Article Written by Adam Corsair (@ACorsair21)
So here we are. The Raptors have made it to the playoffs for the fourth consecutive year in a row. This time as the number three seed in the Eastern Conference. Their first task is to face the sixth seeded Milwaukee Bucks; a team that the Raptors have gotten the better of 3 out of their 4 encounters this season. This ought to give Raptors fans some confidence for the chance of a 2nd round playoff opportunity, but nothing should be taken for granted in any playoff series (looking at you, Boston). "Anything can happen" is a phrase we hear quite often during the postseason, and recent history has shown that the Raptors have an uncomfortable tendency to stretch these series out to a full seven games. Moreover, the Bucks aren't a team to be taken lightly. They were my underdog pick to make the playoffs at the beginning of the season, constantly telling my friends "Don't sleep on the Bucks." This won't be an easy task for the Raptors, by any means, however it should be a series they ought to take. Given the depth of the roster, the new found defensive toughness they have exhibited, and DeMar DeRozan's continuos efforts to redefine himself as a player year after year, it's fairly easy to label this Raptors team as the "favorites" for Round 1. This isn't last year's Raptors squad. I like to call this team "Diet Cleveland," as I fully believe Toronto is the second best team in the Eastern Conference.
That being said, nothing comes easy in the postseason, and the Raptors need to be mindful of the lessons they have learned from past playoff experiences in order to capitalize on the warts Milwaukee has. Thus, these are what I consider to be the five keys for winning Round 1 of the NBA Playoffs for the Raptors.
1. Win Game 1
Well, not so much.
Appearing in eleven playoff series, the Raptors have only won the first game of any playoff series... once (against the 76ers in 2001). Setting the tone and kicking things off with momentum by winning the first game of any series is critical, and the Raptors should know this especially. Falling behind 0-1 out of the gate is discouraging, as it subsequently puts the Raptors in an immediate hole from the get-go. We are now in "every game matters" mode - big time - and the Raptors cannot afford to be put in a position where they have to immediately battle back and chase wins in the first round. This team wasn't built for that, but that's not to say they won't be able to overcome it should it happen. Having finished as the third seed, the Raptors were able to snag home-court advantage for the first round of the playoffs, and it shouldn't be overlooked how important this will be for them. The Toronto crowd - as it has been well documented - is extremely vocal and involved, to put it mildly. It should not be overlooked how a home crowd is able to shift the momentum for a team, and the ACC is notorious for how loud it can get. If the Raptors are able to play with the toughness and aggression that they have been able to develop since the acquisition of both Serge Ibaka and PJ Tucker (MY MAN, PJ!) with the addition of the intensity of the home crowd behind them, they should be able to win the first game of the series this Saturday. When asked what he had learned throughout the entirety of the playoffs last year, I believe it was Kyle Lowry who simply said "Win Game 1." 16 years is far too long. Win game 1.
2. Shut Down Antetokounmpo
Honestly, I want to type out his last name as much as possible so I can stop Googling it. Seriously, this guy is Mr. Copy/Paste. Anyway...
Antetokounmpo is the primary scorer for the Bucks and his stats prove this. This season, the Greek Freak led Milwaukee in scoring, rebounds, assists, steals, and blocks... so almost everything. The success of the Bucks in the playoffs is going to heavily rely on the shoulders of Antetokounmpo and if the Raptors don't want to extend this series to 7 games, they must prevent him from being the player that he was during the regular season. Of course, this is much easier said than done and I don't want to minimize how special of a player Giannis is. For a player his size, he's able to play almost - if not literally - any position on the court, making him extremely versatile and difficult to cover. This versatility allows the Bucks to open up the court, creating space for Giannis to be the team leader in practically every category. Couple this with how he is in transition, he's beyond deadly. Yet, as I briefly touched on in the previous point, the Raptors have discovered a toughness through their defense that has transformed them from an offensive-minded team to an all-around solid one. Perhaps "shutting down" Giannis is a bit of a tall order. If we're being realistic here, shutting him down may not be possible, as he's an endless supply of energy and puts himself in a position to dominate. But, if Tucker can continue to do what he does best, which is play tight and aggressive defense, thereby forcing Giannis to make hasty decisions with the ball, the Raptors can at least contain him and limit his productivity. Let's not discount how important the defense from Patterson and Carroll will be, as well. All three will more than likely be tasked with restricting Antetokounmpo throughout this series.
By no means is this a simple task. But the Raptors are going to need to bring their A-Game when it comes to defending the Greek Freak.
3. A Productive Kyle Lowry
Coming fresh off an injury that sidelined him for 21 regular season games, the Raptors are going to need a productive Kyle Lowry right out of the gate. We shouldn't have any reason to believe that Lowry will be limited, as his production since returning has been very good - albeit, only 4 games (one of which was against a Cleveland squad void of Irving, James, and Love). Having played approximately 42 minutes in his first game since being sidelined, we shouldn't be concerned with Lowry having his legs under him, and he should be able to keep up the what should be a high-paced playoff series against the Bucks.
Yet, what is difficult to erase from the back of our minds was Lowry's performance in last year's playoffs, specifically against Miami. However, the difference between this year's Raptors team and last year's is the amount of depth behind Lowry that they can go to. Cory Joseph was able to pick up the slack during Lowry's absence this year, shooting 48% from the field, averaging 11.2 points, 5 assists, and 1 steal. Sure, they aren't numbers that are blowing you away, but couple that with how Delon Wright has developed (and is still developing) into a serviceable off-the-bench guard, we shouldn't be worried. Should Lowry find himself in a playoff funk again, the Raptors have reinforcements.
Ideally, though, we'd like this to be avoided entirely and have the Lowry we have seen throughout the majority of the year. I'm not at all concerned with the chemistry between Lowry and Ibaka, as many fans are. Professional players have a way of figuring things out, and I'm sure a simple conversation and some practice between the two is all it will take to be able to be on the same page (and I assume this has already happened). We can expect Lowry to come out swinging with all the intensity, swagger, and confidence he can muster. This will be vital for the Raptors' success. Although I mentioned that Joseph was able to fill-in nicely, he's still not Kyle Lowry and the Raptors would be better off being in a position where they don't have to lean on CoJo or Wright for long stretches. Thus, a productive Lowry is much needed if the Raptors are going to be successful during the first round of the playoffs, and beyond.
4. Get Big
This year, Jonas Valanciunas has been like night and day. For a large portion of the regular season, coach Dwane Casey was reluctant (if not completely adamant) to not have JV play more than a handful of minutes in the 4th quarter, if at all. Yet, in the past 10 games, he's been showing signs of life - averaging just south of 26 minutes, shooting 63%, and almost averaging a double-double with 12.7 points and 9.4 rebounds. If JV continues to be productive, the Raptors ought to have a beneficial edge.
Milwaukee lacks any real rebounding threat and this should be advantageous for the Raptors. Toronto finished as a top 10 team in rebounds, whereas the Bucks are dead last in the same category since the All-Star break. If Jonas can be aggressive under the boards and be that physical force that's able to finish under the rim, he may be that wild card we've envisioned him to be. Oh, and this...
Couple the production from JV with the type of rim protection we have seen from Ibaka all year, Toronto should be in great shape. Since joining the Raptors, Ibaka has averaged 14.2 points, 6.8 boards, 1.4 blocks, shooting about 46% from the field, and about 40% from deep. Consider Ibaka's playoff role to mimic Biyombo's from last year, but on a much higher level because Ibaka is a far better and versatile player. When you have a true power forward that's able to act as a center when the Raptors need to give JV a rest, as well as the versatility that Ibaka has, it's not hard to see how the Raptors ought to be able to capitalize on the size advantage they have.
Get big, boys.
5. Stay In The Moment
Look, it's easy to hand on to what the Raptors have been doing in the regular season and apply it to the postseason. As you have clearly seen within this article, I have done the same throughout. However, it can't be overstated how things can change on a dime and how the playoffs sort of recharges players, shifting them to a higher level. The Raptors need to ignore the noise of their past playoff hiccups, ignore their present woes (like their inconsistency from deep), and not worry about what happens if/when they see Cleveland in Round 2. They will be better served if they stay in the present and worry about these games as they come.
This is not to say that they are worried about any of the things I've listed; they probably aren't. This may be the best Raptors squad ever assembled, and I don't have a lot of worries regarding their chances of advancing. They just need to take care of business as it comes to them and they'll be fine. I expect this series to go 6 games, tops. After that, anything can happen.
If the Raptors can do all of these things (easier said than done, I know), then this series should be no problem. Again, don't underestimate Giannis, Middleton, and Dellavedola and the damage they can inflict on teams. But with the combination of a healthy Kyle Lowry, a dominate DeMar DeRozan, dominate bigs like JV and Ibaka, and the defensive toughness Tucker has brought with him and integrated throughout the roster, I'll take the Raptors all day.
Raptors in 6.
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