Six for The Six: Reasons to back the Raptors vs. the Bucks in Game 6

Six for The Six: Reasons to back the Raptors vs. the Bucks in Game 6 article feature image
  • The Toronto Raptors stole Game 5 on the road and have a chance to close out at home to make the NBA Finals.
  • Matt Moore gives his thoughts on why the Raptors can close things out on Saturday night.

From the best team in the league to down 3-2 and on the step of elimination. I’ve been on the Bucks all year, from East futures to title futures to series prices vs. the Raptors (RIP “Bucks in 6”).

The Bucks are certainly good enough to retake control and set up a Game 7 in Milwaukee on Monday, but looking at the past three games of this series, I have six reasons for why “The Six” will advance to the Finals for the first time in franchise history.

1. The Raptors are rolling downhill

There’s all the data that’s present in the betting guide, but to sum up: teams that have lost three straight and are underdogs in the next game have not fared well. The Raptors battled back from their 0-2 deficit to even the series, and Game 5 was pivotal. It took a lot of wild things happening, but now this is beyond momentum.

The Raptors are so close to the Finals and the Bucks are so far away and both teams know it. The effort gap can wane in these moments for teams like Milwaukee who are flummoxed and frustrated; we saw something similar in Game 4 of Budenholzer’s Hawks in 2015.

The Raptors overcame the biggest climb, a Game 5 on the road vs. a desperate Bucks team and came out on top. Momentum might not be a thing — it’s debatable — but a swarming sense of confidence can certainly impact things.

2. The Bucks can’t get the bounces they need

The Bucks have a 3-point heavy arsenal, built off the attention that Giannis Antetokounmpo draws. But in this series, that simply hasn’t worked out. The Bucks are shooting just 32% on jumpshots, and 32% overall from 3-point range the last three games compared to 36% in the regular season according to Synergy Sports. Some of that is great Raptors defense, but a lot of is simply missing open looks or good contested shots.

Nikola Mirotic, Brook Lopez, George Hill, no one’s been able to find the range and the more they miss, the more the Raptors help down in the paint on Antetokounmpo.

Speaking of, Giannis has also gotten a wildly unforgiving whistle in this series. He and Kawhi Leonard both have 50 free throws, despite Leonard being way more perimeter-oriented. A lot of it, for sure, is great Raptors defense But Giannis is also the most physically dominant player we’ve seen since Shaquille O’Neal. There’s no way to stop him without fouling and yet the Raptors have largely done so.

Maybe it’s something about the defense at this level of the playoffs, or Toronto specifically, but without 3-point shots and without Giannis getting to the line, the Bucks’ halfcourt offense is out of options.

3. Leonard has reached the Singularity

Leonard is averaging 31 points, 8 rebounds, and 2.2 steals per game shooting 45-42-92 on his splits. He’s been absolutely incredible in this series.

The Bucks have tried a wide range of approaches in this series and none have really worked. Their bigger focus for a while was trying to make him into a passer. Play to his right, make him go left, and send help.

Then Leonard started passing:

Let’s be clear: this was always Leonard’s weakpoint. He’s not a great playmaker. He can run some specific stuff out of pick and roll in a systemic concept, but overall, he’s not a dynamic passer. But in Game 5, he racked up nine assists, punishing teams for helping down on him:

If he’s going to pass like, this, you’re doomed. The Bucks tried to adjust by going for the switch, putting 7-foot behemoth Brook Lopez on him. Leonard just fired over him for two clean threes:

Leonard’s adjustments to this series have been massive and helped tilt this series to Toronto. He’s been the best player, and that may have been the difference. Along with…

4. Fred VanFriggin’Vleet

It needs to be noted: Fred VanVleet was tremendous last year. He was part of the best bench unit in the NBA, played with pace and tempo, and hit big shots. Then the playoffs came and he was ran over. Then he was injured for most of this year, while Delon Wright, CJ Miles, and Jakob Poeltl were traded for starter upgrades. The Raptors bench fell off the map, and FVV with it. His wife was also pregnant, and he struggled throughout the playoffs until the birth of his son last week.

Since then? He’s been a supernova.

I do not understand how this is possible. The early days of infancy are often hellish on parents as you’re constantly trying to keep this eat-sleep-defecate machine alive at all times. Hats off to him, but more importantly to his wife for handling it with her husband in the Eastern Conference Finals.

VanVleet’s shooting impact is massive. Consider the following:

  • In the last three games, with Leonard on the floor, the Raptors are +43 when FVV is on the court, and -14 with Leonard is on the floor and FVV is on the bench. The Bucks are winning the non-FVV Kawhi minutes and losing the Kawhi-FVV minutes by 43 points. It’s insane.
  • The Raptors are +24 in raw plus-minus with FVV on the floor vs. Giannis in this series. The Bucks’ offensive rating falls off a cliff with FVV on the court. More on this in a minute.
  • FVV was 8-of-28 last year in the playoffs from 3. He was 6-of-30 in the first two rounds. He is 12-of-23 in this series.
  • Kawhi Leonard had 13 assists total to VanVleet in the regular season, across all 82 games.

This impact changes everything. The Bucks’ halfcourt offense can’t score vs. the Raptors’ halfcourt defense because of the above-discussed “missing everything.”

So when VanVleet is hitting shots at this rate, the Bucks are then going against set defense, which gives the Raptors stops and lets them get their offense into transition and up-tempo situations more consistently. It’s all a wheel that’s largely built on, of all people, Fred VanVleet.

5. Toronto Owns The Pace:

Toronto is “grinding out wins” according to Marc Gasol, who compared them to his old Memphis things. They have simply done a great job getting four defenders back at all times, abandoning offensive rebounds for the most part (and still getting some on sneaky, savvy plays).

Taking away transition for a team that refuses to give up transition has not only limited Milwaukee but frustrated them as well. You can expect that to continue with heightened focus and intensity in Game 6.

6. Mike Budenholzer Can’t Open The Box

Nikola Mirotic is a disaster. Eric Bledsoe has been bad (though he was good in Game 5). The Bucks need more length and athleticism…. and he won’t use Sterling Brown or DJ Wilson, who gave them good minutes all year. Wilson, in particular, gives them a physical defensive player who can hit from range so they can play Giannis Antetokounmpo at the 5.

The knock on Budenholzer has always been that he won’t make adjustments. He made them in Round 2 vs. the Celtics but hasn’t been able or willing to in this series. Now it’s too late. If he had made shifts in Game 5 to get different personnel out there (or just not played Mirotic), he’d be in better shape.

He also has been reluctant to extend starters minutes, telling reporters before Game 5 that he wanted to make sure they got “the best Giannis” and so he wouldn’t play him 40-plus minutes. The Bucks were -2 with Giannis on-court but that was mostly determined by fouling late.

Before the final two minutes, the Bucks were down 96-95, and Antetokoumpo was a +4. That -5 in the minutes he sat doomed them particularly a 16-2 run in the 2nd quarter when the Raptors deployed four starters with VanVleet (again, FVV strikes) against a Bucks lineup that featured George Hill, Khris Middleton, Pat Connaughton, Nikola Mirotic, and Ersan Ilyasova. That lineup gave up a 5-0 run in less than 30 seconds.

And that’s your ballgame. There’s zero sense that Budenholzer can find the necessary adjustments and even if he does, it may simply be too late as the Raptors stand poised on the doorstep of history.

It’s finally, finally the Raptors’ time.