The first round of the NBA playoffs is not generally the same upset-filled craziness that is the opening weekend of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament. That said, this year seems to be much more unpredictable. Two road teams stole home-court advantage from the higher seeds on the first day of the postseason. The Utah Jazz beat the Los Angeles Clippers on a last-second tear drop from Joe Johnson, and the Milwaukee Bucks defeated the Toronto Raptors behind their defensive length on the perimeter. The key to that Bucks victory was the versatility of their rookie big man Thon Maker, who was causing all kinds of havoc on the defensive end.
Yesterday Was A Glimpse Of His Potential
On paper, most casual fans don’t see a huge x-factor in the rookie Maker. He played just under ten minutes per contest in only 57 games, with averages of 4.0 points and 2.0 rebounds (per Basketball Reference). Those are the flashiest numbers in the world, and he has a long way to go in terms of becoming more polished with his all-around offensive skill set. When the Bucks selected him in the 2016 NBA draft, it was about looking into the future. He has an extremely high ceiling as potentially an All-Star two-way forward in this league.
What Maker has already displayed in his rookie campaign is the ability to hit from deep. He shot 37.8% from three point range this season, which is a good sign for a guy who is 7-foot-1. A considerable amount of his shot attempts were three-balls, 40.9% in fact. That’s why his true shooting rate was 55.8%; he wasn’t just dunking the basketball. Let’s not say he can’t do that, though. Maker is more than capable of getting putback jams as well.
He is just another huge presence on the inside for this Bucks basketball team, who ranked third in the NBA in paint points per game (according to teamrankings.com). His post-game needs work, but the threat of Maker’s three point shot is going to be difficult for Toronto’s bigs in this series.
Small Ball Mismatch
At only 20 years old, Maker has already shown he can be an elite defender in the NBA. While he is a true seven footer, although a skinny one, he can hold his own inside the paint and also in screen-and-roll switch outs. With a tremendous defender already on the floor for the Bucks in Giannis Antetokounmpo, in addition to Khris Middleton on the wing, Maker is simply another freakishly long big man that Milwaukee can deploy defensively against Toronto. He had a steal on a great play in getting in front of an entrance pass to Raptors center Jonas Valanciunas, and also had three impressive blocks.
Valanciunas is going to have his hands full with the Bucks plethora of rim protection and swarming defense, especially from the rookie and Antetokounmpo. CBS Sports Writer James Herbert gave a quality synopsis of how the 15 minutes Maker was on the floor yesterday was likely the difference in the game.
The Raptors were ice cold in the second half of Game 1, as the Bucks had them searching for answers with their defensive length. Milwaukee completely shut down Toronto star Kyle Lowry, who had only 4 points and was 0-for-6 from three point range. He had a plus/minus of -22 for the game (per nba.com). NBA.com staff writer John Schuhmann broke down how Maker and the Bucks bigs completely changed the complexion of the game in the second half, and how the Raptors can’t seem to win Game 1’s.
Maker wasn’t the only one playing defense for the Bucks, but his minutes were crucial, as he had a net rating of 21.0 (per nba.com) because of his energy that led to transition opportunities for Milwaukee. Here’s a brief glimpse of how Maker’s two-way expertise impacted a guy against the Jazz earlier in the year. This game was similar.
It’s not just the defensive end. Although Maker didn’t score a ton, he was efficient with his shooting in Game 1. He hit both of his field goals, and it’s the threat of his perimeter shot that makes him difficult for Toronto to match up with in the series. Their bigs are too slow for him off the dribble, and his three point threat can drag shot blocker Serge Ibaka away from the rim. He’s a quintessential stretch-four.
That opens up driving lanes for Antetokounmpo and Middleton, who are both mismatches on the wing in their own right. The “Greek Freak” had 28 points on 72.2% shooting, and although he didn’t shoot well, Middleton was creating for others. He had nine assists and a plus/minus of +27. It’s ultimately matchup problems like Maker that can be the difference in a series, and it’s up to Toronto’s coaching staff to come up with creative ways to neutralize him or come up with a mismatch of their own in small-ball situations.