NBA Playoffs Preview: Raptors vs. Bucks
Last year, the Toronto Raptors went from having never won a seven-game playoff series in the history of the franchise to facing off with the Cleveland Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference Finals, pushing the eventual champs to six games. In the process, they managed to exorcise the playoff demons that had haunted them for the better part of their 22 seasons of existence, but now expectations are a little higher heading into the 2017 postseason.
The Cavaliers are still the prohibitive favorites to win the East and make a third consecutive trip to the NBA Finals, but suddenly the Raptors -- and Boston Celtics -- are rubbing elbows with them.
Cleveland has struggled since the All-Star break while the Raptors have tightened up their defense thanks to the trade deadline acquisitions of Serge Ibaka and P.J. Tucker. Now that Kyle Lowry is reunited with All-Star DeMar DeRozan -- after Lowry missed 21 games due to wrist surgery -- the Raptors look like a complete package.
In fact, our algorithms give them the third-best chance of winning this year's NBA title (and the best shot in the East) with championship odds of 9.6%, trailing only the Golden State Warriors (39.3%) and San Antonio Spurs (19.5%).
In the first round, they'll get the Milwaukee Bucks and budding superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo. The 42-40 Bucks don't seem like much of a threat at first glance, but they have been one of the hottest teams of the backend of the season, going 20-11 since Khris Middleton returned to the lineup in early February after having missed the first 50 games of the season due to hamstring surgery.
While the Raptors will be favored in this series, the Bucks are peaking at exactly the right time and could give the Raps some trouble. Will Toronto take care of Milwaukee in short order, or do the Bucks have the potential to push the Raptors to six or seven games or maybe even win this thing?
Let's find out.
Toronto Raptors (3)
Championship Odds: 9.6%
Milwaukee Bucks (6)
Championship Odds: 0.7%
Regular Season Series - Raptors 3, Bucks 1
The Raptors won three of four in the season series against the Bucks by an average of 14.7 points per win. They dropped the most recent contest between the two teams on March 4th, however, by a score of 101-94.
An important trend to note from the series is that the Raptors were able to hold the Bucks to 28.2% shooting from long range over those four games, as compared to their 37.0% mark on the season as a whole (10th in the Association). The Raptors, meanwhile, shot a blistering 43.7% from long range, as compared to their 36.3% mark (13th) on the year.
Giannis Antetokounmpo stood out for Milwaukee, averaging 24.8 points (on 58.8% shooting from the field), 7.8 rebounds, 7.0 assists, 1.3 steals, and 1.0 block per contest over the four games. For Toronto, DeMar DeRozan averaged 22.3 points per game on 50.0% shooting from the field and 92.3% from the free throw line, and Lowry averaged 23.0 points, 3.7 rebounds, and 6.3 assists per contest while shooting a blistering 50.0% from the field, 52.4% from long range, and 84.2% from the line.
Of course, the season series between these two teams is not entirely indicative of what we can expect from this matchup, as we never got a single matchup between them with the rosters that they'll use in Game 1 on Saturday.
Over the first three contests, the Bucks were without Khris Middleton (and Jabari Parker was still in the lineup, pre-ACL tear), and the Raptors hadn't yet traded for Ibaka and Tucker. In the fourth and most recent contest, the Raptors were without Lowry.
This weekend, it'll be all hands on deck for both teams (minus Parker for the Bucks), and we'll see how they really measure up.
How the Raptors Can Win
The Raptors have the sixth-ranked offense in the NBA with an offensive rating of 109.8 points scored per 100 possessions and the eighth-ranked defense with a defensive rating of 104.9. They join the Warriors and Spurs as one of only three teams in the NBA to place in the top-eight in both categories, and they subsequently have the fourth-best net rating in the league (and best in the Eastern Conference) at 4.9.
In other words, for the Raptors to win, they'll just need to be the Raptors.
This team was the fourth-ranked offense prior to the All-Star break, when Lowry was healthy, and it was the fourth-ranked defense after the break, following the masterstroke acquisitions of Ibaka and Tucker. We've only seen three games with the team at full strength post-deadline (all wins), so there might still be some kinks to work out overall, but this squad has the potential to be a juggernaut on both ends of the floor if everything comes together.
Regardless, the Raptors are one of the best teams in the league, and the Bucks simply are not. Lowry and DeRozan both struggled during last year's postseason, but if they can play at anything close to their regular-season levels -- during which they both had career years -- this series will be Toronto's to lose.
Raptors Player to Watch - P.J. Tucker
Tucker has been a revelation for the Toronto Raptors.
Since Tucker joined the team at the trade deadline, the Raptors have had a net rating of 7.8 in the 609 minutes he's been on the floor, as opposed to their mark of 2.0 in his 596 minutes on the bench. That +5.8 on/off-court differential is the best on the team over that span, corroborating what the simple eye test will show anyone who is watching the Raptors: Tucker is making a massive impact.
He will hit the occasional timely three and grab more boards than most small forwards his size, but his biggest contributions will be on the defensive end. He's a tenacious defender who can guard multiple positions, and he will likely be tasked with shutting down Antetokounmpo during the game's most crucial moments. He might not fill up the box score in any given game, but his penchant for coming up with huge defensive stops or hustle plays in the clutch will make him stand out in this series, at times, more than the stars.
This will be the 31-year-old Tucker's first playoff appearance, so look for him to solidify his folk hero status in Toronto by making an immediate impact in this series.
How the Bucks Can Win
Milwaukee's chances begin and end with Giannis Antetokounmpo.
When it comes time for the playoffs and teams shorten their rotations, the squads that rise to the top tend to be those with the best individual player or players. With the huge leap from potential star to superstar that Giannis took this season, he has the potential to be the best player in this series.
According to our nERD metric -- which measures the total contribution of a player throughout the course of a season, based on efficiency -- Antetokounmpo is the most impactful player in this matchup with a nERD of 14.0 (11th in the NBA), as compared to Lowry at 11.3 (16th) and DeRozan at 8.4 (22nd). Toronto's depth trumps Milwaukee's by a long shot, but when it comes down to one-on-one matchups late in games, Giannis could swing one or two contests by himself.
Beyond that, a way that the Bucks could win this series is if the Raptors lose it. Last year, both Lowry and DeRozan had subpar postseason runs and had tougher-than-they-should-have-been battles with the Indiana Pacers and Miami Heat. The chances of both of those players struggling so mightily at the same time for a second year in a row are fairly slim, but it would give the Bucks the best chance of pulling off an upset if it happens.
Bucks Player to Watch - Khris Middleton
The Bucks' chances of winning the series may start and end with Antetokounmpo, but Middleton can still make a major impact as Milwaukee's X-factor second option.
As previously mentioned, the Bucks are 20-11 since Middleton's return this season after starting the year 22-28. Luckily for the Bucks, he never took much time rounding back into form. He's averaging 14.7 points, 4.2 rebounds, 3.4 assists, and 1.4 steals per contest since his return while shooting 45.0% from the field, 43.3% from three-point range, and 88.0% from the free throw line.
Most importantly, the Bucks have had a net rating of 6.0 in his 810 minutes of floor time since the All-Star break, as compared to the -10.6 they have registered in the 491 minutes he has sat on the bench over that span. That +16.6 on/off-court differential is by far the largest on the Bucks and perfectly illustrates how important it will be for the Raptors to keep Middleton in check in this series.
All roads to the NBA Finals in the Eastern Conference go through the Cavaliers, and more specifically LeBron James (whose team has been the East representative for six years running). That said, if you throw away anecdotal evidence and historical precedent for a minute and focus solely on the numbers, the team to beat in the conference is actually the Raptors.
They led the east in net rating (4.9) and average margin of victory (4.21) this season, while only falling two games short of the first-place Boston Celtics for the top spot in the conference. When you consider the fact that they did that this season with a major injury to Lowry, smaller nagging injuries to DeRozan and Patrick Patterson, and two separate midseason trades and a subsequent adjustment period for two guys who play heavy minutes in the team's rotation, it's not hard to imagine that this could have been the top team in the conference -- possibly by a wide margin -- if all the pieces had been in place the whole time.
Now, with the records being wiped clean for the playoffs, the Raptors look like the East's most complete team. The Cavaliers have LeBron, and both the Celtics and Washington Wizards have had their own hot streaks to earn their spots at the table, but the Raptors have two stars, depth at every position, and a strong level of efficiency on both ends of the floor.
Despite their poor second half, most will pick LeBron and the Cavs to come out of the conference, but our algorithms say the Raptors have the best chance of making the Finals at 29.54% -- while the Cavs (20.58%), Celtics (20.40%), and Wizards (10.54%) all trail behind.
All that is to say that the Raptors should have no trouble winning this series. The Bucks have Giannis and finished the year well, but the Raptors are a better team with bigger aspirations, plain and simple.
According to our algorithms: Raptors are 74.16% favorites.
My final prediction: Raptors in 5.