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NBA Playoffs sports

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.

 

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Sign Of Things To Come?

In my latest podcast I talked about how the Celtics were a bad matchup for the Bucks.  I also weaseled out of making a prediction since I was torn between both teams.  All season I thought the Bucks were the team that had the best on-court fit in the eastern conference.  A 5-out motion offense built around Giannis with shooting at every position.  Brook Lopez became instrumental with his floor spacing ability and paint protection on defense.  Even with having arguably the best player going in the league, the best record in the league, a top five offensive and defensive efficiency and a great coach, I wasn’t confident picking them over the Celtics.  A Celtics team a lot of people wrote off before the playoffs started, and with some justification of course.  They haven’t been on the same page all season, injuries have taken a toll and players haven’t progressed like they should’ve.  I still like the Celtics because of how they are designed; a pick-and-roll mismatch problem at center, a slashing scoring three point shooting point guard with big switchable wings.  That type of team design is built well for the postseason.

The regular season isn’t the playoffs.  It isn’t about doing one thing great, it’s about versatility.  Yes, the Bucks are a great defensive team but they were built primarily around a contain first pick-and-roll coverage.  In the playoffs you need to be diverse enough to cover pick-and-roll’s every which way.  Brook Lopez is great at one type of pick-and-roll coverage but can he hedge?  Switch?  And cover space in a timely matter?  That was my issue going into this series.  That was why I couldn’t in good faith pick the Bucks over the Celtics.  Game one confirmed my suspicion and if the Bucks don’t make the necessary adjustments they will lose this series.

To start off the game the Celtics had Horford defend Giannis.  They did the same thing to Ben Simmons last postseason.  Although, the difference is the Celtics are playing tighter gap protection on Giannis’ drives.

In the first play you have Jayson Tatum leaving his man along the perimeter to shadow Giannis with the help of Kyrie Irving, Marcus Morris hugging the lane line to shrink space.  The next play you have Giannis in transition with Horford guarding him, Irving shadowing him, Morris in the middle of the paint and Tatum taking a dig at him from the corner.  The Celtics were keying in on Giannis.

The Celtics would also put Aron Baynes and Marcus Morris on Giannis when Horford was on the bench.  Horford actually did a good job cutting off driving angles and giving help defense time to crash down.  Boston was ok taking an extra step in on Giannis while giving extra space to the Bucks shooters.  Whether that’s because Malcolm Brogdon is hurt and they are giving his replacement Sterling Brown license to drive.

Or they don’t trust players like Pat Connaughton, Eric Bledsoe, Brook Lopez, Nikola Mirotic and Ersan Ilyasova to torch them from three and attack closeouts. 

The Celtics were switching on most ball screens and then would revert back to safer matchups on the weak side.  The Bucks did headhunt on occasion looking for better cross matchups like Terry Rozier defending Giannis but rarely did they go to that.  That should be something the Bucks try to exploit more in game two.  Overall game one the Bucks stuck with what they knew best.  They’re going to have to trust their shooters moving forward even if they miss open shots.  Those shooters are paramount for Milwaukee’s floor balance.  I would like to see DJ Wilson get more playing time.  I think his length and athleticism at the forward/center position can help in terms of positional versatility.  Until they get Brogdon back, they will be lacking another creator on offense and players like Pat Connaughton will have to play major minutes even though they’re struggling just to defend Boston’s point of attack offense.  Brook Lopez will have to make open threes while Bledsoe will have to be better off the bounce if they want this to be a competitive series.

Rudy Gobert and Brook Lopez are great drop coverage defenders.  During the regular season you can rely on that to win defensive player of the year and be apart of a top five defense.  Come playoff time it’s about versatility and how well you can cover space.

The Bucks were containing most everything on ball screens and hardly stunted at the shooter left open.  If Horford can make that above the break three consistently the Bucks will have to make adjustments asap.  Lopez, Mirotic and Ilyasova can’t cover ground as fast as they need to versus the Celtics ball screen motion offense.

The Celtics were bending the Bucks defense all game and making them scramble on exploitable matchups.

That’s part of the reason why I think DJ Wilson should play more game two.  He has the lateral movement to stay on switches and good change of direction ability to cover space in a timely matter.  It doesn’t help when, at times, the Bucks were struggling to contain dribble penetration, were slow to matchup and had poor communication.

This was my overall fear coming into this series and it played out terribly for the Bucks.

The Bucks are obviously not out of it yet.  They have to do a better job headhunting on offense, making open threes, stunting at the pick-and-pop shooter and covering space on defense.  Hopefully it’s not a little too late when Malcolm Brogdon comes back, he could be the difference maker the Bucks need to help with continuity.  Until then however Eric Bledsoe will have to step up his role on offense.  I said whoever wins this series will win the eastern conference and I stand by that claim.  Unless the Bucks make the correct adjustments, the Celtics could be that team.