For fans who waited 18 years to witness a Raptors playoff moment that inspires awe instead of disappointment, the ecstasy of Kawhi Leonard‘s instantly iconic Game 7 buzzer beater surely hasn’t faded. Nor should it.
As we drift further from each of those bounces on the rim and closer to the opening tip-off of Round 3, both Milwaukee and Toronto’s bodies of work have revealed a handful of essential plot points to pay attention to in the Eastern Conference Finals:
Storylines to follow
Battle of the biggest names
Throughout the playoffs Antetokounmpo has posted averages of 27.4 points, 11.4 rebounds and 4.4 assists per game while being the linchpin to the Bucks’ offensive and defensive schemes. Leonard, too, has played the part of singular Jordan-esque force in Rounds 1 and 2 with averages of 31.8 points per game on an absurd 59.6 effective field-goal percentage.
The story of who reaches four wins first will have more nuance to it than which superstar delivers the more transcendent performance. But getting to see a duel between two of the game’s best, at their best, is rare and not something to take for granted.
The Raptors have made the Eastern Conference Finals before, yes, but for the first time in team history there is no LeBron-sized mountain standing in their way. Will Giannis prove to be an equally insurmountable gatekeeper, or is this team the one that pushes further than any Toronto squad before it?
If Leonard’s buzzer beater is the moment that signalled the beginning of a new story — the next phase in Raptors history as opposed to a single, breathtaking, high watermark to close out their ‘Era of Relevance’ — then that story’s first lines will be written against the Bucks.
Matchups that matter
Nick Nurse vs. Mike Budenholzer
Nurse’s rotations have come under scrutiny during the playoffs, in the first round for not playing Leonard enough and then in the second round for not matching Marc Gasol‘s minutes with Joel Embiid’s despite that seeming the clear best choice for containing Philadelphia’s star big man.
Budenholzer, on the other hand, has received wide-reaching acclaim for the job he has done transforming the Bucks from middle-of-the-pack playoff team to Finals contender.
On offence, the Bucks’ scheme surrounds Antetokounmpo with capable shooters so he may wreak havoc in the paint. It’s worked. Antetokounmpo has averaged a league-leading seven made field goals per game at the rim and the Bucks as a team have posted a 54.7 effective field-goal percentage — trailing only the Golden State Warriors in that department.
Defensively, Budenholzer deploys Antetokounmpo as a free-safety, letting him use his combination of unparalleled length and preternatural instincts to affect how possessions unfold while simultaneously enabling his teammates to dial into executing one area of strength.
Khris Middleton vs. Leonard
In the playoffs Middleton has averaged 19.1 points per game and shot 46.7 per cent from beyond the arc, becoming the perfect second star to pair with the inside presence of Antetokounmpo. But it’s how he contains — or fails to contain — Leonard that may swing the series.
Over three games against him, Middleton matched up with Leonard an average of 47.7 possessions and held him to just 12 points on 40.7-per cent shooting during those instances. A small sample, to be sure, and Leonard in the playoffs appears to have entered a different airspace as a scorer.
But if Middleton locks down Leonard enough that other Raptors are forced to step up, Toronto’s performance against the 76ers should not inspire confidence that someone else can shoulder the load for long stretches.
Pascal Siakam vs. Antetokounmpo
Antetokounmpo eviscerated the Raptors in the three games he faced them this season, averaging 27 points, 15.3 rebounds and five assists while shooting 58.5 per cent from the field and 41.7 per cent from long range.
Guarding Antetokounmpo will likely be a job accomplished by committee, with Leonard, Siakam, Danny Green and possibly even Gasol and Ibaka spending stretches trying to slow him down depending on the situation.
But with Leonard shouldering as much of the offensive burden as he has been and no combination of Gasol, Green or Ibaka possessing the athleticism to guard Antetokounmpo for more than stretches, the lion’s share of the responsibility will fall to Siakam.
In those three games against the Raptors, Siakam guarded Giannis for an average of just over 31 possessions per game, during which he scored 13.7 points on 55.6-per cent shooting with 1.7 assists. It’s unreasonable to ask a single player to shut the Greek Freak down entirely, but for the Raptors to have a chance at seeing the Finals, some part of his game — whether that’s outside scoring, shooting at the rim or passing — must be affected.
Will Marc Gasol shoot the ball?
Gasol regularly appeared reluctant to shoot when left open at the three-point line against Philadelphia. Against Milwaukee, that won’t be sustainable. Leonard taking on the world can’t be the strategy trotted out possession after possession.
An essential part of Milwaukee’s defensive scheme is letting Brook Lopez drop back into the paint and focus solely on rim protection as opposed to having responsibilities on the perimeter.
If Gasol punishes that by taking — and making — the shots that will be given to him, it will force the Bucks to recalibrate. If he doesn’t, Lopez can spend the series frustrating Kyle Lowry, Leonard and Siakam when they step within six feet of the rim.
Whose bench shows up?
Toronto’s bench performance in the playoffs has been damaging, averaging just 21.6 points per game without offering anything in the way of suffocating defence to compensate for it. Not having OG Anunoby hurts their depth, but Fred VanVleet, Norman Powell and Jeremy Lin have struggled to be even net-neutral factors in the playoffs.
Milwaukee, on the other hand, has gotten impressive play from their reserves — most notably George Hill, who averaged 25.2 minutes and 14.2 points per game while shooting 47.4 per cent from long range in five games against the Celtics. On the whole, though, the Bucks’ bench players have averaged 37.4 points per game in the playoffs while being a plus-4.5 in their time on the court. The winner of the non-star minutes may prove to be the winner of the series altogether.
Throughout the regular season, Toronto assembled the highest scoring transition offence in the NBA, averaging a league-best 4.7 points per 100 possessions (Pts/Poss) added, per Cleaning the Glass. The league’s best transition defence? Milwaukee, of course.
For the Bucks’ defence, transition opportunities led to a minuscule 1.5 Pts/Poss added. Notably, Milwaukee is no slouch when it comes to fast-break buckets either. They averaged 3.7 Pts/Poss added, the third-best mark in the league, which may prove problematic for a Raptors’ squad that mustered the league’s 10th-best defence in transition.
An elemental part of winning the transition battle begins with the fight for rebounds. Securing offensive rebounds impairs transition chances for your opponent, snagging quick defensive ones quick starts your own.
Among teams still in the playoffs, Toronto has been the worst at collecting rebounds, averaging just 41.8 per game. Milwaukee, in comparison, leads all playoff teams with 52 per game.
Per Cleaning the Glass, both the Bucks and Raptors generated 34.2 per cent of their fast-break points off of a rebound in the regular season — as opposed to off of steals or turnovers.