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Tactical Issues: How will the Raptors and Bucks adjust in Game 4?

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The Raptors outlasted the Bucks in Game 3’s double overtime. But it’s easy to expect the Bucks to play harder. What’s more, both teams could make some changes heading into Game 4.

NBA: Playoffs-Milwaukee Bucks at Toronto Raptors Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

The Raptors came out swinging, but the Milwaukee Bucks just would not give up the game easily on Sunday night. What started as a fast-paced affair became a grind for the rest of the game. It was an intense battle of resilience, and the Raptors came out on top in Game 3.

Now, can the Raptors do it again to tie the series? For the Bucks, can they unlock all of their key players before the Raptors figure out how to handle the rest of Milwaukee’s supporting cast?

For the Bucks

The Bucks failed to get the trio of Eric Bledsoe-Khris Middleton-Giannis Antetokounmpo going — and that’s saying something. If not for their supporting cast, the Raptors would have run away with the win in a more comfortable fashion, relatively speaking.

The Bucks felt the Raptors’ defensive pressure throughout the game, as they were forced to take shots on the low end of the ideal shot spectrum of coach Mike Budenholzer’s offense, e.g. in isolation or under shot clock duress.

Funnelling Kawhi

Middleton has done an admirable job making it difficult for Kawhi Leonard to get to his spots on his ISO plays. He’s provided enough resistance and funnelled him to where the help defenders are waiting.

Forcing Kawhi to go left seems to be what the Bucks’ analytics are suggesting, and so far they seem to be right. Kawhi’s success rate on his ISOs are dropping, and Kawhi was en route to a bad shooting night if he didn’t dig deep and get transition field goals.

Will We See This: The Bucks have Kawhi’s ISO figured out, and even Malcolm Brogdon is able to slow him down and funnel him to Bucks’ help defenders are waiting.

Potential Adjustment for the Bucks

Keep Pushing the Pace

The Raptors are older and came out of a gruelling series against the Philadelphia 76ers, where their starters logged heavy minutes. Now both teams are playing every second day, but the Bucks have the deeper, more talented bench, and the Raptors are generally repeating the minutes load they had to deal with in the second round.

The Bucks should double down and try to run and force cross-matches on Toronto, getting Khris Middleton, Eric Bledsoe, and Giannis Antetokounmpo downhill on an open court where they’re much harder to stop. This also helps them avoid the Raptors’ crushing half-court defense.

Will We See This: Expect a better effort to get into transition than Game 3.

Get the Ball Back to Giannis

I guess as a byproduct of the Bucks offense, there’s no guarantee that the ball will go back to Giannis once he gives it up for a potential “better shot” around the perimeter.

Could this hesitance be coming because Kawhi is a potential deflection-to-turnover waiting to happen? When the Bucks are moving the ball around, there’s a lot of switches happening on the Raptors defense, and Kawhi would almost always end up switching to another Bucks player in the process.

Will We See This: Giannis would have to demand the ball aggressively, but then that’s not coach Bud’s offense.

Attack Kawhi

Is Kawhi injured, or just running on empty? The Bucks wings have done a great job making life difficult for Kawhi to get his ISO game going, and now with increased defensive responsibilities in guarding Giannis, I wonder what’s left of Kawhi’s tank as the game progress forward.

The Bucks should “investigate” this potential Raptors weakness, and see if they can expedite Kawhi’s fatigue to set in much earlier. They can’t let Kawhi rest on defense if they want to truly expose this Toronto team.

Will We See This: There’s a good chance, especially if Kawhi logs heavy minutes again.

For the Raptors

The Raptors may have escaped with a win, but coach Nick Nurse has to do a better job getting Kawhi easier shots, especially if he has to cover Giannis for a big portion of the game.

I believe Kawhi Leonard only made three field goals off his isolation sets, and he finished with 11 made field goals for the game. In the process, it was clear that Leonard had to work hard on each and every one of those buckets. The Bucks will not let him cook in isolation.

Is there a way to get dribble hand-offs working for Kawhi? Or to have Marc Gasol freelance and look for him cutting to the basket? Both options allow Kawhi a short span of “alone time” with his defender, who he can potentially out-muscle in the paint.

These are just a couple of ideas Nurse and his coaching staff have to figure out as we head into Game 4. First, though, let’s look through some of the change-ups from Sunday’s game.

89 Octane Gasol

Marc Gasol is a former All-Star. Sure, he’s old, and maybe a bit out of shape, but he still is a really good player. Too good to make him an accessory as a potential spot-up shooter. He’s also too good as a play-maker not to touch the ball for far too many possessions.

In Game 3, Gasol was used properly for the most part of the game — especially right off the bat. He must have touched the ball to either shoot or initiate a play or just to plainly feel the leather in almost all of the half-court sets that the Raptors ran. He was also excellent at reading his teammates’ off-ball movements and found them consistently.

Defensively, Gasol was an active participant. His length and size in the paint were effective against the Bucks, but it’s the way he sold the hard double on Giannis and Middleton from time to time, and the hard closeouts on three-pointers without fouling helped the Raptors a lot.

Will We See This Again: This version of Gasol is what the Raptors need, not the 85 Octane one.

Defensive Matchups Shuffle

For the most part: It was Kawhi on Giannis, Kyle Lowry on Middleton, Pascal Siakam on Bledsoe. The Raptors defensive scheme pretty much let them switch, so it gives a camouflage effect that the Raptors are changing up their coverages every now and then.

Having Siakam cover Bledsoe enabled Siakam to sag off Bledsoe and roam around as a help defender. Having a quick shot-blocker as a help defender seems to have deterred Giannis from driving, which is already a tough task given that Kawhi Leonard is there.

Lowry did an excellent job making life difficult for Middleton, contesting a lot of his shots and limiting Middleton’s post-ups (what’s new), and essentially pushing him to force some ISO possessions.

The added wrinkle to Toronto’s defensive scheme is that there’s a random hard double heading at Giannis or Middleton if they got the ball down the block for a post-up.

Will We See This Again: It worked in the last game, why not double down?

Playoff Powell

Nick Nurse hinted at lineup changes — what he probably meant was rotation and minutes distribution changes.

I honestly thought that there’s a chance that Danny Green might be taken out of the starting lineup, given his struggles. Instead, Nurse had Green on a quick hook. Norman Powell, or “Playoff Powell”, was unleashed, and he added more highlight material to his Playoffs vs. Bucks Youtube highlight playlist.

Norm brought a different dimension to the Raptors offense as he can do a few more things than Green. Powell was able to create his own three-point shot off the dribble, and if countered, his quickness, explosiveness, and decent handle enabled him to exploit the closeouts of the Bucks bigs that would park or switch on him. All in all, Powell played well in Game 3, and was a big reason why they were in a position to win (before he fouled out).

Will We See This Again: You bet!

Potential Adjustments for the Raptors

Even in a win, it feels like we’re staring at a buffet table when it comes to all the things that the Raptors can do better. Some of these things are just a basic understanding of the scouting report and their own teammates, e.g. Eric Bledsoe beating Siakam on a drive to the basket, or Gasol sagging to help but in turn giving Lopez a wide open three. Siakam is quick and long enough to catch up to Bledsoe, and Gasol’s help seems to be unnecessary in those instances.

Limit Bucks’ Transition Opportunities

It’s easier said than done — and it takes a lot of discipline to execute this — but the Raptors need to limit the Bucks’ transition opportunities. For one, the Raptors need to handle the ball much better and limit their turnovers.

From here, the Raptors need to have faster defensive coverage communication as they all look as if they want to spring back to pack the paint first, then look for a body to cover next.

Will We See This: It’s really all about limiting those live ball turnovers, and not allowing Giannis to dictate pace. I hope we see it happen, but again: easier said than done vs. the Bucks.

More Off-Ball Movements/Cuts for Playmaker Gasol

As noted above, having Gasol touch the ball often is a good thing for the Raptors. It gives him confidence when he gets the kick-out for the three or sees a cut that others would miss.

Speaking of kick-outs, Gasol is often open when he gets the ball, as the Raptors expect Lopez to sag. If the rest of the Raptors stop at just chilling around the perimeter, there’s reason to believe Gasol will be able to find them in the passing lanes.

For a Raptors stagnating offense, having Gasol try to turn things up might be the better alternative rather than having Kawhi, Siakam, VanVleet try to salvage a possession by going ISO.

Will We See This: Nurse seems to have the idea based on Game 3, but Toronto could and should use Gasol more in this role.

What To Do With Lowry’s Replacement Minutes

When Kyle Lowry fouled out in Game 3, it showed how important he is to Toronto’s offense. Outside of giving the ball to Kawhi, the Raptors struggled to get anything going for long stretches late in Sunday’s game, especially when Fred VanVleet had the ball in his hands.

VanVleet ultimately played 31 minutes in Game 3, and while he had six assists, the offense just looked non-existent for the most part. Worse, his 1-of-11 shooting (at least his only made three was timely) adds to his collection of bad shooting games in this post-season.

If Lowry didn’t foul out, he would have logged 45+ minutes. Nurse has to keep Lowry fresh, and if VanVleet is not the answer, who can give Lowry a quick breather here and there?

Point Powell: Not for a long stretch, but the Raptors could go a bit bigger for a few minutes, having Powell take some of Lowry’s minutes. Game 3 showed that he can play with Green, and as long as at least one of Kawhi and Siakam is on the floor with him, this should be an acceptable move.

Linsanity: If there’s anything that we’ve learned in Powell’s minutes, the Bucks bigs can be blown by. Jeremy Lin is still a pretty good slasher and can cause the Bucks defense to collapse, and hopefully, he can find some kick-out opportunities. Lin’s value here is higher because the Raptors could use an additional ball handler that can get to the basket, not necessarily to be the floor to execute their set plays.

Will We See This: Despite these other options, if VanVleet struggles again, I could see Nurse just leaning on Lowry even more. With the season on the line, this could be it.