Just like the Toronto Raptors’ Game 2 on the road, the Milwaukee Bucks no-showed their second away game of the series. The result was a manhandling at the hands of Norman Powell, Fred VanVleet, and Serge Ibaka — and a tied 2-2 series.
Playoff Powell is in full effect, and he doesn’t even need to start to do this. However, it remains to be seen whether the Raptors bench, especially Powell, can be just as effective playing in a hostile environment.
The Bucks and coach Mike Budenholzer come home licking their wounds, and appear to have some decisions to make. Have they issued an APB in Milwaukee for Eric Bledsoe’s missing game? Meanwhile, Nick Nurse shouldn’t be satisfied with the two wins and should push the team even more, as Game 5 still has that feeling of a “must-win” for the Raptors.
And so we come to tonight’s two big factors: the Bucks’ home court advantage versus the Raptors’ momentum. Both teams are set on a collision course. How will Game 5 play out?
For the Bucks
Lean on Middleton
For a game in which a lot of things didn’t go the way the Bucks expected, Khris Middleton was their lone bright spot.
Middleton looked loose to start the game and was aggressive looking for his shots. Perhaps it’s the lessened workload on the defensive end, as Kawhi did not play as much, and was not in attack mode all the time. Or maybe Middleton sensed his team really needed him to step up.
The Bucks made sure to look for Middleton when he was open, and he was solid from the perimeter. While the Raptors cheat in coverage to load up on Giannis, Middleton is not a player you can leave wide open.
Having Kyle Lowry on Middleton allowed him to break out of their offensive system and ISO Lowry a few times. And having the ball at his hands allowed Middleton to play-make a bit. He found his teammates more than your typical Khris Middleton game.
Will We See This Again: There’s a good chance, especially if Kawhi is at half-speed again.
Potential Adjustments for the Bucks
Should coach Bud make any changes? It feels like he’s too loyal to his schemes, and will roll with what got them to this point.
Pay Attention to Powell
We’ll forgive coach Bud for not knowing about 2017 Playoff Powell. It’s hard to expect Norman Powell to come in and make a big impact, as he was borderline out of the rotation in the playoffs.
What’s unforgivable for Bucks fans would be the lack of attention that they gave to Norman Powell for the second straight game. Coincidentally, the Bucks lost both games, and Powell was a big reason why.
Unlike Danny Green, Powell presents a problem for the Bucks as he’s not a one-trick pony. He can do a lot of things offensively — play-make, quick first step drive, off-ball cuts, get quick transition opportunities, and shoot perimeter shots. He’s not an elite shooter like Green, but if left open all the time, Powell can continue to be dangerous on the attack.
Will We See This: There’s a scenario where coach Bud tests Powell to replicate his success on the road. Could Norm shoot the Raptors out of the game?
Starting Lineup Change
Stop talking about the George Hill for Eric Bledsoe starting PG swap. That’s just not going to happen, and coach Bud won’t do it. Bledsoe has been terrible, but he’s been given the quick hook when needed.
Nikola Mirotic has struggled for the most of the series, and, for the past two games, has been a liability on both ends of the court. The Raptors are targeting him if he gets switched to their bigs on defense. Kawhi and Kyle Lowry will try to target him off a switch, and Norm too. Heck, even Danny Green tried it — and it worked!
Mirotic is playing Brogdon’s old starting spot. Brogdon has played much better overall, but he also put a stinker the other night. Coach Bud still likes the length and size that Mirotic presents — and likely wants Brogdon’s presence on the bench — but with Kawhi not 100 percent, maybe they can get away with downsizing the lineup a bit and pouncing on the Raptors straight from the jump?
Will We See This: We might see Brogdon get his starting spot back.
Evaluate Kawhi’s Coverage
Did coach Bud think that Kawhi and the Raptors were bluffing that he was injured? Because it looked that way, as the Bucks stayed faithful to their defensive coverage on Kawhi — sagging and collapsing the defense on him from the mid-range and closer.
I guess the main issue here is Kawhi didn’t look good on his own from the first possession onward. Kawhi did not force a lot of possessions where he would normally, and when he did, he looked to play-make more than usual. It just helps that the rest of the Raptors capitalized. That said, there’s been very little recovery time for Kawhi’s ailing leg.
So now, can someone ask coach Bud, why they’re still so worried about collapsing on Kawhi? Maybe it’s worth exploring single coverage, as Khris Middleton has done an excellent job making life difficult for Leonard.
Will We See This: The Bucks would probably have to see Kawhi’s aggressiveness before they back off on the coverage plan.
For the Raptors
Raptors Offense: Two Become One
For the most part, the Raptors’ offense has two variations: Kawhi’s ISO-mode and a ball-movement, fast-paced, three-point trigger happy offense — which got even better with the addition of Marc Gasol.
It looks good on paper. However, if the Raptors use too many Kawhi ISO plays, their offense sometimes becomes prone to stagnation, which takes other players out of their rhythm. It’s almost as if the rest of the players don’t know how to play around Kawhi in isolation.
Now, the issue with the ball-movement offense for the Raptors is that it looked better in the regular season without Kawhi on the floor, especially those games where he was on “load management.” If he’s on the floor, the ball sometimes doesn’t find him often enough, and he doesn’t look like an active participant in the offensive scheme.
In the playoffs, the Raptors’ ball movement-centric offensive scheme sputtered, as the non-Kawhi players struggled shooting the ball. It became an offense where Kawhi carried the team on his back for the most part.
Enter Game 4, where the two offensive styles started to merge. Kawhi’s ISO became deadly, as his teammates provided him options with their off-ball movement. At the same time, Kawhi was a much more willing passer even early in the shot clock.
Kawhi also moved off the ball, and his teammates (mainly Gasol) were able to find him. At the very least, these types of plays provided a different gravity as to how the Bucks had to pay attention to Kawhi. Because of this change, Kawhi was much harder to defend — Milwaukee just didn’t know where his shots were coming.
Will We See This Again: This is probably how Nick Nurse envisioned Kawhi playing with the rest of the team. Now, just imagine if Kawhi can do this when he’s healthy.
Slow Down Giannis
Contrary to popular opinion, Giannis Antetokounmpo is not getting shutdown by Kawhi. Sure, Kawhi presents a big problem to Giannis, as he can’t willy-nilly expose his high dribble in front of Kawhi.
Kawhi also had the strength to go chest to chest with him and has the quickness to pick him up much higher than Giannis’ past defenders in the playoffs. Doing this basically reduces, if not takes away, Giannis’ runway to get going downhill.
But it’s not a one-man job. Kawhi is getting solid help from pretty much everybody on the court if Giannis is nearby. You have the centres like Gasol or Ibaka rushing with a hard double-team if Giannis is in the high post. And if Giannis is prodding from the top of the key, one of those bigs will be hanging around where his spin intends to go.
A third defender — often Pascal Siakam trying to swat Giannis’ layup, or Lowry waiting for a charge on the other side, or even Fred VanVleet digging in to help — could happen at any given time. Then you have Green, who acts as a safety to read Giannis’ play and take away the preferred passing route.
Sure, Giannis could still get his 20+ points, but they’re all hard earned. And the Raptors are limiting his ability to get his teammates involved. The Raptors would rather have this situation than let Giannis erupt along with his teammates.
Will We See This Again: The Raptors have to do it to win, so yes.
Potential Adjustments for the Raptors
The Bucks will be home, and they will come in and be assertive. They won’t be missing a huge amount of free throws and three-point shots due to Toronto’s rabid fans. It’ll be up to the Raptors to stay strong and play their game under control.
Prepare for the Worst-Case Scenario
What if Kawhi can’t go hard just like in Game 4? The Raptors will have to find another source of scoring if Kawhi can’t do too much. That means Lowry, Gasol, and Siakam will have to be really active and look to score often.
For Lowry, it’ll be about maintaining the pace and finding open 3s; for Gasol, taking 3s as well, but also directing the team from the high post; and for Siakam, he’s got to be aggressive working out of the post, either in finding his shot or making the right pass. It’s there, but can they do it?
Will We See This: Can we have a repeat performance of Game 4, please?
Momentum: Nip It In the Bud
Having the home team feel good and get the momentum is a bad sign for the visiting team. Nurse hasn’t been that great using his timeout to kill the other team’s momentum, and often, he calls it two to four plays too late.
The Raptors also need to maintain or increase their physicality to muck up the game and not allow the Bucks to see easy buckets in transition. This calls for hard fouls, if necessary. (Not dirty fouls — but firm.) The Raptors can’t let the Bucks get into their transition game, especially in Milwaukee. They’ve got to take care of the ball, get back on defense fast, and communicate matchups right away.
Will We See This: Would love to see the Raptors blow-out the Bucks, so I hope not (in a good way).