NBA Playoffs 2019: Raptors found their flow at home; can the Bucks do the same?
In Game 5, Milwaukee must do whatever it can to energize its offense
An Eastern Conference finals take from Twitter extraordinaire Magic Johnson, freed from his stifling front-office gig and fresh off the messiest television interview of the season:
Johnson is right, kind of. I was more alarmed by the Milwaukee Bucks' defense in Game 4, but it is true that they struggled to score at Scotiabank Arena. They scored 9.46 points per possession in the halfcourt, per Cleaning The Glass, which was actually their second-best mark of the series.
I mean, yikes:
Remember when the Toronto jammed up the Philadelphia 76ers' offense at the end of Game 7? That was impressive, but the bigger accomplishment is what it is doing now. The Bucks, who had the third-best halfcourt offense in the regular season, look discombobulated.
In Game 3, the Raptors made Kawhi Leonard the primary defender against Giannis Antetokounmpo, which made the likely MVP less comfortable putting the ball on the floor. When Toronto's starting lineup is on the court and he drives, the help defenders are Marc Gasol, a savant and former DPOY; Pascal Siakam, an athletic and long big man; Kyle Lowry, the best charge-taking guard in the league; and Danny Green, a savvy wing who somehow still surprises people with his shot-blocking. The Raptors are refusing to let Antetokounmpo get into the paint with ease, and when Leonard switches off of him, they can punish him for trying to force the issue.
Toronto has been "making us play a little one-on-one basketball, forcing us into tough shots," Milwaukee forward Khris Middleton said after Game 4. "Basically, they were flying around, collapsing the paint and scrambling. They did a great job with us defensively."
That quote sounds like it could have been pulled from the Bucks' first-round series against the Boston Celtics last year. Since then, Milwaukee has rarely played one-one-one ball and rarely settled for tough shots. That was the point of Mike Budenholzer's offensive overhaul, which has, until now at least, worked better than anyone imagined.
Back home for Game 5, the Bucks' most important game in years, can they find holes in this Raptors defense? Budenholzer typically prefers to lean on his system rather than trying to find mismatches, but if the system is breaking down because Eric Bledsoe is being treated like Tony Allen, adjustments must be made. I'd be surprised if Malcolm Brogdon didn't start, replacing either Bledsoe or Nikola Mirotic, and I'm sure Budenholzer has repeatedly reminded his players that they can't just stand around and watch Antetokounmpo.
The biggest question I have about Thursday's game and the rest of the series is what kind of style of play we will see. These teams are not only extremely talented, they are extremely talented on both ends. A couple of days ago, I thought we were probably in for a bunch of intense, low-scoring slugfests, and then Toronto broke through. It's hard to know whether or not that's sustainable, but, if it is, then Milwaukee will have to find a similar rhythm. This isn't just about making open shots; the offense needs more energy, whether it is through motion or matchup-hunting.
When they are rolling, the Bucks are so fast and so overwhelming that the game looks easy for them. Their success has been based on the simple idea that surrounding Antetokounmpo with shooters is a powerful thing. Maybe, if Milwaukee gets some more stops, the offense will take care of itself with more transition opportunities and less pressure to keep up. All season, the Bucks have believed that their defense will save them on nights when their shots aren't falling.
I am not sure, though, that they can approach a game like this against a team like this with a let's-do-what-we've-done-all-year attitude. A third straight loss would be devastating, so everything should be on the table. If Antetokounmpo and Middleton have to play 40-plus minutes, fine. If Bledsoe, Mirotic and Ersan Ilyasova have to play significantly fewer minutes, fine. I am not expecting Budenholzer to call D.J. Wilson's name, but I can make an argument that he should.
Whatever Budenholzer does, he will need everybody in the rotation to be decisive. The Raptors got a lot of mileage out of timely cuts and crisp passing in Game 4, reminding the NBA world what they look like when they're clicking. This time of year, the teams that are still alive are supposed to bring out the best in each other. Toronto hasn't seen the Bucks' best yet.
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