The Milwaukee Bucks are favorites to win the Eastern Conference Finals. In this storybook dream season few saw coming, we’ve now arrived at the penultimate round where the Bucks not only have a chance to advance to their first NBA Finals since 1974, that’s what’s expected to happen. It’s still pretty insane that we’re saying these things about the Milwaukee Bucks and that they’re 100 percent true, isn’t it?
This is the time of year that gives cities stories to tell for generations. Milwaukee’s last trip to the East Finals was in 2001, and fans still talk about the “Light it up!” squad and the seven-game series against Allen Iverson’s Philadelphia 76ers that ended with broken hearts (and conspiracy theories!) in the Brew City.
But this 2019 team is a different beast. The top-seeded, 60-win Bucks were the best team in the NBA during the regular season, and they’ve been historically great through two rounds of the playoffs. After dispatching the Celtics in just five games, the Bucks are rolling. Many saw Boston as the trickiest match-up on the board for Milwaukee in the East, but after four straight victories—none of which were all that close at the end—the fanbase’s confidence is soaring.
Finishing the series in five has given the Bucks time to rest, heal, and watch the Toronto Raptors emerge victorious against the 76ers after an all-time miracle buzzer-beater from Kawhi Leonard in the closing seconds of Game 7 on Sunday.
The Raptors have been the second-best team in the East all season, finishing just two games behind the Bucks with a 58-24 record. They had the 5th-ranked offense and 5th-ranked defense during the regular season. It’s not a surprise to see them here. This is a really good team that the Bucks are going up against.
They’re also much different than the team Milwaukee faced in the first round of the 2017 playoffs. A lot can change in two years in the NBA, and a lot has. Chief among those changes came during last offseason when Raptors president Masai Ujiri made the most all-in move of all all-in moves, trading franchise cornerstone DeMar DeRozan in a deal for disgruntled megastar Kawhi Leonard, who is on the final year of his contract, and had demanded a trade from the San Antonio Spurs. The stakes couldn’t be higher for Toronto, both to ink Leonard to a long-term deal and to reach their first NBA Finals since joining the league in 1995.
Of course, the stakes are high for the Bucks as well, not only with the Finals just four wins away, but with five of the Bucks’ seven best players (Khris Middleton, Brook Lopez, Malcolm Brogdon, Nikola Mirotic, George Hill) headed to free agency this offseason, and perhaps the most important free agency decision in the NBA coming the following year with Giannis Antetokounmpo’s choice whether or not to sign the supermax extension the Bucks will most certainly offer on July 1, 2020.
You never know just how long a group like this could stay together or how many opportunities a team might have to win a title, especially with the way the NBA works nowadays. The window can slam shut before you even know it. These Bucks have been truly special from very early on this season, and it would be an enormous bummer to say the least for this ride not to pay off with a trip to the Finals.
But now, there’s basketball to be played, deer to fear, and an incredible, once-in-a-generation team to root for in the weeks ahead. Here are five things to watch for once the games tip off.
1. How will the Raptors try to stop Giannis?
As with all things Bucks, it all starts with Giannis Antetokounmpo. The likely MVP has continued his dominating ways in the postseason. Boston’s Al Horford was supposed to be among the best in the league at slowing Giannis down, but after a rough outing in Game 1 of the series, Giannis filled up the stat sheet, averaging 30 points, 11.8 rebounds, 6 assists, 1.8 blocks and 1.8 steals per game in the Bucks’ four victories. So if Horford and a good Boston defense couldn’t slow him down, what will the Raptors do?
Pascal Siakam, the likely winner of this year’s Most Improved Player award, will probably be Toronto’s primary defender on Giannis. The rangy forward with boundless energy might have the length and athleticism to match up with just about anyone at his position, but that’s not the case against Giannis, who he certainly doesn’t have the strength necessary to defend in the paint. Veteran big man Serge Ibaka will certainly see time on Giannis, though Ibaka couldn’t always keep Giannis away from the rim back in 2017, and the Greek Freak has only gotten better since. Marc Gasol, the former Memphis Grizzlies center who the Raptors traded for during the season, will surely fight Giannis for rebounds and do battle in the paint. Leonard is a two-time Defensive Player Of The Year and one of the game’s real forces on that end of the court, and though he could wreak havoc using his giant hands to create turnovers in the driving lanes, he just doesn’t have the size to match up with Giannis one-on-one. Toronto will need a team effort to have even a chance at slowing Giannis down.
And while the Boston series was not the one for Lopez to thrive, he (along with Mirotic) could play a key role in this series, spreading the floor and firing away from beyond the three-point line, keeping guys like Gasol and Ibaka on the move and out of the paint, creating more space and open driving lanes for Giannis to do his thing.
For any team, the two best ways to slow Giannis are 1. Try to get him in foul trouble, usually by drawing charges, and 2. Foul him on every play and hope the officials don’t whistle every violation. Boston tried this to some success, and Toronto will do their best, too. But that can only go so far. Even more than against the Celtics, there’s a chance for Giannis to deliver a signature moment during this series. The opportunity should be there.
2. Kawhi Leonard is a PROBLEM
It’s been a strange road to get here for the NBA’s quietest superstar, but Kawhi Leonard is having his moment. The miracle jumper he hit to defeat the Sixers is an all-timer and the biggest shot in Raptors history, and it capped off an incredible performance in the deciding game, where he scored 13 of the final 15 points on his way to 41 total (the next closest Raptor had 17).
It was an otherworldly series for Leonard. He averaged 34.7 points and 9.9 rebounds per game on top of All-World defense, shooting an absurd 53 percent on a ridiculously high number of shots. In Toronto’s four victories, he scored 45, 39, 21 (in a blowout), and 41 points. He’s been a Finals MVP, the best player on a 60+ win team, and yet, the best basketball of his career has come in these playoffs.
Getting the unenviable task of defending him this series will primarily be Khris Middleton, a very good defender who has fared reasonably well against Leonard in the past. Middleton having to spend so much energy defending Kawhi could shift his focus away from his offense this series (plus, he’ll be trying to score on the former DPOY, too), so don’t expect him to be the human flamethrower he was against Boston for the second straight year. Middleton will make Kawhi work, but he will still get buckets. The Bucks should be able to deploy Giannis—at his best defensively as patrolling the weak side, smothering anything coming his way, ready to pounce in a moment’s notice—in double-teams if Leonard really gets cooking.
Leonard’s one weak spot (if you can even call it that) is his playmaking ability. He dished out just 3.3 assists per game this season, a pretty low number for someone who handles the ball as much as he does. The Bucks and their top-ranked defense under Coach Mike Budenholzer (who coached Leonard years ago as an assistant in San Antonio), will know this, and will work to put him in positions to force him to move the ball more than he’s generally comfortable doing.
Beyond the X’s and O’s, there’s also one other aspect of Leonard’s rise here that’s worth mentioning: He might not be on the Raptors next year. The southern California native has indicated his preference to play for the Lakers or Clippers, and has not shown any signs of committing to Toronto beyond this year. This might be a one-year rental, and as short-term commodities go, this has been a CC Sabathia-to-the-Brewers-level success. But couldn’t that inject some weirdness to a locker room when the season is on the line and the team’s most important player (by far!) might have one foot out the door?
Leonard also found his way to Toronto after demanding a trade from the Spurs, one of the best organizations in sports, and sitting out most of last season due to a dispute with the franchise over the diagnosis of an injury. It’s bad for the league if players refuse to play in order to get their way. While player empowerment is important and should be valued over ownership in these disputes, but you still need to play the games. Maybe the injury was truly misdiagnosed, maybe he just wanted out, we’ll never really know. But Kawhi’s good fortune—you know, like getting four impossible bounces to sink his game-winner against Philly—can’t last forever, can it? Maybe karma is coming for Kawhi.
3. Do the Bucks have the better “Bench Mob”?
— Pat Connaughton (@pconnaughton) May 9, 2019
All season, the Raptors have been talked up as an deep team, with a talented bench full of athletes and shooters at multiple positions, where even the 10th or 11th man can come in and contribute. That hasn’t necessarily been the case in the playoffs. The postseason is the time of year when rotations tighten up and star players log more minutes, so some of this is to be expected. But by the end of the Sixers series, head coach Nick Nurse was really only playing Ibaka and guard Fred VanVleet, who shot a ghastly 7 (!) percent on threes, off the bench. Forward OG Anunoby is still a week away from returning to action after undergoing an emergency appendectomy, and Norm Powell has been in and out of the rotation all year. Beyond that, it gets rough.
The Bucks’ bench, however, has never looked stronger. George Hill was a true force against Boston, and was perhaps the best point guard in a series that included Kyrie Irving. Malcolm Brogdon, returning from injury, will bolster the reserve unit as he works his way back into the rotation (at least for Game 1, when Mirotic will start). Pat Connaughton, who has weirdly averaged the third-most minutes of any Buck this playoffs, has been making his presence felt on both ends, and is embracing his role on the “Bench Mob,” saying he wants to sell “Bench Mob” merch. Ersan Ilyasova has been a solid, as well, and along with Connaughton, Hill, and swingman Sterling Brown, formed a weirdo group that delivered a crushing blow to Boston in Game 4, extending the Bucks’ lead while Giannis sat with foul trouble. Tony Snell and DJ Wilson haven’t seen much time this playoffs, but either could still contribute if called upon.
This Bucks team just has a lot of weapons, a lot of different looks they can throw at you, and the ability to shapeshift in response to adjustments their opponents might make. The Raptors bench looks to have been exposed this postseason, particularly against Philly, and barring a major bounceback from VanVleet, it’s hard to see where that little extra could come from on the Raptors’ roster. Depth should be a distinct advantage for the Bucks.
4. How good is Kyle Lowry, really?
Pascal Siakam broke out this season, becoming Toronto’s best two-way player and the team’s second-leading scorer. He’s a big reason why the Raptors have been as good as they have all season.
So what of longtime Raptor point guard Kyle Lowry? He’s moved a rung down the pecking order, no doubt, as the clear third option on offense. He also has an up-and-down (and mostly down) history in the playoffs. He’s averaged only 12.4 points per game this postseason on poor shooting efficiency (41 percent, 28 percent on threes). He doesn’t really get to the free-throw line anymore. Sure, he’s a good passer and does the little things well and is an above average defender, but is that enough from such a crucial player at this point in the season? Is he really someone you can trust?
Lowry will be matched up with Eric Bledsoe, who has been inconsistent in the postseason, but is one of the best defenders at his position and has a monstrous athleticism advantage over the 33-year-old Lowry. Bledsoe also held Lowry to zero points in one of the Bucks’ three victories over the Raptors this season. The Bucks also have the luxury of Hill being Bledsoe’s backup, so if he does falter (which seems less likely in this series than vs. Boston), the team is still in steady hands.
If Lowry gets crushed in the point guard matchup, Toronto is in real trouble. With VanVleet struggling and Siakam likely to be guarded by Giannis, the Raptors need someone other than Leonard to handle the ball, make plays and knock down open threes. Whether or not Lowry rises to the occasion will go a long way toward determining Toronto’s fate.
5. How will each long-suffering franchise (and fanbase) react being this close to the Finals?
The Bucks and Raptors are not exactly perennial NBA powerhouses. They’ve been two of the hardest-luck teams in the league, with the Bucks going 18 years between playoff series victories and the Raptors advancing to just one Conference Finals in its entire history.
That series in 2016 was made memorable by LeBron James’ spectacular quote after Toronto evened the series at 2-2, saying “I’ve been a part of some really adverse situations and I just didn’t believe this was one of them.” LeBron’s Cavs went on to win the next two games of the series and eventually win the Finals.
LeBron has been the vanquisher of Toronto’s dreams in recent years, defeating them in 4-0 sweeps in both the 2017 and 2018 playoffs. After three straight years losing against James, the Raptors had to be thrilled to see him leave for the Lakers in the West. However, that exit happened just as Giannis has made the leap to the MVP level.
Watch any Toronto home game and you can sense that their raucous fans—as awesome as they are at that Jurassic Park plaza outside the arena—are on edge, in fear of that next crushing loss. After Jimmy Butler drove to tie the game before Leonard’s shot, you could see from the faces of the Toronto crowd that the feeling of dread had returned. Did Kawhi’s shot serve as “an act of exorcism for a franchise that built an entire identity around being lovable losers,” as one Toronto sportswriter put it? We’ll see.
Of course, a sense of dread is ingrained in every Milwaukee sports fan. We haven’t had a championship victory parade come through this town since 1971. The Bucks have been the black sheep of the Wisconsin sports universe, losing in obscurity for decades. Even though Milwaukee is favored and has home-court advantage, it’s still hard to wrap one’s mind around the Bucks advancing to the NBA Finals.
For both Bucks and Raptors fans, this is best team many have ever cheered on. What is it going to be like when these long-suffering franchises are at the precipice? How are these cities and fanbases going to handle their team’s best shot at a title? Who will rise to the occasion when the lights are brightest? Are the Bucks—the Milwaukee freaking Bucks—really going to do this?!?
The Eastern Conference Finals start Wednesday. This is what we’ve been waiting for. Let’s. Go. Bucks.