What a series this is going to be. There is so much to delve into with this matchup, and this brief break in the NBA (from Thursday to Saturday) is feeling way longer than just a few days. It still hasn’t really hit me that the season is finished. It feels like just yesterday I was plunking myself down on the couch and watching the Raptors season-opener against Detroit. But alas, as time does, it flew by.
My excitement for this series can only be matched by my nervousness. The Raptors don’t have a reassuring past of handling first-round matchups;
2014 - Toronto (3) loses to Brooklyn (6) in Game 7.
2015 - Toronto (4) loses to Washington (5) in 4 straight games.
2016 - Toronto (2) beats Indiana (7) in Game 7.
If you can recall that 2 vs. 7 series against Indiana, it was truly one that could’ve gone either way, at any point.
Is this year going to be different? Surely, Toronto is better equipped than Milwaukee, and benefit from more experience. This may be true, but history (more often than not) will repeat itself. This is going to be wicked, nail biting series, with a lot of different variables at play. Without further ado, let’s dive into this highly anticipated playoff matchup.
Regular season matchups
In the 4 regular season matchups, the Raptors were able to take 3 of them. The most recent of the 4, however, was the Bucks win, 101-94. Milwaukee has endured a fair amount of hardship this season. At one point - February 10th - they were sitting at 22-30, and the basketball world was seriously questioning their ability to compete.
Things changed for them. They ironed out their rotations, went on a nice run near the end of their season, and propelled themselves 2 games over .500; good enough for the 6th seed.
In all 4 of these matchups, the obvious is made clear. As someone who doesn’t go out of my way to watch the Bucks, Giannis is honestly terrifying. Dwane Casey said it best; “Him in transition is not a dream, it’s a nightmare.” He continued on to make an apt Magic Johnson comparison.
In the 4 matchups against us, Giannis put up:
29/11/6 (12-17 shooting)
30/5/9 (13-23 shooting)
19/8/6 (7-15 shooting)
21/4/10 (8-13 shooting)
We seemed to do a better job containing him in the 3rd and 4th games, but he is consistently a threat to put up an efficient triple-double on any given night. Containing him, or at least trying to, will be a key in stopping this team. With the additions of PJ and Serge, this will give the Raptors a better fighting chance at stopping the Greek Freak.
But what about another freaky, lanky player on the Bucks? What about Orangeville’s very own, Thon Maker? It was a joy to watch his younger brother Matur Maker ball out at the BioSteel All-Canadian game earlier this week, but it may not be as fun to watch him in this coming series (as a Raptors fan, at least).
Thon vs Jonas
Jonas Valanciunas and Thon Maker are two very different centers. Jonas is a physical, traditional center with a low center of gravity. Thon is a much different specimen. He is a thin, lengthy big man who can kind of do it all. He’s only 19 years old (good God… he’s only a few months older than me), but his growth through this season has been immense. He ventured from a long-term project to their starting center in the matter of a few short months.
Both centers have their own strengths and weaknesses. It will be interesting to see how both teams will try their best to exploit the other's shortcomings. Thon plays with a very free-lancing style, and it’s pretty fun to watch. I can't wait to see how this will clash with the more physical, traditional style of JV. After watching enough clips on the Milwaukee big man, I don’t even know if we’re ready for playoff Thon Maker - http://www.hashtagbasketball.com/milwaukee-bucks/content/are-we-ready-for-playoff-thon-maker.
But on the flip side, Jonas is 5 years older, and about 50 pounds heavier. This is going to be my “matchup-to-watch”, if I may say so. If Milwaukee runs the pick-and-pop well enough, they could use Thon’s shooting ability to take advantage of Jonas’ foot speed on the perimeter. On the other end of the floor, Jonas could prove to be a matchup nightmare for Thon. If Maker can’t keep Jonas off the glass, the Bucks may have to put Henson on Jonas or resort to Greg Monroe. This could leave Serge Ibaka or another one of our bigs on the smaller Thon.
I can’t predict how this matchup will play out, or even how much of this matchup we will see (Kidd/Casey may cross-match Ibaka onto Thon, Henson onto Jonas, etc.), but it will surely be interesting. Both players can prove to be a handful when their respective shots are falling, and if one of them can get cooking early, they could really swing the series in their team's’ favor.
Fear the deers
Beyond Giannis, there are a handful of weapons at Kidd’s disposal. Sadly, one of the most dangerous weapons - Jabari Parker, hasn’t played a game since his ACL tear a few months ago. Injuries suck, even if it's a key player on the opposing team. As a basketball fan, it’s disheartening to see a young up-and-coming stud be sidelined consistently due to health issues. I’m hoping for nothing but the best for Jabari, and a swift recovery.
The Bucks were knocked for not having enough shooting, a la 2016-17 Chicago Bulls. Although they don’t have the 3-point prowess that invokes fear into other teams, like the Dubs, Rockets, Cavs, etc., they have just enough firepower to keep you on edge.
Mirza Teletovic is averaging 6 and 2 this season, but he is part of the fuel to firepower. He has that effect on other teams that’s tough to explain. He shares it with guys like Korver, Redick, Ryan Anderson, Bogdanovic, etc. He’s not going to have the ball in his hands for an extended period of time, but you cannot leave him open. He’s consistently moving without the ball, and just preying on a defender to fall asleep for a split second - so he can bang home an automatic three.
Beasley is a guy who plays much differently than Mirza but can be equally threatening. He plays much more with the ball in his hand, and he can fill it up in a heartbeat. There’s a reason why he was drafted so high back in 2008. The pure-scoring lefty has bounced in, out and around the league quite a bit, but he seems to be a nice fit in Milwaukee The Raptors are equipped to defend guys like this, but if they're not careful, I can see Beasley having a 15-point 3rd or 4th quarter, and blowing a game wide open.
I’ve always liked Tony Snell. He’s a grit-and-grind 3-and-D kind of guy. He’s 11th in 3P% among shooting guards, but he’s attempted way more than some of the guys on the inside of that group (Snell 355 attempts, Meeks [10th] 137 attempts, Afflalo [9th] 151 attempts). Snell won’t have the ball in hands for very long, but he’s a versatile defender who spaces the floor for the Bucks. When Giannis sucks 3 defenders into him on a ridiculous fast break, Snell is always running the break, ready to catch and shoot.
Middleton seems to be the Raptors kryptonite. He led his team with 24 points in their March 4th win over the Raptors, but it’s more than just the points. He, like Giannis, has that “freaky” attribute. An athletic 6’8 shooting guard who puts up 15/4/3, on an extremely efficient 43.3% shooting from three. He attempts about 4 threes a game, so he puts them up at a pretty consistent rate. Along with Henson, and Thon, they tag up with Giannis as lanky partners in crime. Their ability to clog passing lanes and haul in off-kilter rebounds serve as huge advantages.
A fun story to follow this season has been the emergence of potential rookie of the year, Malcolm Brogdon. Milwaukee brought in Delly on a hefty 4-year $38-Million dollar deal, but his starting job was in jeopardy after President Brogdon proved his prowess, as a true NBA-ready point guard. Brogdon puts up significantly better numbers on a lot better efficiency. He doubles as a great defender and a fantastic teammate. It will be interesting to see how Kidd uses this tandem throughout the series. Both players can hang their hat on defense, so I wouldn't be surprised to see Kidd use them both for certain matchups - much like Lowry and Cojo sharing the backcourt.
I wasn’t going to write about this, but I actually feel quite compelled to do so. I really, really hope Jason Terry doesn’t light the Raptors up. The Jet has such a good feel for the game, and he is absolutely not scared of taking the big shot. He - like Delly - has NBA Finals experience, and more importantly (like Dellavadova), he is an NBA Champion. Terry’s value extends beyond his impressive range. He is an experienced vet, who has had his fingerprint on the league since his sophomore year in the NBA, where he averaged 19.7 points game. He brings the team a sense of poise, with a “been there, done that” winner’s mentality. He is far from the biggest threat on this Bucks team, but don’t count him out. I can see him hitting a big shot or two, and going off for a 20 point game at any point in this series.
Buckle up, everyone
The absence of Jabari is going to be a factor in this the series. He’s such a diverse threat in every way and plays the game with a strong passion that seems to bleed off onto other players. Without him though, the Bucks are still bolstered by a strong backbone. So what is the key to beating this Bucks team? For the Raptors, it's depth.
The big names are going to take care of themselves. Giannis is going to run the break like a madman and get everyone involved. Demar just arguably had the best season by a Toronto Raptor. He has been unbelievable this year, and a true joy to watch. His consistently clutch shot making is something that he's looking to carry into the playoffs. Lowry has looked fantastic in these past few games since his return, and we’re all expecting him to out-play Brogdon/Delly. Beyond the big names, the Raptors immense depth is what is going to win them this series if they play how they can.
Beyond the starting-5, the Raptors benefit from a solid backbone of rotational players. Cojo, Powell, PJ, and P-Pat will be the first options off the bench. The performances of these four will be crucial to Toronto’s success in this series. Along with these four, expect to see some glimpses of Delon Wright. His 6’6 build and a great feel for the game can be a huge advantage, Dwane has played him at the 1,2 or even 3 guard position with Lowry and Joseph.
Toronto, like Milwaukee, have a lot of versatility within their lineup. They have a handful of players who can play multiple positions with ease. Ultimately, this may turn into a series of Casey vs. Kidd. The matchup game is going to be extremely entertaining to watch, as both coaches jostle for advantages on the floor through the matchups.
Simply put, if the Raptors play like they can, they’ll be okay. The Bucks are a dangerous team, but stopping them falls under one vital key; stop (or contain) Giannis as best as you can. If the Raptors can hold Giannis in check, or match his production, Toronto’s depth and rotations will outlast Milwaukee's’. This isn’t going to be an easy series, even if they are the 3rd seed. A lot of people thought the 2 vs. 7 series against the Pacers last year was going to be a cake walk.
But oh man, it’s going to be fun. These two teams play a quick pace and feature some of the best athletes in the game. Tomorrow, 5:30 pm, buckle in and get ready for one of the most intriguing matchups in this year's playoffs.