The Bucks Look Ready to Win it All
Courtesy of Frank Gunn/AP.
After a 60 win regular season, the Bucks began the playoffs in dominating fashion, sweeping an undermanned Pistons team while beating them by 16 points or more in all four games. The domination of the eight seed was expected, but many wondered how the team would fair against the stiffer competition they would subsequently face in the Boston Celtics.
After sweeping the Pacers in the first round, the Celtics looked like a tough team to beat, seemingly putting all their regular season inconsistencies behind them. That certainly held true in Game 1, as Boston came into Fiserv Forum and handed the Bucks a rare blowout loss. Even the first half of Game 2 was tight, with the Bucks holding just a four point lead at halftime.
But as it would throughout the series, the third quarter proved key, as the Bucks would outscore the Celtics 39-18 in what was ultimately a series-changing twelve minute stretch. In Games 3 and 4 in Boston, behind the star power of Giannis Antetokounmpo and some exceptional bench play, the Bucks grinded out two hard-nosed playoff wins on the road.
By Game 5, it was clear the Bucks were simply the better team, as Boston just could not keep up with Giannis and company. The 116-91 victory sent the Bucks to their first Eastern Conference Finals appearance since 2001. On Sunday, they learned of their ECF opponent, and the only remaining obstacle in their path to the Finals: the Toronto Raptors.
It has been a dream season in Milwaukee, but now that the Bucks are in the NBA’s version of the Final Four, reality has begun to set in; this team could actually win the whole thing. The Bucks have continued to look like the best team in the league this postseason, and while getting eight more wins won’t be easy, it’s a very distinct possibility.
That road will begin with the aforementioned Raptors, who will be coming into the series on an emotional high after their dramatic Game 7 victory over the Philadelphia 76ers. During the regular season, the Bucks won three of the four matchups against the Raptors, including both games up in Toronto. However, the two teams haven’t played each other since before the All-Star break, so that record doesn’t hold as much weight as one might think.
There will be several keys for the Bucks to beat Toronto, one of which is depth. The Bucks have one of, if not the deepest team in the NBA, and the bench proved how important it was in the Boston series. If Pat Connaughton, George Hill, and Ersan Ilyasova can replicate those performances, the Bucks will have a very good chance against Toronto. With Malcolm Brogdon back in the fold as well, it may be tough for the Raptors to keep up with the numerous fresh bodies the Bucks can throw at them.
Another key will be stopping Pascal Siakam. Siakam is not yet a household name, but he is an emerging player for the Raptors, and has had a strong postseason thus far. Even stronger were his performances against the Bucks earlier in the year, where he averaged over 24 points per game. Stopping Siakam may not be the first thing that comes to mind in this series, but it will be important for the Bucks to limit him, as well as some of the other supporting cast members surrounding Kawhi Leonard.
Which leads to the biggest key of the series: containing Leonard himself. From a neutral fan's perspective, it doesn’t get much better than the matchup we will see between Kawhi and Giannis; while it probably shouldn’t be so binary, whomever is the better player between the two in this series could very well propel their team to the Finals. The clashing superstars appear to be among the best performers in this year's playoffs, with Leonard averaging almost 32 points per game while Giannis has averaged 27 points and 11 rebounds. The two will likely see quite a bit of each other in what should be a great series, bursting at the seams with talent, expectation, and consequence.
Should the Bucks win their third straight series, they will reach the NBA Finals for the first time since their only championship season in 1971. The city of Milwaukee is already going wild with Bucks fever, but if the team makes the Finals, the municipality might shut down entirely! They would face one of the Golden State Warriors or Portland Trailblazers.
A lot of the same talking points from the Boston and Toronto series would apply in a potential Finals showdown with either of Western Conference powerhouses, but the biggest would be guard play, without a doubt. Versus the Warriors, the Bucks would face the Splash Brother pairing of Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson; in Portland, they would go toe-to-toe with an underrated backcourt duo that might be just as good in Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum.
Eric Bledsoe had a good regular season, but has struggled at times in the playoffs, especially in the last series against the Celtics. His play would be hugely important against either of these teams. The other X-factor in a Finals scenario would be what Malcolm Brogdon could bring to the table. Brogdon returned in Game 5 against the Celtics after being out for over a month with a plantar fascia tear.
Brogdon is a good shooter, a solid defender, and overall a smart player who matches up well with either of those teams’ backcourts. But health and conditioning is the question. Can the President get back to the same level he was playing at earlier this season? If he does, the Bucks add a stud player to a team that has already looked dominant in the playoffs without him.
A lot will be decided in the next month as we conclude the NBA season, but one thing is clear: the Bucks will be a major part of the storyline that unfolds, something that hasn’t been said at this time of year in quite some time. The buzz around this team has been alive all year in Milwaukee, but now the chance of winning a championship is becoming realer with every passing day. If the Bucks can decisively win the key matchups they can anticipate to face the rest of the way, they might just bring their city the championship banner they have been waiting almost 50 years for.
Statistics Courtesy of Basketball Reference