If these five things happen (or most of them, at least), the Bucks may just beat the Raptors.
1. Giannis asserts himself as the best player in the series.
You could make the case that the team with the best player (meaning the player who performed the best in that particular series) won 13 of the 15 playoff series last season. Something similar happens during many postseasons.
Spurs (Leonard) over Grizzlies (Stephenson)
Blazers (Lillard) over Clippers (Jordan)
Thunder (Westbrook) over Mavericks (Nowitzki)
Warriors (Thompson) over Rockets (Harden)
*Raptors (Valanciunas) over Pacers (George)
Heat (Wade) over Hornets (Walker)
Cavaliers (James) over Pistons (Drummond)
Hawks (Millsap) over Celtics (Thomas)
Thunder (Durant) over Spurs (Aldridge)
Warriors (Curry) over Blazers (Lillard)
*Raptors (Lowry) over Heat (Wade)
Cavaliers (James) over Hawks (Millsap)
Warriors (Curry) over Thunder (Durant)
Cavaliers (James) over Raptors (DeRozan)
Cavaliers (James) over Warriors (Green)
Coincidentally, the Raptors were both of the exceptions last year. In the first round, they snuck past the Pacers in the first round in seven games despite Paul George easily outplaying everyone on the Raptors. And in the second round, the Raptors beat the Heat in seven games as Dwyane Wade somehow continued hitting threes and generally playing like it was 2012.
So the bad news is that Raptors can eke out series wins even when Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan are misfiring. The good news is that doing so is the exception. Giannis will need lots of help to beat a deep Raptors team four times, but he should be the best player in the series, and if he is, that will be a good start.
2. The Bucks find an effective rotation.
When the Bucks were at their best, in March (when they went 14-4), they had settled on a few core lineups and rotations that suited them quite well. Notably, the Brogdon-Snell-Middleton-Antetokounmpo-Maker starting lineup debuted on March 3 in the season-tipping road win against the Clippers. Together, that starting lineup is 12-2.
The six most common five-man units accounted for nearly half of the team’s minutes overall during March, and each group posted a positive differential while on the floor.
Brogdon-Snell-Middleton-Antetokounmpo-Maker (119 minutes, +6 differential)
Brogdon-Snell-Middleton-Antetokounmpo-Monroe (67 minutes, +9 differential)
Dellavedova-Terry-Middleton-Teletovic-Monroe (66 minutes, +24 differential)
Dellavedova-Terry-Snell-Antetokounmpo-Monroe (55 minutes, +8 differential)
Dellavedova-Snell-Middleton-Antetokounmpo-Monroe (41 minutes, +4 differential)
Dellavedova-Snell-Middleton-Antetokounmpo-Maker (39 minutes, +24 differential)
Often, rotations are shortened to nine players (excluding garbage time) during the playoffs. When the Bucks made the playoffs two seasons ago, Jason Kidd relied on a nine-man group. There are nine players above.
Whether these are the correct nine in particular is debatable. But now is the time to take everything learned in the regular season (the Bucks tried 250 different five-man groups) and combine the best and most complementary ingredients for the playoffs.
3. The Bucks limit the Raptors from shooting threes in bunches.
Yes, the Bucks went 18-3 when their opponent made seven or fewer threes. But opponent 3-point accuracy is largely random. What is more controllable is preventing your opponent from even taking a lot of threes in the first place.
And the Bucks went 12-3 when their opponent shot 22 or fewer threes – including a 7-1 mark in those games during March. The Raptors average 24.3 long-range attempts per game, just 22nd most in the league. If the Bucks can push that down even further, they could be in business.
4. The Bucks keep the Raptors off the offensive glass.
Jonas Valanciunas is one of the top offensive-rebounders in the league. Toronto is an above-average offensive rebounding team. Meanwhile, the Bucks ranked 26th in defensive rebound percentage, and presumptive starting center Thon Maker has struggled on the defensive glass (though the Bucks actually do better on the defensive boards when Maker is on the court than off).
In the three Raptors wins against the Bucks, they collected 11, 11 and 12 offensive rebounds, respectively. In the one Bucks head-to-head win, they held the Raptors to… three.
5. The Bucks slow down Lowry and DeRozan.
Good offense typically beats good defense. But the electric Toronto backcourt slipped early in the playoffs last season, almost costing them a First Round win. And, here and there this season, the perimeter defense for Milwaukee has flustered opponents.
Take it from DeMar DeRozan, after the Bucks beat the Raptors on March 4: “I’ve always seen it. I look at (Milwaukee) and they have (former Raptors assistant coach) Eric Hughes, one of the coaches that molded me growing up, knows my game and tried to come at me. One of the best, there (Bucks head coach) Jason Kidd… I played seven games against him in Brooklyn (in 2013-14) – them just understanding how to take me out. It sat in the back of my head. I don’t want other teams to see that and use that as a blueprint.”
Now, DeRozan averaged 22.3 points on 50.0 percent shooting from the field (while hitting 24-26 from the line) in four games (and three wins) against the Bucks this season. So for all the praise from DeRozan, it is not like the Bucks have the secret to stopping him in their palm. Nevertheless, Tony Snell just ranked second on the team in minutes played in the regular season on account of playing defense and hitting shots. The Bucks will need plenty of both.