Our newest NBA writer Nick Ballistreri previews the Eastern Conference Finals and selects the best bet for Game One on Wednesday.
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Well, if you’ve followed this season, this is what you expected. In a year where the Milwaukee Bucks and Toronto Raptors spent most of the season in the pole positions of the Eastern Conference, they now meet in the Eastern Conference Finals with a spot in the NBA Finals on the line. Being the 1 seed, the Bucks will have home court, with Game 1 on Wednesday. On Draftkings sportsbooks series lines, the Bucks are listed as favorites at -278, while the Raptors are +230.
The Bucks are considered by many to be the team most likely to derail the Warriors attempts at a three-peat. They had the best record in the NBA with a 60-22 record, and are lead by Giannis Antetokounmpo, who is the odds-on favorite to win MVP. Giannis is not alone, as he is flanked by two guards, Khris Middleton and Eric Bledsoe, who have their own All-Star game experience, big men who can stretch the floor, and a deep bench. The bench just got deeper with the return of guard Malcolm Brogdon last series.
The Bucks are a high-powered offense, leading the league in scoring with 118.1 PPG, while also sporting the league’s best point differential, at +8.8 per game. To this point, they have been through a relatively stress-free playoff run, going 8-1 in the first two rounds. They lost Game 1 vs the Celtics, but responded with 4 straight victories to move on.
Toronto is in an interesting situation. They were the #1 seed in the Eastern Conference Playoffs a season ago, finishing one game better than this years 58-24. After being swept by LeBron James and the Cavs in the 2nd round, the team decided changes were needed to take the next step, as they packaged franchise icon Demar Derozan in a trade that netted them Kawhi Leonard. It was a risky move at the time, but they are one series win from it paying off huge dividends.
Fast forward to today, and Kawhi Leonard is the undisputed leader of the Raptors. With the emergence of potential Most Improved Player of the Year Pascal Siakam, the Raptors possess a 1-2 punch that rivals the league’s best. They have a former All-Star at point guard in Kyle Lowry, and savvy veterans on their frontline in Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol. Many feel that if the there is ever a year for the Raptors to break through to the NBA Finals, this is the one.
After getting upset in their first 1st round game, the Raptors went on to beat the Orlando Magic 4-1 in dominating fashion. Things got interesting in the 2nd Round, as they went up against the 3rd seeded Philadelphia 76ers. It took until the final second of Game 7, but the Raptors prevailed in a back and forth series on a Kawhi Leonard buzzer beater, the first Game 7 buzzer beater in over 20 years.
Kawhi Leonard has been nothing short of dominant this postseason, averaging an astounding 31.8 points a game, as well as 8.5 rebounds. He has carried the team
through offensive droughts, and has come through in the clutch when needed, as evidenced by his stone-cold game winner in Game 7. To beat the Bucks in this series, Kawhi is going to have to be at his very best, and get some substantial help from his role players to counteract Giannis and co.
The Raptors and Bucks have only played once in the postseason, with the Raptors winning 4-2 in the first round of the 2017 postseason. With the second meeting being in these conference finals, the stakes are much higher this time.
In the regular season, the Bucks took the season series 3-1. The Raptors lone regular season win was on January 5, in Milwaukee, 123-116, giving Toronto hope that they can steal a game or two on the road. In that lone win, Kawhi Leonard and Pascal Siakam each scored 30 points, and needed every one of them to hold off Antetokounmpo, who had 43 points and 18 rebounds.
With both teams having a bonafide superstar, the key to the series will be the play of the role players. All season, the Bucks have gotten consistent contributions from a number of different role players, while the Raptors behind Siakam have been looking for their steady 3rd option with Kyle Lowry having an inconsistent year. Expect coaching to play an important role as well, with this being Raptors head coach Nick Nurse’s first postseason as head man.
In Game 1, the Bucks are listed as 6 point favorites at -107, and -265 on the moneyline. With the Bucks being well-rested, and the Raptors coming off a hard-fought 7 game series, expect the Bucks to be ready. We see the Bucks coming out on fire, and there is plenty of value in taking the points in this one. Expect Bucks win big in Game 1 before the Raptors get a chance to adjust.