The Conference Finals have everything an NBA fan could ask for — superstars, champions, drama and surprises. In the East, we have a battle between the Milwaukee Bucks and the Toronto Raptors. After finishing the regular season with the NBA’s two best records, the Bucks and Raptors firmly believe they are deserving of a berth in the NBA Finals. The award waiting for whichever team prevails? Either the two-time defending champion Golden State Warriors, or the Damian Lillard-led Portland Trailblazers.
Between MVP front-runner Giannis Antetokounmpo and new Toronto legend Kawhi Leonard, which superstar will carry his team to the Finals? If Kevin Durant is forced to miss a majority of the series, can the upset-minded Blazers usurp the Warriors?
We’ll answer all of these questions — and much more — with our analysis:
Toronto Raptors vs. Milwaukee Bucks
Image Source: Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports
Jason Fray: This series truly will come down to the complementary parts. You know what you’re going to get from both Kawhi Leonard and Giannis Antetokounmpo. Either one of them has the ability to take over an entire series. However, the rest of their teammates have been a bit inconsistent.
Toronto needs production from the three-pronged group of Marc Gasol, Kyle Lowry, and Pascal Siakam. Gasol can’t be bashful about attempting shots from three. Duly, Lowry must not go into ‘pout mode’ if his shots aren’t falling early.
On the other side of the proverbial coin, Milwaukee’s assortment of shooters (Brook Lopez, Nikola Mirotic, Ersan Ilyasova) need to keep Toronto honest by knocking down shots. By doing so, it’ll open up driving lanes for Antetokounmpo, Eric Bledsoe, and a quickly-emerging Pat Connaughton.
Milwaukee’s offensive versatility has the potential to give Toronto some major problems. If Milwaukee goes small by substituting Lopez for George Hill or Malcolm Brogdon, Toronto virtually won’t be able to play Gasol nor Serge Ibaka. It’s asking an awful lot of Ibaka to defend Antetokounmpo (hint: he can’t). If placed on one of the shooters (Mirotic or Ilyasova), Toronto will have next to no rim protection in the paint. This conundrum will be made even more difficult should Milwaukee hit shots early from the perimeter.
Milwaukee is the deeper team, and the one which has been playing the best basketball of any team all year long. Even if Lowry gets frisky by resembling the ‘Lowry of old,’ Bledsoe is essentially as good a matchup as one could offer with him guarding the fire hydrant-like point guard. With their uncanny combination of perimeter shooting and offensive efficiency, the Bucks should be able to make their first Finals appearance since the 1973-74 season.
Prediction: Milwaukee in 6
Harris Ahmadzai: The two best teams in the regular season face off in one of the most anticipated Eastern Conference Finals matchups in recent memory. The Bucks looked dominant after dropping Game 1 to Boston, promptly outscoring the Celtics by 65 points for the remainder of the series. The Raptors enter the series on an emotional high after Kawhi Leonard sunk the greatest shot in franchise history to beat the 76ers in Game 7 of the conference semis. It’s an even matchup, and whichever team comes out on top will be a worth opponent for their Western Conference adversary.
Giannis has proven to be an unstoppable force equipped with a horde of shooters to space the floor. More than any other team in the league, Toronto might be best equipped on the defensive end to at least contain the likely MVP. Siakam will probably get the first crack at stopping the Greek Freak, with Kawhi waiting in the wings. You could do worse than Ibaka and Gasol as rim protectors in 2019. Lowry and Green rarely looked completely outclassed on switches. It’s probably impossible to stop Giannis one-on-one — even with Kawhi — but the Raptors at least have the defenders to minimize the amount of help they need to send his way. If you can guard the other guys on Milwaukee straight up, you’ll have a chance.
The other side of the ball is what may end up being the issue for the Raptors. Kawhi can’t possibly sustain the entire scoring load like he did in the Philadelphia series if they want to beat a 60-win team like the Bucks. Lowry will need to step up, as will Siakam — who was fairly quiet in Game 7. If those two can’t score consistently on the likes of Mirotic, Ilyasova, Connaughton, Hill, and a returning-from-injury Brogdon, the Raptors aren’t going to stand a chance.
I could see this series being split after four games, with each team stealing one on the road. In a best-of-three, I like the Bucks prevailing in a tightly-contest Game 7 on their home floor to propel the franchise to its first NBA Finals appearance in 45 years.
Prediction: Milwaukee in 7
Dylan Fraychineaud: It always felt like it was going to come down to these two teams. Milwaukee and Toronto were the clear class of the East throughout the regular season. In addition to finishing the season with the NBA’s two-best records, the East’s top-two players — Giannis and Kawhi — ply their trade in Milwaukee and Toronto. Through two rounds, Milwaukee has looked every bit like the team that finished with the league’s best record. After steamrolling the Pistons 4-0 — by an average of nearly 24 points per game — to begin the playoffs, the Bucks doubled down by pummeling the Celtics in five games.
Though the road to the East Finals hasn’t been easy for Toronto, they are certainly entering this series with an enviable amount of confidence. After dropping Game 1 to the Magic in the first round, Toronto won the next four contests by an average of 18.75 points. Trailing the 76ers 2-1 in the East Semifinals, the Raptors rallied back to stun Philadelphia courtesy of a breathtaking Kawhi Leonard buzzer-beater in Game 7.
When taking stock of this riveting Conference Final, there are a few things we must consider. For starters, how much will Toronto’s exhausting series with the 76ers impact the team heading into this series? The Bucks have been able to sit back and relax after dispatching the Celtics in five, while Toronto had to exert all of their energy up until the last second of Game 7.
Not only does this series pit two very smart teams against one another, but it features two of the NBA’s best players. With the exception of Durant, Giannis and Kawhi have easily been the two most dominant forces in the postseason. Both teams are strong defensively. Milwaukee will close passing lanes quickly with their length, while the Raptors have the league’s best pick-and-roll defense — as well as arguably the best defender in Leonard.
The Bucks may have an offensive advantage due to their versatility, coupled with Toronto’s lack of a second go-to-scorer. Toronto’s roster has far more playoff experience, but at this point it may not factor in much. The difference in this series, just as it was against the 76ers, will be Kawhi Leonard.
Prediction: Toronto in 7
Portland Trail Blazers vs. Golden State Warriors
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JF: Portland is the feel good story of the NBA season. One must give this franchise a ton of credit for bouncing back from a embarrassing showing in last year’s postseason. Even without Jusuf Nurkic, the Trail Blazers have managed to knock off two opponents (Oklahoma City, Denver) that few thought they’d beat.
The chemistry Portland is playing with right now cannot be overstated enough. Damian Lillard is as good as leader in the NBA as one will find. C.J. McCollum is playing the best basketball of his career, and a one-armed Enes Kanter has been a force rebounding the basketball. Unsung heroes Rodney Hood and Zach Collins have been impacting the team quite considerably (Hood with scoring, and Collins with protecting the rim).
With all of this said…Portland doesn’t match up very well with the defending champs. Al-Farouq Aminu and Moe Harkless don’t shoot the ball nearly well enough to prevent Golden State from constantly helping on Lillard and McCollum.
On the other end of the floor, Golden State will relish the opportunities to put Kanter in pick-and-roll situations. The Turkish center is below-average defensively — particularly when asked to move laterally. The proposition of Kanter having to guard Steph Curry on a switch should keep Portland fans up at night. Even with Kevin Durant’s status for the series in limbo, Golden State should be able to efficiently dismantle a well-coached Portland team.
Prediction: Golden State in 5
HA: Durant’s health has certainly made this matchup more interesting. Although the Warriors are likely feeling confident after besting their most bitter rival, Golden State could be as vulnerable as ever. Even with reports that he wants to make a comeback, DeMarcus Cousins appears to be done for the postseason. There’s no telling what Durant’s timetable looks like after he limped off the floor from a no-impact lower body injury in Game 5 versus Houston. Curry hasn’t looked right aside from a second-half explosion in Game 6. It’s all starting to unravel bit-by-bit for the Warriors, but the familiarity of their conference finals foe should provide some comfort for the two-time defending champions.
The Blazers have been the most fun story of the postseason. On the backs of their star backcourt, Portland has triumphed in two epic series without the services of their starting center. They play a pleasing brand of basketball and have two super scorers in Lillard and McCollum who can each look unstoppable on any given night.
That being said, the Trail Blazers lack the firepower to contend with the Warriors — even if Durant misses the entire series. Curry and Klay have been beating up on Portland for the last half-decade. When Draymond is playing well — and he has more often than not during this postseason run — the Blazers stand virtually no chance. Lillard and company give the fans something to cheer about in one of their two home games, but this is an otherwise quickly taken care of series.
Golden State in 5
DF: While everyone was confident the Bucks and Raptors would eventually meet in the East Finals, everyone knew the Warriors would be a part of the West Finals. However, their path to this stage hasn’t been nearly as smooth as predicted. It took the Warriors six games to put away the pesky Clippers in the first round, setting up a highly-anticipated matchup with the Houston Rockets.
Approaching the end of the third quarter of Game 5, with the series knotted 2-2, disaster seemingly struck Golden State. Kevin Durant hobbled off the court and the worst was feared. Durant suffered a calf strain — a relief to the Dubs — and would miss Game 6. Stunning everyone but themselves, the Warriors followed up their gritty Game 5 victory with a series-clinching win on the road in Game 6.
Their unlikely opponents? The Portland Trail Blazers. Having been swept out of the playoffs the previous two years, Portland entered the ’19 postseason as underdogs — despite entering with the No. 3 seed. After sending the Thunder home early on a series-winning Lillard three-pointer in Game 5, Portland had to overcome a 3-2 hole to advance to the West Finals. An 11-point home victory in Game 6 set the stage for a winner-take-all Game 7 in Denver. Behind CJ McCollum’s 37 points, the Blazers won by four and advanced to the West Finals for the first time since 2000.
This will be the third time in four years that the teams face-off in the playoffs. In ’16, Golden State won the series 4-1. In ’17, 4-0. In my mind, this series will play out in a similar fashion. Although Lillard and McCollum are capable of scoring 30+ each game, the Blazers simply don’t have enough firepower to keep up with the Warriors — even if Durant doesn’t play.
Durant has been ruled out for Game 1 and is unlikely to suit up for Game 2. Without Durant, the Warriors are still an upper-echelon team. With him, they are head-and-shoulders above the rest. Portland’s only chance to win this series is contingent on a few things:
- Durant being inactive
- Lillard and McCollum combine for 65+ points per game
- Curry and Thompson shoot below 36% from three
Golden State in 5