The Eastern Conference finals between the Milwaukee Bucks and the Toronto Raptors bring a clash between the two best players in the conference – Giannis Antetokounmpo and Kawhi Leonard,
Bad news: They may not guard each other as they crave gladiatorial theater might hope.
Let's bounce around the matchups we might see on both ends.
When Milwaukee has the ball: Guarding the Greek Freak
Bring out your centers! Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka
Rudy Gobert, Joel Embiid, Jarrett Allen, Aron Baynes – on Antetokounmpo. and have them lay in wait in the paint. It has not worked all the way, but most teams do not have anyone with the most popular MVP. Lacking a unicorn-ish player, Antigokounmpo and the rim Antivokounmpo to hoist jumpers while staying home on Milwaukee's armada of shooters ̵
Alas, Gasol's days of This chore is probably in the rearview mirror.
Ibaka has a better chance, and got a chunk of the antetokounmpo assignment across four regular-season matchups. The Ibaka-Gasol double-center look helped steady Toronto against a bullying Philly team. Milwaukee ranked 26th in Offensive rebounding rate – but the Raptors, suddenly so thin without (for now) OG Anunoby, might need to steal some minutes with Ibaka guarding Antetokounmpo and Gasol on Brook Lopez or Ersan Ilyasova.
Side note no. 1: The Bucks largely forfeit offensive rebounds so Lopez can spot at the top of the arc, and as the first line of transition defense. The transition battle is an important game within the game. Toronto topped the league in points on possession on transition plays, by cleaning The Glass data. Milwaukee boasted the stingiest transition defense.
Side note no. Nicknurse lost all faith in Norman Powell's (and some in Fred VanVleet's) Philly series. 2: Anunoby would come in handy here, and not only. Anunoby was able to absorb some of the antetokounmpo assignment, and provide Toronto more switchable, small-ball lineup options.
The Bucks may be at their most dangerous with three guards and wings surrounding Antetokounmpo and Nikola Mirotic. It was telling that in Malcolm Brogdon's first game back from injury, Mike Budenholzer busted out the lineup of Eric Bledsoe, Brogdon, Khris Middleton, Antetokounmpo and Mirotic for five minutes. (Milwaukee walloped Boston by 14 points in those five minutes.)
George Hill, Pat Connaughton or even Sterling Brown – who got some run guarding Leonard in the regular season – into such lineups.
Do any of Toronto's big man combinations scare Milwaukee from leaning on a teensy bit more into those groups? The Raptors Gasol on Tobias Harris against Philly. It was kind of jarring.
At the other extreme, Milwaukee playing lineups featuring some antetokounmpo / Mirotic / Ilyasova / Lopez quartet should make it safe for the Raptors to play their own super-big trio of Pascal Siakam, Ibaka and Gasol. Again: If Anunoby can not go Powell shrinks, Toronto needs to fill minutes. Of course, some of Powell's finest moments as a Raptor came against Milwaukee in the playoffs two seasons ago.
Immovable object, unstoppable force, etc .: Kawhi Leonard
Oh, baby. Let's do this! Leonard has dialed it back in the postseason, and reemerged as an all-court destroyer.
He guarded antetokounmpo on just 31 possessions in three games – Leonard missed a Toronto loss – and Antetokounmpo attempted only three shots on those trips , via NBA.com's matchup data. In a limited sample, Leonard depressed Antetokounmpo's shooting and. (It is not 100 percent indicative of who started or endured a particular player.) scoring volume.)
Those numbers carry a ton of noise. They may not matter. Leonard:
Antetokounmpo grew more comfortable going Al Horford as the conference semifinals went on. Might he feel Leonard the same way?
Leonard may not be able to work in Philadelphia – including in Game 7, Antetokounmpo's primary defender
But it's something Toronto wants to do, perhaps in crunch time, and it's easy to make the matchups work. Siakam can guard pretty much anyone.
Milwaukee has gotten tools to get Antetokounmpo away from Leonard if it proves problematic. They can use Antetokounmpo in either end of a pick-and-roll, and present Toronto a bad choice: switch into yucky mismatches, or let Antetokounmpo loose amid a rotating defense.
For much of the series, the Raptors will have Siakam and Leonard guarding the Middleton-Giannis combination – meaning they can switch the two-man game between Milwaukee's best players:
Here's what happens when you switch that action:
The Bucks Milwaukee can pivot into less switchable pick-and-roll involving Antetokounmpo and Bledsoe.  Milwaukee can pivot into less switchable pick-and-roll involving the Middleton antetokounmpo dance. If the Raptors have Danny Green on Bledsoe – and they will stretches – they can switch that action, hold their noses, and live with Green on Antetokounmpo. Live might be optimistic, though.)
Milwaukee can complicate things by having both Antetokounmpo and Bledsoe screen for Middleton. Good luck navigating that maze:
Antetokounmpo wants to hunt Toronto's smallest players. If those players are on Brogdon or Mirotic, Milwaukee wants to pit Antetokounmpo against one of them. Kyle Lowry is a 6-foot fire hydrant with limbs, but Antetokounmpo wants to figure him out in short order.
The real first option: Pascal Siakam
Siakam drew the huge majority of Antetokounmpo duty in the regular season, with Leonard mostly handling Middleton. If it means vaporizing the no. 2 option.
Siakam has the Horfordian outlines of a defender who can make at least Antetokounmpo sweat, though he's not as stout. Even as the driver of the now-closed Pascal Siakam bandwagon, I must admit Antetokounmpo appeared pretty cozy at Spicy P. If Antetokounmpo rampages to the rim too easy, Toronto is in trouble. Leonard, overextend Ibaka, or junk up the game some other way.
Maybe they can thread the help-and-recover needle. Toronto's pushing defense is ferocious, fast and smart. It rotates with the ball – not behind it. But no one had any answer to Antetokounmpo yet. It may take a superhuman two-way effort from Leonard.
When Toronto has the ball: Guarding Kawhi Leonard
Unlike the GoT guys, Mike Budenholzer is not into fan service: Khris Middleton
This seems like it should be bad for milwaukee. Leonard has size, strength and athleticism on Middleton.
But Middleton handles the job well. Middleton seems to get Leonard's rhythm. The two kind of play at the same methodical, start-and-stop pace. Leonard wants to be good at Leonard – A must, since Lopez wants to hang back in the paint. If Leonard arrives at the other side of a Gasol pickup room, he can not fly down to the bottom.
Middleton has made it into the midrange. Yeah, that's Leonard's sweet spot. The Bucks do not care. They want to live with long-term 2-pointers from Leonard. They do not think any player can beat them that way. They are probably right.
Exploit Lopez to start on Gasol even though his drop-back style would be to open-source 3-pointers for both Gasol (on the pick-and-pop) and Toronto's star ball-handlers. The Sixers removed Joel Embiid from Gasol for that reason, and stashed him on Siakam. Why would not Milwaukee copy that, stick Lopez on Siakam, and have a rangier sort (likely antetokounmpo) erase the Gasol pick-and-roll attack?
They do not have to, and they are here do not have to. They were not toggle the matchups like that for the Kyrie Irving / Horford pick-and-roll, and that more likely "3-pointers incoming!" danger to Lopez's style of defense than any Toronto duo.
Lowry and Leonard can launch off-the-bounce 3s, but doing so is not their first choice. Leonard wants to burrow into the midrange. A lot of Lowry's high-wire, quick-release 3s come on pull-ups in transition, and off the catch in the half court. Leonard the ball on the block against Middleton.
The Raptors might be better off getting Leonard the ball on the block against Middleton.
They could have set Gasol and Ibaka on the floor, so Leonard and Lowry have space to dribble into rhythm before launching 3s.
Another idea: Slingshot Leonard into Gasol's screens, so he's going full speed with airspace behind him when he gets the ball. They could start Leonard in the corner, and have him rocket off a lowry before he arrives to Gasol. If that first pick from Lowry produces a switch, even better; The Raptors have a mismatch.
Milwaukee may not fear Lopez-on-Gasol: Gasol is even more reluctant shooter than Horford. The Bucks' scheme is a mind game. Milwaukee might provide. Those bigs get skittish. They feel guilty. I'm really just supposed to keep shooting? But I'm a center! Is not this kind of selfish? I'm just going to look for a dribble handoff.
Lopez is better than you think at corraling ball-handlers, and lumbering back to his man. He has good timing. He can come out of the 3-point arc if need be. He'll turn Lowry and Leonard into emergencies, and bank on the other bucks swarming off Toronto's lesser shooters. Toronto (1965) This is the ultimate long-range shooter on Toronto's starting lineup.
This setup leaves Antokoko on Siakam. (Siakam shot 42 percent on corner 3s, but only 17-of-63 on longer-the-break triples.) Antetokounmpo can rove more, and no one covers so much territory so fast. Antetokounmpo is a devastating, demoralizing help defender – a long-armed phantom who is somehow everywhere at once. He can help and get back in time to contest Siakam's corner 3s. He is Milwaukee's best rim protector, and he wants to be able to put him in that position.
Siakam's pointy-elbowed, spinny isolation game. You might point out Siakam averaged 24 points per game against Milwaukee on 64 percent shooting. Fair.
Count me as a skeptic. NBA.com's matchup tool and Second Spectrum. He did a lot of that damage against Ilyasova and others. He shot well against Antetokounmpo, but not often. (Siakam went 11-of-17 over 116 total possessions with Antetokounmpo as his primary defender, via NBA.com. He took 19 shots against Ilyasova on just 60 possessions.)
Siakam is good, but Antetokounmpo can handle him. Siakam is out of the series as a scorer.
Siakam is fearless. Lowry and Gasol – basketball snobs in the best sense of their snobbery can not work against the Raptors. Siakam's shot volume, and they may demur – and gum up Toronto's offense in the process. The downside is that they might go crazy and shoot, and keep shooting, and bury the bucks under open jumpers. Milwaukee would have to adjust, or just tighten up.
OK, but what if that does not work? Do we get the Kawhi-Giannis Bowl?
If Leonard brutalizes Middleton, things get very interesting. Antetokounmpo is maybe the ideal defender for Leonard – he's the ideal defender for most players – and he might have more than Leonard left in the tank; Antetokounmpo has just played nine games over the past 37 days. It would not be difficult for Milwaukee to toggle the matchups so Antetokounmpo defends Leonard.
Would they do that from a position of strength, or a position of weakness – because they want to, or because they have to?
Every good series forces a team to contort itself. Antetokounmpo wants to get started on both Leonard and Gasol.
Antetokounmpo-on-Gasol may be Milwaukee's primary gambit when they play small-ball lineups with Antetokounmpo and Mirotic as the nominal power forward and center; those were (basically) the only circumstances under which Antetokounmpo defended Horford. Milwaukee in those minutes can scrap their base defense, and engage Switch Mode.
Keep on eye on: Malcolm Brogdon
A healthy Brogdon takes Milwaukee to another level. Milwaukee's best catch-and-go driver.
Hey what, maybe somewhat unpredictably, Milwaukee's second option defending Leonard. Budenholzer was shockingly unafraid of this, and Brogdon held up pretty well.
Playoff Leonard is a different thing. Brogdon is just back from a foot injury. If he's up for it, he wants to get on Leonard. Keeping Brogdon in a reserve role would allow for a job. Leonard duty. (It would also force Miracle to defend Green when the starters face off; The Raptors might want to run Green around even more than usual, and see If Mirotic can keep up.)
Both teams come into this conference finals with an ideal set of matchups. Who caves first? Does either cave? The answers will tell us about the series is going – and who wins.