What the Bucks and Raptors Have to Do to Make the NBA Finals

Toronto and Milwaukee have won two games apiece in their conference finals matchup. Here’s a look at what each side will have to do to advance to the championship round.
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The Eastern Conference finals through four games have been a weird, bizarre tale of two cities. In Games 1 and 2, the Bucks won a close one before blowing out the Raptors. In Games 3 and 4, Toronto won a close one before blowing out Milwaukee. In the Midwest, the games were played at a fast, often frenetic pace. Up in the North, the matchup was more methodical, as possessions tightened and the half-court became more important. As the series shifts back to Milwaukee for a pivotal Game 5, here are some thoughts on what each side needs to do moving forward to end this thing once and for all.

Who will dictate the style of play?

Not to continue to be the pace guy, but Toronto looked much better the last two games in large part because Games 3 and 4 much more closely resembled Raptors basketball, that is, a slowed-down, half-court game that plays to the advantages of Toronto’s roster. Games 1 and 2 were both played at a pace higher than 100, while 3 and 4 fell below that mark, including a snail’s race of a contest Tuesday night. Whichever team can bend the other to its will can stack the odds in its favor moving forward. The Bucks had only 13 fast-break points in Game 4, their first time scoring under 20 in that category in the series. Even when the Raptors are shooting well, Milwaukee needs to push off makes and goad its opponent into playing an up-and-down game. Toronto, on the other hand, can’t be seduced into running like it was in Games 1 and 2, especially with Kawhi Leonard obviously slowed down by an undisclosed leg issue.

The Raptors Have to Make Their Bad Threes to Get Good Twos

Toronto’s offense thrives on collapsing the defense and then utilizing its high-IQ passers to find the best shot possible. Milwaukee’s defense thrives on choking away the opponent’s best scoring opportunities and daring them to take less-than-stellar shots. In the regular season, the Bucks allowed the fewest field-goal attempts in the restricted area, while forcing the most above-the-break three-point attempts.

Toronto has actually shot well on above-the-break threes so far in the conference finals, connecting at a 35.3% rate on those shots. That’s hugely important for a couple reasons. First off, any three pointer you hit is good. Secondly, those makes appear to be having a cumulative effect on Milwaukee’s defense. Every shot that goes in from the outside opens up the paint by valuable inches for the Raptors.

The Bucks are still hugely committed to shutting off shots at the rim, but in Games 3 and 4, the Raptors attempted six more field goals a night in the restricted area compared to Games 1 and 2. If Toronto continues to hit the threes Milwaukee’s defense has conceded all season, the Bucks’ style of defense becomes much more tenuous, and theoretically it should help guys like Kawhi and Kyle Lowry slither their way into the paint.

On the flipside, Milwaukee can’t be faulted for believing in its defensive principles. Toronto’s shooters have run hot and cold in the playoffs. The Bucks shouldn’t lose their focus in the paint if the Raptors are hitting some of the shots they’ve been forced into taking. Milwaukee would still probably live with an open Marc Gasol three vs. a Kawhi Leonard layup.

The Bucks Need Eric Bledsoe

After earning some measure of redemption against the Celtics, Eric Bledsoe has been a disaster in the conference finals. He hasn’t made more than three field goals in each of the first four games. He’s shooting a combined 11-of-45 in the series, for a robust 24.4% field-goal percentage. Bledsoe has been thoroughly outplayed by his counterpart in Lowry, and even an average game from him could completely swing this series.

Milwaukee is shooting only 29.9% from three in the East Finals. That doesn’t fall completely on Bledsoe, but he’s shooting a ghastly 9.2% from beyond the arc on nearly five attempts per game against Toronto. He obviously needs to step up. Bledsoe needs to push the ball, hit his open shots, and ultimately put more pressure on Lowry, who is thriving in the battle of the point guards. If Bledsoe is able to neutralize the success of the Raptors’ guards to at least some extent, Giannis Antetokounmpo’s job becomes much easier.

The Formulas

It’s all way easier said than done, but moving forward, the ways for each team to win a game, and ultimately the series, are becoming clear. Toronto needs to grind the game down as slowly as possible, both to favor its offense and compensate for Kawhi’s health. The Raptors are going to get open looks from three and the top of the key, and they have to hit those shots at a high rate not only to win the three-point battle, but to open up more space closest to the rim for their drivers.

Conversely, the Bucks have been living in the paint offensively, in large part due to their ability to get out in transition. Milwaukee has to find a way to force the Raptors into a track meet, and get Giannis out into the open floor where he can be the most effective. The Bucks have had role players step up, but the struggles of Bledsoe have hurt them immensely, and a bounce back performance from him would likely pay huge dividends.

Both teams have proven they can impose their will on a given night through four games. Whoever plays best to its identity moving forward will have a better chance of winning the series. Game 5 is Thursday.