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NBA: Kawhi vs. Giannis — Tired Raptors head to Milwaukee for slugfest

Kawhi Leonard and the weary Raptors must summon the energy to slug it out with the top MVP candidate Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks in the Eastern Conference finals. Greg M. Cooper and Dan Hamilton, USA TODAY Sports/Reuters

Whew.

Now that the good people of Toronto have had a second to breathe after Kawhi Leonard beat the buzzer and the Philadelphia 76ers on Sunday night — much to the chagrin of the already cantankerous fans in Philadelphia — it’s time to look ahead to what is sure to be another heavyweight series. The weary Raptors must summon the energy to slug it out with the Milwaukee Bucks in the Eastern Conference finals, beginning Wednesday night (Thursday morning, Manila time).

The Bucks, who have home court advantage, will be playing their first game since easily dispatching the Boston Celtics in their semifinal series last Wednesday, while the Raptors, in a blink, will try to shift gears after an elimination game that will go down as one of the greatest in NBA history.

In their last series, the Raptors dealt with a Sixers team playing a slower, more deliberate game, thanks to the stylings of center Joel Embiid, who often plays with his back to the basket in the low post. And Toronto had the perfect antidote for Embiid: Marc Gasol, a big man who thrives on post defense. In the first round, the Raptors played the Orlando Magic, which has one of the slowest offenses in the league.

But Milwaukee, with its pace-and-space offense, is the embodiment of the modern NBA. The Bucks play much faster — and Toronto will have to deal with one of the best open-court players in the league, Giannis Antetokounmpo, trying to limit his eurosteps-to-slam-dunk combinations in the paint.

Gasol might find Antetokounmpo running circles around him, if he’s not chasing Brook Lopez at the 3-point line. But it just so happens that the Raptors have Leonard, a two-time defensive player of the year. His oversize hands, thick frame and exceptional lateral quickness make him an ideal counterpunch to Antetokounmpo on both ends of the floor.

The Bucks won three of their four matchups against the Raptors this season. In the lone loss, in January, Antetokounmpo scored 43 points and grabbed 18 rebounds. If the Raptors are going to have a chance in this series, they need more from their starting point guard, Kyle Lowry. He was uneven against Philadelphia’s stifling defense, averaging 13 points and six assists on 40% shooting from the field.

If Lowry thought Philadelphia was tough, wait till he gets a load of the Bucks, who had the best defense in the league during the regular season. Lowry played some of his worst basketball against Milwaukee, averaging only 6 points on 23% shooting in three games. This matchup might come down to which members of the supporting cast provide the most. Lowry is a five-time All-Star. He needs to play like one.

Toronto will need more from the bench, too.

Serge Ibaka, who scored 17 points in Game 7 against Philadelphia, will have to provide valuable minutes on defense against Antetokounmpo. Fred VanVleet, who often quickly oscillates from a starting-caliber point guard to a shouldn’t-be-on-the-court player, might see more minutes, especially if Lowry continues his struggles against the Bucks.

Milwaukee is difficult to beat at home (33-8 at the Fiserv Forum in the regular season), but the Raptors can take some lessons from the Boston series this month. The Celtics were occasionally able to fluster Antetokounmpo by loading up the paint with multiple defenders and walling off the rim. He often found himself with no space to move.

Of course, he overcame that by relentlessly attacking the basket anyway and getting to the free-throw line. Leonard will need to work hard to stay out of foul trouble, given how reliant Toronto’s offense has been on him in the playoffs.

Antetokounmpo’s supporting cast can make things easier on him by hitting their outside shots, which were a struggle against Boston. If the Bucks can spread the floor, Antetokounmpo will get to the rim.

And then the Bucks will win. It’s as simple as that. That means Brook Lopez and Eric Bledsoe, for example, who are shooting 28% from 3-point range in the playoffs, need to do better. The return of Malcolm Brogdon (after nearly eight weeks out with a torn plantar fascia in his right foot) will be a big help, provided he can recapture some of his strong play from the regular season.

Either way, this matchup will feature high-quality basketball and two elite stars who are on track to be all-time greats. Whether it draws in casual fans is another question entirely. It should, but fans on each side groused throughout the season that their team was being overlooked. Television ratings have been down so far compared with last season, and Milwaukee isn’t exactly a big market.

But no one is overlooking these teams now. There’s only Leonard being a quiet assassin in one corner and Antetokounmpo in the other as a one-man freight train. While neither have outsized personalities and don’t seem to care much for off-the-court exposure, their styles of play make them a compelling matchup for years to come. Hopefully, people watch.

With injuries potentially derailing the Golden State Warriors’ yearly romp to the title, both of these teams are legitimate threats for the crown. The question is which superstar will take them there?

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