The Milwaukee Bucks are one of two teams who have reached the Eastern Conference Finals. In five games, the Bucks have achieved this faster than any other team this season; the Golden State Warriors bested the Houston Rockets in six last night, and the series between the Denver Nuggets and Portland Trail Blazers, as well as the Toronto Raptors and the Philadelphia 76ers, will conclude tomorrow.
All we know is that the Bucks are going to play somebody on Wednesday as they try to move past the halfway point in their 16-win playoff objective. Will it be Kawhi Leonard, Kyle Lowry, Marc Gasol, Pascal Siakam, and the Raptors? Or will we see Joel Embiid, Jimmy Butler, Ben Simmons, and old friend Tobias Harris with the 76ers?
If Philly wins...
Philadelphia is the definition of a top-heavy team. Embiid is a legitimate superstar, and Jimmy G. Buckets is only a tier or two lower than The Process. Tobias Harris is dangerous, ditto for Ben Simmons, and while their spacing isn’t ideal they know that JJ Redick needs only a sliver of space to put up long-range buckets.
Philadelphia’s starters are good. The fit is weird, but they’re so dang talented that the fit doesn’t always matter. The problem is the bench, and how little the Sixers get out of it. Mike Scott is a solid front court contributor, and Boban Marjanivich is as fun-loving as he is massive (and occasionally efficient!) But after those two, it becomes slim-pickings. Rotations shorten up in the playoffs, but when your remaining options are Greg Monroe, TJ McConnell, James Ennis, or Zhaire Smith, it gets dicey.
This is the obvious advantage that Milwaukee can leverage; Philly’s starters may hold serve against Milwaukee’s, but as we saw against the Boston Celtics, the Bucks’ reserves have a tendency to put it on teams. George Hill, Pat Connaughton, Sterling Brown, Ersan Ilyasova, and the returning Malcolm Brogdon (or Nikola Mirotic, if Brogdon resumes his role as a starter) are more than capable of stepping up if a starter (or two) is having an off day...and if the starters are clicking while the bench also comes through...well, that’s how you end up with a net rating of plus-8.6. Add in the constant questions about Joel Embiid’s health and conditioning, and suddenly the talented Sixers look less formidable.
If Toronto wins...
Toronto doesn’t feel as top-heavy as the Sixers, but their talent fits together much more smoothly. Kawhi is a stud, Pascal Siakam is on his way there, and both Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka combine size, experience, and talent to give opposing front courts fits. Playoff Kyle Lowry has been up-and-down (or for him, perhaps down-and-up?), but Danny Green has been as steady as advertised.
Like with Philly, things become more shaky after the sixth man. Fred VanVleet has had a hard time keeping up in the postseason, and former Bucks “shoulda” picks Norman Powell and Patrick McCaw have also struggled to remain consistent. The Raps are missing OG Anunoby hard, especially given that their front court depth just isn’t there. Flexing Ibaka and Gasol at the center spot works for a while, as does having Kawhi slot up to PF if Center Pascal becomes a thing, but the only insurance policy is...Eric Moreland?
Like with the Sixers, the Bucks’ depth can be a strength against Toronto, but it may find that the benefits of their spacing are more important. Gasol and Ibaka are big, but are not fast, and if they have to cover Brook Lopez or Nikola Mirotic out past 30 feet consistently, there will be lanes for Giannis and Bledsoe to attack. Additionally, Khris Middleton has been as effective as anybody against Kawhi (The Claw still gets the job done, but Khris at least makes him work for it), so the game will come down to consistency. Can the Bucks consistently get the Raptors’ bigs to stretch out too far, and if Toronto goes small can Milwaukee punish that with Center Giannis lineups (featuring Ilyasova or Mirotic)? Recent history suggest that the Bucks absolutely can do either, or both, against elite competition, which Toronto absolutely is considered.
So does it really matter?
Sorry, that was a bit glib. Allow me to elaborate.
The Milwaukee Bucks have the best player in the league in Giannis Antetokounmpo, and surrounded him with a squad tailor-made to accentuate his considerable strengths. Playoff Khris Middleton is even better than regular Khris Middleton. Eric Bledsoe has shown signs of moving past last year’s debacle, and oh yeah he’s a great defender. Brook Lopez has struggled but still provides spacing out to the parking lot. These guys are custom built to score inside and out, and defend at an elite level.
Not only that, but the Bucks have soundly beaten these teams already. They are a combined 5-2 against the Raptors and Sixers this season (2-1 over Philly, 3-1 over Toronto). Of course, there are meaningful caveats to the Bucks’ wins against both teams (Kawhi missed the same game as Giannis did, and Milwaukee hasn’t played Toronto since both teams acquired a Gasol brother, Philly lost one before they even got Butler and Harris, and so forth). However, it isn’t like the Bucks beat the Sixers or Raptors in ways they haven’t beaten every other team* in the league.
*notably, only the Phoenix Suns and Oklahoma City Thunder were undefeated against Milwaukee this year. Weird!
Milwaukee is the best team in the NBA. Golden State is still the favorite for the title because they’ve proven it (a few times over) and have five legitimate All Star caliber players on the roster, but Milwaukee has been a stronger team overall over the last 90+ games. The Bucks have their eye on the prize, and regardless of whether the road includes a pit stop in The Six or the City of Brotherly Love, the buck stops with the Bucks. They are equipped to handle whatever Nick Nurse or Brett Brown can throw at them; they demolished Detroit, broke Boston, and whether they get to tackle Toronto or fend off Philadelphia next, it doesn’t feel like the team particularly cares who they play. After all, it’s not about them, it’s about us.