It’s the Eastern Conference finals that we wanted (unless we are Sixers/Celtics fans) and it’s the one we deserve: A matchup between the teams with the two best records in the regular season, each with an MVP-caliber superstar leading the way.
For the Bucks, this series might be the beginning of a long reign atop the East. Giannis Antetokounmpo is young and only getting better; he also has two years left on his contract and seems committed to Milwaukee for the long haul. Depending on whether Khris Middleton decides to re-sign with the Bucks, they seem committed to this direction for the foreseeable future.
For the Raptors, though, this might be a one-season championship window. Kyle Lowry isn’t getting any younger; Marc Gasol isn’t getting any younger. And Kawhi Leonard, as Masai Ujiri knew when he pulled the trigger on the gutsy trade last offseason, will be a free agent July 1. This series could serve as both a prove-it moment for Kawhi – does he want to go all-in on the Raptors for his future? – and a last-chance moment for this version of the Raptors to make the NBA Finals. If Kawhi leaves, one can assume Ujiri will rebuild the franchise in his own image and around Pascal Siakam.
Here are the top storylines going into what should be a great Eastern Conference Finals.
- Can Kawhi Leonard continue to channel Michael Jordan? Calling Kawhi “Jordanesque” during the series against the Philadelphia 76ers was no exaggeration. Leonard scored 243 points in the seven-game series, the most in a single postseason series since Jordan scored 246 points in the 1993 NBA Finals. (To be fair, that Bulls-Suns series from 1993 was only a six-gamer.) The Raptors needed every bit of it in this series – the hyper-efficiency of Games 1-4, the volume scoring of Game 7, the elite defense always. He only played 60 games during the regular season for a reason: So he would be fresh for the playoffs. Will that strategy pay off?
- Related: Can the Raptors get enough from their non-Kawhi supporting cast? The Raptors at their best have Kawhi playing the role of MVP-caliber Batman while being aided by a whole number of Robins: the versatile and springy Pascal Siakam, the do-the-little-things Lowry, the floor-warping high-IQ big man in Gasol and 3-and-D maestro Danny Green. That supporting cast waxed and waned during the Sixers series. The Raptors’ best win came in Game 5, when all the Raptors starters plus Serge Ibaka scored in double digits. Against a deep, dangerous Bucks team, the Raptors will need that sort of effort from the non-Kawhis.
- Is Giannis Antetokounmpo ready for his moment? He is the likely NBA MVP this season, and possibly will become the face of the league for the post-LeBron era. But superstars often experience postseason failures and learn from them before they reach the highest levels of success. Michael Jordan had to lose to the Detroit Pistons to forge his greatness. LeBron had to have the dramatic failure of his first season in Miami to forge his greatness. How far can Giannis take his Bucks in his first real shot on a championship-level team?
- Does experience deep into the playoffs matter? The Bucks haven’t been pushed in a series yet. What happens when the Raptors put a scare into them? The Raptors have a former Finals MVP in Leonard, while the Bucks’ experience deep into the postseason is lacking. The Bucks as a franchise haven’t made a conference finals since 2000-01. The only player in their rotation who has made it past a conference semifinals is George Hill; he played in two Eastern Conference finals with the Indiana Pacers and made the NBA Finals last season with the Cleveland Cavaliers. Will playoff experience matter?
- Has Malcolm Brogdon missed a beat? He certainly didn’t look like it in Game 5 against the Boston Celtics when he returned from nearly two months of not playing due to injury. Brogdon only played 16 minutes, though, in his first game back since the March 15 injury. Is he fully in game shape and ready to come back and play 30 minutes a night and be the 50-40-90 player who was so key to the Bucks’ success?
- Can anyone stop Giannis Antetokounmpo? The Raptors might employ the single best Giannis-stopper in the league in Kawhi Leonard. Kawhi hardly guarded Giannis when the Raptors faced the Bucks during the regular season, meaning this will be a new experience for Giannis and the Bucks. But Giannis is superhuman, the likely league MVP with a roster around him that’s perfectly tooled to maximize his talents. The Raptors could bring double-teams on Giannis, but that’s the rub with the Greek Freak: Few players are better at passing out of double teams.
- In an NBA that increasingly favors offense, will this series be all about the defense? The Bucks had the best defensive rating in the NBA during the regular season; the Raptors ranked fifth. These two teams have been statistically the best defenses of the playoffs, with the Bucks allowing 98.2 points per 100 possessions and the Raptors allowing 100.3 points per 100 possessions. Defense wins championships, and these may be the two best defenses in the NBA.
- Can the George Hill renaissance continue? In 40 regular-season games after the Bucks traded for him, Hill averaged 20.4 minutes and 6.8 points while shooting 28 percent from 3. In five games against Boston in the semifinals, Hill excelled, averaging 25.2 minutes and 14.2 points while shooting 47.4 percent from 3. It stands to reason that Brogdon’s return should mean significantly less Hill, but Mike Budenholzer might ride the hottest hand.
- Can the Raptors bench hold serve against the Bucks bench? A year ago it was a common refrain to say that the Raptors had one of the best benches in the NBA. No more. The Raptors have averaged 21.6 points from their bench in the playoffs – only the Rockets‘ bench averaged fewer – while the Bucks have averaged 37.4 points from their bench, third in the playoffs. (Caveat: The Raptors only rarely went to their bench during the hard-fought series against the Sixers, while the Bucks have had plenty of garbage time for bench players during their two series.) However, check out these stats: When Kawhi has been on the court during these playoffs, the Raptors are outscoring their opponents by 13.8 points per 100 possessions; when he’s off the court, they’re getting outscored by 13.3 points per 100 possessions. He has meant absolutely everything to the Raptors. Whereas the Bucks have outscored their opponents by 17.6 points per 100 possessions with Giannis on the floor – but are still outscoring their opponents by 11.6 points per 100 possessions during the playoffs when Giannis is on the bench.