The Milwaukee Bucks Eastern Conference Challengers
The Milwaukee Bucks have established themselves top dogs of the league after a superb 2019-2020 season. Is there any team that can knock them off before they reach the Finals? The Milwaukee Bucks, largely off the back of Giannis Antetokounmpo, has emerged as one of the league’s powerhouse teams. Khris Middleton has established himself as an All-Star, and his ruthless efficiency and shooting perfectly compliment the Greek Freak. All season, Milwaukee has been the favorite to emerge from their conference playoffs. However, three distinct teams could stand in the way of Giannis and company’s first NBA Finals appearance.
The Biggest Threats to the Milwaukee Bucks
The Miami Heat and the Indiana Pacers have both pieced together great seasons coupled with the emergence of talented young bigs in Bam Adebayo and Domantas Sabonis, respectively. Both tough teams boast “never give up” mentalities, however, may not have the firepower to be legitimate finals contenders. Victor Oladipo hasn’t played much basketball in the last year and will more than likely have some rust, and the Heat outside of Jimmy Butler does not have the experienced top-end talent to really give the entire conference a run for their money. Expect both to play a hard-fought series, but struggle to advance past the second round of the playoffs.
The defending champions Toronto Raptors of the 2018-2019 season seem like an obvious choice. However, it’s not so simple in Toronto. Last season’s Cinderella run was powered by the incomparable Kawhi Leonard and a supporting cast of savvy veterans and bargain deals. With Kawhi gone and stars Kyle Lowry and Marc Gasol another year older, some regression was reasonable to expect. Instead, Toronto bucked that train of thought. They played some of the best basketball in all of the league, with a well balanced and constructed roster spearheaded by Pascal Siakam. Siakam has established himself one of the games very best two-way wings. He creates all sorts of mismatches with his versatile skill set and athleticism at the forward position.
With a deep roster capable of scoring inside and out, Toronto could pose as one of the most troublesome matchups for the Bucks. The Bucks, for all their stout defensive credentials, lead the league in opponent three-point attempts per game, per NBA Advanced Stats. At any given time, the Raptors can have five shooters on the floor. With sharpshooting bigs in Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol, the Raptors have efficient and capable shooting lineups without sacrificing the necessary size to defend the Greek Freak. With sharpshooting everywhere and sustained excellence from Siakam, the Raptors have more than a fighters chance to knock off the league’s most dominant team. Oh, and they knocked the Bucks out of the playoffs last year, for what it’s worth.
Playing the Boston Celtics in a seven-game series will be like trying to box a lefty. It’s going to be awkward. They have four dynamic perimeter players. At least two on the floor at most times, the Celtics will attack with an onslaught of elite playmakers and scorers. At full health, Kemba Walker, Jaylen Brown, Gordon Hayward, and Jayson Tatum form an unguardable quadruple threat with complimenting skill sets. Jayson Tatum’s meteoric rise has created a conundrum for opposing teams; double Tatum, leave one of the previous players open. Don’t double Tatum, leave your favorite defender out to dry.
With their four stars, along with superb role players in Marcus Smart and Daniel Theis, the Celtics create a problem unique to any team in the league. The Bucks may be as well equipped to battle with the Celtics as anyone else in the league, but asking your worst perimeter defender to guard this guy could bode troublesome.
While Boston doesn’t boast the same size as their eastern conference counterparts, they do create issues on the defensive end. With super sixth man and All-Defense first-teamer Marcus Smart leading the charge and lengthy wings Brown, Tatum, and Hayward, offenses will have trouble getting traction on the perimeter. Criminally underrated Daniel Theis has a knack for positioning and timing on defense, making scoring at the rim a challenge for even the big and athletic scorers in the league. This is a team that can keep Milwaukee on their toes.
If there’s one team the Milwaukee Bucks should want absolutely no smoke with, its the Philadelphia 76ers. Now that the process is over, the results are starting to pour in. While this season has been a bit of a disappointment for Philly, two straight trips to the Eastern Conference semi-finals is certainly some progress after years of putrid play. Only one legendary Kawhi shot from the conference finals last year, Philly is certainly on the way up. With bonafide stars in Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid, the 76ers have the right mix of talent and playoff experience to now make a real play at the championship. With scoring talent in Tobias Harris and quality role players in Josh Richardson, Al Horford and Matisse Thybulle, the 76ers have the top-end players to win any series they play in.
While Simmons, Embiid, and Harris are absolutely offensive weapons, the defense is where Philly is truly terrifying. With lengthy and talented defenders all over the floor, Philly has the defensive personnel to create a nightmare for Giannis Antetokounmpo. Ben Simmons is a legitimate first-team All-Defense candidate with excellent feel and physicality. Embiid, outside of Rudy Gobert, is arguably the best rim protector in the league. Mattise Thybulle has emerged as a rare rookie defensive savant, an off-ball menace to passers and playmakers everywhere. All fans of the Boston Celtics should know what Al Horford will bring to the table on that end, especially in the playoffs. At his best, Horford adds versatility to that defense with his mobility and can keep the paint a no-fly zone during Embiid’s breaks.
The 76ers do not have the shooting the previous teams can provide. However, they do offer the biggest matchup problem for Milwaukee. Philly has long perimeter defenders and their very own 6’10” unicorn to match Giannis. As a result, they can wall off the paint while simultaneously checking Milwaukee’s sharpshooters. Testing Embiid in the paint over and over is a waste of time. Horford can provide quality relief when Embiid rests, along with another layer of defensive versatility to this team. Philly is uniquely qualified to both check Giannis and put a blanket over Milwaukee’s talented supporting cast.