Bucks, Raptors to begin deciding Eastern Conference title

THERE’S a one-name superstar on either side: Giannis and Kawhi. There’s a Milwaukee franchise that hasn’t been to the NBA Finals in 45 years, opposite a Toronto franchise that has never been to the title round. The Bucks have a coach with an economics degree who wasn’t there last year; the Raptors have a coach with an accounting degree who wasn’t the boss last year.

Similarities abound between Milwaukee and Toronto.

Over the next couple of weeks, one team will separate itself.

The top-seeded Bucks play host to the second-seeded Raptors today (8.30am Brunei time) in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals. They had the best records in the NBA this season — Milwaukee went 60-22, Toronto went 58-24 — and one of them will have home-court advantage for the NBA Finals starting May 30.

“You can’t get caught up in people’s expectations,” Raptors star Kawhi Leonard said on Tuesday. “You’ve got to worry about self-expectations, team expectations, and winning, and that’s what we have to focus on. It doesn’t matter about the one-on-one match-up. This game isn’t a one-on-one basketball game.”

File photo shows Milwaukee Bucks’ Giannis Antetokounmpo driving past Boston Celtics’ Aron Baynes
Toronto Raptors forward Kawhi Leonard prepares for an NBA basketball news conference in Toronto. – PHOTOS: AP

Leonard made the shot that sent Toronto to the conference final, a buzzer-beating corner jumper over Joel Embiid that bounced on the rim four times before dropping. The Bucks, predictably, were impressed.

However, they weren’t rattled. The team with the best regular-season record also has the best record in these playoffs so far at 8-1, and confidence is not in short supply. The Bucks’ only blemish in these playoffs is a Game 1 loss at home against Boston in the second round.

“Against Boston, you can go down 1-0 and you’ll still be fine,” Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo said. “But against Toronto, it’s hard to be in that spot, to lose the first game in your home.”

Milwaukee coach Mike Budenholzer is acutely aware of all that Leonard brings to the table. He was an assistant in San Antonio when Leonard was getting started there — after the Spurs, somewhat ironically, traded George Hill to Indiana for Leonard’s draft rights. Hill is now the Bucks’ backup point guard.

“He made a great first impression on San Antonio on his teammates, on his coaching staff,” Budenholzer said when asked about his early days with Leonard. “Just the ability to get loose balls, rebounds and all kinds of little things that sometimes go unnoticed. But to think that he was going to evolve to the player he is … I don’t know when that happened.”

Here’s some other things to know going into the Milwaukee-Toronto series:

Rarity

This is the first East final since 2006 where neither coach was leading his respective team a year earlier. Miami’s Pat Riley faced off against Detroit’s Flip Saunders in 2006; Riley was in the Heat front office the previous year, and Saunders was getting fired by Minnesota.

Power Matchup

This is the first time an East final has paired teams that posted at least 58 regular-season wins since 2011, when Miami (58-24) beat Chicago (62-20). It’s the 33rd time that a number one seed has faced a number two seed since the 16-team format was put into use in 1984; in the East, number two seeds have beaten number one 10 of 18 times, and in the West it’s the number one seeds with an 8-6 edge.