• Kyle Russell

Eastern Conference Finals Preview: Bucks vs. Raptors

Eastern Conference Finals Preview: Milwaukee Bucks vs. Toronto Raptors

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

And then there were four. The first two rounds of the 2019 NBA Playoffs are complete, leaving only the best of the best to duke it out in the final two rounds. In the East, the first seeded Milwaukee Bucks will take on the second seeded Toronto Raptors. It’s been a compelling Eastern Conference Playoffs as it is the first time since 2010 that a team without LeBron James will be the one to represent the East in the NBA Finals. These two teams have been atop the standings all season and this should be a great series.

The Raptors come in after barely getting past the Philadelphia 76ers in seven games, with star player Kawhi Leonard hitting a game-winning buzzer beater that bounced off the rim FOUR times. I repeat, FOUR times. Actually saying it doesn’t do it justice, it’s something that has to be seen.

It was a highlight moment for Leonard, who’s arguably been the best player in these playoffs.

Overall, the Raptors have had a fantastic season. They won 58 games despite resting Leonard on every back-to-back. Pascal Siakam emerged as a legitimate star that will most likely win the Most Improved Player Award for his high-energy two-way play. At the end of the season they had the number five offensive and defensive rating in the league, good for the number three overall net rating. They used a deep rotation under new head coach Nick Nurse and continued to have the same success they have had in previous seasons with the bonus of a trip to the Conference Finals.

Despite losing a close game to the Orlando Magic to start the first round, the Raptors responded by winning the next four to close out that series. Against the 76ers, it was much tougher, with the series going back and forth a few times with each team looking dominant and in control of the series. Ultimately, it came down to a rock-fight in Game 7, where Leonard took 39 shots and scored 41 points, the last two critical points coming on the aforementioned shot. Battle-tested and battle-proven, the Raptors return to the Conference Finals for just the second time in franchise history, where they hope to make their first NBA Finals appearance.

If the Raptors’ story was about pushing it to the limit to advance, the Bucks have been the opposite, destroying everything in their path the first two rounds. Last offseason the Bucks hired coach Mike Budenholzer, who installed a 3-point heavy system that opened the floor for superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo. Antetokounmpo responded by turning in an MVP caliber season and leading the Bucks to 60 wins and the best record in the NBA. In the regular season the Bucks had the number four offensive rating, number one defensive rating, and the best overall net rating by a wide margin.

The Bucks’ domination didn’t stop with the regular season. They dispatched the Detroit Pistons in four blowout games, though the Pistons didn’t have their best player Blake Griffin for the first two games. In the Conference Semifinals against the Boston Celtics, the Celtics came out and punched the Bucks in the face to take Game 1 by employing a similar strategy used to beat the Bucks in last year’s playoffs. In return, the Bucks adjusted and proceeded to blow the Celtics out over the next four games to win the series and advance to their first Conference Finals since 2001. Once Antetokounmpo got aggressive, the Celtics had no answer.

Coming into this series, things look surprisingly even. Both teams are excellent on both ends of the floor. Both feature MVP level players surrounded by a well-built supporting cast. Both teams play a more modern style by pushing pace and shooting a good amount of threes. In the regular season, these teams played each other four times, with the Bucks winning three and the Raptors one, but the last game was way back in January. Since then both teams picked up valuable rotation players at the trade deadline that could definitely impact the game. When things look this even, I think it’s going to be a great series.

On the one hand, the Raptors have proven they can dig deep and push through to win a full seven game series, whereas the Bucks haven’t been fully tested yet (sorry Celtics). On the other hand, the Bucks will be coming into this series with plenty of rest and home-court advantage. My prediction is Bucks in seven.

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