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Sneak Peek: Clash of the Eastern Conference Titans

Kawhi, Kyle, and company are headed to the Forum.

NBA: Dallas Mavericks at Toronto Raptors Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports

For the Milwaukee Bucks, everything is going according to plan.

It’s not just the new schemes. Sure, the Bucks’ 5-out approach to offense has led them to a top-10 offensive rating, while also boasting top-5 placements in points scored, threes taken, threes made, and assists. And yes, the Bucks’ straight-up strategy on defense (where they abandon the midrange to seal off the rim and arc) is paying early dividends in the form of a top-3 defensive rating, as well as top-5 results in opponent field goal percentage, opponent three point percentage, defensive rebounding, and blocks. But it’s not all about the numbers (even though it could be).

It’s not even just the new personnel. The biggest names from last season (Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton, Eric Bledsoe, Malcolm Brogdon) are where you’d expect them to be, but the middle of the roster has been greatly expanded. Brook Lopez, Ersan Ilyasova, Pat Connaughton, and Donte DiVincenzo have come in and contributed, meaning other players like Tony Snell, Matthew Dellavedova, John Henson, Thon Maker, and Sterling Brown have simply not been asked to do as much. It turns out that having more capable players makes your team more capable as a result!

But there’s to how everything has changed. The team is having fun, and it’s quite obvious. Mike Budenholzer is renowned for his use of positivity in his coaching, and it appears to have fundamentally altered the chemistry of the roster. The ball is getting moved around for open looks, and whoever is open is shooting. The rotation goes ten-deep; after the top three shot-takers (Giannis, Khris, and Eric), the next seven players are averaging 13 minutes (or more) and five field goal attempts (or more) per game. It’s downright egalitarian!

The paint is cleared out on offense and packed in on defense. Big men actually box out to create space for others to corral rebounds. The green light is universal. Everything is groovy!

But then again, the NBA isn’t a vacuum. Other teams are finding success early on, and one of those teams is coming to visit on Monday night.

The Toronto Raptors were the top team in the Eastern Conference last season and were led by the league’s Coach of the Year. After an embarrassing sweep by LeBron’s Cavs in the playoffs, Toronto was faced with a choice: run it all back, or seize high risk/high reward opportunities.

Before LeBron James even left for Los Angeles, the die was cast. Masai Ujiri made the hard choice, and let Dwayne Casey go (Casey quickly landed in Detroit, where the Pistons are yet another early season surprise). Budenholzer was actually a candidate for the job, but his decision to go with Milwaukee led the Raps to promote internally: assistant coach and offensive wunderkind Nick Nurse was tapped to take the lead role. This was a risk.

Meanwhile, in San Antonio, the Kawhi Leonard saga had reached the point of no return, and Gregg Popovich was forced to part ways with his franchise cornerstone. A number of suitors came forward, but Toronto’s offer of DeMar DeRozan (and Jakob Poeltl and draft picks) won the day. The Raptors were famous for the chemistry between DeMar and Kyle Lowry, but it was determined that breaking them up was necessary to bring in an MVP-caliber player. This was also a risk.

Six games in, the Raptors’ risk seems to be paying off. Toronto is tied with the Bucks at 6-0, and their name is littered among the leaders in a number of categories, including top-5 in offensive rating, field goal percentage, opponent field goal percentage, total rebounds, and blocks. Toronto is blowing teams out, has a deep roster of contributors, and the biggest drama they’re dealing with might be that Delon Wright doesn’t like poutine. You could say that things are pretty smooth in the North.

Monday’s clash of these Eastern Conference titans will have something for everyone, but it’s going to mean a lot for Milwaukee. If the Bucks win, fans might crow about their 7-0 record and start tossing out predictions about the conference finals and end-of-season hardware for Coach Bud, Jon Horst, and yes, maybe even John Henson. But if the Bucks lose, fans might lament how the team isn’t ready to contend, can’t hang with the big dogs, and start looking at what changes need – NEED – to be made between now and February.

But here’s the thing: it’s just one game. Sure, it might factor in to tie breaking conversations in six months, but each game matters as much as the next when it comes to how the game is played, how the strategy is executed, or how much #EnergyAndEffort is exerted. The Bucks might win, and extend their undefeated streak to start the year with the Boston Celtics waiting for them on Thursday. The Bucks might lose, and they’ll still sit at 6-1 with the Boston Celtics waiting for them on Thursday. Monday’s contest might matter for a few weeks, but in the long run neither result should knock the hype train off its rails.

The important thing is the system. If the Bucks maintain their dedication and discipline to Coach Bud’s strategies, they will be in a position to succeed. Maybe their high turnovers comes back to bite them, or their heretofore hot shooting cools off too much. But no matter what, as long as they play the same way they’ve played since preseason started, things are looking up in Milwaukee, win or lose.