As we dive into the playoffs, we at PBT are going to break down each first-round playoff series and give you three things to watch in each.
We start with one series that has the chance of an upset in the East — not a huge chance, but maybe the most of any series in that conference — and the series that should be the most entertaining in the conference: the Bucks vs. the Raptors. Here’s what to look for.
Who guards the Greek Freak? Giannis Antetokounmpo is going to win Most Improved Player in the NBA this season and will make an All-NBA team — he has been nothing short of brilliant. He led the Bucks in points, rebounds, assists, blocks, and steals. As a 6’11” point forward, he was their Mr. Everything.
Who on the Bucks can guard him? Coach Dwane Casey said DeMarre Carroll and P.J. Tucker are going to get the first opportunities, and I particularly think Tucker could get more and more time on him as this series goes on. Their job starts with keeping him out of the paint — Antetokounmpo averaged 13.1 points per game in the paint, and he got 52.6 percent of his shots inside the restricted area, and he shot a very good 68.9 percent on those. The Raptors need to turn Antetokounmpo into a jump shooter, which is far easier said than done. Antetokounmpo is a very tough matchup and the Bucks are going to need a huge series from him to pull the upset.
Can Bucks length, aggressive defense throw Raptors backcourt off their game? Toronto’s offense flows through it’s two All-Star guards, six-foot Kyle Lowry and 6’7” DeMar DeRozan. Milwaukee will guard them with 6’5” Malcolm Brogdon, and 6’8” Kris Middleton, plus there is 6’7” Tony Snell, the pesky and aggressive Matthew Dellavedova, and occasionally 6’11” Antetokounmpo (who has a 7’4” wingspan). The Bucks play one of the more aggressive defensive schemes in the NBA, one with the goal of disrupting teams, throwing them off balance, and forcing turnovers.
How Lowry and DeRozan handle the pressure from tall, long defenders will be at the heart of this series. The Bucks tend to be aggressive, trapping and using that length to pressure ball handlers off the pick-and-roll, catching teams off guard — will the Raptors guards get more used to it as the series wears on, then start picking the defense apart?
In particular, I want to watch DeRozan, who has stepped up this season with Lowry down (the Raptors are 10-0 when he scores at least 30) — Middleton could see a lot of time on him, and is a smart and disruptive defender. The Raptors often try to run a 1-2 pick play and force a switch where the point guard is on DeRozan, then he works that smaller defender to a spot on the floor where DeRozan is comfortable and shoots over him — Brogdon’s length could make that less effective than normal.
Can the Bucks hold on in the fourth quarter? Toronto has been dominant in the fourth quarter this season, outscoring its opponents by 13 points per 100 possessions in that frame. They are a top five team on both ends of the floor in the fourth quarter. The Raptors fall behind early with slow starts and come back to win games on a regular basis — the Bucks may get an early lead but can they put the Raptors away? The Raptors won the fourth quarter three of the four meetings between the teams this season.
Part of that late-game advantage for the Raptors is their improved depth — Cory Joseph, P.J. Tucker, Patrick Patterson and Norman Powell are good. Coach Dwane Casey leans on the Lowry and the bench lineups to start the fourth and that’s one of the best Toronto lineups. The Bucks have struggled with depth issues and need Greg Monroe, Jason Terry, Spencer Hawes, and Mirza Teletovic, to give them something.
The Raptors also have the advantage of experience. What Buck has the most playoff experience? Tony Snell at 16 games. All five Raptors starters have at least 23 playoff games under their belt.
Prediction: Raptors in six, but this series will not be easy.