2019 Eastern Conference Finals Preview

A match-up of heavyweights is upon us, as the Bucks square off against the Raptors. The top 2 teams in the East all season, these teams are carried by transcendent talents, key supporting players, and impact trade deadline acquisitions.

Regular Season

The Bucks, en route to an NBA best 60 wins, took the season series against the Raptors 3-1. These teams haven’t faced each other since January 31st, notably before the February trade deadline, featuring the arrival of Marc Gasol (Raps) and Nikola Mirotic (Bucks). The Bucks won that contest 105-92. The sole win for the Raptors came on January 5th, a 123-116 victory. On December 9th, Milwaukee came in to Toronto, and won 104-99.

The first contest, way back on October 29th, is barely relevant with neither Giannis nor Kawhi participating, and Milwaukee winning 124-109.

A big takeaway from the regular season match-ups is Toronto’s ability to knock down 3 point shots. In their 3 losses, they shot 31-116 (26.7%). In their lone win, they shot 14-31 (45.2%). This is notable because the Bucks had the best defense in the NBA this season, while allowing the most three point attempts per game.

Toronto’s offense against Milwaukee’s defense is what intrigues me the most about the series. If you take out that first game, the Bucks held the Raptors well below their average of 114 points per game, even keeping them under 100 twice.

Let’s take a look at what Toronto can do offensively.

Make or Miss League

Perhaps my favorite NBA saying from perhaps my least favorite announcer, this series may simply come down to whether Toronto can knock down perimeter shots. Kawhi is a beast, and very well could be the best player in this series, but Milwaukee will send bodies his way. The Bucks scramble and rotate defensively better than any team outside of Golden State, and they will leave non-shooters.

Toronto has shrunk it’s rotation, and is badly missing OG Anunoby, who looks to be at least a week away. Coach Nick Nurse really only trusts 7 guys, and that has forced him to turn to lineups with Serge Ibaka, Marc Gasol, and Pascal Siakam playing alongside Leonard. These huge lineups are small on shooting, and the Bucks will force them to shoot from outside.

In the regular season, Milwaukee put Khris Middleton on Kawhi, Lopez on Ibaka (now Gasol), and left Giannis on Pascal Siakam. Giannis has become lethal as an off-ball defender, helping all over the floor, mucking up actions, and sending his length into double teams.

Giannis was aggressive with his ignorance on Siakam, as were the 76ers in the second round. Siakam, a personal favorite of mine and an emerging star, will be tested to make shots from the perimeter. He is at 30% from three in the playoffs, and has turned into more of a spot up player in the post-season because Kawhi is torching teams with the ball in his hands.

Siakam is spotting up on 23.4% of his offensive possessions, scoring .929 PPP per Synergy Sports. In the regular season he spent less time spotting up (20%), and was much more efficient at 1.142 PPP. Defenses are ignoring him, and so far he hasn’t made them pay.

For Toronto to win, their floor-spacing shooters must show up. The problem is, they haven’t been shooting it well from behind the line, and those are the exact shots Milwaukee forces you to take. Their floor spacers have dismal 3 point shooting numbers compared to the regular season, such as Danny Green (45.5% RS – 36.5% PS), Fred VanVleet (37.8% – 20%), Siakam (36.9%30%), and Kyle Lowry (34.7%28.1%). 

For Toronto to advance to the NBA Finals, they simply will need more makes than misses.

Pick and Roll Mastery

Of course, it’s never that simple, and the Raptors have made it this far for a reason. A big factor is the dominance and shooter’s luck of Kawhi Leonard. As a pick and roll ball handler, none have been better than the pending free agent. Leonard is commanding the ball screen even more in the playoffs, up to 29.3% of his offensive possessions, and is scoring 1.094 PPP – best in the postseason.

Leonard will once again have to be excellent in this department, though he may see a pretty similar look defensively as he did against the 76ers. All season the Bucks have employed a “drop” coverage in the pick and roll, sitting the screen defender in the paint to guard the rim. The on-ball defender fights over the top of the screen and tries to close down the airspace of the offensive player. This coverage is susceptible to mid-range shots, either with the ball handler pulling up, or the screener “popping” into open space on the perimeter.

Fortunately for Coach Nurse and the country of Canada, Kawhi may be the best at attacking this coverage, patiently maneuvering to his spot, and draining mid-rangers. With Brook Lopez, Ersan Ilyasova, and Nikola Mirotic planted in the paint, these pull-ups become crucial shots for Leonard and fellow ball screen operators Lowry and VanVleet.

This will also place a large onus on the big man triumvirate of Gasol, Siakam, and Ibaka to knock down the pick and pop shots. The veterans, Gasol and Ibaka, have shot the mid-range well their whole career, and this season Ibaka shot 48.8% in the regular season and Gasol 45.5%. Pascal Siakam doesn’t frequently take shots in the mid-range area, but against this defense he will have to. Siakam has also developed sharp cutting instincts, diving towards the rim and not settling for jumpers when the defense ignores him.

IF Toronto is able to expose the drop coverage, Milwaukee has the personnel to “switch” the ball screen. Against Boston, they went away from the scheme they’ve developed all season for more switching, mainly to guard against the “threat” of Kyrie Irving’s pullups. I expect the Bucks to stay with their stock coverage, knowing that they can help and scramble to the Raptors perimeter shooters spotting up.

Finding Ways to Score 

Kawhi is also a bully in the post, but the Bucks were not shy in sending double teams towards his post ups in the regular season. Milwaukee’s roster of long defenders allows them to help and recover so effectively that posting Kawhi may be tricky. If he has a favorable matchup, Kawhi can still destroy on the block, but help is always on the way, The frequent double teams force Leonard to work faster than his patient post up game is comfortable. If Leonard has one flaw, it’s his ability to pass when surrounded by the defense, which may be exposed by the Bucks.

Toronto has to look to get out in transition as much as possible, especially because Siakam is stellar in transition. “Spicy P” changes ends faster than any frontcourt player in the NBA, and this can get him going with easy buckets. Transition also creates mismatches where Kawhi can get Middleton off of him and the Bucks help assignments are thrown off.

The Siakam/Leonard pick and roll is intriguing because it puts their two best players in the action, and prevents the help defense from overloading off a non-shooter. These were actions that Nurse went too late in games against Philly, and could be beneficial in the East Finals.

All in all, Toronto has been excellent defensively in the playoffs and should push Milwaukee. If Kawhi is able to takeover this series and his supporting cast can make enough shots, Toronto can represent the East in the NBA Finals.

 

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