Led by Kawhi Leonard, the Toronto Raptors completely shut down the Bucks offense in Game 3, slicing Milwaukee’s Eastern Conference finals lead to 2-1 in the process. Mike Budenholzer’s crew finished the 2018-19 regular season ranked fourth in offensive efficiency, so holding them to just 93.1 points per 100 possessions across six periods1 stands as a highly impressive accomplishment for Toronto. Somewhat overshadowed in the discussion of that game, though, is that the Raptors’ own highly ranked offense struggled as well, continuing a concerning season-long trend against the Bucks.
Toronto finished the regular season one spot behind Milwaukee in offensive efficiency, scoring at a rate of 113.1 points per 100 possessions. The Raptors hit that mark despite Leonard and Kyle Lowry each missing around a quarter of the season, among numerous other injuries, and despite having to incorporate new players both at the start of the season (Leonard and Danny Green) and on the fly after the trade deadline (Marc Gasol).
That they were able to score so efficiently despite all those potential hurdles is a testament not just to the offensive design of coach Nick Nurse but also to the sheer magnitude of talent the Raptors assembled — and especially to the ability of Toronto’s players to solve whatever problems a defense posed for them throughout the year.
But the one defense the Raptors consistently could not solve during the regular season was the Bucks’. And unfortunately for Toronto, they haven’t solved it in the conference finals so far either.
Now 15 games into their playoff run, the Raptors have played 97 total games this season. Among those 97 contests, their offensive efficiency ranks in seven games against the Bucks are as follows: 22nd, 74th, 83rd (Game 2), 84th, 86th (Game 1), 89th (Game 3) and 96th.2 Put another way: Toronto has played a big chunk of its worst offensive basketball against Milwaukee.
This is not necessarily all that shocking. The Bucks finished the regular season with the league’s best defense, after all. But even accounting for Milwaukee’s general defensive talent, there’s also a specific reason why the Bucks have been so effective at shutting down this Toronto team: No NBA defense is better than the Bucks at providing help against opponent drives, and the Raptors are one of the most drive-dependent teams in the league.
Toronto ranked seventh in the league in drives per 100 possessions and fifth in points per drive during the regular season, per Second Spectrum. The Raptors were also the only team in the league to sport five different players who averaged at least 7.5 drives per game3. And Toronto’s primary drivers were not just high-volume; they were also extremely effective.
Leonard and Pascal Siakam drove to score, respectively ranking seventh and fifth in points percentage on the drive4 among the 72 players who averaged at least 7.5 drives per game. Lowry and backup Fred VanVleet drove to pass, ranking first and seventh among that same group of 72 players in assist percentage5 on the drive.
Against the Bucks, though, the engines of Toronto’s drive-based attack too often ran into roadblocks: Giannis Antetokounmpo and Brook Lopez. Per Second Spectrum, there were 70 NBA players who were credited as the help defender on at least 350 drives during the regular season. Among that group of 70 players, Antetokounmpo ranked first in team points allowed per possession (0.95) when he helped contain a drive, and Lopez (1.02) ranked seventh.
Driving the lane before encountering help in the form of Antetokounmpo or Lopez has often proven too much for the Raptors to handle, especially Leonard and Lowry. During Leonard’s three regular-season games against Milwaukee, he was both less likely to shoot on the drive and less effective at converting those shots than he was against other teams. That trend has carried over to the conference finals, where Leonard is shooting just 11 of 28 on the drive through three games.
While Lowry was a pass-heavy driver throughout the regular season, he was almost comically averse to shooting on the drive during the three games he played against the Bucks. His pass rate on the drive against Milwaukee was 18 percentage points higher than the most pass-happy high-volume driver in the league this season, Indiana’s Darren Collison. This aversion to shooting has also carried over to the conference finals, but his passing also just isn’t working right now. Of his 20 drives in Games 1 through 3, only one of his 12 passes resulted in an assist — and this is the guy who led the league in assist rate on the drive during the season.
Isolating Leonard and Lowry’s drives to the ones on which Lopez or Antetokounmpo provided the help, as Second Spectrum allows, shows that the Raptors have scored only 30 points on 38 such direct drives during the conference finals,6 “good” for an anemic 0.79 points per drive. That simply won’t do — not when you’re trying to defeat the team with the NBA’s best record, led by the probable MVP and coach of the year winners.
The good news for the Raptors is that they got themselves back into the series with their Game 3 win. The bad news is that unless they figure something out offensively, they’re going to have to play perfect defense again in Game 4 tonight to even the series 2-2, and beyond that, to advance to the NBA Finals. Against Giannis and these Bucks, that’s a whole lot easier said than done.
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