By Harry Awurumibe with agency reports.
The National Basketball Association (NBA) in the United States of America has always provided excitements and true to its billing, the Eastern Conference finals have become a best-of-three series.
After Game 2, the Milwaukee Bucks looked like the best team in basketball. Now, their second two-game losing streak of the season has brought their first taste of playoff adversity. The Toronto Raptors, meanwhile, are very much alive after coming just a possession or two from a 3-0 deficit just a few days ago. They’ve led for 61 percent of the minutes in this series and their complete victory in Game 4 — execution on both ends of the floor, contributions from the entire rotation — sets up a huge Game 5 back in Milwaukee on Thursday.
Have the Raptors found their mojo? Do the Bucks need to change things up? Here are some numbers of note with the series even at two games apiece.
Game 4 was the Bucks’ worst defensive game (120 points allowed on 96 possessions) of the postseason, and that was the focus of head coach Mike Budenholzer’s frustration Tuesday night. The league’s No. 1 defense simply can’t have the same kinds of breakdowns going forward.
But the more consistent issues for the Bucks have come on the other end of the floor, where, over the two games in Toronto, they scored less than a point per possession.
Before Game 3, it was noted that the Bucks had been been beating the Raptors in the pace battle. And even with Toronto playing much better in Games 3 and 4, Milwaukee has still scored 30 more points (82-52) on field goals in the first six seconds of the shot clock.
Of course, the counter to that is that the Raptors have been the better team in the half-court. When Milwaukee hasn’t scored in transition, offense has been a struggle. And its in their numbers from beyond the arc where their half-court issues have showed up. In the first 12 seconds of the shot clock, the Bucks have shot 34-for-96 (35 percent) from 3-point range. In the last 12 seconds of the shot clock, they’ve shot just 15-for-68 (22 percent) from 3-point range.
Credit the Toronto defense, which has been terrific in its ability to show help on Giannis Antetokounmpo and recover out to the Bucks’ shooters. Giving Kawhi Leonard the Antetokounmpo assignment for Games 3 and 4 has certainly had an effect. The Bucks have scored just 86 points on the 94 possessions (with Antetokounmpo shooting 7-for-23) that the Raptors’ star has been guarding his Milwaukee counterpart.
In the first half of Game 3, Toronto’s inability to match up in transition led to four Milwaukee 3s in the first six seconds of the shot clock. In the 82 minutes of game time since then, the Bucks have made just one 3 in the first six seconds of the clock.
It’s probably not a coincidence that Game 4 was both the slowest-paced game (each team had the ball just 96 times) and the Raptors’ best game of the series. If Toronto can continue to avoid live-ball turnovers, execute offensively and match up in transition, the Bucks will need to find some more offense late in the clock.
What must Milwaukee to better in Game 5?
Back to the old lineup?
Improved offense could come with a lineup change. Budenholzer has made no indication that he’s ready to change things up, but there’s both a reason and a convenient excuse to have Malcolm Brogdon start Game 5.
The reason? The Bucks’ starting lineup has been outscored by nine points in 41 minutes in this series, having scored just 90 points on its 93 offensive possessions.
Nikola Mirotic (6-for-28 from 3-point range in the series) hasn’t been the worst shooter in the starting lineup. That would be Eric Bledsoe, who is 11-for-45, including 2-for-19 from 3-point range, over the four games. But while Mirotic is always an effective floor spacer (because he’s always a threat to shoot out to 28 feet), Brogdon is a more dynamic offensive player.
As a fourth ball-handler in the lineup, Brogdon could push the ball into more transition opportunities. And in the half-court, he would be more successful in attacking Toronto’s close-outs. He has averaged almost four times as many drives per 36 minutes (12.7) as Mirotic (3.5).
So far in this series, the Milwaukee offense has been at its best, scoring 113.4 points per 100 possessions, with Brogdon on the floor. He has the best plus-minutes in the series, with the Bucks having outscored the Raptors by 26 points in his 116 minutes. Mirotic has the worst plus-minus in the series (by a wide margin), with the Raptors having outscored the Bucks by 26 points in his 102 minutes.
Swapping Brogdon for Mirotic is just a return to the Bucks’ old starting lineup, which played 597 minutes together in the regular season. It wasn’t the most dominant lineup in the league — its mark of plus-6.2 points per 100 possessions ranked 19th among 40 lineups that played at least 200 minutes together — but it’s a plus-10 in just 10 minutes in this series.
The Bucks are 10-3 in these playoffs, but they’ve lost the first quarter in eight of their last 10 games. A lineup change probably couldn’t hurt.
Fixing the glass
In Games 1 and 2, the Bucks outscored Toronto, 41-21, on second chance points. In Games 3 and 4, second-chance points were even at 26 for each team.
The Raptors were able to fix their rebounding issues without going to their big lineup. Playing Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol together helped them rebound better in the Philadelphia series, but the two bigs played just 10 minutes together in Games 3 and 4. In total, Ibaka and Gasol have played 22 minutes together in the conference finals after playing 77 minutes together over the last four games of the Philly series.
Among the Raptors’ eight rotation guys, their defensive rebounding percentage has been highest (they’ve grabbed 74.5 percent of available defensive boards) with Norman Powell on the floor.
The Raptors were obviously the more desperate team in Games 3 and 4. Now both teams are two games from The Finals and two games from the end of their season. That should make for an intense Game 5.