After two rounds, the two best teams in the East remain. The Raptors and Bucks tip off their best-of-seven series Wednesday night, with the winner advancing to the NBA Finals. Toronto and Milwaukee were a cut above their conference competitors during the regular season, though they’ve taken different paths in the playoffs. The Bucks steamrolled Detroit and gentlemanly swept the Celtics, while the Raptors survived an incredibly brief scare against the Magic before a seven-game thriller against the Sixers. The East finals will now feature the two best players left on its side of the bracket in Kawhi Leonard and Giannis Antetokounmpo. Which of them—and which team—will come out on top? Let’s ask some questions before making a pick.
What pace will the series be played at?
Styles make fights, or some other cliché about how these teams have different approaches. Pace always fascinates me during the NBA playoffs. Like three-point shooting, it can often be an important factor not only over the course of a series, but within an individual game. The Bucks and Raptors play at different speeds. Milwaukee has played at the second-fastest pace in the postseason, and at the fastest in the second round. Toronto, meanwhile, has been the third-slowest team out of the entire playoff field. This all passes the eye test. The Bucks look best when Giannis is getting out in transition or semi-transition and punishing defenses that can’t load up against him. Kawhi likes to pound the ball in the halfcourt, and his teammates like to methodically move the ball until finding the perfect shot.
Whoever can make their opponent acquiesce to their style of play could have an early advantage in this series. The Bucks are certainly capable of playing slower, and the Raptors can hang in an up-and-down game, but each team certainly has its preference. I do wonder if Toronto will ultimately slightly tick upward in pace, if only to prevent Leonard from having to face a set defense every time down the floor. Milwaukee has had the best defense in the league all year long, and the Bucks will be a different animal (quite literally) to score against than the Sixers. Toronto could get a little more athletic by playing Serge Ibaka at center over Marc Gasol, a strategy that could help defensively as well. It’s going to be a tricky balance for the Raptors, who could need speed to find better looks offensively, but not to move too fast so they play into Milwaukee’s hands.
Can the Raptors rediscover their three-point shooting?
The Bucks’ famously spaced out the floor for Giannis after last year, and Mike Budenholzer’s plan worked to perfection. Milwaukee attempted the second-most threes during the regular season, and now with Houston out, is the most three-happy team left in the playoffs. The Bucks are currently connecting on a reasonable 35.4% of their shots from beyond the arc, which is in line with what they did before the postseason. It’s been a different story for the Raptors.
Toronto is shooting only 32.7% from three through two rounds, a decent dropoff from its regular season mark of 36.6%, which was sixth-best in the NBA. Even generally trustworthy shooters like Kyle Lowry and Danny Green have seen their efficiency drop over the last 12 games, and that’s heavily contributed to the Kawhi-or-nothing nature of the Raptors’ offense.
Even against Milwaukee’s defense, Toronto should be able to find some good looks from the outside. If Brook Lopez is dropping on picks, Gasol needs to be aggressive when he pops out to the perimeter and looks to shoot more often. If the Bucks are switching and/or Kawhi is getting doubled on the block, whoever catches the kickout pass needs to be ready to go. Milwaukee’s rotations are generally solid, so Toronto needs to be decisive in its outside shooting. If the Raptors more closely produce the three-point output they did during the regular season, they’ll have a much better chance at pulling off the upset.
Who has the better answer for the other’s star?
The Kawhi vs. Giannis matchup is sexy, but we probably won’t see them go head-to-head until the end of the fourth—if at all. Both teams have bodies they will throw at the other’s superstar, and neither will have a great counterpunch to these offensive behemoths. Having said that...I like who the Raptors have to throw at Giannis a little bit more than who the Bucks have to throw at Kawhi. Pascal Siakam, Ibaka, and Gasol will likely all get to take their swings at Antetokounmpo. Maybe Danny Green will get some reps in a pinch. Or perhaps OG Anunoby miraculously returns for this series to play some key defensive minutes. In Siakam and Ibaka, Toronto can attack Giannis with length and athleticism. What Gasol lacks in footspeed, he makes up for in intelligence. (Putting him on Giannis would also keep Gasol closer to the rim.) None of these guys are going to stop The Greek Freak, but the Raptors at least have versatility in the individuals they can try against him.
On the other side, Milwaukee’s team defense will likely matter more than any individual against Leonard. Khris Middleton will likely draw the assignment for much of the game. Maybe Tony Snell plays a little bit more this series. The Bucks’ best individual defenders are their guards, and they are a touch too small than ideal for matching up against someone like Leonard. Milwaukee’s overall length and discipline still make its defense very difficult to score against, but Kawhi’s iso-ball could still find pockets of success.
The way Milwaukee dispatched Boston spoke volumes to me. The Celtics were the presumptive East favorite heading into the season, and much more experienced than the Bucks in regards to playoff basketball. And Milwaukee still overwhelmed them. I was skeptical of the Bucks heading into the playoffs, but they’ve violently silenced any doubts by being the most dominant team of the postseason. The Raptors have looked rickety at times, and the burden on Kawhi could catch up to them against a disciplined, well-rounded team like the Bucks.
Milwaukee in six.