Building off of last season’s Eastern Conference Finals appearance, the Toronto Raptors finished off their second consecutive 50-win season on Wednesday night. The Raptors added depth at the deadline in Serge Ibaka and P.J. Tucker, two rotation pieces who have been crucial for the team post-All Star break. With a revamped rotation, Toronto has high hopes this postseason, especially with the apparent vulnerability of the Cleveland Cavaliers. Before getting ahead of themselves, though, the Raptors will have to get past the feisty Milwaukee Bucks. Let’s take a look at the #3 vs. #6 match-up in the East.
Toronto Raptors vs Milwaukee Bucks Series Preview
Toronto won the season series against Milwaukee, 3-1. In four games, the Raptors allowed the Bucks to score over 100 points just once, and they barely surpassed that total. In the game they did, the Bucks scored 101 in a two-point win on March 4. It’s important to note that Raptors point guard Kyle Lowry was out of the lineup for that contest due to a wrist injury.
Toronto shot the ball well against Milwaukee, converting 47 percent and 44 percent on field goals and three-pointers, respectively. Meanwhile, the Raps held the Bucks to 28 percent from beyond the arc over their four contests, nine percentage points down from their season average.
Despite the Bucks’ ample supply of agile defenders capable of switching across multiple positions, Toronto edges Milwaukee defensively. Toronto ranks 8th in defensive rating at 104.9, meaning that the team allows that point total per 100 possessions. Contrarily, Milwaukee ranks 19th at 106.4.
Despite the statistical advantages in Toronto’s favor, regular season numbers aren’t necessarily indicative of what the playoffs can bring, especially with defense intensifying in the postseason. The Raptors, in particular, have had issues scoring efficiently in past playoff runs, due to their lack of ball movement on the offensive end. Only time will tell whether that problem re-emerges. It certainly could, given Toronto’s measly 18.5 assists per game, which ranks last in the association.
Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan
The Raptors’ backcourt duo of Lowry and DeMar DeRozan was, for the most part, successful against the Bucks this season. Lowry averaged 23 points in three meetings against Milwaukee, while DeRozan averaged 22.3 (well below his scoring average this season). They each missed one game due to injury. That being said, the duo has had underwhelming first-round performances so far in their playoff careers. Lowry and DeRozan will have to shed the stigma surrounding their poor playoff performances if the Raptors hope to advance to the Eastern Conference Finals once again. Both Lowry and DeRozan know that the team will only go as far as they can take them. Another year of experience could help the duo perform more efficiently in the first round.
Ibaka is the X-factor for Toronto in this series, particularly offensively. Raptors fans know what to expect from Ibaka on the defensive end of the court, but the big man’s offensive skills could provide the biggest boost. Since joining Toronto, Ibaka has averaged 14.2 points per game while shooting 40 percent from long range. His ability to stretch the floor is crucial, especially if DeRozan and Lowry are having off nights. Ibaka’s size also lends kindly to thwarting the Bucks’ defensive schemes, since they have a bunch of long-limbed defenders on the perimeter.
Speaking of long-limbed defenders, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton have been at the forefront of Milwaukee’s resurgence into a playoff team. The Bucks increased their win total from last season by nine, and it’s been in large part because of Antetokounmpo. The “Greek Freak” averaged 23 points, 8.7 rebounds, and 5.4 assists per game in the regular season. He’s been just as big a force on the defensive end, averaging 1.9 blocks and 1.6 steals. In doing so, Antetokounmpo became the only player in NBA history to rank in the top 20 in all five of those statistical categories over a full season. Antetokounmpo’s emergence coupled with Middleton’s three-point stroke (43.3 percent 3PT FG) and strong defense makes the Bucks a deadly playoff threat.
As mentioned earlier, Milwaukee’s defenders excel at switching seamlessly between match-ups. That could pose problems for the Raptors, especially DeRozan. In the Bucks-Raptors meeting on March 4, DeRozan was limited to 11 points, his second-lowest scoring output of the season.
Toronto has never swept a team in the playoffs, so expect this series to go five or six games. The Raptors are certainly the favorites as the third seed, but it won’t be easy for them, especially if DeRozan is neutralized on offense.
Game One gets underway from the Air Canada Centre on Saturday, April 15th, at 5:30 p.m. EST.