The 4 Most Important Matchups in the Eastern Conference Finals
  • Justin Levine

The 4 Most Important Matchups in the Eastern Conference Finals


The 4 Most Important matchups in the Eastern Conference Finals

Bleacher Report

After years of mediocrity, the Eastern Conference was a powerhouse of talent this season. And as the Conference Finals come into focus, there are some intriguing matchups to consider.

Two superstars are set to clash, while key secondary players too will fight tooth and nail. This is also a battle between two very different coaches, all with a shot at the Finals on the line.

The series kicks off Wednesday night in Milwaukee, with the Bucks having had a week’s rest while the Raptors will have only had two days of rest after a hard-fought seven game series against Philadelphia. Here are the most intriguing and series-defining matchups between the Bucks and Raptors:

1. Mike Budenholzer vs. Nick Nurse

The two men patrolling the sidelines in this Eastern Conference Final have two very different paths. Milwaukee’s Mike Budenholzer may be in his first season with the Bucks, but he has an impressive resume. For five seasons as head coach in Atlanta the Hawks notoriously over-achieved. As an assistant in San Antonio for 18 years, Budenholzer saw championship excellence first-hand.

Nick Nurse, the head coach of the Toronto Raptors, made his bones in the G-League and overseas. His experience in the NBA playoffs is decidedly more limited.

Coaching adjustments over the course of a series can be the difference between winning and losing. Budenholzer’s changes in defending Boston’s pick-and-pop after game 1 in the previous round paid dividends. Minutes distribution will be another key aspect to look at, as Budenholzer has been playing eight or nine deep while Nurse shortened his rotation to just six or seven as the playoffs have progressed.

2.The Greek Freak vs. The Klaw

The Bucks have not gotten out of the East since 1974. The Raptors have never made the NBA Finals. Now both clubs might have the pivotal star they need to fight for glory.

Once LeBron James announced his departure from the East, the door was opened for the teams who couldn’t get over the King-sized hump. Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo and Toronto’s Kawhi Leonard are in position to take control of the conference.

Boy, oh boy will this matchup be fun.

Though it’s unlikely they will guard one another, these two stars are certainly competing head-to-head. Decidedly the best players on each respective team, whoever has the best series may indeed win the day.

The storylines and questions surrounding this matchup are fascinating: how will this series affect Leonard’s impending free agency? Can Giannis single-handedly force Kawhi out to Los Angeles? Will Giannis live up to his MVP-candidate status, or will Kawhi make him think twice before crowning himself the best in the East?

This will be the first time since 2010 that someone other than LeBron carries a team from the East to the Finals. We’re in excitedly uncharted waters.

3.Eric Bledsoe vs. Kyle Lowry

There is a tremendous amount of length and size between the Bucks and the Raptors. Amid the trees, however, keep an eye out for the battle between Milwaukee’s Eric Bledsoe and Toronto’s Kyle Lowry.

Both men have had notorious struggles during the postseason, though each has scrapped to put their respective transgressions behind them. Kyle Lowry has shown tremendous heart during these playoffs, while Bledsoe’s outside shot has been key. Carving out an edge in the backcourt could be a critical tipping of the scales in this series.

4. The role players

The playoffs are a time where the superstars shine their brightest and try to take matters into their own hands (see: Leonard’s 39 field goal attempts in Game 7 against Philly). Whereas these superstars can dictate how the series progresses, no less important is the performance of Batman’s Robins.

Both clubs are extremely well-rounded, and while much of the focus will be on Giannis and Kawhi, the clashing of secondary players like Khris Middleton, Pascal Siakam, Marc Gasol and Brook Lopez may determine the winner of this series. If either Leonard or Antetokounmpo are having off nights, having players swoop in to pick up the pieces will be immensely important.

For the Bucks, Middleton and Lopez stretch the floor, giving give Giannis space to operate. If these two can be dynamic and consistent threats from the outside, it will give Toronto plenty of issues defensively. Furthermore, Middleton will likely take the assignment of guarding Leonard

Pascal Siakam’s defensive play may be the x-factor for the whole series, assuming he will be the primary defender on Giannis as he was in the three regular season games in which they faced off. According to NBA.com’s matchup data, the Greek Freak scored nearly 14 points in 31 possessions per game while being defended by Siakam on 55.6% shooting. That simply won’t get it done for Toronto.

Who guards Kawhi and who guards Giannis will be interesting to watch. Stopping the series’ biggest stars will be essential.

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