NBA Playoffs 2017: How the Bucks' other rookie changed Game 1 against Raptors
The 20-year-old Thon Maker had a heck of a playoff debut
The Milwaukee Bucks trailed the Toronto Raptors 51-46 at halftime on Saturday, but it became clear early in the third quarter that they were not going to go down without a fight. Spurred on by an unlikely hero, they held the Raptors' elite offense to 32 points on 20 percent shooting in the second half, taking a 1-0 lead in the series with a 97-83 victory.
Heading into the playoffs, Bucks rookie Thon Maker's role was an open question. He ended the season as their starting center, but in many of those games he was a starter in name only: he'd play the first six minutes or so of each half, and that was it. Before Game 1, Milwaukee coach Jason Kidd told reporters he wasn't worried about starting two rookies -- Maker and Rookie of the Year candidate Malcolm Brogdon -- and, afterward, it seemed silly that this was even a question.
Milwaukee's run started when Toronto guard Kyle Lowry drove to the basket less than two minutes into the third quarter. He used a screen from Jonas Valanciunas, but Maker stayed with him all the way to the basket and used his 7-foot-3 wingspan to swat it away. This started a fast break that ended with the impossible-in-transition Giannis Antetokounmpo making a layup.
A few possessions later, the Raptors made a mistake of helping off of Maker on a drive. Despite never having played on a stage like this, he showed no hesitation when making a midrange jumper. He should have that confidence: already, he is one of Milwaukee's best shooters.
On the very next play, Toronto guard DeMar DeRozan tried to loft a pass over Maker to Valanciunas. Maker fronted Valanciunas perfectly, sealed him and got a hand on the ball, recovered it and passed to Brogdon. The Bucks ended up with an open 3-pointer on the other end:
Maker's best moment, however, might have been his block on DeRozan shortly after that. Anticipating the All-Star would go to the left side in transition, Maker tracked him and rejected his layup, which again started a fast break. When Antetokounmpo made a layup and converted the 3-point play, Milwaukee's deficit had quickly turned into a four-point lead:
It was just a few minutes of work, but Maker's contributions changed the game. The Raptors were rattled by Milwaukee's length and quickness defensively, often letting the shot clock dwindle down to the final few seconds. The Bucks made Lowry, DeRozan and guard Cory Joseph uncomfortable with the ball in their hands, playing their aggressive style of defense to near-perfection.
More than any other team in the league, Milwaukee's game plan is to pressure ballhandlers, then help and recover off the ball. The starting unit of Antetokounmpo, Brogdon, Khris Middleton, Tony Snell and Maker is capable of cutting off passing lanes, protecting the rim and covering for each other. If every player is locked in, the Bucks can make opponents miserable.
"Our second half was just abysmal," Toronto coach Dwane Casey said. "We didn't play with any pace, any rhythm, any movement. We gotta give them credit."
"I think the energy just rose, the effort just rose," Milwaukee big man Greg Monroe said. "Guys were a lot more active, getting our hands on a couple more balls, deflections and steals and stuff. That's how we have to play all the time."
Maker finished the game with four points, three rebounds and three blocks and a steal in 15 minutes. Those are perfectly fine numbers, but they don't come close to capturing the way he affected the game and energized his teammates. A couple of weeks ago, Antetokounmpo raved about the way Maker has practiced, learned and matured over the course of the season, calling him "unbelievable" and saying that the rookie's drive is similar to his own. In his biggest test as a professional, Maker showed everyone what the Bucks are so excited about.
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