King of the North

After Milwaukee took a two to nothing lead in the series against Toronto the general sense was doom for the Raptors.  The Bucks haven’t lost three games in a row and haven’t lost a home game where they entered the fourth quarter with a lead all season.  Marc Gasol wasn’t playing up to his standard and the Raptors bench unit were being outplayed.  The odds seemed stacked against the Raptors.  But sure enough the Bucks lost four games in a row for the first time all season and lost a home game where they entered the fourth quarter with a lead for the first time all season.  

Were the Raptors that much better than the Bucks?  I think not. We’re talking about a double overtime game three where the Bucks easily could’ve been up three games to nothing.  A pivotal moment in that game was fourth quarter with about two minutes and thirty seconds left.  George Hill was leading the break but multiple Raptors were waiting under the basket.  Instead of backing out the ball and setting up a play Hill decided to rush the break and miss a contested paint attempt.  The Raptors went on a five to nothing run over the next minute.  The Bucks would send the game into overtime but the whole complexion of the game could’ve been changed with one play. Heck in game six when the Raptors took the lead with nine minutes and forty-five seconds left in the fourth quarter that was their first lead since 6-3 in the first quarter.  

The Bucks took leads into the fourth quarter in both game five and six.  This series in many ways could’ve went Milwaukee’s way. Unfortunately for the Bucks their late game half court offensive execution, tertiary playmaking, three point shooting and secondary help defense took a nosedive.  Giannis became nullified in the fourth quarter with the Raptors playing more drop coverage on pick-and-rolls, collapsing middle with three defenders and sagging back on transition pushes taking away his driving angles and side steps.  It’s tough to score when you aren’t a proficient three point, free throw or mid-range jump shooter.  It becomes even more difficult to make precise decisions late in game on drive-and-kick opportunities, dump offs and timed passes to cutters.  It also doesn’t help when one of your most important shooters, Nikola Mirotic, goes in the tank and shoots 19% from three and becomes unplayable.  Shooting 31% from three as a team really makes it hard for Giannis to trust his kick out options, especially to a 17% from deep Bledsoe.  

The Bucks ran a 5-out motion offense with shooting at every position surrounding Giannis all season.  A lot of times when Giannis drove to the rim and helpside defense would rotate over that would trigger a weak side cut by the Bucks.  It was a simple but effective offense since Giannis draws so much attention.  The Raptors defense did a very good job snuffing out these actions late in the game.  They closed space fast with sharp closeouts on skip passes and kick outs, were communicating on every ball screen, under control on recoveries and on a string with every rotation.  Fourth quarter game five and six was some of the best defense I’ve seen the Raptors play all season.  The Raptors walled up the paint and forced the Bucks out of their game plan.  They were more capable of playing different styles of pick-and-roll coverage due to better two-way personnel in comparison to Milwaukee.  The Raptors switched or contained on most ball screens and that versatility through the Bucks out of rhythm.

The Bucks pick-and-roll defense at the end of game five and six were pretty lazy.  Several times did I see Milwaukee lazily give up the switch without fighting to stay attached.  The Raptors would run multiple ball screens forcing the Bucks big men and weak side defense to cover extra ground and put them in a vulnerable spot.  The Bucks communication would break down falling for hammer picks at crucial parts of the fourth quarter.  The Raptors would setup Pascal Siakam as the screener in many ball screens situations trying to get players like Brook Lopez and Ersan Ilyasova to switch on Kawhi.  The Raptors ran variations of roll-and-replace and double ball screen actions quite often at the end of game five and six to move Milwaukee’s defenders into scramble mode. The Bucks had Giannis guard Marc Gasol and had Malcolm Brogdon/Khris Middleton guard Kawhi Leonard late in the game.  Middleton struggled trying to guard Kawhi and multiple times gave up middle. Brogdon actually did a commendable job trying to guard him even though Kawhi could easily shoot over the top.  Kawhi probably did the best job of his career trying to find shooters on his drive-and-kick chances during this series.  Having a player that can score proficiently at all three levels of the game makes a huge difference come playoff time.  The amount of attention that imposes on a defense changes the floor balance in favor of the offense.

It also helps when you get out of this world performances.  I can analyze this series as much as I want but maybe it was as simple as this: Fred VanVleet went 2-11 from three games one through three and 14-17 from three games four through six.  Maybe that’s all that needs to be said.  If Mirotic got hot from three and VanVleet stayed cold then maybe this is a five game series.  VanVleet wasn’t just a jump shooter though.  He was aggressive on his takes, playmaked in a pinch and took care of the ball.  Norman Powell really stepped up his game on both sides of the ball as well.  He played better than Danny Green for most of this series.  The bench for the Raptors straight up outplayed the Bucks bench games four through six.

The Bucks now go into this off-season with a lot of questions.  Nikola Mirotic, Brook Lopez, Khris Middleton and Malcolm Brogdon are all free agents.  Are they going to re-sign Middleton to the max even though we just saw him flounder in the east finals?  How much are the Bucks willing to spend on Brogdon?  Will Lopez continue to take a discount?  The Bucks need to get more versatile on defense while at the same time maintain quality spacing for Giannis and that could be an issue since their means of making upgrades could be limited.  Acquiring an extra shot maker would be nice and Giannis evolving his game outside of the paint is the next step in his championship quest. The Raptors now have the pleasure of playing the Golden State Warriors in the Finals.  The Warriors are the favorite even with Kevin Durant not playing.  But without Kevin Durant the Raptors clearly have a better shot at winning the title.  The Raptors counted on a supernatural performance by Fred VanVleet just to get them by the Bucks.  They’re going to need that and then some to beat the Warriors.  Getting OG Anunoby back healthy would be a plus for the Raptors.  Win or lose the Raptors have done such a good job at rounding out their roster with late first round picks, second round picks and undrafted free agents.  They made a risky move trading for Kawhi knowing damn well he might leave in a year.  This might be the only time in franchise history where they will have a shot at winning a title.  And heck who knows, maybe Kawhi doesn’t leave a well run organization playing in a weaker conference with a ravenous fan base and good coach.  Just a thought.

 

Quick Hit 2019 Playoff Notes

~ I don’t know why but I find it funny that two of the most impactful players this postseason are Rodney Hood and George Hill.  Both of whom made up the terrible supporting cast that Lebron had last NBA finals in Cleveland.  Hill was dealing with back spasms for a chunk of the playoffs last season but playing with Lebron brings a degree of pressure that I don’t know if Hood and Hill were prepared for.  Lebron is also his own offensive system and if you don’t fit within his construct then you may be dealing with a lot of DNP-coach’s decision.  This postseason has been different though.  With Enes Kanter dealing with a separated shoulder and Moe Harkless dealing with an ankle injury, Hood has stepped up for Portland.  With Malcolm Brogdon being out with a foot injury, George Hill has stepped up for Milwaukee.  Call it better health, opportunity, confidence, fit, role or whatever, but a couple buy-low trade chips are paying dividends for their respective teams.

 

~ Instead of picking Milwaukee outright over Boston, I decided to weasel out of a prediction and say whoever wins between Milwaukee versus Boston will win the east.  I was favoring the Bucks but I was worried they were going to remain steadfast in their core principles from the regular season.  I first had to see if they were willing to change their style of play during a series before I could confidently pick the Bucks.  In my last article I wrote about how Boston was a bad matchup for Milwaukee and it certainly showed game one.  The Bucks had to make the necessary adjustments if they wanted to turn around the series after a blow out game one loss. Mike Budenholzer has arguably been the best pickup this off-season and once again proved his worth by out coaching Brad Stevens with better coaching tactics.  After game one, the Bucks started Nikola Mirotic in place of Sterling Brown.  I’m a huge Sterling Brown fan but after game one it was clear that he isn’t a true shooting threat or a proficient enough driver which became a problem for the symmetry of the Bucks offense.  Mirotic gave the Bucks more size and shooting which helped open up better driving angles for Giannis.

It felt like the Bucks used Giannis in more screening situations especially late in game.  Whether that be Giannis the ball handler with a ball screen, Giannis setting the ball screen himself or Giannis setting off-ball cross screens, it felt like Milwaukee was forcing the Celtics to negotiate on as many screening scenarios that involve Giannis as possible.  On the other hand it felt like Boston didn’t utilize the Irving/Horford pick-and-pop as much like in game one.  A lot of that had to do with Milwaukee switching on the ball screen more often.

The Bucks switched on ball screens more often as compared to containing almost every ball screen in game one.  The Bucks don’t necessarily have the personnel to switch on defense but there’s still benefit to switching even with less than personnel: it affords time on recovery’s, helps contain point of attack moves and baits the offense into head hunting.  So instead of a smooth motion based offensive play for Boston you could get something like Kyrie dancing on Brook lopez.  The Bucks would then collapse on Kyrie’s drive in the paint and force a kick out, either resetting the offense or giving up a three.  Considering that Boston shot 30.7% from three this series, maybe giving them space on the perimeter isn’t that bad of an idea.  Boston also doesn’t really have a true post threat either so the worry for a big on small cross match in the paint is lessen.

The Bucks bench just dominated the Celtics bench.  I’ve already talked about George Hill but Pat Connaughton and Ersan Ilyasova were major contributors with Malcolm Brogdon giving them a boost last game.  Gordon Hayward and Terry Rozier were terrible and getting Marcus Smart back wasn’t helping with offensive production off the bench for Boston.  No one on Boston could guard Giannis, too many times did Boston settle for jump shots and when they were down late in the game the offense felt too erratic with no purpose behind their actions.  Kind of like how it’s been all season.

I still think Boston was a bad matchup for Milwaukee but it just so happens that the Bucks have a great coach of their own to make the correct adjustments after game one.  Boston never rebounded.  And you know what else helps?  Having arguably the best player in the league, that’s what.  With Malcolm Brogdon coming back, the Bucks having home court advantage throughout the playoffs, Giannis playing at the top of his game and a coach who is showing he is more than capable of making in-series adjustments bodes well for title consideration.  I said before the playoffs started that who ever won the Boston-Milwaukee series will win the east and I’m obviously staying with that assertion.  The reason why I didn’t pick Milwaukee out right to beat Boston was because of matchup but with the Bucks displaying that they aren’t afraid to switch up their style gives me the confidence in saying the Bucks are the favorite to win the NBA title. (Assuming Kevin Durant misses the Finals)  

 

~  The Rockets better beat Golden State now that Kevin Durant is out for the rest of the series.  If they don’t, that would be a colossal failure and a wasted opportunity.  The Rockets moaned and wined about how they would’ve beat Golden State if it wasn’t for Chris Paul missing the last two games.  There’s no excuses now.

 

~ The other two series are entering game sevens.  My prediction before the second round started was Toronto over Philadelphia and Portland over Denver.  I’ll stick with my picks even though my confidence level is waning after watching the games play out.  I thought Toronto was going to beat the Sixers without much stress but clearly I overestimated Kyle Lowry and the Raptors supporting cast.  I still think whoever wins will lose to Milwaukee anyway. Portland winning at Denver for game seven is the tougher proposition.  Nikola Jokic has been one of the consistently great players throughout the postseason and Jamal Murray is asserting himself as the primary perimeter scoring threat.  The Blazers on the other hand are dealing with injuries to key players and expecting Rodney Hood to stay hot is a difficult trust exercise.  Both teams would have home court advantage versus Houston in the west finals even though the Rockets should be favored in both matchups.