Order has been restored to the Eastern Conference. The Celtics and the Raptors were supposed to be the primary threats to the Cavaliers’ third straight Finals appearance, but both teams quickly found themselves on the ropes in their respective first-round playoff series. Boston headed to Chicago down 2–0, the first no. 1 seed to lose its first two games at home to an 8-seed in 24 years, while Toronto was down 2–1 to Milwaukee, with its two losses coming by a combined 41 points. With their seasons on the line, Brad Stevens and Dwane Casey each made a similar tactical adjustment, swapping out one of the big men in their starting lineups for a wing. Each team reeled off two straight wins after the move, and now the Bulls and the Bucks have to figure out an adjustment of their own to regain the momentum. Big men getting played off the floor has been a recurring theme in the past few postseasons, and Boston and Toronto look much more formidable now that they have gone smaller.
How Toronto Looks Now
The Raptors could not handle the length and athleticism of the Bucks in the first three games of their series. Milwaukee had already been forced to go small in the regular season, when a torn ACL knocked Jabari Parker out of the rotation. Jason Kidd moved Giannis Antetokounmpo to power forward to replace Parker and got Khris Middleton back from injury at the same time. With Malcolm Brogdon and Tony Snell already in the backcourt, the Bucks were playing four wings around one big man. It was a devastatingly effective lineup, particularly against a Raptors team that started a conventional frontcourt in Jonas Valanciunas and Serge Ibaka. Ibaka was forced to chase Snell around the 3-point line, negating his ability to protect the rim, while the Bucks’ speed allowed them to trap Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan and get the ball out of their hands while still recovering to the other three Raptors on the floor.
Before Game 4, Casey moved Ibaka to center and swapped out Valanciunas for second-year guard Norman Powell, who had received spot minutes in the first three games of the series. Powell had a similar transformative effect when he was given a bigger role in the Raptors’ first-round victory over the Pacers last season, and he is averaging 18.5 points (on 61.1 percent shooting), four rebounds, four assists, a block, and 1.5 steals in his two games as a starter. Powell played 34 minutes in both games: Toronto was plus-15 when he was on the floor in Game 4, and plus-23 in Game 5. At 6-foot-4 and 215 pounds with a 6-foot-11 wingspan, he’s a long and athletic wing player who can stretch the floor, defend multiple positions, and beat Milwaukee at its own game. Just look at these two dunks from Monday:
Shelving Valanciunas opened up the floor for Lowry and DeRozan, who had much more room to operate with an extra 3-point shooter in the game instead of a post-up big man hanging around the paint. After not making a single shot from the floor in Game 3, DeRozan had his best game of the series in Game 4, with 33 points on 12-of-22 shooting, nine rebounds, and five assists. The Bucks responded in Game 5 by sending double-teams to get the ball out of his hands, but the Raptors had four perimeter threats in their new starting lineup, stretching out the Milwaukee defense and allowing DeRozan to pick them apart and punish them for how aggressively they were guarding him. Plays like this wouldn’t work if the Bucks were sagging off Valanciunas in the lane:
Taking one of his big men out allowed Casey to start two good wing defenders next to DeRozan, which kept him off Middleton, who was scoring on him pretty easily. The Bucks’ second-best player went from averaging 20 points on 48.9 percent shooting in Games 2 and 3 to nine points on 33.3 percent shooting in Games 4 and 5. Middleton loves to take smaller wing defenders in the post, and Powell is stout enough to prevent him from establishing deep position and long and athletic enough to contest his shot:
This version of the Raptors makes a lot more sense against the Bucks, as Valanciunas is now matching up with Greg Monroe on the second unit. Now that they’ve rearranged their lineups to match Milwaukee’s greatest strengths, Toronto’s advantage in depth, shooting, and experience has come to the fore, and the Raptors have a chance to close out the Bucks in Game 6 on Thursday.
How Boston Looks Now
The Celtics made the same switch as the Raptors, taking Amir Johnson out of the lineup and playing Gerald Green in his place. The switch wasn’t the only factor in their comeback, though: Rajon Rondo broke his thumb in Game 2, and the Bulls were not able to replace his impact on either end in Games 3 and 4. However, Green’s presence has given the Celtics offense a shot in the arm: Not only can he knock down 3s — unlike Johnson — he can also attack closeouts and create shots off the dribble when the ball is swung to him on the perimeter. On its face, Stevens’s decision to go small doesn’t make a lot of sense, as the Celtics were already getting murdered on the boards with their bigger lineups in the first two games in Boston. The Bulls still won the rebounding battle in Games 3 and 4, but the Celtics were so much better on offense that it didn’t matter.
Green has long been one of the most explosive bench scorers in the league, and he’s taken advantage of his newfound playing time to average 13 points on 47.6 percent shooting in his two games as a starter. He has shot 6-for-13 from 3 in the series, and having him in the game instead of Johnson has forced Chicago to adjust its defense. Boston is now a pure spread-pick-and-roll team, with three shooters spacing the floor for Isaiah Thomas and Al Horford, and something is always going to be open if extra defenders are hanging out in the paint to slow the roll man. In this sequence, Dwyane Wade is woefully out of position to contest Green’s shot:
All that extra space on the floor Robin Lopez has to defend has made life more difficult for the 7-footer, who has used his size to crush the Celtics on the glass all series long. Lopez cannot move his feet fast enough to stay in front of Thomas, who has much more room to attack him in the pick-and-roll in the Celtics’ new lineup. Plays like this have forced Fred Hoiberg to cut Lopez’s playing time, as he has gone from averaging 33 minutes in the two games in Boston to only 21.5 minutes a game in the games at the United Center:
The difference between the two series is the inherent makeup of the Bulls’ and Bucks’ rosters. Chicago, unlike Milwaukee, plays two traditional big men for most of the game. So instead of just matching the speed of the underdog in the way Toronto has, Boston’s lineup adjustment has given it a decisive advantage. Nikola Mirotic is now guarding Jae Crowder, and he’s not fast enough to keep up with Crowder on the perimeter, much less keep up with Thomas in the pick-and-roll.
More importantly, Mirotic hasn’t been punishing the Celtics for going small against him. He’s a stretch 4 who wants to blow by bigger defenders when they contest his 3-point shot, and smaller, more agile defenders have a much easier time staying in front of him. The Celtics have left Crowder on Wade and Avery Bradley on Jimmy Butler, daring Mirotic to beat them by putting Green, who has never been known for his defense, on him. Mirotic is averaging 12 points and 6.5 rebounds a game on 38.8 percent shooting since Boston’s adjustment, and he’s either going to have to take advantage of the mismatch or come off the floor for the Bulls to get back in the series.
How Can Milwaukee and Chicago Adjust to the Adjustments?
Milwaukee has yet to go super-small with Giannis at the 5 in the playoffs. According to the numbers at NBA Wowy, he played 128 minutes without a traditional big man on the floor in the regular season, and he was dominant in that role, with a usage rate of 35.8 and a true shooting percentage of 60.8. The Bucks have a net rating of minus-4.4 with those lineups, but they probably weren’t playing many groups as small as Toronto is now. The Bucks could easily put Middleton on Ibaka, who doesn’t have a strong post game, and move Giannis on DeRozan, where he could use his length to swarm DeRozan without fouling. That would leave Brogdon, Snell, and Matthew Dellavedova guarding DeMarre Carroll, Powell, and Lowry, so Toronto would not have any obvious places in the lineup to attack the Bucks’ lack of size. According to the tracking numbers at Synergy Sports, Giannis is in the 97th percentile as a roll man this season, and playing him with four 3-point shooters who can attack a close-out and make plays on the move would put the Raptors defense in an almost impossible position. At the very least, after how soundly the Bucks were beaten in Game 5, it’s a move worth trying.
Chicago should think about countering Boston’s small lineup by playing Cristiano Felício and Paul Zipser up front. Felício is more capable of moving his feet in space than Lopez, while Zipser — who has already had a breakout game in this series, with 16 points on 6-of-8 shooting in Game 2 — is more comfortable guarding on the perimeter and attacking smaller players off the dribble. However, the tough part about going small for the Bulls is that Rondo’s injury leaves them without a lot of attractive options on the perimeter: There may not be a Norman Powell or Gerald Green on their bench. They have to get more out of Wade, and they have to cobble a point guard rotation out of Isaiah Canaan (who had a strong performance in Game 4) and some combination of Jerian Grant, Michael Carter-Williams, Cameron Payne, and Denzel Valentine. The good news is that Butler can play as a point forward, so all those guys need to do is spot up off the ball and stay out of the way. Chicago inexplicably went away from putting Thomas in the pick-and-roll against Butler in the latter stages of Game 4. Expect them to lean on that play heavily in Game 5, regardless of the lineups the Bulls use.
Hoiberg and Kidd have to do something to alter the dynamic of their respective series, if only to give their teams a sense that they aren’t trying the same strategy that has worked so poorly in the past two games. For both teams, the obvious adjustment is to go even smaller to regain the speed and shooting advantage they’ve lost. If Toronto and Boston have regained the upper hand by downsizing, then maybe Milwaukee and Chicago should double down and shrink their lineups even further.