiid has, which should open things up for the Raptors’ Spicy P. Ilyasova became a liability with Siakam on the floor, he only saw five minutes of action in the second half.
Will We See This Again: I was disappointed that Siakam did not get more touches to cook Ilyasova. Next game, the Raptors should milk this until they chase Ilyasova off the court.
Small Ball Lineup
I don’t know any coach who doesn’t have at least one tendency of putting players, lineups, or adjustments in place that boggle the mind of everyone except the coach in question. Every fan has this complaint at some point. For Raptors fans with Nurse, it’s his use of the ultra-small lineup of Lowry, Fred VanVleet, Norman Powell, Siakam, Serge Ibaka that ran from the end of the third quarter into the fourth.
That five-some all had their share of good games against the Bucks in the regular season. However, as a group, they have struggled in the post-season. If Nick Nurse is reading, please pay close attention to the following bullets as to why this is not working:
They are going against a tall lineup that can score from the perimeter. Lowry, VanVleet, and even Powell can scramble as best as they can, but Nikola Mirotic, Brooke Lopez, and Khris Middleton can just shoot over them.
They are getting out-rebounded on both ends of the court. If the Raptors can’t get a rebound, they can’t push the pace. Then they are stuck on a half-court set offense where they struggle.
They can’t break down the Bucks defense. If they are unable to push the pace, the alternative is to get in the belly of defense, and look for a kick out opportunity, or any soft spot of the defense should they collapse. The problem is, there’s little movement on the perimeter and the ball handler (usually FVV) just wastes time prodding the paint because of the Bucks’ length and that lack of movement. As a result, Toronto either resorts to an ISO pull-up three, or go to the only play that they can execute regularly: the Ibaka pick-and-roll for his mid-range shot.
They can’t defend. The book is out on this lineup: draw Ibaka on a switch in the perimeter, drive to the basket, and most likely the entire Raptors defense collapses as Ibaka is beaten for the most part. From here, there will be plenty of kick out options and small defenders scrambling back on defense. Another option here is to just go for the shot and crash the boards. With the Bucks’ height and length, they tend to win the rebound battle for the most part.
Will We See This Again: I hope not. But then, this is Nurse’s maddening tendency, and he has to play the bench at some point, if only to counter the starters’ dying legs.
Potential Adjustments for the Raptors
You mean aside from not allowing Danny Green to put the ball down unless it’s to get a rhythm shot off the dribble? Fortunately for Nurse, he’s got some options to deal with the problems he and the Raptors are facing.
Go Big At All Times
I can’t stop thinking how the game would have ended had Nurse went with a big lineup to close the 3rd (Ibaka-Gasol-Siakam) and the defensive death lineup to start the 4th (insert Kawhi instead of Powell).
While they might not have the spacing, nor be able to push the pace like in the first half, the Bucks wouldn’t have been able to get those rebounds as easily, and wouldn’t have found any easy scoring in and around the basket. Lopez scored 10 points during the stretch when the Raptors went small, and that was enough to turn him into the MVP of the game.
Unfortunately for the Raptors, the small ball experiment should just be reserved for the regular season. They need to figure out how to make a bigger lineup work. In this instance, it may be worth it to try Patrick McCaw, or just pray that OG Anunoby can get back in time to change things up for Toronto. (I’m biased on behalf of the Raptors 905 guys too; let’s get wild with some Malcolm Miller and Chris Boucher minutes!)
Will We See This: A combination of big lineups worked against the Sixers, and given the Raptors’ roster issues right now, they may have to lean that way again.
Get Kawhi Different Looks
Kawhi’s strength — his ability to create in isolation — plays into the Bucks’ strength defensively. With the Bucks height, length, and athleticism, getting to the bucket from the perimeter is a tough task, even for Kawhi. But we’ve got some ideas for Kawhi and Nurse:
Use Kawhi on PnR/PnP as the screener: Getting Kawhi the ball on the move limits the time and attention the Bucks would have to invest on Kawhi, and that might be enough for him to get a better shot.
Playmaker Gasol on the elbow: Have Kawhi move off the ball going to the basket and trust Gasol to deliver the ball to him. We’ve seen this happen a few times throughout the postseason, but it’s surprisingly underused.
Really high screen actions targeting Lopez: Lopez sags too low, and looks uncomfortable in PnR situations, especially if it’s farther than the three-point line. Kawhi should be able to take advantage of this to get a perimeter shot or even a long two, just like how he dissected Nikola Vucevic in the playoffs.
Will We See This: Would love to see all three, but two out of three should be good enough to open things up for Kawhi.
Force the Ball Away from Giannis Early
If the Raptors can maintain playing big whenever Giannis is on the floor, they should consider double-teaming Giannis occasionally to make him give up the ball and let others make the play.
It’s easier said than done, but once Giannis gets near the free throw line (which is equivalent to one step for him from the half court line), the Raptors defense has to collapse, and even if he’s unable to score, he’s done his part of the offense by attracting multiple defenders and kicking out to open teammates.
Will We See This: It’s a bit risky, given Gasol’s lack of lateral speed, but there’s a path to this if Nurse shuffle the match-ups a bit.