Apr 20, 2017; Milwaukee, WI, USA; Toronto Raptors guard Delon Wright (55) drives for the basket against Milwaukee Bucks forward Michael Beasley (9) in the second quarter in game three of the first round of the 2017 NBA Playoffs at BMO Harris Bradley Center. Mandatory Credit: Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports
The Milwaukee Bucks have traded wins with the Toronto Raptors through four games. What are the keys to securing a win in Game 5?
The NBA playoffs are exhilarating, confusing and unpredictable. As soon as we learn something it is snatched away and solid truths are eroded by the outcome of games. The Milwaukee Bucks have been no exception in their Round 1 series against the Toronto Raptors.
After destroying Toronto in Game 3, the Milwaukee Bucks seemed poised to explode into the second round and begin their bright future of Eastern Conference dominance. They were unstoppable on both ends of the court last Thursday, winning 104-77.
Then Game 4 came around and Milwaukee’s unbreakable defense showed a number of cracks, cracks through which Toronto’s guards dribbled through to score in the paint. On offense the Bucks couldn’t hold onto the ball, committing 21 turnovers.
Suddenly, the left-for-dead Raptors had seized both the 87-76 victory and home-court advantage in the series once more.
With Game 5 looming on Monday, the Milwaukee Bucks will have to fight to validate both their dominant Game 3 win and their bright future. This is a young team and young teams are characterized by both potential and inconsistency.
Head coach Jason Kidd needs to get his team locked in to push the Raptors to the brink.
There are a variety of areas he can address to do so, as the Bucks struggled on both offense and defense Saturday. There are five keys to regaining their winning ways and taking Game 5 on Monday night.
Apr 22, 2017; Milwaukee, WI, USA; Toronto Raptors guard Norman Powell (24) tips the ball away from Milwaukee Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo (34) during the second quarter in game four of the first round of the 2017 NBA Playoffs at BMO Harris Bradley Center. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports
Turnovers are deadly to putting together a quality offense. Ending a possession with a bad shot is not the most desired outcome, but it comes with a chance – however small – of putting points on the board.
It also puts the ball somewhere around the basket, where your team has a chance to grab an offensive rebound. At the worst it gives the offense time to get back in transition to close off most fast-break opportunities, limiting the offensive ceiling of the opponent.
Turnovers provide the offense a zero percent chance of scoring points, and live-ball turnovers often result in high-percentage offense for the opposing team in the form of fast-break scoring.
Instead of placing the ball near the hoop, 94 feet from the other basket, turnovers can often put the ball in the opponent’s hands with just open court ahead of them.
In Game 4 the Milwaukee Bucks turned the ball over 21 times, after doing so just 26 times total in the first three games of the series. On a night where the Bucks were shooting poorly (37 percent overall, 23.8 percent from beyond the arc) they needed as many shots as they could get, and the turnovers were a shot in the foot.
Giannis Antetokounmpo was the chief offender, gift wrapping the ball for the other team seven times. It was part of his worst game of the series, as the team’s leading scorer mustered only 14 points on 6-of-19 shooting, his lowest total in the four games.
While Kidd could make a schematic change to try and limit turnovers, more likely the Bucks need to execute better. Smarter passes, quicker movements on offense to keep the Raptors on their heels, and more possessions ending in a shot. Limiting the turnovers will be a large step towards a Game 5 victory.
Apr 22, 2017; Milwaukee, WI, USA; Milwaukee Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo (34) reacts after scoring during the second quarter against the Toronto Raptors in game four of the first round of the 2017 NBA Playoffs at BMO Harris Bradley Center. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports
Playing With Energy
Game 4 was played at a near glacial pace, with both teams combining poor shooting with few possessions to score just a combined 163 points. Toronto’s 87 points were by far the lowest total for a winning team this postseason and Milwaukee’s 76 were the fewest by a losing team.
The Toronto Raptors want to keep the pace slow, as their offensive sets by design take 15-20 seconds off the clock before a shot is taken. They are built to probe a defense multiple times before attacking a crease, not to race out in transition in search of quick points.
That’s where Milwaukee thrives, aggressively attacking the ball on defense to generate transition opportunities. Except on Saturday that energy was missing, and the Bucks instead were content to walk the ball up to begin the offense.
Milwaukee had just 13 fast break points, but even more so were sluggish in initiating offense.
That plays into the hands of the Raptors, the older team wishing to slow things down. The Bucks have the youth advantage, and one key way to play that up is attacking with energy on offense.
Whether the Bucks were tired from the quick turnaround — game Thursday night, then again Saturday afternoon — or another cause is unknown, but has to be corrected.
Limiting turnovers will also help the offensive speed; once a team begins turning the ball over it naturally becomes hesitant, not wishing to continue the trend. But Saturday the Bucks were both timid and sloppy, a dangerous combination.
Recapturing that fire can help Milwaukee recapture the series lead on Monday.
Apr 20, 2017; Milwaukee, WI, USA; Milwaukee Bucks guard Matthew Dellavedova (8) gets pressure from Toronto Raptors forward PJ Tucker (2) in the second quarter in game three of the first round of the 2017 NBA Playoffs at BMO Harris Bradley Center. Mandatory Credit: Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports
Balancing The Backcourt Rotation
As usually happens in the playoffs (unless your name is Steve Kerr), head coach Jason Kidd has trimmed his rotations in the postseason. Outside of garbage time, he has stuck to a four-man backcourt, with Jason Terry playing just a handful of minutes each half at backup shooting guard.
The balance has been between three players — starters Malcolm Brogdon and Tony Snell along with backup Matthew Dellavedova. Through three games it was Snell relegated to fewer minutes, as Kidd leaned on lineups featuring both Brogdon and Dellavedova.
In Game 4 that changed, as Snell was the only player on the Bucks able to consistently hit shots. Brogdon by contrast struggled, scoring just two points on 1-of-4 shooting.
Dellavedova put up an identical stat line in his 20 minutes, although he was a part of bench units that saw more success than the starters.
Toronto has changed their rotations to feature the formerly excised Norman Powell. The second-year wing out of UCLA was a healthy scratch in Game 2, and on Saturday started and put up a game-high +15 in 34 minutes. Along with Delon Wright receiving more of the backup point guard minutes, the smaller Cory Joseph saw his minutes shrink to just eight.
With the Raptors seeking to mimic the Bucks’ lineup versatility, they are loading their rotation with long wings instead of smaller guards or more plodding big men. While both Brogdon and Dellavedova are long for point guards, they lose their size advantage when asked to defend larger wings.
Jason Kidd will need to decide how he wants to match up against the Raptors, as the key to beating Toronto in the postseason is locking down DeMar DeRozan.
Khris Middleton has the size and athleticism to hang with DeRozan, but that would require a Milwaukee backcourt player to guard either Norman Powell, DeMarre Carroll or P.J. Tucker. That’s a tall ask of a point guard, which means Snell may receive more minutes as the season goes on.
This may be the key decision remaining in the series, as Kidd finds the best combination of defenders to slow down the dynamic Toronto backcourt.
Apr 22, 2017; Milwaukee, WI, USA; Toronto Raptors guard Kyle Lowry (7) drives for the basket as Milwaukee Bucks guard Matthew Dellavedova (8) defends during the first quarter in game four of the first round of the 2017 NBA Playoffs at BMO Harris Bradley Center. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports
Closing The Holes On Defense
The Milwaukee Bucks play the most aggressive defensive scheme in the league, throwing two defenders at the ball handler in the pick-and-roll and relying on weakside defenders to pinch in and defend the roll man.
If the initial pass gets past the trap they fly around the court relying on their length to snuff out open shots.
The strength of this scheme is generating turnovers, as well as putting pressure on the ball-handler to make the right play with a sea of limbs in front of him. It also forces teams out of their primary actions, which are often centered around the pick-and-roll.
Through four games the strengths and weaknesses of the scheme have stood in stark contrast. In both of the games Milwaukee won, their defensive pressure squeezed the Raptors too tight and they were able to completely shut down the Toronto offense.
The Bucks have held their opponent to quarters of 12, 13, 16, 18 and 19 thus far.
In the games where Toronto has won, their guards have been able to avoid the wall of limbs and break into the middle of the floor. From there they have easier passing lanes, or the opportunity to attack the rim.
They have accomplished this by reversing direction on screens once the big commits to the trap, leaving them with an opening. Kyle Lowry has also found space by jetting forward before the screen is set, catching the defense not quite rotated into position.
Neither plan of attack is a foolproof solution to the scheme, but the Raptors are squeezing out enough points to make it work.
Jason Kidd has done an inspired job managing the minutes of rookie sensation Thon Maker and Greg Monroe at center. At backup power forward he has less to work with, forced to trot out either the slow Mirza Teletovic or the oft-undisciplined Michael Beasley.
Beasley has been the better option thus far in the series, but neither has been foolproof.
Whether the option is playing Maker at the 4 — something Kidd has rarely done this season — or another solution, it will be on the coaching staff to help the players close the gaps on defense and prevent the Toronto guards from finding open space.
The Bucks have been the better team this series — they have a plus-24 advantage in scoring margin despite the 2-2 series tie — but the Raptors play two of the final three at home.
Milwaukee will need to continue to grow together and address their weaknesses, but they have shown an ability to do so down the stretch of the season. The time is now for the young Bucks to show they belong.