After Milwaukee thrashed Toronto in Game 3 by 27 points to take a 2-1 lead in the series, the Bucks received a lot of hype around the league as a dominant team in the Eastern Conference.
At the time it was hard to argue that the Raptors even had a chance to win the series, as Milwaukee held Toronto to just 46 points through three quarters, with the Raptors finishing the game shooting just 33.8 percent from the field.
Milwaukee was praised for its length and athleticism that forced Raptors star Demar DeRozen to shoot 0-8 from the field, scoring his only points from the free throw line. Adding to that the Bucks’ balanced scoring attack, which included six players in double figures, and it was hard to find a way that the Raptors could possibly turn the series around.
Trailing in a playoff series was nothing new for Toronto, however, who has lost their last nine Game 1 matchups in playoff series dating back to 2001. Last season, the Raptors managed to come back and win two series after trailing, and even took the Cavaliers to Game 6 in the Conference Finals.
This Bucks squad on the other hand has little playoff experience outside of the disappointing six game series against the Chicago Bulls in 2015.
So for Milwaukee to dominate two out of three games in a series against a veteran Toronto team shows potential for the future. If Milwaukee could play even half as well as they did in Game 3 in every playoff game they would be in contention with the Cavaliers for the top of the East.
Now take a look at Milwaukee’s last two performances, where they lost by a combined 36 points and failed to put up over 100 points in either game.
Toronto effectively made adjustments after their lackluster start to the series. In Game 4 they switched up their defensive scheme to limit Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton’s scoring abilities. They also found ways to get their star duo of DeRozen and Lowry involved, as they accounted for 51 of the teams’ 87 points. Dwayne Casey also moved Norman Powell into the starting lineup to match up with Khris Middleton better, and so Jonas Valanciunas would be in the game when Greg Monroe came off the bench. Powell was the X-Factor in Game 5, as he scored a team-high 25 points, and was part of the reason that both Tony Snell and Middleton scored under 1o points.
These adjustments along with the Raptors playoff experience are what separated the two teams in Game 4 and Game 5, as Toronto made plays when they most counted.
How exactly was Milwaukee’s lack of playoff experience exploited?
For starters, turnovers have absolutely killed the Bucks. Not only does it limit the amount of shots they can take, but turning the ball over allows the opposing team to get out in transition. Milwaukee had 35 turnovers in the last two games, despite averaging just 13.2 turnovers per game in the regular season. What makes this issue even worse is that the turnovers are coming from players you would expect to be making smarter plays. Giannis had seven turnovers in Game 4, and Monroe followed suit with four of his own in the next game. The Bucks have failed to put up over 20 points in the first quarter since Game 4, and turnovers have been a huge part of that.
Next, free throws have not only been hard to come by for Milwaukee, but when they do get to the line they fail to convert. There is no doubt that in the NBA, star players get the benefit of the doubt when it comes to foul calls. DeRozen and Lowry are established All-Stars in this league, and if there is any controversy over whether or not they were fouled, odds are they will end up at the free-throw line. They also convert at the line. In the last two games, the Raptors are 40-43 from the line, while the Bucks are just 26-44. Antetokounmpo is just 18-33 from the free throw line, while DeMar DeRozen is 38-41. The ability to get to the free-throw line and convert is what separates young talent from an established star in this league, and it’s a major reason why Toronto has been able to come back in this series.
Finally, the Bucks have struggled to take advantage of matchups in their favor, and have had trouble stopping Toronto from taking advantage of favorable matchups. For example, in Game 5, Milwaukee scored three consecutive buckets in the first quarter by getting Monroe the ball on the block. However, none of the ensuing possessions to finish out the quarter included getting Monroe the ball in post, and as a result, the Raptors finished with an 11-point lead heading into the second quarter. This had nothing to do with the Raptors double teaming Monroe in the post, or denying the ball, the Bucks just failed to recognize a mismatch. On the other side of the ball, the Bucks initially attempted to double team DeRozen to take away his mid-range jump shot. He effectively recognized this scheme and connected with teammates to hit two open threes. After the Bucks stopped doubling DeRozen, he would work in the post until he found a matchup he could take advantage of, and then managed to hit multiple fade-away shots from his go-to spot.
While Milwaukee may not have many isolation players to turn to outside of Middleton and Monroe in the post, they need to look for better ways to get their best players involved in the game.
Malcolm Brogdon and Thon Maker have made great plays throughout the series, however, they have both made plenty of rookie mistakes. Brogdon had five fouls in Game 5, three of which ended up being and-one plays for Toronto, as Brogdon was simply out of position or failed to prevent the opposing player from getting a shot up. Maker has had his own issues with fouls, but most notably, he has struggled with his jump shot. He has shot just 5-14 from the field in the last two games, including an 0-5 stretch from the three-point line. If Maker is going to play big minutes in the biggest games of Milwaukee’s season, he will have to be held accountable for missing shots just like any other player would be.
Overall, Milwaukee’s youth provides both hope for the future and dismay for the present. Even if the Bucks fail to come back in this series, the experience they have gained on how to win in the playoffs will come in handy for years to come.