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Tuesday, May 14, 2019

Milwaukee Versus Toronto Preview

Eastern Conference Finals

# 1 Milwaukee (60-22) vs. #2 Toronto (58-24)

Season series: Milwaukee, 3-1

Toronto can win if…Kawhi Leonard is the best player in the series. This series will in no small part be decided by the battle between Leonard and Giannis Antetokounmpo, regardless of how often they actually face each other one on one; the superstar who not only plays better but also brings out the best in his teammates will be the superstar whose team represents the Eastern Conference in the 2019 NBA Finals.

Leonard is averaging 31.8 ppg, 8.5 rpg and 3.6 apg during the 2019 playoffs, with shooting splits of .539/.408/.868. Pascal Siakam is a very good second option (20.8 ppg during the 2019 playoffs), while Kyle Lowry has settled into being the third option (12.4 ppg during the 2019 playoffs). "Playoff Lowry" is a meme of sorts--and not meant as a compliment--but, despite his poor playoff shooting (maintaining a career-long pattern), Lowry's supporters have a point that he makes valuable contributions in other areas. I am not quite convinced that these contributions completely outweigh his poor shooting--playoff averages of 5.0 rpg and 7.0 apg do not balance out shooting splits of .412/.281/.767--but I agree with those who suggest that Lowry provides value that goes beyond what one sees by superficially examining the box score numbers.

Serge Ibaka has made important contributions at key moments during the playoffs but overall his production has dropped significantly (15.0 ppg, team-high 8.1 rpg during the regular season but just 9.0 ppg and 5.8 rpg during the playoffs) and Toronto will not beat Milwaukee with a subpar performance from Ibaka.

Milwaukee will win because…the Bucks are elite both on offense and on defense, and they are led by the best player in the league, Giannis Antetokounmpo. Antetokounmpo--who should win the regular season MVP based on his two-way excellence (27.7 ppg, 12.5 rpg, 5.9 apg, 1.5 bpg, 1.3 spg, .578 FG%) for the team that posted the league's best record--is having an outstanding playoff run thus far, averaging 27.4 ppg, 11.4 rpg, 4.4 apg, 1.6 bpg, 1.1 spg, .522 FG%. Much is made of his lack of a consistent outside shot but he shot .412 from three point range during Milwaukee's 4-1 rout of the Boston Celtics and--more importantly, despite the incessant modern focus on shooting--even when he is not making his outside shot it is very difficult to guard him without committing a second defender to help, which then opens up opportunities for Milwaukee's three point snipers.

Khris Middleton has accepted being the second option, George Hill is a savvy veteran with a lot of playoff experience and the other rotation players have done their jobs for the most part, though Milwaukee needs more from Brook Lopez than he provided versus Boston (5.4 ppg, 4.2 rpg, abysmal shooting splits of .286/.222/.500 that look like three awful typos smashed next to each other).

Other things to consider: The Raptors had a better winning percentage during the regular season when Kawhi Leonard was out of the lineup doing his odious "load management" than they did when he played, but the Raptors need for him to be on the court and to play at a high level in this series. Bill Parcells used to exhort his players during the playoffs, "This is why you lift those (bleeping) weights"; I guess that in today's more delicate era, the exhortation is, "This is why you were a healthy scratch during so many regular season games."

Although the margin may not prove to be huge any of the following categories in this matchup, I believe that Milwaukee has the best player, best coach and most depth. If necessary, Milwaukee also has game seven at home.

What many observers fail to understand--or forget in the heat of the moment--is that in a seven game series each game is an entity unto itself, but overall truths will prevail in the end. In other words, in a seven game series the inferior team may win a blowout game and/or may keep things even after four games but--barring serious injuries or suspensions--the best team will ultimately prevail (which is just one reason that the NBA playoffs are a superior competitive endeavor compared to the NCAA Tournament).

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posted by David Friedman @ 5:43 PM



At Thursday, May 16, 2019 10:53:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


Initially, I disagreed with your assessment of Giannis as the best player in the league. To me it was Kevin Durant, with apologies to out-of-commission Lebron. But then I thought about Giannis at both ends of the floor, the fact that he's elite both offensively and defensively. Durant is clearly the best offensive player in the league, but Giannis is much better than him defensively. In fact, Giannis is arguably the league's best defender.

I think we might use the Yankees/Pirates 1960 World Series as an analogy. The Yankees were clearly the better offensive team. They scored 55 runs during that seven-game series whereas the Pirates only scored 27 runs, less than half the Yankees' output. The Yankees blew the Pirates out each of their three wins; the Pirates won four close games. Of course, the Pirates won the series because the object of the game is not simply to score a lot of runs, but to score more runs than the opponent, and over the course of a seven-game series, to do so four times. The Pirates scored their runs with more effective timing than did the Yankees. Which is why they were the better team.

You often make a similar point, David, in the context of basketball by emphasizing the importance of when points are scored, as against basketball analytics that tend to treat all points the same. For example, basketball analytics cannot account for the clutch greatness of Curry's 33-point second-half explosion, including 23 points in the fourth quarter, in the recent game six that saw the elimination of the Rockets.

Anyway, when comparing the two I think that Durant is something like the 1960 Yankees and Giannis is something like those Pirates. But then again, Durant has proven that he's a clutch performer during the last couple of Finals so I'm not sure this is such a great analogy after all. Maybe a Bucks/Warriors Finals, with Durant back on the court, would answer the question as to who's the league's best player. Not in terms of final result, for a Warriors win over the heavily outgunned Bucks would not, in itself, argue against Giannis as the league's best player. But if Giannis were to put in a performance where he emerged as the Finals' most outstanding player, all things considered, perhaps outperforming Durant even though Durant were to get the Finals MVP as the best player on the best team, I think Giannis could then claim the best player in the league title.

But first he must get the Bucks past the Raptors. I mean, another legitimate question is is Giannis better than Kawhi.

At Thursday, May 16, 2019 11:50:00 PM, Blogger Kyle Falls said...

I was incredibly surprised how the Bucks handled the Celtics. I thought it was going to be a longer and harder fought series. I said whomever won that series was going to the finals, so I'm rolling with the Bucks. They were my pre-playoffs finals pick. Like you David, I believe they have the better player, coach, and deeper team.

In other news, I'm officially not a Kawhi-doubter anymore. I always felt he was over-hyped, but man has he been phenomenal. I wish he would play more during the season, but I've seen enough to reconsider him as a top 5 player like he was back in 2017 (I had him lower in the top 10 coming into the playoffs). I think it's becoming more likely that he stays in Toronto.


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