We’ve talked about it all year and we’re finally getting it.
After a four-bounce miracle from the heavens shot against the Philadelphia 76ers in a game 7, Kawhi Leonard and the Raptors have made the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time since 2016. Wow, that sentence made us seem like a really successful franchise, how fun.
A consensus across the league would have predicted this matchup. The two top teams in the east will face off against each other to determine who the new champion of the East will be in a post-LeBron era.
This will be a competitive series. The Raptors and the Bucks are going to have to up their game even more to advance past this round, although the Buck’s seem to be the favourites. As Giannis Antetokounmpo mentioned, the Raptors are a caliber ahead of Boston, and Raptors fans know that a repeat performance of Round 2, while good enough to beat Philly, won’t cut it anymore.
If these factors all play out the way that we all know they can, the Raptors will be going to the Finals for the first time in the history of their franchise. The NBA Finals (!!!).
The Raptors are one of the most playoff experienced teams in the NBA. The roster consists of playoff proven talent across the board. This may seem subjective, but this will play a significant role in how far the Raptors can go.
Playoff experience is precious. As the playoffs progress, the competition grows stronger. Having a team full of proven players creates a certain amount of comfort when in a stressful, intense series. Having calm, collected players like Marc Gasol, Danny Green and Kawhi Leonard, put the whole team at ease and can change the outcome of games. This is a factor that the Raptors have over the Bucks. We saw how shaky a lesser experienced Joel Embiid was in Round 2. Experience matters and the Raptors have it over Milwaukee.
The Raptor’s starting lineup consists of Kyle Lowry, who has to lead the Raptors to 6 straight playoff runs, as well as a 2016 ECF showing. Danny Green and Kawhi Leonard who both won a title in San Antonio. Pascal Siakam, who has the least playoff experience, but has been apart of some of the recent Raptor’s runs in recent years and Marc Gasol, an annual playoff center that has lead various Grizzlies teams in the west over the past ten years in the playoffs.
As well, guys like Serge Ibaka who has been to the NBA finals and Fred Vanvleet and Norm Powell, both playing significant roles in playoff series of past years. All around the board, Toronto’s experience trumps Milwaukee’s.
These guys know what the playoffs are about. If something is to halt the Bucks, this is something that can’t be underestimated.
There is a lot of intriguing matchups in this series. For instance, Marc Gasol and his advantage over Brook Lopez, or Kawhi and whom the Bucks plan on throwing at him. However, a critical matchup that is being overlooked is the one in the point guard column. Kyle Lowry vs. Eric Bledsoe.
The two guards are both scrappy, undersized pit-bull like players that do many different things for their teams. They are both capable of having big scoring nights or changing a game through other statistics.
For the Raptors to have an advantage over the Bucks, Lowry needs to assert his dominance in this matchup. Out of the two, Lowry is the better shooter and passer.
Throughout the regular season matchup, Lowry has struggled to do much of anything against the Bucks. I do feel that this will change because the Raptors are fresh off a tough series win. If Lowry can average 14+ points and continue to orchestrate the team’s offense and defensive efforts, the Raptors have a great shot at winning this series. George Hill, who dominated Kyle in the playoffs last year, has also been playing well.
If Lowry struggles as much as he did in the season against Milwaukee, it’s obviously a big advantage for the Bucks. Kyle needs to provide a boost in this series.
The one thing other than Kawhi Leonard that won the previous series for the Raptors.
The Raptors have no weak links on the defensive end. Against the Bucks, flexibility will be needed and the Raptors can provide it.
The Bucks offense is quite simple. Let Giannis Antetokounmpo drive to the bucket and get fouled or pass out to a shooter for an open three. This has worked for them to perfection throughout the first two rounds.
With Boston’s defensive rating faltering in the playoffs, the Bucks haven’t faced a tough defense like the Raptors yet. The Raptors, who forced three near shot clock violations in the final few minutes of Game 7, need to play a complete team defense to slow down this offense. Game 7 rotations should turn into Game 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 and 7 rotations. Taking Giannis out of his comfort zone and slowing the shooting of the other four players on the court will win them this series.
If they fail to keep up this intensity, it will be a very quick loss.
In terms of guarding Giannis, look to see various defenders on him. Gasol will be the primary defender when Giannis is in the paint, and when he’s on the perimeter he’ll most likely be matched up against Siakam, Ibaka and of course Leonard.
Like pretty much all successful teams in the playoffs, a team only goes as far as their star can take them. Kawhi Leonard has been an absolute machine this postseason. He has easily been the best player in the world and must continue to be against the 2nd best player in the East.
There’s no doubt in my mind that Kawhi Leonard will continue to enhance his already monumental legend status in Toronto.
The Buck’s will attempt to slow him down over the course of this series. I doubt we’ll see much star-on-star defense during most of the series, except for important possessions do to the prevention of fouls. However, Kawhi and Giannis will see some minutes on each other at some point.
He needs help, though — Lots of it.
Role Players on Offense
Outside of Kawhi Leonard, the last series was extremely tough offensively for the Raptors. They roughly shot 38% from the field as a team, which needs to change.
Toronto needs to not match the stellar outside shooting of the Bucks, but somehow keep close to pace. They definitely can, but open threes simply need to be made. Green, Gasol, Lowry and Siakam all need to be aggressive when looking for their shot instead of being overly passive and just faltering to Kawhi, who will see a ton of different matchups.
As well as this, the bench needs. to step up fast. Likely no OG means Fred VanVleet and Norm Powell will see substantial minutes. They need to find some rhythm. Statistically, both players have historically played well against the Bucks (GAME 6 NORM!). This series will be better for them because they will not have larger guards like Butler or Ben Simmons guarding them, but it’s going to be an uphill battle once again.
It’s essential that these two show up and play well because Milwaukee’s bench currently has been, well, potentially the best bench in the playoffs. Players like Pat Connaughton, George Hill, Ersan Ilyasova and Malcom Brogdon, their starting shooting guard who is returning from injury, have all proven to be threats off the bench. The Raptors needs to play an active 8 deep in this series.
Overall, The Bucks do have the edge. However, maybe that’s not a bad thing. Two games on the road are a nice breather from the pressure-filled home Game 7. Take one of the two and you’re golden. Starting on the road is a different monster and one that the Raptors haven’t felt in a while.
This is going to be fun. By all accounts, this is the first legitimate ECF the Raptors have been in. Cleveland was fun, but despite the 6 games, never really felt competitive. The Toronto Raptors and this is incredible to say, actually have a chance at playing on the biggest stage possible. Enjoy it while it lasts.
Raps in 7.