The time has finally arrived, NBA Playoffs are here once again, and even though many are tipping a third Cavs-Warriors Finals matchup, things are looking much more competitive this year round.
Storylines such as how far Boston can go as the first seed, Brodie vs. Beard in the first round, and if the Cavs can get it together and make a third straight Finals will be the major focal points of the upcoming weeks.
Just like last year, I’ll be bringing you previews of every first round matchup and beyond, giving you all the info you need to know before settling in for an NBA binge over the next month and a half.
Next up in our series of first round matchup previews is the third-seeded Toronto Raptors up against the sixth-seeded Milwaukee Bucks.
(3) Toronto Raptors vs. (6) Milwaukee Bucks
Regular seasons series: Raptors won 3-1
The Raptors posted another 50+ win season, finishing third in East in a relatively successful season, all things considered.
The team hung around the top echelon of the East the entire season, finishing 2016 with a record of 22-10, and then the All-Star break with a record of 33-24. Led by DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry, the duo posted career-highs in scoring, rebounding and for Lowry, assists, something that will definitely reassure Raptor fans. The improvement of DeMar DeRozan has been crucial to this year's performance, as he has upped his scoring by 4 points a game, putting up 27 points a game on 47% shooting from the field, only attempting 1.7 threes a game. In a league where three-point shots are the most valuable and deadly, DeRozan has gone against the grain, showing that 'inefficient' mid-range shots can still be part of a winning formula.
Besides the obvious improvement from DeMar, the Raptors also added Serge Ibaka and P.J. Tucker during the trade deadline, two moves that bolstered the defensive ranks of the Raptors. P.J. Tucker has been a serviceable forward, posting 6 points per game on 40% from three, also adding a steal per contest. Serge has regressed from his performances in Orlando, but his skillset for the Raptors filled the hole that Bismack Biyombo left when he left Toronto for Orlando.
Toronto will be facing off against the Milwaukee Bucks, a team which has been on a tremendous rise since drafting Giannis Antetokounmpo, making their first playoff appearance since 2015 where they faced off against the Bulls, losing in 6.
The Greek Freak has been the obvious standout player for the Bucks, as the lengthy 22-year-old led the Bucks in every major statistical category, and also ranked in the Top 20 in all major stat categories, the first player in NBA history to do so.
Antetokounmpo's 2016-17 campaign has been his best yet by far, and is the front-runner for the Most Improved Player of the year award. He's added 6.0 points, 1.1 assists, 1.0 rebounds and 0.5 blocks and 0.4 steals per game to his output from the 2015-16 campaign, one of the main reasons Milwaukee has added 11 wins to their record compared to last year.
Apart from Giannis, the Bucks also saw improvements from Jabari Parker (up until he tore his ACL), Matthew Dellavedova and John Henson. On top of those names, Milwaukee also have two rookies who have been extremely impressive this year in the form Malcolm Brogdon, a candidate for Rookie of the Year, and Thon Maker, a lengthy 7-footer who can stretch the floor with ease.
One major thing to look out for will be how Giannis handles post-season play for the second time in his career.
During his first ever playoff series back in 2015, Giannis was still a project player, something to build up, and was nowhere near the player he is today. He posted an average line of 11.5 points and 7 rebounds a game against a Bulls squad that was on its last legs, but he was only 20 years of age back then. Now he's 22, has an All-Star appearance under his belt, and is the clear leader of this lengthy group of players, so it'll be very interesting to see what he can do on a stage that is bigger than he's used to.
Other than the performance of Antetokounmpo, the play of the slightly-better-than-last-year Raptors will be something else to look out for.
Toronto is renown for blowing great regular seasons in the playoffs, and apart from last year's Eastern Conference Finals appearance, the Raptors had an abysmal record in the post-season. I guess we'll find out if last year was just a fluke, or if We The North is a force to be reckoned with from here on out.
Despite the praise I have heaped onto Giannis and the Bucks, and the flaws I've pointed out regarding Toronto's post-season play, it's very unlikely Milwaukee upset the Canadian team.
This Bucks squad is just a year or two too young to be competing with the top-tier of Eastern teams, and the Raptors have the playoff-hardened warriors on their side that will simply outclass the young up-and-comers of Milwaukee, just as they did during the regular season. The playoff experience for the likes of Giannis, Brogdon and Maker will be invaluable however.
Giannis will prove himself as a top 10, hell, maybe even top 5 talent in the league after this series in my opinion, but DeMar DeRozan will also turn it on, showing the league that shooting the efficient three ball all game long isn't the only way to play the game.
Milwaukee will definitely push the Raptors, maybe taking Games 3 and 4 at home in Wisconsin, but the Raptors will ultimately prevail.