Giannis-Middleton Combo A Problem For Raptors, Who No-Showed Another Big Game

This article originally appeared on VICE Sports Canada.

Entering their first-round playoff series, the Milwaukee Bucks presented the Toronto Raptors with some difficult strategic problems. Blessed with an obscene amount of length and deploying an aggressive, oft-frustrating style of defense, the upstart Bucks would force the Raptors to do some things they were uncomfortable with on offense and stretch the limits of their transition defense. The Raptors, though, were the more experienced team, and even after taking a Game 1 punch in the mouth, they believed it would help them take back control of the series before long.

Not even Ron Howard’s voice could do justice to the degree with which they have not.

On Thursday, the Raptors turned in one of the worst performances in franchise history, wilting after just a few minutes, falling behind 20 points in the first quarter, and ultimately losing 104-77 to put themselves in a 2-1 series hole that teams only pull themselves out of about 20 percent of the time, historically (the numbers are a little better, but still troublesome, for higher-seeded teams getting down).

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Forget the tactical elements of the series for a second, because at a certain point, that didn’t matter: The Raptors got punked, completely lacking energy out of the gate and the usual constitution to fight back that’s defined this team for years now. There was none of what helped them come back from a pair of 0-1 deficits a year ago, none of what’s made them the league-leader in double-digit comebacks for two years running, and none of what’s made them maybe the best within-game “flip the switch” team in basketball. It was inexcusable in a game this big, and head coach Dwane Casey’s postgame evaluation that the team got “ambushed” holds no water after two days of hearing the Raptors say they knew that this was coming.

“They kicked our ass,” P.J. Tucker said. “They kicked our ass, period. They came out and played harder, more aggressive, they did everything they wanted to do. They kicked our ass.”

Every Raptors fan during Game 3. Photo by Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

That’s about as good an explanation as anyone is going to get. The issue with a 27-point loss is that the team’s rendered with really only a half or so of useful game tape and information with which to improve, and so a lot of the talk between now and Saturday’s 3 PM tip-off will likely be about energy and force, and other things that can’t be quantified or even practiced. It’s fine to believe in the Raptors’ ability to bounce back—they didn’t put themselves in a 1-2 hole in the first two rounds last year, by the way—there’s just no way to know if it’s coming until the ball’s rolled in.

Even the eternal optimist (or pessimist) would struggle for a good explanation as to why the Raptors completely no-showed a crucial playoff game, and so expecting them not to do so again is an exercise in faith.

“There’s none,” Casey said. “It starts with us, myself as a coach as far as having them ready to play in a hostile environment. They ambushed us, and there’s no aspect of our game that we executed whatsoever.”

Casey is promising changes. The Raptors started the second half with Cory Joseph in place of Jonas Valanciunas, looking to improve ball-handling and spacing but making a fairly significant trade-off in terms of size. The Raptors should look elsewhere for the change they need, possibly sliding Serge Ibaka to center to get another strong, multi-position defender (Tucker or Patrick Patterson, or both) on the floor opposite Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton.

It’s those two Bucks who have caused the most problems, with Antetokounmpo’s impact extending far beyond his box score line as a looming defensive presence, as a spacer cutting around the floor or working as a decoy, and as a general nuisance in transition. Middleton has outplayed both of Toronto’s All-Stars in his secondary role, taking advantage of size mismatches in the post, torching the Raptors on cuts, and making the most of the attention going toward Antetokounmpo. They’re a completely different duo in terms of playing styles and matchup issues, but the Bucks are treating Toronto’s defensive attention the way the Raptors talked up doing the same at the other end.

“We’re not gonna live and die by the 3, but the intent of getting the ball in the paint and finding an open guy, sharing the ball, it’s fun to watch,” Bucks head coach Jason Kidd said. “You can’t just lock in one guy. If Giannis is gonna have three guys, that means someone’s open.”

The Raptors have turned the Bucks’ aggression against them at times. DeMar DeRozan was masterful in the first half of Game 1, and both he and Kyle Lowry navigated traps and blitzes well in Game 2, save for a few shaky stretches that—shocker—opened the door for the Bucks to come back. Milwaukee didn’t fundamentally change its approach Thursday, but the Raptors’ shooters went cold again and their stars really struggled to move the ball, running themselves into the sideline and a wall of arms rather than getting to the middle of the floor or hitting the release valve.

The faces you make when you’re down 20-plus. Photo by Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

“We did it from Game 1 to Game 2 so it’s possible,” Casey said. “The key that we have to do is we have to make sure we pass the basketball. I don’t even know how many assists we had tonight. We go from 24 to whatever we had tonight, and that’s where it starts.”

They had 11, and they only had four secondary assists on top of those. They only tallied 33 potential assists in total. Those numbers are down from 24, 11, and 41 in Game 2 despite the team making slightly more passes in total, and the Raptors are now somehow averaging a worse assist-to-pass percentage (6.1) than in the regular season (6.7), a mark that would have ranked dead last during the year. Their assist percentage is down slightly, too. All of this is to say, the Raptors have looked at their biggest weakness and the key to beating Milwaukee’s defense and, on the whole, ignored it.

It’s not just that a lack of passing creates fewer open threes and is less aesthetically pleasing, it’s that it makes things much more difficult when the team’s stars do look to create. DeRozan was held without a field goal for the first time ever in a playoff game and the first time in any game since January 2015 (against the Bucks, go figure). Toronto’s offense was shaky enough to even draw out a bit of Dark Giannis in the postgame presser.

“DeRozan scored only eight points,” a bemused Antetokounmpo said, wrinkling his forehead a little as he read from the box score. “And it was just free throws.”

In a game you lose by 27 points, the nice thing, I guess, is that there is no shortage of things you can do better next time out. Antetokounmpo has to be better accounted for off the ball and in the open floor (and when you’re dunking, Norman Powell). A starting lineup change feels inevitable. Lowry and DeRozan almost can’t be worse, no matter what the playoff track record suggests. Coming off one of the worst losses in team history (this is their fifth-worst playoff defeat by net rating, and they didn’t win any of the series with uglier scores), there’s almost nowhere to go but up.

“Use it as motivation,” DeRozan said of the beatdown.

They shouldn’t need motivation in a playoff series, their sixth in four years. Games like this aren’t exactly what veteran, playoff-tested teams are supposed to do. And in no-showing two of the first three games, they’ve pressed their backs firmly against the walls.

“We got our ass busted,” a nonplussed Lowry said leaning back at the podium. “We ain’t got no choice. We gotta win. Saturday’s a must-win.”

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