Milwaukee Is No Place For The Claustrophobic

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Thursday April 27th, 2017

MILWAUKEE — The home floor of the Milwaukee Bucks is no place for the claustrophobic. No matter where you stand, you can feel the reach of Giannis Antetokounmpo. Look left and you’ll see Tony Snell blotting out lanes with his full wingspan. Look right and you’ll feel boxed in by Khris Middleton’s denial. Thon Maker’s 9’3’’ standing reach towers behind, loaded over to the strong side in a way that eclipses the rest of the floor. They are a labyrinth of limbs. The only way for a possession to succeed is to wind passes carefully through in ever-evolving fashion—as if an adventurer dodging buzzsaws, spikes, and pendulum blades. Milwaukee’s chosen style makes the walls close in, and when the home crowd is as ravenous as we’ve seen in these playoffs, their standing and screaming only adds to the spatial distress. 

It wasn’t until their fifth straight game against the Bucks that the Raptors began to see their way through it. DeMar DeRozan had been stifled in this first-round series by wave after wave of bothersome defense. Kyle Lowry drove into crowds of shot blockers, often never even looking at the rim. Milwaukee’s collective length can make even great scorers see shadows. Their game is shaped not just by what the Bucks steal, block, and deflect, but in the knowing that even the most casual moves are contested. Any defense this aggressive is beatable. In the moment of a frustrating spell, however, it just doesn’t seem so.

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That’s because knowing how to counter Milwaukee’s scheme is never enough. Every possession is a test of the opponent’s spacing; if players on the weak side cluster in the slightest, the Bucks can eat an offense alive. If a cutter or screener brings another body into the vicinity of the play without posing some immediate threat, he only adds to the swarm. When faced with so many intrusive, rangy defenders, opponents are forced to trust what they cannot see. The scouting report says to engage and swing the ball, forcing the defense to shade over to one side of the floor before scrambling to the other. There’s a reason, after all, why the Bucks allowed more corner threes per game than any other team in the regular season. But doubt creeps in after every possession where the ball doesn’t quite move as it should. Hesitation builds when those corner threes aren’t going down or when Milwaukee manages to rotate in time. There is only one consistent way to beat this style of offense and it requires a constant discipline. 

It also happens to align perfectly with one of the Raptors’ most notable deficiencies. Adapting to the Bucks cannot help but be a pain in the ass. When all goes according to plan, Milwaukee makes its opponents beat them in one way and one way only: by moving the ball and living on three-pointers it hopes to make up ground on huge strides to contest. Defending this way leaves obvious openings but can deny outright many of an offense’s core actions.

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Toronto’s way of bludgeoning opponents through Lowry and DeRozan largely qualifies. Adjustment has come in fits and starts. Game 2 was more promising for Toronto than Game 1 but the trust in the pass fell away by Game 3. The Raptors stole Game 4 with their own defense but seemed to learn little in the course of their own attack. The most successful offense the Raps have managed came by changing their lineup and playing against type in Game 5. Assisting on 68.3% of their field goals was nearly a high-water mark—their third-highest percentage in 87 games this season.

Given enough exposure, most teams can exploit enough swing-passing sequences to get the better of the Bucks. The Raptors played so crisply in Game 5 as to suggest that the glass of this series might well be broken. There are cracks that Milwaukee will not be able to cover, particularly now that Norman Powell’s confident play has given Dwane Casey the means to better space the floor and counter-drive from the perimeter.

Yet even now, Toronto’s personnel isn’t especially suited for this. Possessions will still depend on whether Serge Ibaka makes the right play in a crowd or whether P.J. Tucker, an average three-point shooter, knocks down shots. A lot could turn on if DeMarre Carroll makes the most of his 20-something minutes or fades into irrelevance. Moving the ball means leaning on the supporting Raptors in a way that they’re not accustomed. What is more balanced in theory can sometimes sacrifice steadiness in practice.

One quarter of forced indecision could be all the Bucks need to extend this series. It could come through some adjustment on Milwaukee’s part, like playing Antetokounmpo at center or setting up even harder double teams with specific triggers. For as capable as the Raptors might be, they are not always the most adaptable; their reliance on Lowry and DeRozan can be limiting, particularly when the material defenders involved are taller at most every position. Toronto played brilliantly in Game 5. Cracking the code of an NBA defense, however, is not a one-time assessment. It must be done constantly against a variety of lineups undergoing their own pointed changes in execution, some of which cannot be unwound so quickly. 

There will come a point in Game 6 when Lowry or DeRozan will look up to find no daylight. They will know what worked in their previous win but see some slight issue—a snag in timing, an error in spacing—that denies the same possibilities. Any turnover would unleash the Bucks, allowing their inconsistent offense the benefit of an easy score. A hard drive would require careful navigation, including past a wiry, nimble seven-footer with reach enough to swat shots with his elbow. The fact that Toronto, at its most mindful, has it in them to beat Milwaukee’s system only adds to the intrigue. A trap clamps shut and a decision must promptly be made, with arms reaching into view from every angle. The urgency of that specific moment will align with the pressure of the larger occasion. And that is when things could really get interesting.

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