Have you come down from the greatest second round in NBA history?
The Eastern Conference finals between the Milwaukee Bucks and the Toronto Raptors bring a clash between the two best players in the conference — Giannis Antetokounmpo and Kawhi Leonard, two of the superstars who have defined these nutty playoffs.
Bad news: They may not guard each other as much as fans craving gladiatorial theater might hope.
Let’s bounce around the matchups we might see on both ends.
When Milwaukee has the ball: Guarding the Greek Freak
It has become chic to put behemoth centers — Rudy Gobert, Joel Embiid, Jarrett Allen, Aron Baynes — on Antetokounmpo. and have them lay in wait in the paint. It has not worked all that well, but most teams do not have anyone with the combination of size and speed to stay in front of the likely MVP. Lacking such a unicorn-ish player, sticking a giant human between Antetokounmpo and the rim — daring Antetokounmpo to hoist jumpers while staying home on Milwaukee’s armada of shooters — can feel like the least bad choice.
Alas, Gasol’s days of handling this chore are probably in the rearview mirror. He’s not as quick as Embiid and Gobert on either the horizontal or vertical plane.
Ibaka has a better chance, and got a chunk of the Antetokounmpo assignment across four regular-season matchups. (All four took place before the Raptors acquired Gasol.) The Ibaka-Gasol double-center look helped steady Toronto against a bullying Philly team. It doesn’t feel as essential here — Milwaukee ranked 26th in offensive rebounding rate — but the Raptors, suddenly so thin without (for now) OG Anunoby, might need to steal some minutes with Ibaka guarding Antetokounmpo and Gasol on Brook Lopez or Ersan Ilyasova.
Side note No. 1: The Bucks largely forfeit offensive rebounds so Lopez can spot up at the top of the arc, and work as the first line of transition defense. The transition battle is an important game within the game. Toronto topped the league in points per possession on transition plays, per Cleaning The Glass data. Milwaukee boasted the stingiest transition defense.
Side note No. 2: Anunoby would come in handy here, and not only because Nick Nurse lost all faith in Norman Powell (and some in Fred VanVleet) in the Philly series. Anunoby could absorb a little of the Antetokounmpo assignment, and provide Toronto more switchable, small-ball lineup options — options they might need more urgently here.
The Bucks may be at their most dangerous with three guards and wings surrounding Antetokounmpo and Nikola Mirotic. It was telling that, in Malcolm Brogdon‘s first game back from injury, Mike Budenholzer busted out the lineup of Eric Bledsoe, Brogdon, Khris Middleton, Antetokounmpo and Mirotic for five minutes. (Milwaukee walloped Boston by 14 points in those five minutes.) That group had logged just one minute all season before that game.
Do any of Toronto’s big man combinations scare Milwaukee from leaning a teensy bit more into those groups? The Raptors got almost nothing posting up Gasol on Tobias Harris against Philly. It was kind of jarring. Can he do any damage against Mirotic or Ilyasova?
At the other extreme, Milwaukee playing lineups featuring any three from among the Antetokounmpo/Mirotic/Ilyasova/Lopez quartet should make it safe for the Raptors to play their own super-big trio of Pascal Siakam, Ibaka and Gasol. Again: If Anunoby can’t go and Powell shrinks, Toronto needs to fill minutes. Of course, some of Powell’s finest moments as a Raptor came against Milwaukee in the playoffs two seasons ago.
Immovable object, unstoppable force, etc.: Kawhi Leonard
Oh, baby. Let’s do this! Leonard has dialed it back up in the postseason, and reemerged as an all-court destroyer.
He guarded Antetokounmpo on just 31 possessions in three games — Leonard missed a Toronto loss — and Antetokounmpo attempted only three shots on those trips, per NBA.com’s matchup data. (Such data is not 100 percent indicative of who started or finished a possession defending a particular player. It logs who guarded that player longest. But visual tracking data from Second Spectrum paints the same picture: In a limited sample, Leonard depressed Antetokounmpo’s shooting and scoring volume.)
Those numbers carry a ton of noise. They may not matter. On at least a couple of possessions, Antetokounmpo overpowered Leonard:
Antetokounmpo grew more comfortable going at Al Horford as the conference semifinals went on. Might he feel out Leonard the same way?
Leonard may not be able to work as Antetokounmpo’s primary defender the whole series and carry the sort of load he had to manage (sorry) at times against Philadelphia — including in Game 7, when he looked like the only Raptor who wanted to shoot.
But it’s something Toronto will do, perhaps in crunch time, and it’s easy to make the matchups work. Siakam can guard pretty much anyone.
Milwaukee has tools to get Antetokounmpo away from Leonard if it proves problematic. They can use Antetokounmpo in either end of a pick-and-roll, and present Toronto a bad choice: switch into yucky mismatches, or let Antetokounmpo loose amid a rotating defense.
For much of the series, the Raptors will have Siakam and Leonard guarding the Middleton-Giannis combination — meaning they can switch the two-man game between Milwaukee’s best players:
Here’s what happens when you can’t switch that action:
The Bucks love to clear one side of the floor for the Middleton-Antetokounmpo dance, so help defenders have to skitter all the way across the court.
Milwaukee can pivot into less switchable pick-and-rolls involving Antetokounmpo and Bledsoe.
If the Raptors have Danny Green on Bledsoe — and they will for stretches — they can switch that action, hold their noses, and live with Green on Antetokounmpo. (Live might be optimistic, though.)
Milwaukee can complicate things by having both Antetokounmpo and Bledsoe screen for Middleton. Good luck navigating that maze:
Antetokounmpo will hunt Toronto’s smallest players. If those players are on Brogdon or Mirotic, Milwaukee will pit Antetokounmpo against one of them. Kyle Lowry is a 6-foot fire hydrant with limbs, but Antetokounmpo will figure him out in short order.
The real first option: Pascal Siakam
Siakam drew the huge majority of Antetokounmpo duty in the regular season, with Leonard mostly handling Middleton. There is something to both teams living with their second choice defending the opposing superstar if it means vaporizing the No. 2 option.
Siakam has the Horfordian outlines of a defender who can at least make Antetokounmpo sweat, though he’s not as stout. Even as the driver of the now-closed Pascal Siakam bandwagon, I must admit Antetokounmpo appeared pretty cozy going at Spicy P. If Antetokounmpo rampages to the rim too easily, Toronto is in trouble. They will either have to live with it, help off shooters who have punished such help all season (Bledsoe’s 3-pointer is always a bellwether), overburden Leonard, overextend Ibaka, or junk up the game some other way.
Maybe they can thread the help-and-recover needle. Toronto’s shifting defense is ferocious, fast and smart. It rotates with the ball — not behind it. But no one has had an answer for Antetokounmpo yet. It may take a superhuman two-way effort from Leonard.
When Toronto has the ball: Guarding Kawhi Leonard
Unlike the GoT guys, Mike Budenholzer is not into fan service: Khris Middleton
This seems like it should be bad for Milwaukee. Leonard has size, strength and athleticism on Middleton.
But Middleton handled the job well. Middleton seems to get Leonard’s rhythm. The two kind of play at the same methodical, start-and-stop pace. Middleton has been good at forcing Leonard away from picks — a must, since Lopez will hang back in the paint. If Leonard arrives at the other side of a Gasol pick with room behind him, he can let fly from deep.
Middleton has done well staying on Leonard’s hip, and funneling him into the midrange. Yeah, that is Leonard’s sweet spot. The Bucks don’t care. They will live with contested long 2-pointers from Leonard. They don’t think any player can beat them that way. They are probably right.
Expect Lopez to start on Gasol even though his drop-way-back style would seem to yield open 3-pointers for both Gasol (on the pick-and-pop) and Toronto’s star ball-handlers. The Sixers removed Joel Embiid from Gasol for that very reason, and stashed him on Siakam. Why wouldn’t Milwaukee copy that, stick Lopez on Siakam, and have a rangier sort (likely Antetokounmpo) erase the Gasol pick-and-roll attack?
They won’t unless they have to, and the bet here is they won’t have to. They didn’t toggle the matchups like that for the Kyrie Irving/Horford pick-and-roll, and that partnership probably presents more immediate “3-pointers incoming!” danger to Lopez’s style of defense than any Toronto duo.
Lowry and Leonard can launch off-the-bounce 3s, but doing so is not their first choice. Leonard wants to burrow into the midrange. A lot of Lowry’s high-wire, quick-release 3s come on pull-ups in transition, and off the catch in the half court. (Lowry is going to have to take, and make, some floaters for the Raptors to win this series. VanVleet has to locate his jumper.)
The Raptors might be better off getting Leonard the ball on the block against Middleton. Leonard might be able to bulldoze closer to the rim, draw help, and unlock some kickout 3s.
They could have Gasol and Ibaka set picks higher on the floor, so Leonard and Lowry have space to dribble into rhythm before launching 3s.
Another idea: Slingshot Leonard into Gasol’s screens, so that he’s going full speed with airspace behind him when he gets the ball. They could start Leonard in the corner, and have him rocket off a screen from Lowry before he arrives to Gasol. If that first pick from Lowry produces a switch, even better; the Raptors have a mismatch.
But there is another big reason Milwaukee may not fear Lopez-on-Gasol: Gasol is an even more reluctant shooter than Horford. The Bucks’ scheme is a mind game. They wager most big men just don’t want to shoot all the open looks Milwaukee might provide. Those bigs get skittish. They feel guilty. I’m really just supposed to keep shooting? But I’m a center! Isn’t this kind of selfish? I’m just going to look for a dribble handoff.
Lopez is better than you think at corralling ball-handlers, and lumbering back toward his man. He has good timing. He can come out to the 3-point arc if need be. He’ll switch onto Lowry and Leonard in emergencies, and bank on the other Bucks swarming off Toronto’s lesser shooters. (This worked against Irving and Boston. Toronto will usually have better overall shooting.)
This setup leaves Antetokounmpo on Siakam — the worst long-range shooter in Toronto’s starting lineup. (Siakam shot 42 percent on corner 3s, but only 17-of-63 on longer above-the-break triples.) Antetokounmpo can rove more, and no one covers so much territory so fast. Antetokounmpo is a devastating, demoralizing help defender — a long-armed phantom who is somehow everywhere at once. He can help and get back in time to contest Siakam’s corner 3s. He is Milwaukee’s best rim protector, and the Bucks prefer to keep him in positions from which he can do that.
He should be able to swallow up Siakam’s pointy-elbowed, spinny isolation game. You might point out Siakam averaged 24 points per game against Milwaukee on 64 percent shooting. Fair.
Count me as a skeptic. He did a lot of that damage against Ilyasova and other Bucks who shouldn’t spend as much time guarding him now, per both NBA.com’s matchup tool and Second Spectrum. He shot well against Antetokounmpo, but not often. (Siakam went 11-of-17 over 116 total possessions with Antetokounmpo as his primary defender, per NBA.com. He took 19 shots against Ilyasova on just 60 possessions. Again: That data is far from perfect.)
Siakam is good, but Antetokounmpo can handle him. I like the idea of using Antetokounmpo to take Siakam out of the series as a scorer.
Siakam is fearless. He does not suffer the bouts of persnickety hesitation that befall both Lowry and Gasol — basketball snobs in the best sense whose compound snobbery can nonetheless work against the Raptors. Force those two to pick up some of Siakam’s shot volume, and they may demur — and gum up Toronto’s offense in the process. The downside is that they might actually go crazy and shoot, and keep shooting, and bury the Bucks under open jumpers. Milwaukee would have to adjust, or just tighten up.
OK, but what if that doesn’t work? Do we get the Kawhi-Giannis Bowl?
If Leonard brutalizes Middleton, things get very interesting. Antetokounmpo is maybe the ideal defender for Leonard — he’s is the ideal defender for most players — and he might have more than Leonard left in the tank; Antetokounmpo has played just nine games over the past 37 days. It would not be difficult for Milwaukee to toggle the matchups so Antetokounmpo defends Leonard.
Would they do that from a position of strength, or a position of weakness — because they want to, or because they have to?
Every good series forces a team to contort itself. Antetokounmpo will get turns on both Leonard and Gasol.
Antetokounmpo-on-Gasol may be Milwaukee’s primary gambit when they play small-ball lineups with Antetokounmpo and Mirotic as the nominal power forward and center; those were (basically) the only circumstances under which Antetokounmpo defended Horford. Milwaukee in those minutes can scrap their base defense, and engage Switch Mode.
Keep an eye on: Malcolm Brogdon
A healthy Brogdon takes Milwaukee to another level. Brogdon is a legit 40 percent 3-point shooter, and probably Milwaukee’s best catch-and-go driver.
He was, perhaps somewhat unpredictably, Milwaukee’s second option defending Leonard. Budenholzer was shockingly unafraid of this, and Brogdon held up pretty well.
Playoff Leonard is a different thing. Brogdon is just back from a foot injury. If he’s up for it, he will get chances on Leonard. Keeping Brogdon in a reserve role would allow Budenholzer to have one of Brogdon and Middleton on the floor at all times for Leonard duty. (It would also force Mirotic to defend Green when the starters face off; the Raptors might want to run Green around even more than usual, and see if Mirotic can keep up.)
Both teams come into these conference finals with an ideal set of matchups. Who caves first? Does either cave? The answers will tell us a lot about how the series is going — and who wins.