The NBA Playoffs are back. After last year’s historical upset of the 73-9 Golden State Warriors by the Cleveland Cavaliers, there is no knowing what is in store for this years playoffs. The Celtics stole the one-seed from Cleveland this season, San Antonio revamped their team and are sitting closely behind Golden State for number two out West, and after those teams, Houston (55,) Los Angeles (51,) Utah (51,) and Toronto (51) all won at least 50 games as well.
While the Raptors are one of these teams, they are also a team that won five less games than last season, and have a history of under-performing in the playoffs. Milwaukee, the Raptors first round opponent, on the other hand, has a history of exceeding expectations in the playoffs. Toronto, despite having home court advantage two seasons in a row in 2014 and 2015, lost their first round series. In 2015 especially, the NBA world was shocked to see the lower seeded Washington Wizards sweep the Raptors, winning each game by an average of 14.0 points.
In 2016, the Raptors finally overcame their inability to make it past the first round with a win over the Indiana Pacers, and they even made it to the Conference Finals where they had a somewhat competitive six game series with Cleveland, but they barely made it there. The core of Toronto hasn’t changed since that first 2014 Raptors team, yet Kyle Lowry and DeMar Derozan, the two best players on the team, have yet to prove they can play efficiently in the playoffs. During the team’s three playoff series last year, here were their percentages:
|2017 Regular Season||Kyle Lowry||0.464||0.412|
|2016 Regular Season||Kyle Lowry||0.427||0.388|
|2016 Post-season||Kyle Lowry||0.397||0.304|
|2015 Post-season||Kyle Lowry||0.314||0.190|
|2014 Post-season||Kyle Lowry||0.404||0.395|
The teams that the Raptors have been up against combine to be average on the defensive end. The 2015 Wizards and 2016 Pacers were good defensive teams. The 2014 Brooklyn Nets were bottom-ten in defensive efficiency, and the 2016 Miami Heat without Hassan Whiteside for the majority of the series are probably a bottom-five defense in the NBA. When Jason Kidd coached the Brooklyn Nets team that beat Toronto in 2014, he was able to do so with a below average defensive team and below average athletes. Now, Kidd has a Milwaukee Bucks team that has not only been the 8th best team since all-star break at 17-10 (near when Khris Middleton returned,) but has great perimeter athletes and defenders to throw at the Raptors back court.
Giannis’ length is going to give either Lowry or Derozan tremendous problems, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see either of them shoot under 35% for the series based on how they’ve already done in past series against less imposing defenders. Matthew Dellavedova has not been in conversation much since his 2015 Playoff heroics, but if he can outplay two-time MVP Stephen Curry over a multi-game series through tough defense, then he can certainly handle the more earthly Lowry or Derozan. Middleton and Tony Snell are just two more defenders at 6’7″ and 6’8″ who can give Toronto’s back court many problems.
Antetokounmpo is not only a highly athletic defender, but he is the best player in the series, which cannot be undervalued against Toronto. The largely underdog 2016 Pacers, who won 14 less games than Toronto that season, were able to use the best player in that series, Paul George, to push the series to seven games and almost win. George averaged 27.3 points, 7.6 rebounds, 4.3 assists, and 2.0 steals per game while shooting 41.9% from three, and Giannis had an even better season this season than George did last season:
|Giannis A.||Paul George|
Paul George was helpless too. No one else on Indiana averaged more than 13.6 points per game that series. Khris Middleton, Greg Monroe, and Malcolm Brogdon all averaged double digits this season, and the Bucks have ten players in all averaging above six points per game. The supporting cast for Giannis will be a problem in the long run, but it was largely able to be overcome by Paul George last season, and Giannis is even more unguardable.
Giannis already knows how to play against Toronto, he averaged 24.8 points, 7.8 rebounds, and 7.0 assists per game on 58.8% field goal shooting in the regular season. Even after Toronto acquired defensive-minded players Serge Ibaka and P.J. Tucker, Giannis still had 21 points, 10 rebounds, four assists, and shot 61.5% from the field en route to a seven point Bucks win. Granted, the Raptors didn’t have Lowry that night, but under no circumstances does that excuse 55 combined points from Middleton and Giannis on 17/27 shooting.
Simply put, Jason Kidd has beaten Toronto before in the same 3-6 seed match up as the underdog, Giannis beat Toronto the one game Milwaukee had Middleton this season, and Toronto has proven year in and year out to under perform in the playoffs. It would not shock me at all to see the 17-10 Bucks team since all-star break with the best player in this series to “upset” the chronic under-performers.