One of these teams is going to fill the void opened by LeBron James’ departure to the Western Conference. For the Raptors, it might seem as if they have a claim on a Finals trip after getting put out by The Man himself the past three postseasons. For the Bucks, the rise to East finalists may strike some as an abrupt jump but, truth be told, they wasted a year of playoff development in 2018, so they’re about where they expected to be by now, too.
There are similarities between these teams: Both are led by MVP-caliber forwards in Giannis Antetokounmpo and Kawhi Leonard. Both have solid sidekicks (Khris Middleton and Pascal Siakam) and sturdy veteran point guards (Eric Bledsoe, Kyle Lowry).
Coaches Mike Budenholzer and Nick Nurse are wrapping up their first seasons with the Bucks and Raptors, respectively. Milwaukee finished the regular season with two more victories and both teams are sitting on eight wins through two playoff rounds.
Milwaukee and Toronto both finished in the league’s top five offensively and defensively. And both rolled the dice on important in-season moves, with the Bucks adding George Hill and Nikola Mirotic while the Raptors acquired Marc Gasol.
The differences? Slight. Milwaukee holds home court and is a far superior rebounding team. Toronto creates more turnovers. Over the next 10 days to two weeks, one of these teams will win at least one more game than the other. And that’s why they play them.
Three things to watch
1. The Antetokounmpo-Leonard matchup. Both of these All-NBA caliber players make their presence felt on both ends. But that doesn’t mean they’ll be locked into an individual matchup all night. That would be folly, given the offensive load each carries. So Leonard can expect to see Middleton on him and Antetokounmpo will be monitored by Siakam, among others.
2. Which bench is “mobbier?” Toronto arguably had the best bench in the NBA in 2017-18, but this season Siakam’s move into the starting lineup, assorted injuries and some altered rotations worked against the Raptors’ depth. Milwaukee’s reserves, meanwhile, have dialed up their play as the season and postseason have ground on. Here’s one measure of their effectiveness: When Antetokounmpo has sat in the playoffs, the Bucks have actually done better, outscoring foes by 21 points per 100 possessions. When Leonard sits down, the Raptors are 16 points worse.
3. Keep one eye on the third guys. It’s possible, over seven games, that Antetokounmpo, Leonard, Middleton and Siakam largely cancel each other out in talent and big plays. If so, each team could find itself looking to its stocky point guard for an edge. Lowry and Bledsoe had inconsistent seasons offensively, but Lowry had a post-All Star bump and some indispensable stretches in the first two rounds. Bledsoe’s defense has earned praise from his coaches all season.
The number to know
30.1 -- Through two playoff rounds, the Raptors have been 30.1 points per 100 possessions better offensively with Leonard on the floor (scoring 113.2 per 100) than they've been with him off the floor (83.1). Leonard has been almost everything for the Raptors' offense (the least efficient offense of the four remaining), averaging 31.8 points per game (second most in the postseason) and creating open shots for his teammates via the attention he's drawn from the Orlando and Philadelphia defenses.
The on-off numbers were very similar in the regular season series vs. the Bucks, when the Raptors were 27.9 points per 100 possessions better offensively with Leonard on the floor (scoring 115.9 per 100) than they were with him on the bench (88.0). The 105.0 points per 100 possessions the Raptors scored over four games against Milwaukee was their third worst mark against any opponent in the regular season. Lowry shot 1-for-20 from 3-point range in the season series.
Leonard's usage rate of 26.2 percent was his second lowest mark against any Eastern Conference opponent. The Bucks were relatively good at getting the ball out of his hands. But Toronto was still pretty good offensively against the league's No. 1 defense when their best player was in the game. And though Milwaukee won two of the three games in which Leonard and Antetokounmpo played, the Raptors outscored the Bucks by 19 points in 84 total minutes with both stars on the floor.
-- John Schuhmann
This could swing on the age-old question of rest vs. momentum. The Bucks polished off Boston in five games and will have had a full week between games when the East finals start. A layoff served them well after the first round and every team in the league would opt for rest. But Toronto’s remarkable Game 7 finish in defeating Philadelphia -- Leonard’s four-bounces-on-the-rim, series-clinching buzzer-beater -- might give the Raptors energy to make up for their grindier semifinals series. The conference’s two best teams will duke it out, and it says here they finish ranked the way they enter. Bucks in 6.
Game 1: Wed, May 15, Toronto at Milwaukee, 8:30 ET, TNT
Game 2: Fri, May 17, Toronto at Milwaukee, 8:30 ET, TNT
Game 3: Sun, May 19, Milwaukee at Toronto, 7 ET, TNT
Game 4: Tue, May 21, Milwaukee at Toronto, 8:30 ET, TNT
*Game 5: Thu, May 23, Toronto at Milwaukee, 8:30 ET, TNT
*Game 6: Sat, May 25, Milwaukee at Toronto, 8:30 ET, TNT
*Game 7: Mon, May 27, Toronto at Milwaukee, 8:30 ET, TNT
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