Similarities between Bucks, Raptors abound in East finals

NBA.com Global on May 14, 2019 01:55 PM
Similarities between Bucks, Raptors abound in East finals
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By Steve Aschburner, NBA.com

One of these teams is going to fill the void opened by LeBron James’ departure to the West. 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.

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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).

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 pick

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.

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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