Previewing the Bucks-Raptors Eastern Conference Finals showdown
Four bounces and a buzzer beater later, the Toronto Raptors are headed to Milwaukee with a trip to the NBA Finals on the line.
After narrowly surviving the star-studded Sixers in round two, Toronto will now face the top-seeded and well-rested Milwaukee Bucks, who will have had a week off between games once the Eastern Conference Finals tips at 7:30 p.m. at Fiserv Forum on Wednesday, May 15.
As two of the NBA's top one-name stars and two-way forces, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Kawhi Leonard are the series' clear headliners, with both operating at the peak of their powers throughout the postseason. Giannis is averaging 27-11-4 on 52/32/67 percent shooting in just 31 minutes per game during the playoffs; Kawhi, the 2014 Finals MVP, is posting 32-9-4 on 54/41/87 percent shooting in 37 minutes.
Leonard did literally everything for the Raptors during Sunday's Game 7, playing 43 minutes, launching 39 shots and hitting the biggest basket in franchise history.
Milwaukee won three of the four head-to-head matchups with Toronto during the regular season, though they have yet to play since the All-Star break. (Antetokounmpo and Leonard both sat out an Oct. 29 Bucks win.)
The defensive matchups in this series will be telling, particularly as head coaches Mike Budenholzer and Nick Nurse attempt to move their star pieces around the chessboard. Leonard is a two-time Defensive Player of the Year, and Antetokounmpo has a chance to capture the award this summer.
How much will they guard each other? Antetokounmpo certainly has a size advantage on the Raptors 6-foot-7 forward, but Leonard's 7-foot-3 wingspan can cause more problems than most for the Freak. As Mike Zavagno reported, Leonard did well in limited possessions against Giannis in the regular season.
My guess is Khris Middleton will start on Kawhi with Toronto's third-year wing Pascal Siakam guarding Giannis. Middleton held his own against Leonard this year, and the Bucks prefer to use Antetokounmpo as an off-ball rim protector anyways. Siakam is 6-foot-9 with his own 7-foot-3 wingspan and has developed into one of the league's nastiest defensive presences, though Antetokounmpo did torch him in the regular season.
Among the starting lineups, the defensive matchups likely set up as Eric Bledsoe vs. Kyle Lowry, Malcolm Brogdon vs. Danny Green, Middleton vs. Leonard, Antetokounmpo vs. Siakam, and Brook Lopez vs. Marc Gasol. Still, don't be surprised to see Leonard slide over to guard Giannis as soon as Antetokounmpo gets rolling, or Giannis shift to Leonard for a few positions to spell Middleton.
Backup big man Serge Ibaka could also soak up a few minutes against Antetokounmpo, though Giannis will likely be slobbering at any opportunity to take him off the dribble. The lanky OG Anunoby would be a perfect Giannis antedote in theory, but the 21-year-old has yet to play since undergoing an emergency appendectomy in mid-April. His status for this series is unknown.
Offensively, while we can pencil in Antetokounmpo and Leonard for at least 30 points a night, the series will largely decided by their surrounding parts. Bledsoe and Middleton's efficiency slipped late in the Boston series, but they still played with encouraging aggression. Even in the biggest series of their careers, it would be surprising to see them shrink from the moment.
On the other hand, Lowry and Gasol – with their combined eight all-star appearances and nearly 150 playoff games between them – have withered under the spotlight through the first two rounds. Gasol has only attempted double-digit shots once in the Raptors' 12 playoff games, despite averaging 31 minutes per night. And Lowry is in the middle of his usual spring disappearing act, totaling just 12.4 points per game on 41 percent shooting.
The two vets are supposed to stabilize the Raptors' core lineups, yet they have mostly deferred to a harmful degree. Siakam – potentially the NBA's Most Improved Player of the Year – has picked up a large portion of the slack, but when he went cold in the Philly series, it forced an unsustainable burden upon Leonard.
Gasol should have a favorable matchup against Lopez – who is just 6-28 from three in his last six games – but Lowry will need to match Bledsoe's intensity. If Antetokounmpo moves away from the paint to guard Leonard, Lowry must have the wherewithal to attack the rim while Milwaukee is vulnerable.
Lowry's playoff record is spotty at best, but this may be his last legitimate chance to reach the NBA Finals. We'll see how he responds.
Milwaukee has been operating with an eight-man rotation throughout the postseason and was just buoyed by the return of Brogdon. He had 10 points, four assists and three steals in 17 minutes in Game 5 against Boston – his first game action in nearly two months – but he should be back to full speed with this week of rest between series. His reliable shooting, team defense and playmaking against close outs will be integral against Toronto. Brogdon averaged 15-4-3 in the four regular season meetings with the Raptors.
Toronto, on the other hand, is only relying on seven players right now (the five starters plus Ibaka and Fred Van Vleet). A longer series should favor the fresher Bucks.
It's not a stretch to say the NBA's impending balance of power could come down to the Eastern Conference Finals.
Will any result tilt Kawhi's – a notoriously prickly and tough-to-read star – pending free agency status? If Leonard leaves Toronto, will the Raptors front office sell-off aging All-Stars Lowry, Ibaka and Gasol, dismantling one of the league's most consistent regular season rosters of the decade in the process?
Is Khris Middleton's status still up in the air? General manager Jon Horst's recent comments to reporter Kane Pitman made it seem like a deal is in the offing, but could that change with a bad series? Could more teams pursue Middleton if he has monster run? If Milwaukee and Middleton are slow to come to terms, some team is likely to hand Middleton a blank check once the musical chairs of top-tier stars comes to a halt.
Giannis' 2021 free agency could create the next big league-wide sweepstakes, but a trip to the NBA Finals in 2019 only makes it more likely he sticks around the Cream City long-term.
But the most important question: Can the Bucks seize this moment?
The league is currently at an inflection point, and the Bucks are built as well anyone to pick up the Warriors' torch if Kevin Durant does move elsewhere.
Whipping Boston on the national stage is one thing, but it's clear the Celtics' implosion had been a long time coming. Beating a veteran Toronto squad – even with all of its foibles – is a wholly different task. Losing to the Raptors certainly does not prohibit the Bucks from taking another step forward in the coming seasons; after all, this has already been a massively successful campaign. But these moments are rare, and who's to say the puzzle pieces will ever fit so snugly around Giannis again?
But boy, if the Bucks do come to play against Toronto, then the road to a championship could come through Milwaukee deep into the 2020s. A team that has an unselfish pre-prime superstar with a playoff track record, solid sidekicks under contract, a quality coach on the sidelines and a well-managed front office at the helm immediately becomes a destination organization, no matter the market. The opportunity to launch a full-scale Milwaukee hoops revolution is sitting on a platter.
Final prediction: Bucks in six. Leonard and Antetokounmpo do battle all series long, but the Bucks' deeper rotation tips the scales in Milwaukee's favor, almost certainly setting up a showdown with the defending champion Warriors.
That's when the real questions begin.
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