By Joshua M Hicks (@jhicks042)
The 2019 NBA Playoffs have not been a disappointment so far. In fact, in spite of the absence of the former King of the Eastern Conference, LeBron James, teams on both sides of the country have made the playoffs as competitive as it has ever been during James’s reign as the league’s top draw.
Coming off a weekend where a hotly contested Game 6 played on one evening and two Game 7’s played on one night to determine final invites to the Conference Finals, playoff competition is flying at observers at a wild pace and even though the herd has thinned out, the story-lines surrounding each of the final conference series are as thick as they can be.
It could be very well possible that the playoffs reached a climax of interest in the wake of CJ McCollum‘s run to carry Portland past Denver and Kawhi’s incredible and unprecedented series-ender against Philadelphia, but in the wake of all that great ball we’re left exactly with, if not the four best teams in the NBA, the four that are playing the best ball and who have done the most to earn their final spots.
In short, these conference deciding match-ups are the real deal. Let’s see how they each match up:
Toronto Raptors vs. Milwaukee Bucks – Headlines have this as “The Greek Freak vs. The Klaw” — in the battle for East supremacy we indeed have the two very best players in that conference tasked with out-doing one another.
For each franchise this is a long-awaited return to prominence, though Milwaukee’s is much more defined with them having waiting since 2001 to make it this far in the postseason. Surprisingly, given all the changes in the Raptors organization in recent years, they were last in the East Finals in 2016, but this is the first time Toronto has made it this far without the best friend duo of Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan.
Instead the team has Kawhi Leonard, who has to be everyone’s friend in Canada right now on top of being the best two-way player in the league. Leonard has been putting on a huge display in the playoffs so far — averaging 32 points a game on 54 percent shooting and 41% from three while still being that defensive show-stopper when needed and actively using the clutch factor to score what is both the biggest shot in Raptors playoff history and the only Game 7 buzzer beater in league history.
Some struggles still surround the Rapters, however, and they mostly stem from their primary role players, Lowry and Pascal Siakam. Most likely the league’s most improved player of the year this year, Siakam has been very up and down in shooting the ball so far in the playoffs, only shooting 31% from the three this playoff season.
Lowry has a history of disappearing when big moments in the postseason come his way, and those struggles have continued in 2019. The veteran floor leader is only averaging 12 points a game on 28% shooting from the three. However, defensively, both he and Siakam have been impactful, making both men still potentially key factors in beating the Bucks.
A major key for Toronto to win this series is for its bench and role players to play at a high level and continually contribute on both ends of the floor. Leonard cannot do everything on his own, and he needs help to overtake an enormously talented and loaded Bucks team. The Raptors also need to force others outside of Giannis to beat them.
Milwaukee has used this year to make a dramatic leap into the NBA’s elite and now are playing in the East Finals for the first time since Ray Allen was its franchise player. Behind a now established top-5 player in Giannis Antetokounmpo, the Bucks have relatively cruised through this postseason, not even going so far as a Game 6, a lot of that is due to the unlikely heroic contributions of role players Pat Connaughton and George Hill.
Connaughton and Hill have been big bursts off the bench for the Bucks, especially during the absence of former Rookie of the Year Malcolm Brogdon. Now with Brogdon coming back healthy combined with the shooting ability of Nikola Mirotic, Brook Lopez, Ersan Ilyasova, scoring ability of Kris Middleton and Giannis, along with the constant defensive presence of Eric Bledsoe, this team can overtake anyone that stands in their way.
The Bucks’ key is to continue to have productivity off their bench and play sound defense, especially against Leonard, they have to make him earn as much of his prolific scoring as possible. I see the Bucks earning this series in 7 games.
Portland Trailblazers vs. Golden State Warriors – Sonya and Dell Curry may have to flip a coin to determine what gear each of them will wear to this series represent both of their sons. Stephen and Seth Curry are going down in history as the only brothers to ever face each other in the Conference Finals (a potential Gasol matchup actually could have happened in the East, but health issues for Pau have torpedoed that possibility).
Expect the Battle of the Currys to dominate the headlines all series long.
However either brother represents the family name individually in this series both Currys are equipped with a team that makes a strong case to be Western Conference champions.
The Trailblazers are back in the championship mix for the first time in 19 years and are determined to send another prophetic message to all their haters after two revealing series wins already. Damian Lillard did not shoot the ball as well against Denver as he did in his dominant performance against Oklahoma City, but his activity in other areas of the floor impact the game on various levels regardless of how his shots fall. Entering this match up with GSW, Dame is averaging 29 points, 6 assists and 5 rebounds a game on 43% from the field and 38% from three.
McCollum has been on a tear, showing in the Denvers series that he can be the reliable go-to guy when Lillard is struggling scoring the ball offensively, making countless scoring plays down the stretch with multiple games on the line, his 26 points a game on 41% shooting from the three and 45% overall have kept the Blazers afloat. Much like with Toronto, the Trailblazers chances of winning this series rely much on the effectiveness of their bench.
We know Moe Harkless and Al-Farouq Aminu are players that can get you baskets here and there, but they are mainly there for defensive purposes. Seth Curry, Evan Turner and Zach Collins each can provide an offensive burst as well as a defensive presence, which is going to be needed to slow down the Warriors’ always-ready offense, and as the second-best backcourt duo in the league Lillard and McCollum already has much pressure on them to compete well against the Splash Brothers, who they are often compared with. More pressure will be applied on them if potential impact player Rodney Hood continues to deal with injury.
The Warriors are not at full strength at the moment but they were impressive at the close of the Houston series, proving that even without their best overall player in Kevin Durant –who is averaging 34 points a game on 51% shooting from the field and 41% from three — they are still be a force to reckon with.
Unarguably, Durant is the Dubs’ best player, but we all know that Steph, who is averaging 24 points a game on 44% from the field, is the heart that powers this Warriors offense. Steph has done more to take opponents’ hearts in the past, and has struggled shooting behind the three-point line at only 37% for this postseason, but down the stretch he still makes mad big plays, including scoring 33 points in the second half of the Game 6 clincher against the Rockets last Friday.
Klay Thompson continues to show he is a top-5 level two-way player in the league and Draymond Green has been his normal self in dictating action on both ends of the floor. The key for the Warriors is to limit the opposing back court with their on-ball defense as well as receive high-level play in all facets of the game from their bench, similarly to what they did during Game 6’s in Houston. If Golden State’s motor is out-powering its opponents in the final 12 minutes then its just about impossible to beat them.
I believe the Warriors’ bench would hold up fine until Kevin Durant returns, and with DeMarcus Cousins potentially returning during this series as well it will be too much firepower for the Blazers to handle in a 7-game series. I believe the Warriors will win the series in 6 games.
Joshua M. Hicks is a Senior Writer for WARR Media