8:30 PM EST, TNT – Line: Bucks -6.5, Over/Under: 218
After a series of thoroughly entertaining Conference Semifinals, the NBA Playoffs marches onward to the Conference Finals, where the Top-Seeded Milwaukee Bucks play host to the Second-Seeded Toronto Raptors in Game One from Fiserv Forum in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. While some may argue the point, but there is certainly one to be made that this particular Series should be the most entertaining matchup, for with all due respect to the Warriors/Rockets feud that we were just witness to, these two teams did post the two best records in the league. One half of that equation are the Raptors (58-24, 2nd in Eastern Conference), whom after an Offseason of whirlwind change, are reaping the benefits of their courageousness in returning to the Eastern Conference Finals for just the second time in Franchise History. We’ve covered Toronto’s bold Offseason at nauseum in this column, jettisoning All-Star Guard DeMar DeRozan in exchange for Kawhi Leonard (26.6 PTS, 49.6% FG, 37.1% 3FG, 7.3 REB, 3.3 AST, 1.8 STL, 0.4 BLK, 25.8 PER), and firing NBA Coach of the Year, Dwayne Casey, after leading his charges to a franchise record Fifty-Nine Wins, and elevating his top Assistant Nick Nurse. While those moves were certainly understandable, they carried a certain degree of risk, and at this juncture it’s looking like that risk was well worth it. Under Nurse’s guidance, the Raptors nearly matched last year’s win total, and wear the visage of a much mentally-tougher team than in years past. This, of course, was proven during their seven-game war with the Philadelphia 76ers. Billed as a heavyweight fight at the onset of the affair, this Series did not disappoint, with Toronto grinding out as hard-fought a Series Win as imaginable. As a team, they shot just 43.5% from the field, including 29.8% from beyond the arc, and dished out just 19.6 Assists in comparison to committing 10.4 Turnovers. However, their defense was at times absolutely suffocating, as they relegated the Sixers to 98.9 Points on 43.1% shooting from the floor, including 32.9% from downtown, and forcing them into 15.7 Turnovers. Leonard, as you can imagine, played a seismic role in the events of this Series, further validating the gambit that this franchise undertook. After all, the former NBA Finals’ MVP missed all but Nine Games last season due to a bizarre shoulder injury, and was acquired with the caveat that he will become an Unrestricted Free Agent at the conclusion of this Playoff Run, potentially making him a high-priced rental, adding an even greater sense of urgency to this experiment. While his future remains an open question, his present has been a boon to both sides, for this Postseason has seen the two-time Defensive Player of the Year reestablish himself as one the true elite talents in the league. In these Playoffs, Leonard has thus far averaged 31.8 Points on 53.8% shooting from the field, including 40.8% from downtown, along with 8.5 Rebounds, 3.6 Assists, and 1.3 Steals, with those figures even more pronounced in the seven meetings with Philadelphia, where he logged a ridiculous 34.7 Points on 53.0% shooting overall, including 33.3% from Three, 9.9 Rebounds, 4.0 Assists, and 1.3 Steals. Furthermore, his presence on the defensive end of the court was nearly as substantial, particularly when shading Philly’s Ben Simmons, disrupting the flow of their attack immensely.
After the 76ers forced a decisive Game Seven, the feeling was that Toronto would certainly have the advantage on their home court, though past Playoff Failures coupled with the fact that Philadelphia did manage to best them at Scotiabank Arena earlier in the Series were enough to create a sense of trepidation north of the border. However, with both teams having gone through the necessary adjustments, this was the kind of game where a hero would emerge, ultimately deciding the affair altogether, and unsurprisingly, that hero would be the aforementioned Leonard. The soon-to-be Free Agent forever endeared himself to the fanbase in putting together one of the greatest performances in NBA Playoff History, scoring Forty-One Points on 16-of-39 shooting from the field (41.0%), including 2-of-9 from beyond the arc (22.2%), along with Eight Rebounds, Three Assists, and Three Steals, though nothing was greater than the picture-perfect fadeaway from the corner over the outstretched arm of Joel Embiid to break the deadlock and book Toronto’s passage to the East Finals. In fact, this dagger was just the second walk-off winner in a Game Seven in NBA History, the other being Michael Jordan’s historic shot against the Cleveland Cavaliers in the late 1980’s. In a game in which both teams struggled find any offense, the hosts managed to make the most by manufacturing easier opportunities, whether it was winning the battle in the Paint (Plus-12), in Transition (Plus-10), and Points off Turnovers (Plus-8). With that said, the biggest difference had to be on the offensive glass, where the Raptors absolutely massacred the Sixers 16-5, which played a huge role in manufacturing Twenty-Four more Field Goal Attempts. This is how you win games when you collectively shoot 38.2% from the field, with the rest of the Starting Lineup consisting of Kyle Lowry (14.2 PTS, 41.1% FG, 34.7% 3FG, 4.8 REB, 8.7 AST, 1.4 STL, 0.5 BLK, 16.5 PER), Marc Gasol (9.1 PTS, 46.5% FG, 44.2% 3FG, 6.6 REB, 3.9 AST, 0.9 STL, 0.9 BLK, 16.0 PER), Danny Green (10.3 PTS, 46.5% FG, 45.5% 3FG, 4.0 REB, 1.6 AST, 0.9 STL, 0.7 BLK, 13.0 PER), and Pascal Siakam (16.9 PTS, 54.9% FG, 36.9% 3FG, 6.9 REB, 3.1 AST, 0.9 STL, 0.7 BLK, 18.7 PER) combining for just Thirty Points on a miserable 12-of-35 shooting (34.3%). However, Serge Ibaka (15.0 PTS, 52.9% FG, 29.0% 3FG, 8.1 REB, 1.3 AST, 0.4 STL, 1.4 BLK, 18.7 PER) was integral off the Bench, adding Seventeen Points on 6-of-10 shooting (60.0%), including 3-of-5 from long-range (60.0%), along with Eight Rebounds and Three Assists to the effort.
Meanwhile, we’d forgive you for forgetting about the Bucks (60-22, 1st in Eastern Conference), who while the rest of the Playoff Field was busy going to Six and Seven Games, handled their business in swift fashion, eliminating the Boston Celtics in Five Games in the Eastern Conference Semifinals. We’ve covered at length this team’s sudden rise in the East, but given what we’ve seen transpire over the past week, it’s looking like Milwaukee may just be the realistic favorite in the NBA Finals. Granted, there are a lot of things that need to happen first, but please forgive us for continuing to be floored by the basketball renaissance that it happening in Wisconsin. After back-to-back First Round exits, Management went out of their way to renovate their club, hiring Mike Budenholzer (which we’ve lauded for months now), and reconfiguring the roster to fit their new Head Coach’s system, which has paid immense dividends this season. Think about it, folks; Milwaukee improved by Sixteen Wins in 2018-2019, which was good for the third-best improvement in the league. 8-1 thus far in the Playoffs, the Bucks have been arguably the most impressive side PERIOD; Budenholzer’s charges have averaged 116.9 Points per Game on 46.8% shooting from the field, including 35.4% from beyond the arc, while dishing out 25.6 Assists in comparison to committing 13.1 Turnovers, and permitting 101.6 Points on 39.9% shooting overall, including 31.7% from downtown, outrebounding opponents by a margin of 6.3 Boards per Game. Granted, their opponents have been the shorthanded Detroit Pistons and the dysfunctional Boston Celtics, but outscoring the opposition by 15.3 Points is still impressive. Of course, Giannis Antetokounmpo (27.7 PTS, 578.8% FG, 25.6% 3FG, 12.5 REB, 5.9 AST, 1.STL, 1.5 BLK, 30.9 PER) has been the centerpiece of their success, with the Greek Freak blossoming into a full-blown MVP frontrunner in this new system that is built to create the necessary space for him to do what he does best, which is DOMINATE. The three-time All-Star has averaged 27.4 Points on 52.2% shooting, 11.4 Rebounds, 4.4 Assists, 1.1 Steals, and 1.6 Blocks in these Playoffs, and in the Series against Boston became an even greater force with 28.4 Points on 11.0 Rebounds, 5.2 Assists, 1.4 Steals, and 1.6 Blocks. A rare athletic marvel for some time now, the Greek International has further fleshed out his repertoire under Budenholzer’s watch, though the venerable Head Coach’s work with the Supporting Cast has ultimately been what has transitioned this team into being the favorite in the suddenly competitive Eastern Conference. Khris Middleton’s (18.3 PTS, 44.1% FG, 37.8% 3FG, 6.0 REB, 4.3 AST, 1.0 STL, 16.5 PER) stellar shooting (17-of-36 3FG, 47.2%) thrived in that Series providing precious space for his teammate to barrel to the hoop, while Eric Bledsoe (15.9 PTS, 48.4% FG, 32.9% 3FG, 4.6 REB, 5.5 AST, 1.5 STL, 0.4 BLK, 19.3 PER) continued to emerge as a budding Floor General (13.4 PTS, 2.8 REB, 3.6 AST), particularly in defending Boston’s Kyrie Irving, while veterans such as George Hill (6.8 PTS, 42.8% FG, 28.0% 3FG, 2.6 REB, 2.1 AST, 0.9 STL, 11.6 PER) and Nikola Mirotic (11.6 PTS, 41.5% FG, 35.6% 3FG, 5.4 REB, 1.4 AST, 0.7 STL, 0.6 BLK, 16.2 PER) found new life within this Rotation, combining for 25.0 Points on 49.5% shooting overall, including 39.6% from deep.
After dropping the Opener in their Series with the Celtics, the Bucks swept their way over the following four contests, with Wednesday’s 116-91 blowout putting their opponent out to pasture. Defensively, Budenholzer’s troops absolutely SHUT DOWN Boston on the offensive end, relegating their opposition to a scant 31.2% shooting from the field, including 7-of-39 from beyond the arc (17.9%), outrebounding them 56-50, and forcing nearly as many Turnovers (14) as they handed out Assists (19). As they did throughout the series, Milwaukee suffocated the aforementioned Irving, keeping the All-Star Guard under wraps with Fifteen Points on 6-of-21 shooting (28.6%), including 1-of-7 from Three (14.3%), with Three Turnovers opposed to just One Assist. Furthermore, the visitors knocked down 26-of-34 Free-Throws (76.5%), which gave them a Plus-9 advantage from the Charity Stripe, meaning the gap between the teams could’ve been even wider than it was. For the hosts, seven different players scored in double-figures, led by Antetokounmpo with Twenty Points on 8-of-14 shooting (50.0%), Eight Rebounds, Eight Assists, and Two Steals and Block apiece. Middleton and Bledsoe added Nineteen and Eighteen Points respectively, while the Bench once again bested Boston’s, outscoring them 49-41, with Hill scoring Sixteen Points on 6-of-10 shooting (60.0%), including 3-of-6 from downtown (50.0%). However, all things considered, the most significant takeaway from this affair was the return of Malcolm Brogdon (15.6 PTS, 50.5% FG, 42.6% 3FG, 4.5 REB, 3.2 AST, 0.7 STL, 17.8 PER), the former Rookie of the Year who has missed Twenty-One consecutive Games after suffering a torn plantar fascia back in mid-March. Brogdon logged Ten Points, Three Rebounds, Four Assists, and a Block in just over Sixteen Minutes of action. Budenholzer cautiously withheld the Shooting Guard from participating in the first Four Games of this Series, but finally gave him the proverbial green light to get back into the Rotation. Needless to say, his inclusion just makes Milwaukee that much deeper and that much formidable moving forward…