Tom Oates: Bucks’ up-tempo style, deep bench wearing down Raptors
MILWAUKEE — The first two rounds of the NBA playoffs proceeded at a leisurely pace for the Milwaukee Bucks.
With extended breaks between games and two series that lasted no more than five games, they were well-rested and ready to go when they opened up against the Toronto Raptors in the Eastern Conference final Wednesday night. Conversely, the Raptors had only two days off after completing a grueling seven-game series against Philadelphia.
When the Bucks recovered from a slow start to wear down the Raptors and come from behind in the fourth quarter to win the opener, it did more than give them a 1-0 lead in the best-of-seven series. It demonstrated the Bucks’ greatest advantage over the Raptors in general and particularly in these conference finals.
Indeed, with the games now coming fast and furious in the every-other-day schedule, the Raptors figured to have trouble matching the Bucks’ combination of a deep bench and uptempo style, especially on short rest.
“Hopefully,” Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said after Game 1, “we play a style where defensively we make you work for everything, we make everything really difficult, we take care of the glass and we always want play fast with a lot of pace, not just in the full court but in the half court. We want to move the ball, move people. In theory, that should hopefully make it difficult on your opponent in the sense that they’ve got to keep moving, they’ve got to keep sprinting, they’ve got to keep getting back, they’ve got to work for everything. ... Hopefully, we can just keep grinding on them and make everything hard.”
It took the Bucks a full three quarters to take the spring out of the Raptors’ step in the opener. In Game 2 of the series Friday night at Fiserv Forum, the Raptors never had any energy to begin with. Part of that may have been due to the deflating way they lost the opener and part may have been due to fatigue after the starters played heavy minutes in that game, but the Bucks were clearly the more aggressive, more alive team from the start Friday night.
With the teams playing at noticeably different speeds, the Bucks blitzed the Raptors en route to a 25-point halftime lead and coasted to a 125-103 victory, holding serve at home with the series now headed to Toronto. There is no rest for the weary, either, because the next game is Sunday, another short turnaround for a Raptors team that could use a break.
“I think the way we played on both ends of the court in the first half is what we’re trying to get to,” Budenholzer said. “To come out and start game two with that kind of effort on both ends of the court is what you’re looking for.”
Clearly, Game 1 took its toll on the Raptors, physically if not emotionally.
In that game, four of Toronto’s five starters played 40 or more minutes. For Milwaukee, Giannis Antetokounmpo led with 37 minutes and no one else played more than 35.
In all, the Raptors bench played only 40 minutes compared with 78 minutes for the Bucks bench. The Bucks bench outscored the Raptors bench 22-12, but it wasn’t the points that mattered, it was the mileage.
That’s all part of the Bucks’ plan under Budenholzer. Their relentless defense and active offense, combined with the constant threat of the fastbreak, is designed to wear down opponents over time.
The Bucks wasted little time establishing themselves Friday night. Led by Antetokounmpo and Nikola Mirotic, they jumped out to a 9-0 lead, a stretch that included hustle plays such as putbacks, blocked shots and forced turnovers. They were off and running, basically doing for four quarters what they did to the Raptors in the fourth quarter of the opener — contesting every shot, sinking open shots, pressing the issue on the break, making them work on both ends of the court.
Many of those relatively uncontested Raptors shots that went in for the first three quarters Wednesday night hit the rim and bounced off two nights later, a sign of tired legs. Their defensive rotations were a step late also, giving the Bucks more room to shoot. This time, they didn’t miss.
Raptors coach Nick Nurse played his bench more extensively than he did in the opener. Indeed, the top four Bucks reserves played the same number of minutes as the top four Raptors reserves. The Raptors couldn’t match the production, though, as the Bucks bench outscored them by 15.
About the only life the Raptors showed came in a 39-point third quarter. The Bucks let up after taking a 64-39 halftime lead and the Raptors cut it to 13. At that point, Malcolm Brogdon scored on a putback and George Hill had two fastbreak layups — more hustle plays — as the Bucks re-established their lead.
“If you’re going to not get a good shot or turn it over, they’re going to put some pressure on you,” Nurse said. “I think they took it right to 19. ... You did a lot of work to cut that thing (down) and it’s kind of gone in a couple possessions. They do a good job of playing pace basketball and an aggressive style of play on both ends.”
Wearing down the opponent has a cumulative effect, both in a game and in a series. With the rapid-fire schedule in this series, the advantage in that area goes to the Bucks. So far, they’re taking advantage of it.