Photo by John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports
All year long, Thon Maker was more a prodigious novelty than a helpful contributor for the Milwaukee Bucks. He started 27 games after the All-Star break, over which he averaged 4.5 points and 2.4 rebounds in 12.7 minutes. During these games, there developed a somewhat comical routine: Greg Monroe hops off the bench midway through the first and third quarters, and Maker is never to be heard from again.
He played just 33 fourth-quarter minutes after the break; other than to give the 20-year-old some experience banging up against starters, these stints made little sense for a team that was pushing towards the postseason. Then Game 2 happened.
Down the stretch of a tight, critical playoff thriller, Milwaukee Bucks head coach Jason Kidd trusted Maker enough to ride him through the final 9:40. It made plenty of sense. Maker's individual numbers won't pop off a stat sheet, and Toronto isn't exactly terrified of him taking over as a scorer, but he can impact a game in subtle ways that few players come close to replicating.
Take this sequence that played out with just under seven minutes left in the first quarter as an example: Bucks swingman Khris Middleton sized up Raptors guard DeMar DeRozan on the left wing. He leaned into a hesitation move before a burst toward the baseline, his sweet spot.
Toronto's largest help defenders reacted immediately, with Serge Ibaka sliding off Giannis Antetokounmpo to cut off Middleton's drive and Jonas Valanciunas drifting up to help the helper. That left Maker all alone in the right corner, where he shot 29.4 percent during the regular season.
Middleton sidearmed a pass to Maker, and once again Toronto's defense reacted accordingly. DeMarre Carroll sprinted to the ball, while Kyle Lowry slid over to cover Carroll's man, Malcolm Brogdon, hanging out on the right wing.
With 13 seconds on the shot clock, it was a tough spot for any player, let alone a rookie feeling through the second playoff game of his career. Maker's options were limited. He could shoot a contested corner three (nah), attack the closeout and drive into a crowd of three Raptors (lord, no), or quickly move the ball up to Brogdon, who was covered but had enough space to get open (ding, ding, ding!).
Instead, Maker kicked down Door D: he Syndergaarded a skip pass cross court to a wide-open Tony Snell. The toss wasn't perfect, but Snell still had plenty of time to catch, rise, and release before Lowry could fall back to bother him. Swish.
One brilliant play doesn't erase the mistakes Maker still frequently commits, but the physical awesomeness that allows him to correct course in the middle of a possession can't be taught. He's long and fast enough to guard all five positions, protect the rim, clog up passing lanes, and block shots 15 feet from the basket.
Antetokounmpo is the resident "freak" in Milwaukee, but Maker's rise to join him means the Bucks could sit atop the Eastern Conference for years to come.