Eastern Conference Finals: X-Factors
Courtesy of Stacy Revere/Getty Images.
The Milwaukee Bucks and Toronto Raptors are ready to go head-to-head in the NBA’s Eastern Conference Finals, and while much of the focus has been (deservedly) concentrated on the matchup between Giannis Antetokounmpo and Kawhi Leonard, there are numerous other determinants to consider over the course of a seven-game series.
The following is a factor-by-factor breakdown of the various talking points that have been classified (by yours truly) as integral to the final outcome of this juggernaut showdown.
In the immortal words of rap culture icon, DMX: “X gon’ give it to ya” – if “it” is a series win, and “ya” is whichever Eastern powerhouse you happen to be rooting for in the penultimate round of the 2018-19 NBA Playoffs.
Milwaukee’s bench has been spectacular throughout the playoffs, averaging close to 40 points per game (ppg) on efficient shooting. Obviously, this is a stark contrast to the state of the Raptors’ bench these playoffs, which is averaging well under 30 ppg on significantly less efficient shooting than their green-and-cream counterparts. If Toronto can get a ready-to-contribute version of OG Anunoby back after Game 1 of this series (for which he’s been ruled out), things might change here; as it stands, the Bucks have a clear-cut advantage in this aspect of the matchup. The Raptors will have to hope for organic improvements from their current bench mob, and can reasonably expect Fred VanVleet and Norman Powell to return to their regular season form after a difficult stylistic matchup with the Sixers – if they don’t, Toronto could find themselves in a much shorter series than they would like.
Nick Nurse has demonstrated a knack for reactionary measures, wisely making adjustments after being presented with matchup dilemmas or delicate minutes-management scenarios; however, some of his decisions can be real head-scratchers in the first place (why would Gasol ever NOT be minutes matched with Embiid? Why deploy a cold-shooting three-guard lineup against a team full of rangy, mobile bigs?). Budenholzer, for his part, can also make adjustments (see Game 2 against the Celtics after being blown out in Game 1) but has been more lauded for his ability to squeeze production out of his end-of-the-bench pieces in playoff minutes thanks to a free-flowing, space-oriented ethos that stems from his confidence-inspiring, game-changing superstar. The system Budenholzer has created and operated within all season has paid major dividends so far for the Bucks (who hold an 8-1 playoff record coming into the ECF). Will Nick Nurse be able to rattle Budenholzer’s schematic foundations? Will employing a zone defense fit Toronto’s personnel to such a degree that it may actually slow down Giannis? The answers could determine the outcome of the series.
The Second Options
We all know what Kawhi Leonard (31.8 ppg, 8.5 rpg, 3.6 apg) and the Greek Freak (27.4 ppg, 11.3 rpg, 4.4 apg) are going to be bringing to the table. They run the show for their respective teams, and will likely see a lot of each other on the court; the promise of their head-to-head collision on more than a handful of possessions should make your mouth water. Both superstars are two-way players in the truest sense, and can take over entire games with their scorching offensive skills and shutdown defense. Lost in all the commotion, however, is the importance of consistent secondary scoring – if Giannis and Kawhi approach a dead-even draw, effectively cancelling out each other’s contributions, then both teams will have to find significant contributions from other sources. Candidates for the Raptors would include Pascal Siakam, Kyle Lowry, Danny Green, and Serge Ibaka; for the Bucks, Budenholzer would likely look to Khris Middleton, Eric Bledsoe, George Hill, and Malcolm Brogdon to provide support. Yours truly believes that whichever of the two secondary-scoring-support quartets has a better series, their team will end up advancing to the NBA Finals.
Stats courtesy of BasketballReference.