#3 – Toronto Raptors
The Toronto Raptors went 11-14 from Jan. 1 to Feb 15 and limped into the All-Star break. They’ve since turned things around thanks to the key trade deadline acquisitions of Serge Ibaka and P.J. Tucker. Kyle Lowry also made his return to the lineup on April 5 after missing the previous 18 games with a wrist injury. He’s averaged 17.3 points on 48 percent shooting and 7.8 assists since his return. Ending the season 18-7, the Raptors have some much-needed momentum heading into the postseason.
Offensively, it’s no secret that the Raptors will go as far as their All-Star backcourt takes them. Lowry and DeMar DeRozan combined to score just under 50 points a game (49.7) over the course of the regular season. However, they struggled in the 2016 playoffs and the Raptors will need both of them to be on top of their game this time around in order to make a deeper run.
DeRozan, in particular, had a tough time against Otto Porter in 2015 and Paul George last year. The Milwaukee Bucks have similarly long-armed defenders on the wing in Khris Middleton and Tony Snell who can give DeRozan trouble. DeRozan has become a much-improved playmaker and instead of forcing the issue as he has in series past, he’s got to pick and choose his spots and look to get his teammates involved more consistently. He’s capable of taking over a game and if he can start by getting some of the Raptors shooters, such as DeMarre Carroll and Patrick Patterson going early, they’ll be that much tougher to beat.
Where the Raptors might be able to exploit a mismatch is in the frontcourt. Jonas Valanciunas and Serge Ibaka need to take advantage of their size and dominate the Bucks on the glass. Ibaka is more a catch-and-shoot kind of guy, but Raptors head coach Dwane Casey could make Valanciunas more of a focal point of the offense as he did in last year’s playoffs when Valanciunas thrived.
On the defensive end, the Raptors main concerns will be Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton. For that, they’ll turn to Carroll and Tucker. Tucker has thrived since coming to the Raptors and he’s become the team’s vocal leader on defense. Antetokounmpo is one of the most explosive wings in the league and Middleton, who missed the majority of the season due to a major hamstring injury, is one of the most underrated. It will be a task to slow them down but Carroll and Tucker, along with Norman Powell off the bench and Ibaka patrolling the paint, should be up to the challenge.
#6 – Milwaukee Bucks
At 42-40, the Milwaukee Bucks posted their first winning season since 2009-10. Back in the playoffs after missing the postseason a year ago, the Bucks are looking to play spoiler and force an upset. Although the Bucks are facing a different Raptors team, they should look to Toronto’s playoff struggles in past seasons and perhaps see if they can replicate what the Raptors opponents did.
For the Bucks to have a chance at pulling off the upset, their big men, specifically Thon Maker and Greg Monroe, cannot allow themselves to be outplayed and overmatched. They can’t let Valanciunas and Ibaka beat them up on the glass. If Maker struggles in his playoff debut, Bucks head coach Jason Kidd might want to rely on a more traditional frontcourt with Monroe and John Henson and move Antetokounmpo to small forward.
Rookie guard Malcolm Brogdon had an outstanding season, but he will also have his hands full defensively with Lowry. If that’s the case, the Bucks might turn to Matthew Dellavedova, a pesky defender who at times frustrated Stephen Curry in the NBA Finals. Don’t be surprised if he ends up earning additional playing time and even closing games over Brogdon.
One area the Raptors have struggled with at times is defending the three-point line. The Bucks will need their shooters to be on point this series. Brogdon, Middleton, Snell, Jason Terry and Michael Beasley all shoot above 40 percent from beyond the arc. If they get their fair share of open looks, they need to make the Raptors pay.
Who Wins Game 1?
In the Dwane Casey era, the Raptors have lost every playoff Game 1 they’ve played. Expect that to change. Behind their home crowd and with a healthy roster for the first time all season, the Raptors will strike first.
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