What can be learned from the Milwaukee Bucks losses to Toronto Raptors?

MILWAUKEE, WISCONSIN - JANUARY 15: (Photo by Patrick McDermott/Getty Images)
MILWAUKEE, WISCONSIN - JANUARY 15: (Photo by Patrick McDermott/Getty Images) /

If there’s any team in the NBA that can confidently say they have the Milwaukee Bucks‘ number, it would be the Toronto Raptors. Following their loss last night, the Raptors swept the season series with the defending champs and have won five straight games against them dating back to last season.

Sure, excuses can be made for each game. For both losses last year, the Bucks didn’t have Jrue Holiday as he was in health and safety protocols. In the first two games of this season’s series, the Bucks didn’t have Giannis Antetokounmpo (as well as a host of others in their second meeting). Then, last night, they were without Holiday once again.

But that’s reductive and doesn’t give the Raptors the credit they (rightfully) deserve. They consistently give the Bucks problems, even without some of the defensive stalwarts that helped them defeat Milwaukee in the Eastern Conference Finals. So, what can be taken away from these games that can help the defending champs going forward?

Why do the Milwaukee Bucks struggle against the Toronto Raptors?

On paper, this should be a decent matchup for the Bucks, considering the type of defense that the Raptors have and what they allow. They’re notorious for allowing a ton of corner 3s (the third-most at 11.1 per game, per NBA.com/stats), which is something that the Bucks thrive on creating (the fourth-most at 9.8 per game).

The Raptors have a defense that flies around and looks to create a lot of turnovers. They lead the league in deflections (18.3 per game), are third in steals per game (9.1), and Cleaning the Glass (subscription required) has the Raptors with the second-best opponent turnover rate (16.1 percent).

All of that flying around forces their defenders to help and recover a ton, which then creates open shooters if they’re too aggressive. In their second meeting, the Bucks went 17-of-39 from behind the 3-point line (43.6 percent) but faltered in the third quarter of that game, which was ultimately their undoing.

Even in their first game, the Bucks shot 35.5 percent on 31 3-point attempts. That’s not eye-popping, but it’s not low enough to be considered an outlier shooting night.

What the Raptors do better than any opponent the Bucks will face is that they’re incredibly physical and have a ton of length. That last one isn’t so much of a skill than it is an attribute, but they use their length well.

They can show multiple bodies to the Bucks’ two key offensive engines in Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton. The Raptors have been a tough matchup for Middleton for a couple of reasons. Their length makes it difficult for him to get his already difficult shots off against but they also pressure him on-ball better than most teams.

His handle is easily the weakest part of his game, so when the Bucks are forced to use him as a primary offensive initiator (especially in their third meeting), it leads to a lot of rough offensive possessions.

The Raptors were famous for “building the wall” against Antetokounmpo in the Eastern Conference Finals. They also had the benefit of having Kawhi Leonard and Marc Gasol, two of this generation’s best defensive players. Those two are gone, so things should be easier, right?

Antetokounmpo struggled inside against the Raptors’ length and physicality. They can show him many different bodies that can defend him in different ways. That, combined with their ability to help and recover, forces the two-time MVP into a lot of tough possessions.

Being able to neutralize those two, in particular, takes basically everything away from the Bucks (duh). There’s no Middleton-Antetokounmpo pick-and-roll, Middleton can’t isolate comfortably and get to his midrange shots, and Antetokounmpo will see multiple bodies when he drives.

That’s where having Holiday would be key for these matchups, but it wouldn’t solve all the problems. It’s a bad matchup for the Bucks and they’ll need to find ways to get their two best engines for offense easier looks.

I would say the Bucks, on the whole, have done a good enough job against the Raptors on defense. They’ve held Fred VanVleet in check for the last two games (it was interesting to see Wesley Matthews face-guarding him the same when he guarded Steph Curry), but it has been Pascal Siakam who has gotten busy in just about every game.

Some of that can be attributed to the Bucks not having the same type of rim protection without Brook Lopez and playing a more aggressive, blitzing pick-and-roll defense with Bobby Portis. I’ve made it clear that the Bucks need Lopez if they want to maximize their chance to repeat and this would be a matchup where he would be very useful.

If these three losses have shown me anything, it’s that the Bucks need to be able to handle the hyper-activity and physicality that the Raptors bring. It’s unlike anything else they’ll face, with the closest being the Miami Heat (who, coincidentally, have given the Bucks problems as well at times).

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We’ve seen flashes that the Bucks can handle what the Raptors bring on defense. They scored 77 in the first half of their second game and got off to a fast start in their most recent game, but this would certainly make for an interesting playoff opponent.