5 Reasons The Milwaukee Bucks Lost Their 1st Round Series With Toronto
The Milwaukee Bucks squandered a 2-1 series lead to lose to the Toronto Raptors in six games. What factors contributed to their elimination, and how does Milwaukee address them moving forward?
The Milwaukee Bucks were on top of the basketball world. After two strong showings ended in a 1-1 series tie in Toronto, the Bucks returned home and absolutely demolished the Toronto Raptors in front of a raucous Milwaukee crowd in Game 3.
Eulogies were composed for this Toronto core, statues to Giannis Antetokounmpo were being planned across the state, and the analysis began on a second round series featuring the Bucks against the mighty Cleveland Cavaliers.
Then Toronto changed its lineup and its destiny, hitting back and ultimately landing the knockout punch in Game 6 to eliminate the Bucks from the playoffs. While there is hope for a bright Milwaukee future — plenty of it, in fact — they will watch the remainder of the 2017 NBA Playoffs from home.
What happened to move the Bucks from sudden favorites to eventual losers? While every series is made up of luck and factors out of their control, five reasons stand out as an explanation for the Milwaukee loss.
The Rookie Wall
The Milwaukee Bucks did something this postseason that no team has done since 2013, starting two rookies in a playoff game. Rookie second-rounder Malcolm Brogdon started at point guard for the Bucks, and Thon Maker started at center.
Early in the series both of these players were excellent. In Game 1 Brogdon dropped 16 points and gathered in six rebounds as he won the battle of point guards at both ends. His defensive toughness completely stymied All-Star Kyle Lowry, who was able to put up only four points on 2-of-11 shooting from the field.
Thon Maker exploded onto the national scene in that Game 1 victory, blocking three Raptors shots in a pivotal third quarter. In Game 2 Maker filled up the stat sheet, matching a season-high with four assists to go with a three-pointer, a steal and two blocks. Game 3 saw Maker pour in 11 points, including a three-pointer and a 4-for-4 mark from the free throw line.
As the series went on, however, it was clear that the team’s two key rookies were wearing down, from either the physical or mental toll of the series. Maker went 5-for-17 over the series’ final three games, all Toronto victories. Brogdon was a combined -35 over those three games, and Kyle Lowry broke through to put up numbers closer to his normal levels.
By the final game head coach Jason Kidd had to move away from his starting lineup in crunchtime, despite their two-way dominance earlier in the series. Maker played just 13 minutes in Game 6, and Brogdon tallied just 23, as Kidd went with Matthew Dellavedova and Greg Monroe instead.
As both of these players grow in the league they will be better equipped to make a sustained impact in the 2018 NBA Playoffs and beyond. This season it was simply a lot to ask of a pair of rookies. They, along with the rest of the Bucks, will be back.
The Toronto Raptors entered the series flush with postseason experience. Lowry, DeMar DeRozan, and the core of this Raptors’ team had been to the playoffs in three consecutive seasons prior to this year, tallying 31 games before this year even began.
Serge Ibaka joined the team with his 80+ appearances, including a run to the NBA Finals with the Oklahoma City Thunder in 2012. Cory Joseph was with Toronto for their run to the Eastern Conference Finals last season, and prior to that earned a ring going to the Finals in back-to-back seasons with the San Antonio Spurs; Joseph has never been on a team to miss the playoffs.
The Milwaukee Bucks boasted no such overall experience, with a number of rotation players suiting up for their first postseason. Tony Snell was a little-used bench player on the Chicago Bulls and made it into a few playoff games, while Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton made it into the first round in 2015. Only Jason Terry and Matthew Dellavedova brought championship pedigree to the team.
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For every rising team in the league, there comes a moment where young stars are baptized by fire in the postseason. They are tested again and again, and in every case they are knocked down. It’s a necessary step on the path to contention. The Golden State Warriors lost to the San Antonio Spurs in a humbling 2013 series; the Oklahoma City Thunder lost to the Los Angeles Lakers in 2010 before flipping the script in 2012.
This series is where Giannis Antetokounmpo learned a valuable lesson in late-game situations. This is where Greg Monroe saw that when he gives his all he can make a significant impact on a high-leverage game. Thon Maker graduated from NBA grade school, President Brogdon tested himself against one of the best point guards in the league, and every player felt the highs and lows of the NBA playoffs.
When the Bucks are back in the postseason next season – and they will be – they will have grown up from their experiences in this series. But for this year, it was the experience of the Toronto roster – and head coach Dwane Casey – that found the path to victory.
Neither the Milwaukee Bucks nor the Toronto Raptors are teams that feast in transition, pushing the pace and tossing up shots with 19 seconds remaining on the shot clock. While neither play at a glacial pace, these are not run-and-gun teams.
Therefore, opportunities gifted to another team by live ball turnovers can have even more of a negative impact. The Bucks found out the hard way in Game 4 that giving the ball over 20 times in a game is a path that leads to defeat.
In the clinching Game 6, the Raptors capitalized on 15 Milwaukee giveaways to score 19 points off of those turnovers, building a lead that proved just barely too difficult to overcome. They tossed in another 15 in their Game 5 defeat as well.
Giannis Antetokounmpo himself had seven turnovers in Game 4, matching a season-high. For the series Antetokounmpo averaged just 2.0 turnovers per game in the Bucks’ victories; that number doubled in Milwaukee losses.
Giving any team the ball 15 times without getting a shot up is a recipe for defeat, but against a Toronto team that didn’t generate much offense all year in transition it was even more damaging to the Bucks’ chances. This will almost certainly be an area of emphasis for the team over the offseason as it prepares for a season weighed more heavily with expectation.
Free Throw Shooting
During the season the Bucks were slightly below average as a free throw shooting team, shooting 76.8 percent on 22.4 attempts per game, both marks ranking between 15 and 20 in the league. Giannis Antetokounmpo lead the team in free throw attempts at 7.7 attempts per game, hitting 77 percent of those shots.
In their playoff series against the Raptors, below-average became an unattainable goal, as Milwaukee struggled in that area of the game more than any other. With a team whose attempts were already weighted towards larger players (generally worse shooters than guards), that disparity became even more pronounced in the playoffs.
For the postseason the Milwaukee Bucks ranked 15th out of the 16 teams, ahead of just the Oklahoma City Thunder — a team weighed down by a 3-for-21 outing by Andre Roberson, the worst performance by any player in a single playoff series since at least 1964. On the team level, it’s a reasonable conclusion that Milwaukee failed at the line more than any other team.
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In the clinching Game 6, the Bucks attempted 28 free throws, including 18 in the final quarter as they made their dramatic comeback from 25 points down. Yet they made just nine of those 18 free throws, points that may have given them the victory and extended the series.
Part of that free throw inaccuracy can and should be chalked up to sheer fatigue, as the Bucks were flying around the court on defense as they shut down the Raptors at the end of the game. Toronto scored just six points in a 14-minute span that saw the Bucks put up 32 points of their own.
But the Bucks were inconsistent at the line all season, and Antetokounmpo is such a dominant force inside that he needs to improve on his ability to score from the line when teams foul him. For a young team seeking to address weaknesses this will be a key one for them to work on.
Minutes At Power Forward
For the first half of the season Jabari Parker started for Milwaukee at power forward, averaging 33.9 minutes per game. When he went down with a major knee injury, head coach Jason Kidd slid Giannis Antetokounmpo to the 4 and inserted newly returned Khris Middleton at the 3.
This was a lineup change that leveraged the size and length of his team and gave the Bucks offensive firepower without sacrificing defense. It was a great move, and it’s reasonable to say that Milwaukee’s best lineups feature Antetokounmpo at the 4.
Once the postseason began, Kidd struggled to find a reliable option to back up Antetokounmpo at the 4. Mirza Teletovic provided spacing on offense, but his lack of foot speed and defensive instincts meant the Bucks could not execute their aggressive defensive scheme. Spencer Hawes offered a lesser option at both ends of the court.
Michael Beasley was another option, and he gave more effort on defense than either Teletovic or Hawes. But a career of bad defensive habits does not die easily, and it was always an imperfect answer. On offense Beasley is best deployed as an offensive creator against weaker bench units, but against P.J. Tucker and Patrick Patterson there were no such weaknesses to provide Beasley with value.
Kidd’s final solution was to play Antetokounmpo nearly the entire game, a postseason necessity that even so would have been avoided had there been a better option. The lack of another option also limited Kidd’s ability to deploy his best defensive player elsewhere, either as an extreme small-ball 5 or slide him the other way as an impossible wall for DeMar DeRozan to score on.
Next season as Parker works his way back into the rotation the Bucks will gain that option at the 4 they needed in this season. A lineup of Malcolm Brogdon, Khris Middleton, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Jabari Parker and Thon Maker has immense potential on both ends of the court, and inserting Tony Snell for Maker would be a fearsome Wisconsin version of the Golden State Death Lineup.
A hole at the 4 is not a long-term issue, simply a short-term one that contributed to their loss in the first round. But the Bucks will be back, with their young talent even better and a roster ready to avenge their postseason loss. That is a reality for the Eastern Conference to fear and NBA fans to look forward to.