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The Bucks Made the First Great Adjustment of the Playoffs

Milwaukee plays small ball without ever going small. It’s a nightmare for Toronto, which already had problems figuring out its big-man rotation before the Bucks forced the Raptors’ hand. How will the series favorites regroup?

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

After the first few days of the NBA playoffs, no lower-seeded team is in a better position than the Bucks. The Raptors, after making the Eastern Conference finals last season and adding Serge Ibaka and P.J. Tucker at the trade deadline, were a dark-horse pick to make the NBA Finals this season, but they will have to make some adjustments to avoid heading to Milwaukee trailing 2–0 after their revealing 97–83 loss in Game 1. Giannis Antetokounmpo built on his breakthrough regular season with a dominant performance on Saturday, and the Bucks won comfortably despite an off shooting night (4-of-15) from Khris Middleton, their second-best player. Milwaukee dictated matchups, imposed its style of play, and forced Toronto off its game. That’s the formula for an upset.

The Raptors led 51–46 at halftime on Saturday, but they were outscored 51–32 in the second half. The big adjustment that Jason Kidd made in the second half was streamlining his rotation. Mirza Teletovic, Spencer Hawes, and Michael Beasley played 17 minutes combined in the first half, and didn’t play until garbage time in the second. Milwaukee’s deep reserves didn’t have the foot speed to be effective in Kidd’s aggressive defensive schemes, which require trapping ball screens 25-plus feet from the basket. The Bucks had a defensive rating of 119 on Saturday with Beasley on the floor, and they were even worse with Teletovic (128.6) and Hawes (130.1). Everything changed when Kidd went away from his bigs off the bench and gave his starters more minutes, letting them use their length and athleticism to overwhelm the Raptors. All five of the Bucks’ starters have a wingspan of at least 6-foot-10 regardless of position, which means they go small without losing any size. It’s an unusual feature in their lineups that makes them incredibly difficult to match up with.

Everything in Milwaukee starts with the versatility of Giannis and Middleton. They are supersize wings who can guard power forwards and be primary ball handlers, allowing Kidd the option of not playing any traditional power forwards or point guards in his lineups. The Bucks played four wings together for almost the entire second half on Saturday, with the exception of a three-minute stretch when Jason Terry was the nominal point guard at the start of the fourth quarter. Milwaukee can cover much more ground on defense than teams with more conventional lineups, allowing them to pressure the ball with multiple defenders while still being able to rotate, contest shots, and deflect passes.

Running offense through Giannis and Middleton means the Bucks can start Malcolm Brogdon at point. Brogdon isn’t dynamic enough to be a primary ball handler, but he’s a deadly 3-point shooter who can play off the ball and use his size to bother opposing point guards. Off the bench, they play Matthew Dellavedova, a tough and versatile defender with the size to swing between multiple positions, and Terry, still valuable at 39 because he combines being one of the best pure shooters in the NBA with the ability to score off the dribble and make plays for others. Eight Bucks played at least nine minutes in Game 1, and Terry was the only one shorter than 6-foot-4. Positionless wing players have become the most important players in today’s NBA, and Milwaukee can play more of them together than any team in the league outside of Golden State.

The Bucks’ four-wing lineups forced the Raptors into some tough decisions in Game 1. Toronto loves to play Kyle Lowry and Cory Joseph together, but it’s almost impossible to play two undersized point guards at the same time against Milwaukee. Joseph (6-foot-3 and 190 pounds with a 6-foot-5 wingspan) was repeatedly brutalized by Middleton in the post. Middleton was able to control the game as a playmaker, finishing with nine assists (and zero turnovers) and generating good looks for the Bucks every time he played with his back to the basket:

Joseph struggled to make plays through the avalanche of limbs in the Bucks lineups. There weren’t many cracks in the defense for him to exploit, and passing windows closed rapidly, if they were even open at all:

While the Raptors had only 10 turnovers on Saturday, the ones they did commit absolutely killed them, as the Bucks outscored them 17–4 in fast-break points. Giannis is absolutely indefensible in transition, and Toronto’s bigger and slower lineups just couldn’t get back quickly enough to build a wall and prevent him from feasting at the rim in the open floor.

Joseph wasn’t the only important Raptor who was practically irrelevant in Game 1. Patrick Patterson had the best net rating of any player in their rotation during the regular season (plus-10.9), but he was invisible on Saturday. He’s a stretch power forward who opens up the floor by dragging conventional big men out on the perimeter, but Middleton and Giannis have no problem guarding him at the 3-point line, and he’s not capable of punishing Milwaukee when it goes small against him. He might make more shots as the series progresses, but the only way he’s going to make the Bucks uncomfortable is as a small-ball 5, and the Raptors already have a crunch at the position. Toronto was minus-12 in the 13 minutes Ibaka and Jonas Valanciunas played together on Saturday, and splitting them up to play smaller means there’s not going to be any time for Lucas Nogueira or promising rookie Jakob Poeltl in this series.

The good news for Dwane Casey is that he coaches one of the deepest teams in the NBA. He dusted the mothballs off Norman Powell in the fourth quarter, and Powell’s combination of length and athleticism (6-foot-4 and 215 pounds with a 6-foot-11 wingspan) would make him right at home in the Milwaukee rotation. Delon Wright, their first-round pick in 2015, showed some flashes in the regular season when Lowry was out with a broken wrist, and he has elite size for a point guard (6-foot-5 and 190 pounds with a 6-foot-7 wingspan). Those two, along with Tucker and DeMarre Carroll, give Toronto a lot of versatile defenders who can space the floor next to Lowry, DeMar DeRozan, and Ibaka, but it’s unclear how quickly the Raptors will go to their more unproven talents off the bench. Casey will probably not have that short a leash on guys like Patterson and Joseph, at least not this early in the series.

There’s still plenty Toronto can do without dramatically altering its rotation. The most obvious move is taking Carroll off Giannis to start the game and having Tucker guard him instead. Carroll made his reputation as a 3-and-D player with the Hawks, but he can’t even make Giannis work for his points at this stage in his career:

They shouldn’t have to make an adjustment to get more from Lowry, who had only four points on 2-of-11 shooting. He’s their best player, and if he plays anywhere close to that badly going forward, the Raptors will be in serious trouble no matter what they do. Toronto was also only 5-for-23 from 3 on Saturday, and while some of that was a result of the Bucks’ ability to contest outside shots, Milwaukee’s style of defense will yield open looks if the Raptors can make crisp passes around the perimeter. They should become more comfortable executing against the Bucks as the series progresses.

What should really worry Casey is that Kidd has more cards he can play if the Raptors regain the momentum. DeRozan lived at the free throw line (14 attempts) by using his size to bully Tony Snell and Brogdon in Game 1, but he would have a much harder time against Giannis. Putting a significantly longer player on DeMar, someone who might be able to contest his shot and stay in front of him without fouling, could squeeze the life out of the Toronto offense. The most interesting twist for the Bucks would be giving Giannis minutes at the 5 and playing five wings together, à la the Warriors’ Lineup of Death. According to the tracking numbers at Synergy Sports, Giannis, in his limited time as a roll man in the pick-and-roll, is one of the best finishers in the NBA (1.43 points per possession on 67 possessions, putting him in the 97th percentile this season). And he’s more than capable of protecting the rim. His block of DeRozan at the end of the game was so mean the refs gave him a technical foul:

No matter what happens in the playoffs, the Bucks’ ability to challenge a more battle-tested Raptors team is a promising sign for their future. Any team that relies on their point guard or power forward is going to have trouble matching up with Milwaukee’s wing-heavy lineups, which would make a potential second-round series between the Bucks and Cleveland fascinating. The Bucks will pose problems for a lot of teams over the next few years. Giannis, Middleton, and Brogdon aren’t going anywhere, and Snell will be a restricted free agent in the offseason who they will try to retain. They don’t even have Jabari Parker, who is out for the season with a torn ACL, while Thon Maker has shown real promise as a stretch 5 who can switch screens. This series reminds me of the Warriors’ first-round upset of the Nuggets in 2013. We could be watching the start of something special.