For the last eight seasons, the Eastern Conference always came down to LeBron James. He was — as Thanos would say — inevitable.
But James finally left for the West Coast this past summer to join the Lakers. With the immovable object gone, several contenders in the East began to sense their chance to potentially win a championship, as evident by multiple teams taking uncharacteristic risks to improve their rosters.
For example, the Raptors acquired Kawhi Leonard to upgrade from DeMar DeRozan and also added Marc Gasol at the trade deadline, while the 76ers sprung two separate deals for Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris.
As for the patient Bucks, they stayed the course, bursting out of the gate behind new head coach Mike Budenholzer and a re-energized Giannis Antetokounmpo. Chasing them in the standings throughout the season was Leonard and the new-look Raptors.
After months of speculation, the two teams will finally meet in the Eastern Conference Finals with their respective stars looking to add to their legacies. Here’s how the two teams stack up entering the series.
|Team||W-L||Points Per Game||Opponent Points Per Game||FG %||3-point %||Offensive Rating||Defensive Rating|
The Bucks have been better offensively, largely because the Raptors disappeared when Leonard came off the floor. Toronto does match Milwaukee defensively, meaning success on the other end of the floor will largely dictate which team advances to the NBA Finals.
Playoff success is new to the Bucks — especially Antetokounmpo. He had previously been eliminated in the first round of the playoffs three times, but Budenholzer, who transformed “The Greek Freak” into the best player in the league, helped change that.
Not only did Milwaukee start shooting 3-pointers at an incredible rate, but Antetokounmpo stepped up on the defensive end, turning the Bucks into one of the toughest teams in the league. While the Bucks suffered a quick setback against the Celtics in the second round, they soundly recovered, proving themselves to be a legitimate Finals contender — especially if Antetokounmpo plays hero against the Raptors.
Speaking of postseason heroics, you can’t forget about Leonard. His series-clinching buzzer-beater against Philadelphia added another signature moment to his playoff career — which already includes an NBA Finals MVP trophy from a series that featured six future Hall of Fame players. He has played in four conference finals and two NBA Finals, and if Zaza Pachulia’s foot doesn’t get in the way, Leonard might have been the first player to upset the Durant-era Warriors.
Before Kawhi, Toronto had always been on the wrong end of James’ aforementioned playoff exploits. But this time around, the Raptors feel like they’re the team to be reckoned with, largely thanks to Leonard.
While Milwaukee leads the regular season series 3-1, the Raptors have proven their postseason mettle. This battle will come down to the must-see matchup between Leonard and Antetokounmpo, with the more prepared player likely advancing to the NBA Finals.