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NBA Playoffs: Kawhi vs Giannis as the Eastern Conference Finals begins

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Has there been such a first-name matchup like this since LeBron vs Timmay!?!?

NBA: Milwaukee Bucks at Toronto Raptors John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

Two of the more distinctive names, with two of the most distinctive games, face off tonight. The Bucks have had little resistance, while the Raptors just came off one of the most memorable game 7 endings we’ve ever seen. Who makes their mark first?

***

1. How seriously should we take the Bucks? Yes, they crushed their first two opponents, but Detroit was as non-competitive as any team in the playoffs, and the Celtics, as reports have surfaced, basically were dead men walking.

Dom Flaim: Very seriously. They’ve been this good all year, and that’s why they got to play two relatively worse teams. If they win, they’ll be just the second team the Warriors have faced in their run with an 8+ SRS. And I think they will be seeing them and will call my shot now, the first to beat them.

Nile McNair: The Bucks should be taken very seriously. They haven’t done anything thus far in the playoffs to make their regular season dominance look like a fluke. It’s realistic to think they are the final team left in these playoffs who could truly upset the Warriors in a series.

Jon Hamm: Huge Milwaukee Bucks admirer here, and I believe in them. Teams that post that kind of margin of victory over the season (+8.87 per Basketball Reference) should be taken seriously. Plus they have the added bonus of getting a 50/40/90 guy, Malcolm Brogdon, back at just the right time.

Reid Belew: Very, very seriously. I somehow think they aren’t being taken seriously enough. Toronto will obviously be their toughest test, as anyone they meet in the ECF should be, but I still think the Bucks win the series convincingly.

Cade Colburn: The Bucks are for real! They came into the playoffs with the league’s best record and point differential, fast forward through two rounds and they enter the ECF with the postseason’s best record and point differential. Sure, part of this postseason mark is due to their first round matchup, but this is a feat that they’ve been carrying all season.

Ben Mertens: The Bucks have a historically great Net Rating, dominated the regular season, have the deserving MVP, and just destroyed a Celtics team that, for all their internal issues, still were a talented group. They are clearly a special team.

HOWEVER, they have gotten to the point where even special teams can falter. Their net rating is comparable to that of Houston last year, and those Rockets lost in the Conference Finals to a Warriors team that was better than its net rating suggested. Even great teams can lose, and the Bucks are finally up against an opponent with a player who can rival Giannis Antetekoumpo on both ends of the court. This is the biggest test yet for the Bucks.

Will Brewer: I was one of the people who thought that the Bucks were going to be one of those good regular season teams that fell apart in a playoff series against a good team. I was completely wrong, Milwaukee should be taken extremely serious. They have a near perfect group of role players around a young superstar and they play very tough defense. The Bucks have the ingredients of a championship team but this is where we will find out how deep they can dig.

2. We just witnessed one of the all-time great game 7 winning shots by Kawhi Leonard. But what people may forget is how ISO-reliant Toronto was with the game on the line. How can they rediscover actual balance within their offense against one of the league’s best defenses?

Dom: What’s a little odd is that this is more or less what Kawhi has done when he’s been healthy in terms of the Raptors offense, he’s just been extra incredible against really good defenders. When he’s on court their offense transforms into a glorified version of what OKC did with Durant, and he’s made some major leaps in his offense (a bit at the expense of defense). Unless Lyle Lowry becomes...well not the usual playoff Lowry I think this is their offense.

Nile: Rediscovering their balance is all performance based. The support cast around Kawhi has frankly played poorly this postseason, something nobody could’ve accounted for heading into the postseason. The role players must find confidence in their offensive abilities in order for Toronto’s balance to return.

Jon: Maybe they can’t. Or shouldn’t. Toronto was 5th in clutch time net rating during the season and Kawhi was the driving force in those moments, positing a usage rate of over 39%. Seems to be part of their machine at this point.

Reid: Great Q. I have no clue. I love rhyming. Kawhi, modern may he be, plays like he’s from the mid-90’s. We know he idolizes Kobe, and it shows. Maybe they shouldn’t change. It got them this far. My dream series is Giannis and Kawhi guarding each other for 48 minutes while the other 8 guys stand close to the out of bounds lines. This would be the basketball equivalent of self-actualization.

Cade: I don’t think they’ll rediscover any idealistic balance. When advancing is on the line, you’re getting the ball in your star’s hands and hoping they can eat. This is unfortunate for the Raptors as the Bucks are only allowing 0.66 points per possession on isolations, the best mark of the postseason.

Ben: I think the best way would be to get rolling in transition. Kyle Lowry can be a reluctant shooter in the halfcourt, but he’s fearless launching off the dribble bombs against backpedaling defenses. Pascal Siakam was effectively schemed into nothingness by Philadelphia’s defense, but in the open court he can find his finishing abilities again. Toronto was the best transition team in the league in the regular season in transition, but no one was stingier against opposing transition than Milwaukee. That is going to be a huge swing point for this series.

In the halfcourt, Toronto may be best served by more Kawhi hero ball- the bucks like to drop Brooke Lopez in the pick and roll, so if Marc Gasol can give Kawhi some daylight off screens, Kawhi will have room to rise up for 3, or even from the dreaded midrange. if Toronto mucks up Milwaukee on the other end and tries to win ugly, they could do worse than Kawhi firing away from the midrange. Kris Middleton’s defense is another big bellwether for this series.

Will: I think their back court has to become more of a threat. When Lowry and Green are hitting shots it opens up the floor so much for Kawhi and Siakiam to work. If the back court doesn’t become a factor then they will be more dependent on Kawhi’s heroics throughout the game.

3. How will the Raptors choose to guard Giannis?

Dom: I’m guessing the best two options are Kawhi or Siakam. There just isn’t really anyone equipped with the physical tools to limit him much and it may just be a situation of letting him get his and hoping to stop the others, though Giannis has generally gotten his either way. Toronto’s only win against them this year was in a game he went for 43 on 25 shots, he played in two of their three losses against Milwaukee and had 19 in each.

Nile: I think the Raptors will throw multiple defenders at Giannis. The main two I think will be Siakam and Ibaka. Also, don’t be surprised that in crunch time situation they’ll put Kawhi on him. The only reason Kawhi won’t guard him throughout the game is because they need majority of his energy and effort to be focused on carrying them offensively.

Jon: Really interested to see who all Nick Nurse tries to throw at Giannis. Throwing a big like Ibaka or Gasol could make sense. If it helps keep Antentekounmpo out of the paint a few possessions, that’d have to help the Raptors.

Reid: Praying. Using Kawhi? This, to me, is the defining question of the series.

Cade: The Raptors have seen the most success when Kawhi guards Giannis (allowing only 31 points on 31 possessions), but considering the offensive load he’ll have to carry, I wouldn’t expect to see this matchup until crunch-time. The Toronto bigs will probably see the brunt of this action. It doesn’t mean it will work, but placing a wall between Giannis and the basket may be their best bet.

Ben: Siakam will get the initial nod, with Kawhi guarding Middleton, and the Raptors happily switching the pick and roll between that duo. Serge Ibaka will get the assignment for a few minutes as well when Kawhi rests, but once again he’ll need to play well over 40 minutes a contest for the Raptors to be able to win. All that regular season load management is paying off.

Will: The main guys that I believe will guard Giannis will be Siakiam and Ibaka. Siakiam for his length and quickness at the four spot, then Ibaka for his size and the possibility to match strength with Giannis. I think the Raptors will use a bit of the Celtics’ plan to build a wall to prevent Giannis to get to his driving lanes. I don’t know that we see too much of Kawhi on Giannis, but it’s a possibility. I think we see more of Kawhi on Middleton and Bledsoe.

4. Game one prediction?

Dom: Toronto’s stars play, but the role players struggle in a game that’s close until half but the Bucks pull away late, winning by around 10.

Nile: Unlike Game on of their last series vs Boston, the Bucks will be well prepared and win Game one. Another factor is Milwaukee is well rested, while Toronto just came off a tiring seven game series. I expect the Bucks to win in convincing fashion similar to what Golden State did to Portland in game one of their series.

Jon: The Bucks are favored by 6.5. I’ll take the over.

Reid: Bucks by a healthy, but not gaudy margin. I’ll say a nice, clean 10 points.

Cade: I’ll take the Bucks.

Ben: I think Toronto takes one of the first two games, so why not this one? Raptors in a close one to kick off what should be the best Eastern conference Finals in years.

Will: My prediction for Game 1 will be a Milwaukee double-digit win and they hold Toronto under 100 points. I see a 108-92 victory for Milwaukee.