Arguably the two best players in basketball will face off in the Eastern Conference Finals, as Giannis Antetokounmpo and Kawhi Leonard lead their teams in a highly-anticipated Bucks-Raptors series with a trip to the NBA Finals on the line.
(Games 5-7 if necessary.)
-Game 1: Raptors vs. Bucks | Wednesday, May 15 | 8:30 PM ET
-Game 2: Raptors vs. Bucks | Friday, May 17 | 8:30 PM ET
-Game 3: Bucks vs. Raptors | Sunday, May 19 | 7:00 PM ET
-Game 4: Bucks vs. Raptors | Tuesday, May 21 | 8:30 PM ET
-Game 5: Raptors vs. Bucks | Thursday, May 23 | 8:30 PM ET
-Game 6: Bucks vs. Raptors | Saturday, May 25 | 8:30 PM ET
-Game 7: Raptors vs. Bucks | Monday, May 27 | 8:30 PM ET
Leonard vs. Antetokounmpo
The headlines about the Eastern Conference being weak without LeBron James in it have been way off, as the best two players in the league arguably reside in the East with the Bucks’ Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Raptors’ Kawhi Leonard. The ascension of the Greek Freak just continues, and he could take home NBA MVP for his efforts this season. But Leonard has had a case for best two-way player in the league for a few years now—and he’s also as good as ever, particularly on the offensive end, where he’s hitting shots and putting up numbers that have drawn comparisons to Kobe Bryant. A big reason the Raptors advanced past the Sixers is because Leonard, who hit the first Game 7 buzzer-beater in NBA history, was clearly the best player on the court. The superstar that plays best might be the one that has his team heading to the Finals.
The play of Leonard and Antetokounmpo is obviously key, as the other guys on the roster follow their leads—but it will take big efforts from both supporting casts as each side looks to advance. While Leonard being the best player on the court was the difference in the last round for Toronto, the team was at its best in a Game 5 blowout victory when six players scored in double figures and Leonard wasn’t the leading scorer (it was rising star Pascal Siakam, with 25 points). For Milwaukee, Mike Budenholzer’s offensive system—along with an upgraded roster that has more depth—has helped make the Bucks an elite team. The Bucks getting back Malcolm Brogdon makes the team even deeper, with more lineup possibilities and specific utilization of impactful bench players like George Hill.
The two highest win totals in the NBA belonged to Milwaukee and Toronto during the regular season, as both squads got it done both at home (second- and third-best records in the league) and on the road (first- and second-best records in the league). The Bucks haven’t been pushed in a playoff series yet, but they’ll get a potential Game 7 at home, where their brand-new Fiserv Forum would have fans going crazy. Meanwhile, Toronto has Drake courtside at Scotiabank Arena, and the multi-talented star typically gets the crowd going and has shown he isn’t afraid to get involved with some trash talk to the opposing team.
Dominance vs. battle-tested
The Raptors finished just two games behind the Bucks during the regular season, but most people would agree Milwaukee was a better team, and they didn’t have much trouble eliminating the Pistons and Celtics this postseason. I’m not sure people realize how dominant the Bucks have been this year, with a whopping 52 of their 68 wins (including 7 of 8 in the playoffs) coming by double digits—but they’re only 5-6 in games decided by three points or less. Toronto was pushed to the limit by Philadelphia, and they’re 12-8 in games decided by one possession this season; in close games, they might have the advantage.
This is a complete toss-up that I think (and hope) will go seven games. But when in doubt, the home team should get the advantage. Look for Milwaukee’s supporting cast to outplay Toronto’s in what should be a down-to-the-wire series.
Bucks in seven.