From the perspective of the Milwaukee Bucks, the playoffs mirrored the regular season. They established themselves as the favorites, and aside from a few moments here and there, Giannis Antetokounmpo and the resurgent Bucks have dominated while waiting for a worthy challenger.
After dispatching the Boston Celtics in five games, one of the teams many believed to be in that group of contenders, the Raptors and the 76ers needed two more games to come up with an answer. Kawhi Leonard’s clutch buzzer-beater won Game 7 in Toronto, setting up a clash of two teams led by a virtuoso superstar to battle for Eastern supremacy.
Game 1 tips Wednesday in Milwaukee, with the Bucks coming off a week’s rest and getting Malcolm Brogdon back from injury. Meanwhile, the Raptors will head to Wisconsin off a grueling seven game series, having battled inconsistency late in the season and at times the playoffs. Neither team, as currently constructed, possesses significant experience navigating these waters, which means each have significant questions to answer.
Will this series follow the script of the regular season, with the Bucks simply outlasting the best the East has to offer? Or will the Raptors find a way to win games at the Fiserv Forum, something few teams have done this season, and steal a trip to the NBA Finals?
Giannis Bully Ball
The Greek Freak’s prowess scoring this season rivals the work of prime Shaq. That’s how dominant he’s been. His total scoring stats in the postseason mirror the regular season, with 27.4 points per game in the playoffs compared to 27.7 ppg during the year. But he’s doing less of it in the paint.
Antetokounmpo created a ridiculous 63.1% of his scoring in the paint in the regular season, which has dropped down to 55.1% in the playoffs. He’s taking one full three-pointer more a game this postseason and attempting 2.5 more free throws, which has helped balance out the fewer attempts at the rim because he’s not only got to the line more often, but made them at a higher clip — 67% in the regular season to a shade under 73% in the postseason.
The only team with a better field goal percentage defense in the playoffs than the Raptors is the Bucks, and they finished the regular season fifth in the NBA in that area. They built the proverbial wall against the Bucks in their regular season meetings, forcing other Bucks to beat them. In three games, Giannis had games of 19, 21, and 43 and oddly, the lone loss came in the 43-point effort.
Milwaukee used team offense to beat the Raptors in the regular season, but the playoffs will likely test them even more. The good news for the Bucks is the Celtics tried a similar strategy against Antetokounmpo and, after struggling in Game 1, he and the Bucks offense made great adjustments to free him up. They’ll need to do something similar in the conference finals against a formidable defensive roster.
Shooting From The “Others”
Milwaukee’s defense employs an odd strategy in 2019: the Bucks invite teams to shoot threes, but a specific kind of threes. They tend to be above the break, but even if when they allow corner threes, it’s usually to players they want shooting the rock.
Offensively, the Bucks need guys like Malcolm Brogdon, Tony Snell, Brook Lopez and others to hit shots from the outside. Splash Mountain’s cold shooting didn’t kill Milwaukee against the Celtics, but Lopez is going to have to stretch the floor to pull Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka away from the rim. Their shooting is key in spacing the floor to allow Giannis and Eric Bledsoe to get to the rim.
Game 7 from Toronto represented a startling problem the Raptors will face in this series: no one but Kawhi made much of an offensive impact. As a team, the Raps shot 38.2% with the non-Kawhi players going 18/50. Kyle Lowry’s playing struggles don’t need to be rehashed here (though we’ll get to it), but the Raptors can’t live if Leonard is the only guy giving this team scoring. In the two losses Kawhi played against the Bucks, he shot 8/18 and 7/20. If that happens again, it’s not at all clear the Raptors have enough scoring to beat Milwaukee.
Both teams will be well-prepared in trying to limit the opposing star. The Bucks will do everything in their power early to force the ball out of Leonard’s hands and into those of Ibaka, Pascal Siakam, and even Lowry to prove they can knock down three-pointers. Toronto will employ a similar strategy against Antetokoumpo, and will throw Leonard and Siakam’s length at Middleton to try and keep him from lighting it up. That means role player shooting could very well swing some games this series.
Holding Serve At Home
Each of these teams lost Game 1’s at home in this postseason, with each also winning critical swing games on the road. Toronto picked up a must-win game in Philly for Game 4, with the Bucks winning twice in Boston to essentially salt that series away.
These two teams held the two best home records in basketball during the regular season and the Bucks haven’t lost back-to-back games all year in Milwaukee. It’s pretty simple: if Milwaukee wins all its home games, the Bucks win the series. That’s what home court advantage means. While we’ve seen them lose there, it seems unlikely to happen twice. With Leonard’s ability to take over games at both ends, the Raptors can win anywhere, but they can’t win this series if they give up much north of the border given Milwaukee’s dominance in cheese country.
Eric Bledsoe vs. Kyle Lowry
When Bledsoe pushes the pace, attacks the rim, and defenses his ass off, the Bucks find another gear. When Lowry is efficient, gets his teammates good looks, and defends the way he’s capable of (often energizing the team with clutch charge pick-ups), the Raptors can beat anyone on any night. When one of those guys doesn’t come through for his team, the scales tilt significantly in favor of their opponent.
Bledsoe showed tremendous perseverance against the Celtics, struggling with his shot, but still coming through in the clutch with some big buckets, rebounds, and defensive sequences late. His re-commitment on the defensive end this season has been impressive to watch and a key to Milwaukee’s surge on that end as a whole.
Lowry’s postseason reputation precedes him and if not for virtuoso performances by Leonard this playoffs, we’d likely be talking about it much more in 2019 as well. He’s averaging just 12.6 points per game, shooting 42% from the field and a ghastly 29.8% from deep this playoffs. Lowry’s experience trumps Bledsoe’s, but neither has the greatest track record in the postseason. That matchup looms large.
Neither Mike Budenholzer nor Nick Nurse know what this moment is like. Sure, the Hawks were the No. 1 seed in the 2015 playoffs when they were swept by LeBron James’ Cavaliers, but most expected the Cavs to win that series. Nurse, for his part as a first-year head coach, has no road map for this moment.
The Bucks tweaked the way they defend the pick-and-roll against the Celtics, but mostly kept their defensive strategy from the regular season intact. Nurse pushed plenty of the right buttons against the 76ers, letting Marc Gasol guard Joel Embiid more often, played bigger more regularly, and shortened his bench.
Both these teams have depth, but how each coach handles their bench will be key in this series. If making non-Kawhi players beat the Bucks doesn’t work from a game or two will Coach Bud change his strategy? If Khris Middleton and Bledsoe start torching the Raptors defense, will Nurse focus less attention on Giannis? There will certainly be unforeseen adjustments born out of pre-series game plans as well, and both will have their hands full in deciding when to make tweaks and when to trust their identity as a team.
Coaching can be overrated in the regular season, but it’s too often underdiscussed in the playoffs. Bud has been on the bench for championship teams, while Nurse was paying his dues in the D-League. Whoever shows up bigger on this stage with the right adjustment (or, possibly, by not overreacting to early results) can propel his squad to the Finals.