Due to some crazy seeding and hot streaks, we didn’t totally get the Conference Finals we expected in the West. In the East though, we got exactly what we expected.
No.2 Toronto Raptors vs. No.1 Milwaukee Bucks
Most teams in the league don’t have anybody to stop or even slightly contain Giannis Antetokounmpo. That’s why he’s at the heart of one of the more contested and fantastic MVP debates in awhile. He’s unstoppable.
But there’s a couple teams that do have options for him. These options aren’t going to stop him, but they could him work a bit more. These teams are Golden State, Philadelphia, and the Raptors. That’s it.
But the difference with the Raptors is that there’s a case they have two guys: Kawhi Leonard and Pascal Siakam. Siakam has maybe the closest skill set to Giannis in the league, with insane length and athleticism that translates both ways incredibly effectively. And Kawhi is the best perimeter defender of all-time, who went head-to-head with LeBron in a Finals and won at 21-years-old.
Toronto is the team most well built to make Giannis not matter as much in a series. If they plant Kawhi or Siakiam on him, that’s a pretty good bet from Toronto’s side. If they switch everything against him, that’s a good bet too. Throwing mixed coverages and involving Danny Green makes Giannis have to work and defer even more. The Raptors could also imitate what Boston did in Game 1 of the second round, and build a wall anchored by Kawhi or Siakam, with the other shadowing on the wing and Marc Gasol staying home yet coming up to the elbow, creating a brunt force Giannis would have to penetrate.
Milwaukee’s drive and kick offense is the counter to Giannis being off. But Toronto’s length and recovering ability limit its effectiveness as well; the Raptors have been the third best defenders of the three this postseason (by opponent three point percentage) and were eighth in the league for the season overall (The Bucks finished 22nd).
So what if Giannis is contained? Who’s the guy? I would certainly hope it’s not “I’m gonna show you why I deserved that contract” Eric Bledsoe, who is going to dribble too much, jack threes and take bad mid-rangers, completely messing up Milwaukee’s offensive flow. Is it Khris Middleton? He’s coming off of an excellent series against Boston, but he kills them every time those two teams play. Middleton’s an underrated No.1 offensive option; he’s got a better handle than people give him credit for and is good at creating his own shot. But is he enough against Toronto, who plays a similar style of offense and has dudes who have been in big games before?
That’s another huge advantage to Toronto in this series. If Milwaukee’s offense faces trouble, they don’t have anyone to really guide the ship on or off the court. They don’t have experience. Practically no one on that roster has been in big games before. The Raptors have seven dudes who have been in big games, and I know that can be poked… Lowry’s sucked, everyone’s had their butts handed to them by LeBron, blah, blah. But it’s probably better to have your butts kicked by the best player in the world than to not have any experience in big games at all.
All of this is not saying that Toronto is going to slaughter Milwaukee. Giannis might be contained a bit but he will not be stopped. There’s going to be two games in this series where he completely dominated not because Toronto is bad but because Giannis is that good. Some nights you’re just not going to have a chance. Plus, the Bucks were the best defensive team in the league all year. If the Bucks can have Giannis force Kawhi into a Game 7 against Philly-like performance (Look, the shot was incredible, but that wasn’t exactly a showcase from Kawhi. He never takes that many shots and isn’t that type of offensive player. He knows that and knew it after the game too. Most of the time a lot of those shots won’t go in), then they’re letting Kyle Lowry beat them. I will let him shoot in big games all I can.
Siakam is the x-factor for Toronto offensively. Giannis giving Kawhi a tough time forces Lowry to go into facilitator mode, and Siakam feeds off that. Despite being able to put up 30, Siakam isn’t a volume scorer. He hangs around the rim and gets put-backs. He stands in the corner and shoots threes that are swung to him. He’s the type of guy who, when you at the box score, you say, “Wait, Siakam has 30?!?” It makes no sense at all how he gets there.
The Bucks don’t really have a guy for him. Malcolm Brogdon will be back at full minutes at some point in this series, but he’s a little undersized to play under the rim where Toronto usually has him. Siakam trying to drive is probably a better matchup for Brogdon; he can use his athleticism more that way and poke at the ball.
If Siakam can put up 20 a game in this series, that’s trouble for Milwaukee, who can’t have Siakam going off and Giannis doing the opposite in the same night. That’s a loss for the Bucks immediately.
The other thing Milwaukee has going for them is their fight. We’ve seen Toronto slack in way too many games, regular season or postseason. If Milwaukee is up they won’t back down. If they’re down they won’t quit. Toronto is going to have to stay keyed in defensively, because even though Giannis won’t bring a rain of threes to the plate, he can run up the score just as quick as someone like Stephen Curry can.
As I said above, this is no way a Toronto slaughter. Giannis is going to have his moments. I just think Toronto can make him have less of those, and it will keep the Raptors around a little more than most anticipate.
Prediction: Raptors in 7