While the regular season is a grueling slog that forces teams to think big picture, the NBA playoffs are a different beast. Each game becomes a chess match, where little strategic nuances can be the difference between success and failure. In these previews, we’ll take a look at one intriguing tactical quandary facing each team.
- What’s the best way to use Giannis in this series?
After a sterling regular season, fans across the league likely can’t wait to see what Giannis Antetokounmpo with the playoff spotlight on him. Unfortunately for the Greek Freak, Toronto rejiggered their roster at the trade deadline with an eye on LeBron James -- making them well suited for the task of stopping the Bucks emerging megastar.
Just like James, Antetokounmpo gets his points in a myriad of ways. Some of those -- like transition pushes and random garbage buckets around the rim -- the Raptors will struggle to stop because, well, the dude is a freak. But two key scoring actions could prove problematic for Giannis as he attempts to propel his team into the next round of the playoffs.
Outside of his transition forays, Antetokounmpo’s most frequent method of attacking an opposing defense (pick-and-rolls) and most successful (post ups) will likely be exposed by this Toronto team. When it comes to pick-and-rolls, expect the Raptors to give him the LeBron treatment. Like the Spurs famously did to James in the Finals, Giannis will see his defender sneak under every screen and the paint generally be walled off -- limiting his playmaking and forcing the athletic finisher to rely on his shaky jumper. With his output already somewhat middling in that action (he ranked in just the 54th percentile per Synergy), Giannis and the Bucks could find pick-and-rolls involving him as the ballhandler rather fruitless.
When it comes to post ups, the still-evolving Antetokounmpo is at his best usually bullying opponents physically unequipped to handle him on the block. Thanks to the addition of PJ Tucker, the Raptors have a player capable of physically bothering Antetokounmpo on the block. Post ups against Tucker this season have resulted in a miniscule return -- just a shade under 0.80 points per possession -- something that Toronto would happily live with.
With those two options looking to produce a poor return on investment for Milwaukee, they need to get creative and rely a bit more on Giannis….as a roll man.
Antetokounmpo just so happens to be the best roll man on the Bucks, producing 1.43 PPP in 67 of those situations, per Synergy data. On top of that output, getting Giannis a few easy buckets as the roll man could force Toronto into changing their defensive. If the Raptors counter by switching out those pick-and-rolls, it will allow Antetokounmpo chances for post ups versus smaller defenders (like Cory Joseph, Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan, etc) -- a much better proposition than straight up attacking Tucker, Demarre Carroll or maybe even Serge Ibaka on the block.
If Milwaukee is to push Toronto in this series, they need to look into unleashing the Greek Freak in a less conventional way.
- How much Jonas is too much Jonas?
When Milwaukee shifted Thon Maker into the starting lineup, they committed to a smaller, faster lineup whose speed and length can cause opponents all kinds of problems (during the sometimes limited minutes Maker is in). Because of the presence of Maker, along with Spencer Hawes, in the Bucks' center rotation, the Raptors might be tempted to rely a bit more on Jonas Valanciunas than normal.
It’s a classic debate of whether it’s better to attack an opponent’s weakness versus playing to your own team’s strengths, which, for Toronto, is obviously having having Lowry and DeRozan control the possessions. But for the time that Hawes and Maker enter the game, playing through Valanciunas is something the team should consider.
For starters, Valanciunas produces a respectable .948 PPP on what Synergy calls “derived offense” out of post ups (meaning both passes out and shots). And that number is weighed down by his more middling scoring efficiency -- something won’t come into play with how the Bucks defend. When Maker is in, Milwaukee will ask him to front the post (trying to prevent the ball from even coming in) and likely double hard should Valanciunas catch in a good position. And though it’s taken some time, the Raptors big man has gotten a lot better at making simple plays out of the post:
The next level of this approach is that Milwaukee’s best post defender -- and worst pick-and-roll defender -- is Greg Monroe. Should Toronto relentlessly attack Maker and Hawes with Valanciunas post ups, it could make Milwaukee respond by using more Monroe. Then once Monroe is in the game, Lowry and DeRozan can pick-and-roll him to death, putting the Bucks in a no-win situation.
When perfectly executed, this type of gameplan certainly makes a lot of sense. But obviously theory and reality aren’t the same thing. Straying from their bell cows could also just be Toronto outsmarting themselves by consciously going to a statistically worse option. That said, it’s an interesting approach that could help the Raptors quickly close out the Bucks in this series.