How They Got Here
• Raptors: By bringing back the most successful team in franchise history — 56 wins, a third straight division title, a first-ever trip to the Eastern Conference finals — and, after realizing midstream that it wouldn’t be good enough, shaking things up to take their shot at the throne.
DeMar DeRozan celebrated his massive new contract and Olympic gold medal by being damn near unstoppable to start the season, teaming with comedy partner/BFF Kyle Lowry to crank the Toronto offense up to historic levels of efficiency. The Raptors would stay within hailing distance of the defending NBA champion Cleveland Cavaliers through mid-January, but a midseason swoon that saw them lose 11 of 16 games heading into the All-Star break allowed the Boston Celtics to step in as the Cavs’ top challenger, and consigned Toronto to battling with the Washington Wizards and Atlanta Hawks just to hold on to a top-four seed and home-court advantage.
More than that, it forced Raptors president Masai Ujiri to take a sober look at his team and decide whether what he had was good enough to have a realistic chance of winning the conference. After determining that it wasn’t, he got to work.
Ujiri shipped reserve wing Terrence Ross and a first-round pick to the Orlando Magic, and a pair of second-rounders to the Phoenix Suns. In return, he imported Serge Ibaka and P.J. Tucker, a pair of tough, experienced forwards who brought defensive steel and floor-spacing shooting to a rotation that needed both. They’ve been exactly what the doctor ordered, transforming Toronto’s defense from mediocre before the All-Star break (allowing 106 points per 100 possessions, 16th among 30 NBA teams) to marvelous afterward, with the Raptors posting the league’s fourth-stingiest defense (102.3 points allowed per-100) since Feb. 15. Just ask Robin Lopez or Lance Stephenson: the Raptors are nastier now. It suits them.
Thanks to that meat-grinder defense, and DeRozan’s continued brilliance as an efficient high-volume offensive centerpiece, Toronto not only survived losing Lowry for 5 1/2 weeks to right wrist surgery, but actually thrived in his absence. The Raptors posted the East’s best record after the All-Star break — and its second-best net rating, behind only the sadly day-late-and-dollar-short Miami Heat — without their All-Star point guard. Even better: Lowry came back for the final week of the season and didn’t miss a beat, averaging 18.7 points, 9.0 assists, 6.3 rebounds and 2.3 steals in three full tune-up games while shooting 47.5 percent from the field and 36.8 percent from 3-point range.
Despite winning five fewer games this year than last, the Raptors enter the playoffs just as well positioned for another run to the conference finals — if not better equipped this time around. First, though, they must slow down one of the league’s most fantastic monsters.
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• Bucks: Short answer? Giannis Antetokounmpo emerged as one of the NBA’s 10 best players, a heart-stopping 6-foot-11 reality-bender who became the first player in NBA history to finish in the league’s top 20 in total points, rebounds, assists, blocks and steals, and the fifth player ever to lead his team in all five of those categories for a full season, all at the tender age of 22. Everything else rose with him.
A longer, more detail-rich answer can be found in the excellent feature on these young Bucks that Ben Rohrbach wrote two weeks ago. Dig in.
Toronto won the season series, three games to one. Milwaukee took the only meeting between the two clubs since the Raptors’ post-deadline revamp, though, a 101-94 victory that saw Bucks wing Khris Middleton — who missed the first 50 games of the season recovering from a brutal torn left hamstring — score 24 points on 14 shots in 30 minutes.
Antetokounmpo was characteristically brilliant against the Raptors, averaging a shade under 25 points on 59 percent, eight rebounds, seven assists and 2.5 combined blocks-and-steals in four meetings with Toronto. Save for Jabari Parker, lost for the season to yet another ACL tear, though, the rest of Milwaukee’s supporting cast underwhelmed against Toronto.
The Bucks shot just 38 percent from the field as a team against the Raps this season, while allowing Toronto to take nearly 26 3-pointers a game and drill them at a 44 percent clip. Milwaukee also struggled to finish defensive possessions by cleaning the glass, as the Raptors rebounded nearly 30 percent of their misses in their three wins.
Simply put: when Lowry was available, the Raptors destroyed the Bucks. In the 110 minutes he played against them this season, Toronto outscored Milwaukee by 54 points. In the 82 he sat — including the Bucks’ March win, during which he was recuperating from surgery — the Raps got outscored by 17 points, and scored at a rate of offensive efficiency (99 points per 100 possessions) that would have burrowed beneath the Philadelphia 76ers to rank as the worst mark in the NBA over the course of the full season.
Likely Starting Lineups
For Toronto: the All-Star backcourt of Lowry and DeRozan, joined by forwards Ibaka and DeMarre Carroll, with center Jonas Valanciunas in the middle. This was the quintet Ujiri envisioned carrying the Raps when he swung the Ibaka-for-Ross deal at the deadline, but Lowry’s wrist injury meant neither he nor head coach Dwane Casey could get a look at it until the final week of the season.
The early returns for the unit weren’t great; it got outscored by 15 points in 40 total minutes over three appearances. Still, it figures to get at least a chance to sink or swim in the postseason, considering the relative successes of similar units with super-sub forward Patrick Patterson alongside the Lowry-DeRozan-Carroll-Valanciunas core (a whopping plus-90 in 147 minutes) and backup point guard Cory Joseph stepping in for Lowry to join DeRozan-Carroll-Ibaka after the All-Star break (plus-6 in 233 minutes).
Trading away boom-or-bust swingman Ross meant the end of Toronto’s devastating Lowry and The Bench lineup. (R.I.P.) But the additions of Ibaka and Tucker have given Casey more options on a deep bench, and the coach has shown a willingness to explore them based on matchups.
Patterson’s one of the league’s most versatile frontcourt reserves, capable of guarding threes, fours and fives, bolstering the Raptors’ rebounding efforts, fortifying their defense with stellar off-ball awareness and communication, and knocking down 3-pointers. Everything about that sentence goes for Tucker, except his defensive menu includes checking point guards, shooting guards, small forwards and (some) power forwards. Toronto ground opposing offenses into powder when Patterson and Tucker shared the floor, allowing just 96.6 points per 100 possessions in 361 minutes Tucker’s arrival.
If the series skews small, Casey could turn to 2015 first-round pick Delon Wright, who missed most of his first two seasons due to injury, but opened some eyes over the final 27 games of the season as a long and tenacious defender whose ability to pick up the length of the court can help disrupt an opponent’s attack. Norman Powell has dropped in Toronto’s rotation, but he offers a wild card on the wing, a coiled spring of athleticism who can get in the jerseys of opposing perimeter scorers, run some pick-and-roll and make magic happen in transition.
If Kidd decides to stay big, Toronto can lean more heavily on Valanciunas, a brutalizing rebounder with a soft touch who was one of the breakout stars of last year’s postseason before a severe right ankle sprain derailed him. Seven-footer Lucas Nogueira can offer a jolt of shot-blocking and pick-and-roll lob finishing. Fellow young big man Jakob Poeltl, Toronto’s 2016 lottery pick, has shown flashes as an active offensive rebounder who can move his feet in space on defense.
The Raptors have the tools to answer just about any question the Bucks can ask. It’s on Casey to deploy them.
For Milwaukee: Antetokounmpo, Middleton, ex-Chicago Bulls wing Tony Snell, and rookies Thon Maker and Malcolm Brogdon. It’s a massive, nearly apositional squad of Kidd’s “longball” dreams, a 25-and-under fivesome ranging from 6-foot-5 to 7-foot-1 in which everyone can guard multiple positions and play several offensive roles. The Bucks are owning their odd future.
The lineup didn’t come together until March, thanks to the injury that kept Middleton on the shelf for 50 games. It started to cook by season’s end, though, roasting opponents by 11.9 points per 100 possessions — nearly the same net rating as the freaking Warriors — in its 15-game, 135-minute sample, with Milwaukee going 12-2 in the 14 games that group started.
Rookie of the Year candidate Brogdon and under-the-radar star Middleton both fit seamlessly alongside Antetokounmpo as supplementary playmakers equally adept at running the Bucks’ offense and working as spot-up off-ball shooters when Giannis is at the controls. Snell, imported on the eve of the season after Middleton tore his hamstring, has earned Kidd’s trust as an engaged wing defender, off-ball cutter and release valve shooter who’s taking nearly two-thirds of his shots from 3-point range and drilling 40.6 percent of them, both career highs.
Maker, the tantalizing but raw Sudanese prospect whose selection with 2016’s No. 10 pick stunned many observers, is a starter in name only, generally seeing short stints at the start of halves. But a very tall, very long dude who can block some shots, shoot from outside and handle the ball is still something the Raptors need to be ready for, even if Maker’s far closer to the beginning of his development than he is to a finished product.
Maker gives way to burlier vet Greg Monroe, who rebounded from a disappointing first year in Milwaukee to turn into one of the league’s most productive reserves. “Moose” mauls second-unit big men in the post, opens things up for Milwaukee’s guards with his screening and passing in the pick-and-roll, and turns the Bucks from a bad rebounding team (they pull down 47.7 percent of available rebounds with him off the floor, which would be the third-worst mark in the league, and only 74.3 percent of opponents’ misses, nearly as bad as the league-worst Knicks) into a decent-to-good one (grabbing 76.8 percent of defensive rebounds in Monroe minutes, a near top-10 rate, and 50 percent of total caroms, same as the 15th-ranked Heat).
Kidd will also look to veterans Matthew Dellavedova, Mirza Teletovic and Matthew Dellavedova for minutes and shot-making off the pine. Centers Spencer Hawes and John Henson could give Milwaukee diverging offense/defense looks, though neither played a ton down the stretch of the season. Michael Beasley, wonderfully, persists as an “in case of offensive emergency, break glass” option.
Matchups to Watch
• Giannis vs. everybody. I’m not sure there’s such a thing as “stopping” Antetokounmpo at this point, really. You can pack the paint and dare the 27.2 percent 3-point shooter to beat you from outside, but as ESPN’s Zach Lowe wrote this week, “Play 10 feet off of him, and he’ll just dribble right at you, spin once, and lay the ball in over your head,” and he’s become a good enough playmaker to use his size, vision and touch to punish doubles and traps with on-time and on-target passes to the teammates you just left alone.
The 6-foot-8 Carroll, imported from Atlanta two years back largely on the strength of his perimeter defensive work, figures to get first crack. If that doesn’t go so hot — Antetokounmpo shot 12-for-19 with Carroll defending him this year, according to NBA.com’s John Schuhmann — expect Tucker, Patterson and maybe Ibaka to get a crack at him. (In a kinder, more beautiful world, Bruno Caboclo — the 6-foot-9, 220-pound forward with the 7-foot-7 wingspan whom Toronto shocked the world by drafting in 2014’s first round — would be ready for this task. It appears, however, that he remains at least some years away from being some years away.)
Limiting Antetokounmpo will be an all-hands-on-deck proposition. Floor balance will matter; as soon as a shot goes up, the Raptors will need to have multiple bodies getting back, because if Giannis sees a sliver of daylight to pull the ball off the rim and roar down the other end, he’ll be ramming the ball down their throats in about 3 1/2 dribbles. Communication and smart help in the half-court will, too, because Casey’s club can ill afford to let Giannis create the kind of breakdowns that give Milwaukee’s lesser lights opportunities to feast on wide-open looks and gain confidence.
“The Greek Freak” will get into the paint. How much Toronto can minimize the fallout could go a long way toward determining the Bucks’ chances of pulling the upset.
• Who checks DeRozan? The Raptors shooting guard finished fifth in the NBA in scoring, at a career-best 27.3 points per game, by beating a steady march to the free-throw line (8.7 attempts per game, also fifth-best in the league) and knocking down many, many tough midrange shots over the outstretched arms of well-meaning defenders. The Bucks have several of those, and they will need to have a whale of a series to limit Toronto’s top scorer.
DeRozan shot 6-for-12 with Snell defending him this season, per Schuhmann. The 6-foot-5 Brogdon handled some of the assignment, though the 6-foot-7 DeRozan didn’t seem to have too much trouble getting to his preferred spots on the floor and rising up over the top of the rookie. The 6-foot-8 Middleton, who has in the past been one of the league’s tougher perimeter defenders, figures to see time on DeRozan, too.
In years past, DeRozan and Lowry have had difficulty at times facing defenses devoted to aggressively trapping them, intent on getting the ball out of their hands and harassing them with long-armed defenders. If you think that sounds like Milwaukee’s M.O., you’re right.
“It was extremely aggressive,” DeRozan said after Milwaukee’s March win. “Playing against [Jason Kidd’s] teams, going back to the Brooklyn days, he’s got a great feel playing against me with different defensive schemes. And they have Eric Hughes, an assistant coach that used to be with us. He knows me.”
Cranking up the pressure can break opponents down. When it doesn’t work, though — when opposing ball-handlers split the double teams, break the traps, move the ball from one side of the floor to the other and force out-of-control, last-gasp closeouts — the Bucks can get carved up. Milwaukee’s on-ball defenders have to do their jobs at the point of attack to keep DeRozan and Lowry from setting the table for Toronto’s supplemental weapons.
Of course, with scorers as dominant as DeRozan, sometimes even doing everything right doesn’t guarantee success. Asked what he saw when Antetokounmpo and Snell converged on him in the final minute of their Nov. 25 meeting, DeRozan answered simply, “The basket.” He made the shot. The Raptors won.
• Big or small? Given the Bucks’ rebounding struggles and lack of interior heft outside of Monroe, it feels like this series is tailor-made for Valanciunas to eat at the rim. If he starts off hot, it could prompt Kidd to downshift, and perhaps dramatically so, looking to spread things up and crank up the offense by putting Antetokounmpo on the floor as an ostensible center surrounded by shooters — think Giannis running five-out with some combination of Teletovic, Middleton, Snell, Brogdon, Dellavedova and Terry.
If Milwaukee’s able to get traction with those lineups, does Casey pull Valanciunas and go with Ibaka at center? (Would that even afford enough quickness to handle this particular rotational shift?) Or does he try to bully the Bucks back into going big with Monroe to stop the bleeding inside, even if it presents a more conventional approach that Toronto might be better suited to stop?
Styles make fights, and every personnel decision in the postseason causes a ripple effect that can cause a series to mutate and shift in unexpected ways. How the two teams start, how they counter, and which coach blinks first could prove fascinating.
How Toronto Could Win
Lowry controls the game on both ends of the floor, handling Milwaukee’s length by moving the ball early to beat traps before getting it back with a chance to attack unsettled defenses or knock down spot-up shots. DeRozan gets and converts the looks he wants, no matter which Buck defender guards him. The Raptors’ improved defensive capabilities allow them to weather the Giannis storm while preventing any other Buck from getting loose.
How Milwaukee Could Win
Antetokounmpo is the best player on the floor by a large enough margin to overcome Toronto having Nos. 2 and 3, and Middleton loudly clears his throat and makes everyone realize he’s No. 4. (If not higher.) The Bucks’ length flusters Lowry and DeRozan just enough to force the other Raptors to beat them, and Toronto doesn’t have enough shot-creating firepower for that to work. Monroe massacres the Raptors’ backup bigs, President Brogdon and Vice Chancellor JET make Toronto pay from outside at a few critical junctures, and Giannis carries the Bucks across the finish line.
Best Reason to Watch
Giannis, a near-unfathomable combination of gifts and presentation who provides no fewer than a handful of “holy s***” moments every time he steps onto the court. You’ve got to take advantage of every opportunity you get to watch a player this special … especially since his season’s not going to last much longer.
Bucks in 6. (Sorry. Wrong year, wrong series.) Raptors in 6.
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