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Basketball How the Toronto Raptors can beat the Bucks in their Eastern Conference showdown

The NBA Eastern Conference final features an obvious storyline in a matchup between Toronto superstar Kawhi Leonard and Milwaukee MVP candidate Giannis Antetokounmpo.

Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press

The Toronto Raptors will play in the NBA Eastern Conference final for just the second time in team history when they visit the Milwaukee Bucks on Wednesday to kick off a best-of-seven series. Here’s a look at how the teams match up:

SUPERSTAR SHOWDOWN

The best-of-seven series will feature arguably the two best players in the Eastern Conference in Toronto’s Kawhi Leonard and Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo.

Leonard is averaging 31.8 points and 8.5 rebounds a game in the playoffs and has been the Raptors’ leading scorer in all but two of those contests. That includes a 41-point performance in Game 7 of Toronto’s Eastern Conference semi-final with Philadelphia, punctuated by his now-famous buzzer-beating, series-winning shot that bounced on the rim four times before going in. His team routinely gets dismantled in the rare minutes the Raptors can afford to give him some rest. In short, Leonard is clearly the talisman in Toronto.

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Antetokounmpo has no doubt been a force in this postseason with averages of 27.4 points and 11.3 rebounds a game. But he hasn’t had to take over games as Leonard has. In a four-game sweep of Detroit and a five-game win over Boston, Milwaukee has an average margin of victory of 15.3 points. The Raptors played Leonard for an average of just less than 40 minutes a game against the Sixers. Antetokounmpo has been able to get a lot more time on the bench with a playoff average of 31.4 minutes a game.

Leonard likely gets the slight edge here as a battle-tested playoff performer with an NBA final MVP award to his name. The “Greek Freak” is perfectly capable of taking over a playoff series, but hasn’t been put to the test yet.

SUPPORTING CAST

There is no question that Antetokounmpo gets more help on offence than Leonard. The Bucks have had at least four players score in double digits in every playoff game except one – their Game 1 loss to Boston in the conference semi-finals. All-star forward Khris Middleton and guard Eric Bledsoe are capable of posting 20-plus points on any given night. The return of Malcolm Brogdon, who missed 21 games with a plantar fascia tear before returning to action in Game 5 of the series against Boston, adds another weapon. Brogdon was a 42.6-per-cent shooter from beyond the arc in the regular season.

Outside of Leonard, the Raptors have been inconsistent on offence. Forward Pascal Siakiam was a dependable second option in the first round against Orlando and the start of the series with Philadelphia, but he hasn’t been as dangerous since suffering a calf contusion in a Game 3 blowout loss to the Sixers. All-star point guard Kyle Lowry was 10-for-39 from three in the Philadelphia series, while shooting guard Danny Green, who shot from long range at a blistering 45.5-per-cent clip in the regular season, is a disappointing 36.5 in the playoffs. Centre Marc Gasol has been fine on defence but needs to contribute more offensively. The bench of centre Serge Ibaka, guard Fred VanVleet and forward Norman Powell has been largely ineffective, although Ibaka has stepped up his game of late.

Despite their offensive struggles, the Raptors have been largely getting it done with defence. Toronto has held its opponent to less than 100 points in nine of its 12 postseason games, winning eight of those. While Leonard is a sublime defender, it has largely been a team effort. Lowry, in particular, has been a force on defence, creating turnovers and bailing his team out with timely offensive rebounds.

The Bucks have a clear edge here, but continued defensive toughness from the Raptors, coupled with a marked improvement in offensive support for Leonard, could close the gap.

FAMILIAR FOES

The Raptors and Bucks met four times in the regular season, with Milwaukee winning the series 3-1. Notably, the Bucks won twice at Scotiabank Arena, including a 13-point victory in the clubs’ most recent meeting on Jan. 31. The only Raptors victory came in Milwaukee on Jan. 5, with Pascal Siakam scoring a then-career high of 30 points in a 123-116 win. Milwaukee went on to finish first in the East with a 60-22 record, two games ahead of the Raptors (58-24).

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Toronto won the only other playoff meeting between the teams, capturing a first-round series in six games in 2017. While that Bucks team featured many of its present key pieces, including Antetokounmpo, Middleton and Brogdon, the Raptors were a much different team with players such as DeMar DeRozan, Jonas Valanciunas and Cory Joseph.

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