Guarding Bucks' Giannis presents Raptors a playoff puzzle
MILWAUKEE -- Giannis Antetokounmpo presents a defensive conundrum for the Toronto Raptors.
Assign a shorter player on the 6-foot-11 Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks star can take advantage on the block. Put a taller player on him and the athletic Antetokounmpo might blow past him to the hoop.
Antetokounmpo is a highlight-reel regular for dunks in transition. He can make opponents pay for double-teams, too.
The Raptors need to figure this problem out beginning Saturday, when the Bucks visit the Air Canada Centre to open a first-round series in the NBA playoffs.
"It's not going to be a one-man job. It's going to be a team effort to guard him," Raptors coach Dwane Casey said. "But him in transition, it's not a dream, it's a nightmare."
Antetokounmpo blossomed into an All-Star in his first full season since coach Jason Kidd made him a primary ball-handler. He became the first player in NBA history to finish a season in the top 20 in total points, rebounds, assists, blocks and steals. He's just the fifth player in league history to lead a team in every statistical category for a season, according to the Bucks.
With 42 wins, the Bucks finished above .500 for the first time since 2009-10. Now, they'd like to advance past the first round for the first time since going to the conference finals in 2001 with Ray Allen and Glenn Robinson leading the way.
By comparison, Raptors are grizzled veterans with four straight postseason trips. They lost to Cleveland in the Eastern Conference finals last season in six games.
"People don't expect us to beat the Raptors," Bucks guard Malcolm Brogdon said. "We're going in with that underdog mentality to prove people wrong. We've been proving people wrong up to this point and we're going to continue to do so."
Antetokounmpo's emergence is a big reason why the Bucks are back in the postseason for the second time in three seasons. Six-foot-8 forward DeMarre Carroll will likely draw the first turn defending him, with 6-foot-6 forward P.J. Tucker also taking the assignment. The Raptors might also use a zone, Casey said Tuesday.
Antetokounmpo averaged 24.8 points, 7.8 rebounds and 7.0 assists in four games this year against Toronto.
"We've got to bait him to shoot more jumpers," Carroll said. "I think a thousand of his shot attempts have been layups ... but he's also deadly distributing the ball and getting others involved."
Other notes and things to watch in the series:
Raptors owner Masai Ujiri thinks the team's defense is better than last year, aided by the addition of 6-foot-10 forward Serge Ibaka. Carroll, Tucker and the 6-9 Patrick Patterson also give Toronto versatile defenders who might be able to match up with Antetokounmpo and 6-foot-11 center Greg Monroe, who can hit jumpers and maneuver deftly in the paint.
YOUNG BUT MORE EXPERIENCED
The Bucks have one of the youngest cores in the league, but they did add some playoff experience to their roster by adding Tony Snell (Bulls), Matthew Dellavedova (Cavaliers) and Mirza Teletovic (Nets) in the offseason. Jason Terry, a 17-year veteran, provides leadership and 3-point shooting off the bench.
GUARDING THE GUARDS
Toronto's Kyle Lowry (22.4 points, 7.0 assists) and DeMar DeRozan (27.3 points) form one of the toughest backcourts in the NBA. The 6-foot-7 Snell will draw the 6-7 DeRozan on defense. Brogdon, a rookie, will be tested by Lowry at point guard.
Tucker was sent home from practice on Friday after showing signs of a bug that also affected DeRozan, Lowry and Casey this week. DeRozan sat out the season finale at Cleveland. The illness doesn't appear serious, with Tucker expected to play Saturday.
DOWN THE STRETCH
Mired at six games under .500 going into March, the Bucks went 16-8 over the last six weeks of the season to get into the playoffs. They hope the success under postseason-like intensity carries over into the Raptors series.
"For those (six) weeks were in must-win games," forward Khris Middleton said Friday. "That's what the playoffs are all about, taking one game at a time, one possession at a time."