Giannis Antetokounmpo’s final play of Thursday night’s loss to the Toronto Raptors might have been the most telling play of the night.
It started with Khris Middleton bringing the ball up in transition. All night the Raptors swarmed Middleton, the Milwaukee Bucks’ two-time all-star. Every time he got the ball they seemed to attack him, forcing him to make the right pass over and over again. Late in the fourth quarter, things were no different. As he drove through the lane the Raptors defence collapsed around him, forcing him to wisely pass the ball over to Antetokounmpo. Against other teams, the 6-foot-11 two-time MVP would have gone up cleanly and dunked the ball with ease. But not against the Raptors. All that attention Toronto had just paid to Middleton quickly shifted over and OG Anunoby and Fred VanVleet’s pesky hands got in the way of an easy layup.
Instead of finishing with ease, Antetokounmpo let his emotions get the best of him. After 37 minutes of frustration, he leaned in to Anunoby’s chin with his shoulder tried to go through the Raptors’ 6-foot-7 defensive stopper. Anunoby fell to the floor emotionless, of course. The ball went straight up and straight down. No bucket and a flagrant foul.
See, the thing about the Raptors is they’re pesky. They run what might be the most aggressive and frustrating defensive scheme in the NBA. So when you’re a star, even a star as talented as Antetokounmpo and Middleton, Toronto is going to get on your nerves.
“Their activity, their length, they’re scrambling, lots of double teams and trapping,” Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said of Toronto’s defence. “They were very active, and we weren’t as good as we need to be offensively in the first half.”
The Raptors make you make decisions in a hurry. They send pressure from every angle, constantly creating chaos for opposing offences. It’s how they force an NBA leading 16.8 turnovers per game.
On Thursday, they played textbook defence against Antetokounmpo. Of course, that makes sense considering Raptors coach Nick Nurse happened to write the textbook in the 2019 playoffs. Toronto sagged off of Antetokounmpo when he pulled up for a jump shot and swarmed him anytime he got deep in the paint. Against Middleton, it was constant double teaming to stop him from getting off his deadly jumper.
“Just makes you uncomfortable; you cannot get into your rhythm,” Antetokounmpo said of the Raptors defence. “Being able to get to your spot and rise up or get to your spot and get a bucket gives you rhythm, gives you energy then you find the right pass, you play harder defensively, but just like whenever you’re in office. They just make you, they make you feel uncomfortable. Whenever you get the ball there’s somebody coming. Whenever you drive the ball somebody is coming to catch the spin. Whenever Khris has the ball in pick-and-roll they’re double teaming. So it’s just hard.”
It helps, of course, having some elite defenders as the first line of defence against the Bucks superstars. Anunoby spent nearly five minutes or 18.59 partial possessions covering Antetokounmpo and didn’t surrender a single point, according to NBA Stats. Actually, he didn’t surrender a single point to anyone he covered all night.
DeAndre’ Bembry’s night was very much the same. He spent the plurality of his evening on Middleton and didn’t surrender a single point in over five minutes or 19.53 partial possessions as Middleton’s primary defender, per NBA Stats.
“He’s got a good feel for what’s going on out there,” Nurse said of Bembry who made his first start of the season against Milwaukee. “He knows who he’s guarding and he can apply some heat.”
Part of being that aggressive is knowing you’re going to get burned once in a while. On some night, against some superstars, that pressure is going to create open shots either at the rim or behind the arc. It’s not always a recipe for success, but when it works, it can be really really frustrating for opposing teams.