Toronto Raptors Defeat Milwaukee Bucks, Advance to Second Round

TORONTO, ON - FEBRUARY 15 - Toronto Raptors guard Norman Powell (24) heads to the net in the 1st quarter as the Toronto Raptors host the Charlotte Hornets at Air Canada Centre. February 15, 2017. (Carlos Osorio/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

The Toronto Raptors defeated the Milwaukee Bucks 4-2 in their best-of-seven first-round series. The win gives the Raptors their franchise’s first victory in a series that didn’t go the distance. Let’s take a look at how Toronto was able to turn it around and win three straight games to close out the series.

Toronto Raptors Defeat Milwaukee Bucks, Advance to Second Round

After a 27-point victory over the third-seeded Toronto Raptors in Game Three, the Milwaukee Bucks seemed optimistic about their chances of an upset. They held Toronto to 33.8 percent shooting, and all was well for Milwaukee on the offensive end, with six Bucks scoring in double-figures. Milwaukee had a 2-1 series, with momentum in its corner. What could go wrong for the up-and-coming Bucks?

Numerous Raptors were understandably irate following the loss. The mounting frustration led to “a heated film session between coaches and players” following Game Three, according to swingman DeMarre Carroll.

Whatever was said in that meeting paid off. Toronto’s coaching staff made lineup changes ahead of Game Four, inserting Norman Powell into the starting lineup and moving Jonas Valanciunas to the bench. After three straight wins, it’s safe to say that both Powell and Valanciunas adapted to their new roles seamlessly.

Let’s start with Powell.

The Ultimate X-Factor

I wrote in my series preview how Serge Ibaka was the biggest X-factor going into the Bucks-Raptors series. Shame on me for not even mentioning Powell. Can you blame me, though?

Powell had started just 18 games during the regular season, never cementing himself as a regular in head coach Dwane Casey‘s rotation. Powell did have some playoff experience from last season, starting three games during Toronto’s run to the Eastern Conference Finals. Since the arrival of P.J. Tucker from Phoenix, though, Powell’s minutes decreased. His role ahead of the playoffs was unclear. Before Game Four, he played just five minutes in the series (all in Game One).

Given the Raptors offensive struggles in Game Three, Casey inserted Powell into the starting lineup hoping he’d bolster the team’s shooting. That decision worked even better than Casey could have expected.

In three starts, Powell knocked down all nine shots he attempted from long-range. He even led the Raptors with 25 points in their Game Five win. Powell also played solid perimeter defence on his main assignment, Khris Middleton, holding Middleton to just 38 percent shooting in the three games Powell started.

Without Powell’s energy on both ends, the Raptors could certainly have lost this series.

JV Leading the Bench Unit

In hindsight, Casey’s second lineup change also worked out well. Valanciunas shot 37.5 percent from the field while being covered by Bucks starting centre Thon Maker in the first three games. Coming off the bench allowed the Lithuanian big man to get better looks against Greg Monroe, a defensive liability. Valanciunas shot a respectable 62.5 percent in Games Four through Six. His ability to lead the second unit allowed the Raptors to sustain themselves offensively when two out of the trio of DeMar DeRozan, Kyle Lowry, and Ibaka were off the floor.

It will be interesting to see whether Casey elects to bring Valanciunas off the bench against the Cleveland Cavaliers. My guess is that he’ll likely get the starting nod, in an effort to match up against Tristan Thompson. If he isn’t effective as the series progresses, look for Valanciunas to return to the bench. That could spell trouble, though, since Valanciunas may have to guard stretch five Channing Frye on the perimeter.

What Went Wrong for the Bucks

As they say, a zebra can’t change its stripes. That was the case for Milwaukee’s defence in this series.

By Game Five, the Raptors figured out that ball movement was the kryptonite to an aggressive Bucks defence. Milwaukee emphasized trapping DeRozan and Lowry, forcing them to take tough shots or to pass out to teammates. For awhile, it worked the way they planned. Eventually, though, Toronto’s backcourt figured out that finding the open man with bullet passes was the way to counter Milwaukee’s athletic, swarming defence.

Aside from Giannis Antetokounmpo (24.8 PPG, 9.7 RPG, and 4.0 APG in the series), no player on the Bucks was consistent enough offensively. (A side note: Marks my words, Antetokounmpo will be an MVP in this league before the age of 26. It will be scary for the rest of the NBA to see how he develops, especially if he can knock down his jumper consistently.)

Middleton had impressive outings, but his consistency evaded him in Games One, Four, and Five. The lack of a reliable second option forced Antetokounmpo to carry the Bucks a little more than he would have liked.

Malcolm Brogdon was one of the many other inconsistent Bucks. After hitting four three-pointers in Game One and finishing with 16 points, Brogdon became invisible. He finished with 13 points in the next three games combined. While his shot briefly returned in Game Five (19 points), it went away again in Game Six, when the Bucks needed it most.

It’s hard to knock Brogdon too much, though. He just finished his rookie season, showing plenty of promise as an offensive threat with consistently solid defense. Brogdon’s future is looking bright.

With an abundance of young talent, the Bucks will be a contender for years to come. Taking the Raptors to six games is no easy task, especially for a team with very little playoff experience. Considering that Jabari Parker – one of Milwaukee’s three best players – was out for the playoffs, Bucks fans should be holding their heads high.

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