After Sunday night’s madness, the 2019 Eastern Conference Finals matchup is set. Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks will take on Kawhi Leonard and the Toronto Raptors in Milwaukee this Wednesday. Wednesday’s game will be the first in a best-of-seven series to determine the last team standing out East. The stakes are high — to the winner, an NBA Finals berth. To the loser, a trip home. Let’s take a look at the upcoming matchup between the Bucks and Raptors.
Series Preview: Milwaukee Bucks vs. Toronto Raptors
The Bucks’ Road to the 2019 Eastern Conference Finals
The Bucks completed an easy sweep of the Detroit Pistons in the first round, as expected. There really wasn’t a game in that series in which the Bucks looked at all vulnerable.
Although they were heavy favorites by many moving into the second round against the Boston Celtics, the Bucks dropped Game 1 in a blowout loss at home. Many worried about the Bucks’ ability to win the series. Some, like former Celtics star Paul Pierce, wrote them off entirely. Antetokounmpo, the “Greek Freak” propelled the Bucks to four straight victories, averaging 30 points in the series’ final four games. With the emphatic blowout win in Game 5, the Bucks punched their ticket to the 2019 Eastern Conference Finals. That marked their first conference finals trip since 2001. That series ended in a Game 7 loss to Allen Iverson and his Philadelphia 76ers. The Bucks will hope for a better outcome this time around.
The Raptors’ Road to the 2019 Eastern Conference Finals
The Raptors always face questions heading into the postseason. It’s always: “Can the Raptors get it done in the playoffs?” or “Will Kyle Lowry show up?” or “Even though the Raptors have a new core with Kawhi Leonard, Marc Gasol, and Danny Green, will they perform in the postseason?”.
After suffering a defeat at home in the first game of their postseason, those questions resurfaced. Especially given Lowry’s 0-7, zero-point performance, some fans and members of the media were concerned about the Raptors. Concerned for their ability to perform come playoff time. Concerned for All-Star point guard Kyle Lowry’s alleged tendency to shut down in the postseason. They had no reason to be. The Raptors won the next four games easily, completing the “Gentleman’s Sweep” of the Orlando Magic.
The next series for Toronto was against a tougher competitor in the talent-heavy Philadelphia 76ers. The three-seeded Sixers dropped Game 1 in Toronto by 13 points, allowing the Raptors’ duo of Leonard and Pascal Siakam to combine for 74 points on 38 shots. Toronto shocked the NBA world by dropping Game 2 at home after a series of missed — and wide-open — three-pointers from the Raptors. Game 3 in Philadelphia was another blowout — this time in favor of the Sixers, as they won by 21 with Iverson and Meek Mill in attendance.
At this point, many had written off the Raptors the same way they had written off Milwaukee. The Raptors took back the advantage though, winning both Game 4 and 5. Game 4 was must-win for Toronto and was decided in the end by Leonard’s 39 points, three of which accounted for a game-sealing three. The next game, Game 5, was an all-around effort that ended in a 36-point victory in favor of the Raptors. Game 6 in Philadelphia went to the Sixers, which set the stage for a huge Game 7 in Toronto.
Game 7 was tight from start-to-finish. The aforementioned madness from Sunday? Yeah, that was referring to Kawhi Leonard’s off-balance, heavily contested, physics-defying game-winner at the buzzer. That seemingly-impossible shot took the Raptors to the 2019 Eastern Conference Finals, where they’ll square off against the Bucks.
How the Toronto Raptors Can Win
The Raptors will likely be without one of their primary bench producers for the entirety of the series, according to head coach Nick Nurse. OG Anunoby has been sitting for the duration of the postseason thus far, recovering from an appendectomy. Given the second unit’s immense struggles against Philadelphia in the second round, the second-year wing would certainly be a welcome presence. However, Serge Ibaka’s Game 7 showing was encouraging, as was that of Fred VanVleet. The Toronto Raptors need bench production to succeed in this series.
Along with a lack of production off the bench, the Raptors’ starters (outside of Leonard) have also struggled. Siakam has had a relatively strong postseason thus far as well. For the Raptors to advance, Green, Gasol, and Lowry need to be more consistent in their offensive performances.
Another key for the Raptors will be defense. The one constant for the Raptors in these playoffs has been a strong defense. They held one of the most potent offensive teams in the league in the 76ers to less than 100 points per game on the series. The Bucks shot around 44% on the series against Boston in the second round. Boston doesn’t have half the defense that the Raptors have. Siakam, Gasol, Lowry (despite his lack of size), Leonard, and Green are all top defenders at their positions. If the Raptors can lock up key players for the Bucks like Antetokounmpo, Eric Bledsoe, and Khris Middleton, the series could be theirs.
How the Milwaukee Bucks Can Win
Kawhi Leonard averaged 34.7 points and 9.9 rebounds per game on 53% shooting against the 76ers. For the Bucks to win, they can’t let him have that same dominance. Bucks head coach Mike Budenholzer is touted around the league as being a phenomenal coach and should be able to come up with a decent game plan to stop Leonard. However, planning for it and actually executing it on the court are two entirely different things. Leonard has been on a tear, with his midrange jumpers almost seeming to never miss. He can pull up from behind the arc too, and bully his way to the rim if need be. The Bucks took the regular season series 3-1, but, as we know, the postseason is a different monster. Kawhi Leonard himself has been a different monster. If the Bucks defense can even slow him down a little bit, they can come out victorious.
The Bucks also need to do a much better job offensively than they did in the first series. Outside of Antetokounmpo, the Milwaukee starters need to step up. Brook Lopez, despite a strong regular season, has been kind of quiet in the scoring department in the postseason. Middleton and Bledsoe have been playing well enough in supporting roles, but if one of the Raptors’ many long wing defenders is able to limit their star, one of those guys will need to take over.
The Bucks second unit needs to outplay that of the Raptors. George Hill, Malcolm Brogdon, and Pat Connaughton have all been performing well coming off the bench. Without Anunoby, the Raptors bench could struggle to maintain any sort of lead built by their starting five. Superior bench play could be key in Milwaukee’s victory in the series.
2019 Eastern Conference Finals Winner
Assuming the Raptors can do everything they need to do, it will still be a hard-fought series. Since the Bucks have home-court advantage, the Raptors can’t let this series reach a Game 7. They’ll need to win at least one of the first two games in Milwaukee, win out at home, and end it with Game 6 in Toronto. If this series comes down to Game 7 in Milwaukee, the Raptors are going to have a hard time winning. With that being said, it looks as though the series will push seven games. The Bucks will face the winner of the Golden State Warriors and Portland Trailblazers in the NBA Finals.