Toronto Must Find An Answer To Milwaukee's Suffocating Defense

2:04 | NBA
NBA playoffs: Can any team prevent third straight Cavs, Warriors Finals?
Sunday April 16th, 2017

In an NBA tradition that is maybe only matched by the TNT Bulls, the Toronto Raptors lost Game 1 of their first-round playoff series on Saturday. Toronto is 1–11 all-time in opening games, and this time, the Raps were bested by a young, lanky Milwaukee Bucks team that imposed their will from the opening tip. And just like in Game 1 losses of years past, the Toronto offense looked nothing like the top-10 group it was during the regular season.

The Raptors’ offensive problems begin—as usual—with their backcourt. As our Ben Golliver notes, Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan are two of the worst shooters in postseason history. Lowry shot 2-for-11 on Saturday, and DeRozan wasn’t much better, connecting on only seven of his 21 field goal attempts. Lowry has shot under 33% in back-to-back first-round series, and he seems well on his way to repeating that type of performance against Milwaukee. In their careers, Lowry and DeRozan are shooting 37.9% and 39.1% in the playoffs, respectively. Lowry is even worse in Game 1s specifically, shooting a disastrous 26.6%.

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When DeRozan can’t connect in the midrange, the drain it puts on Toronto’s offense is substantial. Defenses can collapse even tighter in the paint, and DeRozan cramps the Raptors’ spacing because he is a complete non-factor from three. Lowry may still be working his way back from the wrist injury that caused him to miss 21 games in the second half of the season, but he’ll need to figure out his issues quick, because he missed plenty of good looks in Game 1.

The shooting woes’ weren’t restricted to Toronto’s backcourt. It’s a make-or-miss league, and the Raptors actually had plenty of good looks from the three-point line on Saturday. But Toronto connected on only 5-of-23 shots from outside, with Lowry, P.J. Tucker and Serge Ibaka all struggling despite some open shots from the areas they like on the court.

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Of course, Milwaukee’s defense played a significant role in Toronto’s bricklaying on Saturday. The Bucks’ length was a significant issue at nearly every position, and the Raptors looked overwhelmed in the face of feet of wingspan. Thon Maker was outstanding for Milwaukee, blocking three shots while playing outstanding help defense in the paint. Greg Monroe also impressed, playing perhaps the most active defense of his career. The Bucks’ intensity on the defensive end forced Toronto into 21 turnovers, and Milwaukee was practically unstoppable in transition. If the Bucks keep getting easy points on fast breaks, this series could be over sooner rather than later.

It really doesn’t make sense how the Raptors crater every postseason. Toronto had the No. 6 offense during the regular season, and that was with Lowry missing a quarter of the season and working players into significant new roles after the trade deadline. Ibaka was at least a bright spot, scoring 19 points on an efficient 8-of-14 shooting.

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How can Toronto kickstart its offense? Dwane Casey’s rotations left a little to be desired Saturday. Casey probably stuck with Jonas Valanciunas a little bit too long, and when Casey was willing to play small, he didn’t always get Toronto’s best five on the court. An Ibaka-Patrick Patterson frontcourt pairing showed promise in short minutes, but that lineup was hamstrung by not featuring the rest of the Raps’ best players. Cory Joseph was a non factor, and Norm Powell was curiously absent from the game until late in the fourth quarter. And it’s a small sample size, but Toronto’s starting five of Lowry, DeRozan, DeMarre Carroll, Ibaka and Valanciunas had a negative-25.2 net rating in 40 minutes during the regular season. All of those players finished in the minus in Game 1.

The Raptors have put themselves into a hole, and the Bucks look dangerous, particularly with Giannis Antetokounmpo proving himself to be the best player on either team. Committing to spreading the floor could ultimately be Toronto’s best bet at neutralizing the Bucks’ athletic advantage. But if the Raptors don’t make open shots—especially Lowry and DeRozan—it won’t matter who is on the floor.

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