In each round thus far, the Raptors have reached a point where it appeared they had taken control of the series for good by finding things that worked in terms of rotation and matchup decisions.
In the first round, the Raptors had completely solved the Magic in Game 4. There was nothing the Magic could do at that point if the Raptors kept doing what they were doing — namely, they finally got their bench players rolling and that shut the only weakness they’d shown to that point.
In the second round, in Game 5 they finally hard matched Marc Gasol to Joel Embiid, and dominated the 76ers. The series should have been over then, but the Raptors abandoned that strategy in Game 6 and it bit them, hard. They course corrected in time to take Game 7 on some Kawhi heroics, much needed as the bench and other shooters were still not clicking against the 76ers length.
Against the Milwaukee Bucks in the Eastern Conference Finals, we’ve reached that point again.
Kawhi Freaking Leonard
We’ve touched on this each of the past two games, and we’re going to do it again because it’s incredible. Kawhi is completely shutting down the Bucks’ offense when he guards Giannis Antetokounmpo.
In Game 5, Kawhi guarded Giannis for 37 possessions. Giannis scored 10 points and had only one assist.
In the 42 possessions Giannis was not guarded by Kawhi, he scored 14 points and had 4 assists.
More importantly, the Bucks scored only 27 points in the 37 possessions Kawhi guarded Giannis — a 73 ORTG. In the 42 possessions away from Kawhi, they scored 55 points — a 131 ORTG. A bigger split is hard to imagine. (ORTG: Offensive rating; team points scored per 100 possessions.)
But this is no one-game wonder, as we’ve noted. Through the entire series so far, here is how those splits line up.
Kawhi has guarded Giannis for 131 possessions through five games. Giannis has scored 26 points on 35 percent shooting, with one made three-pointer and three made free throws. He has generated four assists and five turnovers. That’s a per-36 line of 15 points, 2.0 assists and 2.5 turnovers. The Bucks have scored 113 points on those 131 possessions, an 86 ORTG.
Giannis has played 258 possessions not guarded by Kawhi. He has scored 89 points on 52 percent shooting, with four made threes and 27 made free throws. He has generated 24 assists and 18 turnovers. That’s a per-36 line of 26 points, 7.0 assists and 5.0 turnovers. The Bucks have scored 305 points on those 258 possessions, a 118 ORTG.
That’s a 32 point swing in the Bucks’ offense just based on whether Kawhi has the assignment — and as noted above, that swing has been getting bigger. Which means whenever the Raptors really need to muck up the Bucks’ attack, they can just throw Kawhi at him and it’s probably going to go very well.
And to top off the defense, Toronto’s is clicking well enough, even with rough nights inside from their top scorers, because the outside shots are finally falling.
Kawhi Leonard was 6-for-17 inside the arc last night. Pascal Siakam was 3-for-8. Norman Powell, Serge Ibaka, and Marc Gasol combined to shoot 2-for-9 inside the arc. The Raptors shot 37 percent from the field in Game 5, despite shooting 42 percent from long range, thanks to converting on only 32 percent of their two-point shots. They literally made more threes (by a fair margin) than twos: 18 made threes versus only 13 made two pointers.
And yet, in spite of those inside struggles, the ORTG on the night was a perfectly fine 110 point per 100 possessions.
And that shooting regression from the Raptors came at just the right time. On the night the Raptors really couldn’t buy a shot inside, they finally shot above 40 percent from three. That’s the first time they shot above 40 percent from long range since Game 5 of the Orlando series. They also squeaked into exactly 40 percent in Game 5 of the Philly series. Huh, so maybe Game 5’s are the ones where they shoot well?
Overall, the Raptors have done well attacking the Bucks’ defensive strategy, which is prone to leaving shooters open from the perimeter. In the first two games of the series, the Raptors put up 37 three-point attempts per game, and shot only 34 percent from distance — despite most of those being wide open catch-and-shoot opportunities.
In the past three games, the Raptors have been even more aggressive taking those threes in spite of the misses earlier in the round (and especially in previous rounds). They’ve upped their per game 3PAs to 43, and have seen their percentage climb to 38 percent over those three games — not coincidentally the three wins.
And finally the Raptors’ three-point shot metrics are coming back in line with their typical numbers.
Set of Games | Catch-and-Shoot 3PT% | Wide Open 3PT%
Regular season: 39%, 41%
Post-all-star: 43%, 46%
First two rounds: 33%, 36%
Conference Finals: 37%, 38%
The good news is, the numbers still aren’t quite back to where you’d expect for the Raptors. Which means there is more upside — that is, any regression to the mean will still mean an increase in shooting percentages, not a decrease. Regression to the mean is not guaranteed in small samples, but it is more likely than moving away from the mean.
Hey, remember how every Raptor playoff run inevitably includes a panicked change to the starting lineup or rotation in dramatic fashion, usually coming too late to make a real difference, and not really changing anything anyway?
It’s very strange to be on the other side of that. The Raptors had rumours swirling about lineup changes after their Game 2 loss, and yet Nick Nurse stuck to what he knew works well (the starters) and made small tweaks to how he was using bench players (finding more minutes for each bench player alongside more of the starters) rather than making sweeping changes or panic moves.
Before Game 5, the Bucks made their change. Nikola Mirotic came out of the starting lineup for Malcolm Brogdon, and fell out of the rotation entirely in the second half. In one sense, it worked — Brogdon played very well, and played a full 33 minutes, far easier to do if he starts, and was a team high +18 in those minutes.
But in the process, the Bucks broke their bench minutes. That +18 from Brogdon came from their starters being +19 on the night, mostly on the strength of them coming our very strong in the first quarter (while the Raptors seemed very nervous) to get out to a big lead (one that evaporated pretty quickly).
Giannis was a -2 on the night. That means he was -21 in the 24 minutes he played in any other lineup beside their starting lineup. And the team was -4 in the nine minutes he sat. Every transitional and bench look was a disaster.
This is the danger with mid-round big sweeping changes. The Raptors fell into similar traps in the past. In the only other run to the Conference Finals the team has ever had, they entered the playoffs with Luis Scola (somehow) as their starting PF. They absolutely had to switch to Patrick Patterson to save the first round series. They squeaked by that series, but then in the following two series their starters’ success wasn’t enough to overcome the bench losing one of its key contributors (Jonas Valanciunas getting hurt didn’t help either — they missed him, and his absence further changed the structure of the rotation).
Eventually the Raptors had to switch back to starting Scola, as the bench had become such a disaster. It was a fairly predictable result for Toronto, which was the root of the in-season suggestions to try the obvious switch so that the bench would have time to develop chemistry with Scola. Still, the change back and forth didn’t help either, as it was simply a return to an already broken starting group.
The Bucks are facing a similar dilemma. Unless they radically shorten their rotation, there is no obvious path to them keeping successful (and well-established) lineups on the floor consistently.
All stats per NBA.com