Milwaukee Bucks, NBA, NBA Playoffs, Toronto Raptors

NBA Playoffs 2019: 7 biggest questions for the Eastern Conference Finals

There is no prelude necessary as we get ready for the Eastern Conference Finals between the Milwaukee Bucks and Toronto Raptors. Today we’re walking through seven questions that will define the series and determine who gets to face the winner of the Golden State-Portland matchup for the Larry O’Brien Trophy.

Do the Bucks go back to their drop defense or keep switching?

You’ve undoubtedly heard the stat countless times over the past couple weeks, but it’s worth noting again that only one team (the Orlando Magic) switch pick-and-rolls less often during the regular season than the Bucks, who preferred to play a dropback style of pick-and-roll defense in order to cut off access to the paint at all costs. Brook Lopez, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Ersan Ilyasova, D.J. Wilson, Nikola Mirotic … it didn’t matter which big was defending the screener; the Bucks dropped back.

After losing to the Celtics in Game 1 of their second-round series, though, the Bucks largely junked that system in favor of switching 1 through 4 and trapping when Al Horford set the screen. Considering Marc Gasol brings some of the same skills to the table as Horford did, will the Bucks want to stick with the switching and trapping? Or will they go back to their standard drop coverages to keep Kawhi Leonard and Kyle Lowry out of the paint, pressuring Gasol to let it fly from the perimeter?

Gasol was incredibly reluctant to shoot during the Raptors’ series against the 76ers, and if he merely starts looking for a hand-off or back-door pass against Milwaukee’s drop defense, he seems unlikely to find an opening. The Bucks held the Raptors to three of their 15 worst offensive performances of the year during the regular season, but each of those games came before Toronto acquired Gasol. On paper, he’s an antidote for the defense that stifled them during those matchups. In practice, he might not be.

Milwaukee executed the switch-happy defense pretty much to perfection against Boston, but it might be a bit more challenging to do so against Toronto because the Raptors sport both more off-the-bounce creativity and more shooting. That’s not to say the Bucks aren’t capable of executing the scheme at a high level against this opponent. They were the best defense in the league this year for a reason, after all. It’s just a different challenge.

Can Khris Middleton wrangle Kawhi Leonard?

Those hoping to see Antetokounmpo and Leonard do battle on both ends of the floor should prepare themselves for disappointment now. The Bucks prefer to use Middleton on Leonard. (And the Raptors prefer to use Pascal Siakam on Giannis. More on that later.) The Second Spectrum tracking data on NBA.com shows that Middleton was the defender of record on 64 percent of Leonard’s possessions against the Bucks this season, and that he did a nice job in forcing him to shoot just 11-of-27 from the field.

via Second Spectrum

The Raptors still scored pretty efficiently on those possessions, but as the postseason has shown, forcing someone other than Leonard to be responsible for creating efficient offense is a workable strategy. Kawhi has taken his game up another level during this run, though, so Middleton’s having held him to a sub-standard field goal percentage during three regular-season matchups may not mean all that much. (We should also note that Kawhi was like three rim-outs away from having shot nearly 52 percent against Middleton and it thus looking like the Bucks need to find another answer. The sample is incredibly small.)

That said, Middleton is surely Milwaukee’s best shot of playing Leonard straight up and still maintaining its defensive principles. Using Antetokounmpo on him would remove one of the NBA’s best help defenders from help position more often than not, robbing the Bucks of their defense’s biggest strength. Middleton has his work cut out for him, but if he can just make things difficult for Kawhi, that’s all you can really ask for.

Which versions of Eric Bledsoe and Brook Lopez will be showing up? And how ready is Malcolm Brogdon?

Bledsoe was terrific in Round 1 against the Pistons. But that was not a real series. He was atrocious in Game 1 against Boston, rebounded with a strong Game 2, but then largely stunk it up again while George Hill shined in Game 3, before bouncing back with a couple of nice performances in Games 4 and 5. Which Bledsoe are we getting in this series?

Bledsoe himself was quite good against the Raptors this season, though it’s worth noting that the Bucks were outscored with him on the floor in three of those four games despite posting a 3-1 record. What the Bucks need most out of Bledsoe is high-level defense on Lowry; and it’s notable that even while he struggled offensively against Boston, he still largely brought his A-game on the other end. Bledsoe’s strength and length are not quite as key to Milwaukee’s defense as the size and help abilities of Antetokounmpo and Lopez, but he is still a key component of their system, and his bothering Lowry would go a long way toward making things easier for everyone else.

Lopez remaking himself as a spacing center on offense and an elite rim protector on defense has been one of the better (and more ridiculous) transformations in the league. He should give Gasol just as many problems offensively as Gasol can give him, and if he can park himself in the lane and protect the rim, the Raptors are going to have a difficult time scoring on Milwaukee. Lopez is coming off a pretty dreadful series against Boston, though, having scored just 27 points across five games while shooting 10-of-35 from the field. He has to be better against Toronto for the Bucks to be at their best.

Brogdon returned from his injury-related absence and looked pretty good during the series-clinching win over Boston, but coming back as a human victory cigar in a Bahamas Game for the opponent is a lot different than playing heavy minutes against the Raptors in the conference finals. His level of readiness on both ends is key for the Bucks because while they have gotten strong play out of George Hill and Pat Connaughton so far, Brogdon is typically far more reliable than those guys, and the most versatile player of the three.

Which versions of Kyle Lowry and Marc Gasol will be showing up? And can Danny Green provide an advantage?

So, same question but for the other team this time. Lowry and Gasol spent much of the previous series seemingly refusing to shoot the damn ball, and it eventually got so ridiculous that Leonard and (to a lesser extent) Siakam had to create every shot because these guys either couldn’t or wouldn’t. That is, uh, not going to work against the Bucks.

Lowry’s ability to attack downhill and especially in transition before the Bucks’ half-court defense is set will be huge in this series. The presence of a second (or third, along with Siakam) outside-in threat who can puncture the defense from the perimeter, get it to collapse, and then kickstart ball movement brings the Raptors’ offense to another level. They could not reach that level during the teams’ regular-season matchups, for the most part, but that’s where Gasol comes in.

Gasol is both stretchier and more mobile than Jonas Valanciunas, the man he replaced in Toronto. His outside shooting ability is key if Toronto is going to test the Bucks’ drop pick-and-roll coverages, and his passing from both the post and the elbows provides the Raptors which a much different look than what anybody else on the team brings. He needs to dominate his matchup against Lopez, and to do so, he’ll have to bring a lot more offensively than he brought against Joel Embiid last round, while still bringing the same caliber of defense — albeit in a different fashion. (Working in space and closing out to the perimeter rather than standing his ground in the post.)

Green is Toronto’s best shooter, and also perhaps their most flexible perimeter defender due to his ability to defend both guard spots and some bigger wings. With Brogdon coming off an injury, Green has a chance to give the Raptors an advantage they might not otherwise have if he can shake free off the ball, beat closeouts and keep the ball moving, and bother Brogdon off the bounce to prevent him from getting into the lane.

Does Giannis still have another level? And is Pascal Siakam ready for it?

Giannis is likely going to win MVP, and deservedly so. He’s coming off a season where he did stuff that basically only Wilt Chamberlain has done before, and that’s completely ridiculous because Giannis is both not a center and fully capable of working as a primary ball-handler. But he also collected his 27.7 points, 12.5 rebounds, and 5.9 assists in only 32.8 minutes per game this season, and in the playoffs, he’s at 27.4, 11.4, and 4.4 while actually seeing his minutes per game load decrease to 31.1 a night.

There’s a case to be made that merely boosting his minutes to around 40 a night could uncap another level of what he can make possible. Perhaps fatigue sets in at a certain point if he gets too taxed, but the Bucks have played only nine playoff games so far and the reason you’ve kept his minutes down so far is so you can give him a heavier burden against the Raptors and potentially the Western Conference champions.

Simply playing more minutes is different than actually hitting another level with the quality of his play, though, and it will be fascinating to see if he’s got another gear in the tank. If he does, wooooooah boy. That could be scary.

That likely makes Siakam the key to this series for the Raptors. He’s likely going to have to deal with Giannis on both ends for much of the series, and that’s obviously an incredible challenge. Is he ready for it?

Can he make Giannis pay for leaving him alone on the perimeter to put out fires elsewhere? Can he take Giannis off the dribble like he does other forwards? Is he strong enough to prevent being bulldozed by Giannis on his way to the rim? Is he clever enough to help far enough off Giannis off the bull so that he can muck things up, but not so far that he gives up a free lane to the basket when the ball gets swung around? This is the greatest test of Siakam’s career, and watching him take it is going to be wild — pass or fail.

How much should we read into Toronto’s terrible offense vs. Milwaukee during the regular season?

Some, but not a lot? Gasol’s presence changes things, as does Brogdon’s injury. But Milwaukee’s ability to shapeshift into a team that switches 1 through 4 and brings more pressure on the ball does as well. So, it’s a notable data point, but not necessarily indicative of what we should expect here.

Can the Raptors get anything out of their bench?

For the past few years, the Raptors had arguably the best bench in the league. But after moving Siakam into the starting lineup, including Jakob Poeltl in the Kawhi trade and both Delon Wright and Jonas Valanciunas in the Gasol trade, and seeing OG Anunoby’s game backslide amid family tragedy before he had to have an emergency appendectomy prior to the playoffs, that bench has been seriously thinned out.

The trio of Fred VanVleet, Serge Ibaka, and Normal Powell now represents Toronto’s most reliable non-starters, but VanVleet has looked off for a while now, Ibaka’s effectiveness seems to come and go by the game with little night-to-night consistency, and Powell only occasionally appears to be in Nick Nurse’s circle of trust, as evidenced by his not playing at all during Toronto’s Game 7 win over the 76ers.

Next: 10 biggest questions for the Western Conference Finals

Toronto would not have won that game without Ibaka’s shooting and defense, and the three-big lineup where he plays alongside both Siakam and Gasol in the frontcourt seems like something that could prove useful in this matchup as well. Given Lowry’s inconsistencies, the Raptors have to be hoping for more out of VanVleet than they’ve gotten of late (he was truly awful for most of the Philly series), but he may find it difficult to outplay Bucks backup point guard George Hill, who appears to be hitting his season peak right now.

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