Milwaukee Bucks: Thon Maker’s Defense Set The Tone In Game 1

Mandatory Credit: John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports
Mandatory Credit: John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports /
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Mandatory Credit: Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports
Mandatory Credit: Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports /

Understanding Matchups

Heading into Game 1, there was a widely held concern about how Thon Maker would cope with the physically imposing Jonas Valanciunas. The Lithuanian center may have presented opportunities for Maker to stretch the floor offensively, but it was hard not to see the rookie being exploited in any kind of post duel between the two.

Not only did that prove not to be the case, but Valanciunas’ presence was the spark for much of the positive work that Milwaukee’s rookie managed to do defensively.

The Raptors finished the regular season as the NBA’s leaders in points per possession on post-ups (0.98), but importantly they only ranked 21st in terms of the frequency with which they resorted to that option (5.7 percent).

Instead, Toronto’s priority remains creating quality scoring opportunities for Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan. Rather than targeting Milwaukee’s undersized center when the opportunity presented itself, the focus in Game 1 was to create space in halfcourt sets and find lanes for the guards to drive to the rim. Whether or not the Bucks were expecting this beforehand, Maker certainly made the necessary adjustments.

Rather than paying deference to the threat posed by Valanciunas’ size, Maker frequently took up something of a free safety role. With a colossal advantage over his opponent in terms of speed and athleticism, Maker felt comfortable in leaving his man to provide aggressive help, safe in the knowledge that he’d still have the time to recover.

That started out simply. Maker hung back on the edge of the paint if Valanciunas moved out to the perimeter. He also accompanied him when he looked to set screens, only to then force and close space on the ball-handler while still managing to get back across into position to contest shots from the rolling big man.

As the game progressed that sense of freedom became much more apparent, though. By Maker’s second stint in the game which came to start the third quarter, he had no fear in letting Valanciunas free to help create double teams on the perimeter.

Again, Maker was able to show the speed and awareness necessary to recover after a failed trap, positioned himself as a foil straddling the line between guarding multiple opponents in the middle of the paint, and then provide help back on Valanciunas by the time the shot attempt arrived.

All of those opportunities are only in play for the 20-year-old thanks to his incredible length and lateral quickness, but he was capitalizing on the chance to unsettle a Raptors’ offense that showed no signs of adapting to exploit his own weaknesses.

By the time the Raptors eventually decided to seek out Valanciunas in the post, Maker had been allowed to settle and get the position he wanted every time down the floor. Allowing Maker to front in the post isn’t the best strategy for Valanciunas to get some more influential touches inside.

When Valanciunas came out of the game, the more mobile and rangier shooting of Serge Ibaka was able to dominate Maker, but that only underpins Toronto’s failure with their more traditional center on the court.

The Raptors could neutralize Maker’s defensive impact in future games if they’re prepared to play bursts of a post-heavy offense centered around Valanciunas, but based on Game 1 and their play in the regular season, there’s no reason to believe they’ll be willing to deviate from their guard corps’ tough shot express.