Kawhi Leonard and Giannis Antetokounmpo are set to go head to head in a mouthwatering match-up between the Toronto Raptors and Milwaukee Bucks in the Eastern Conference Finals.
Live NBA: Toronto @ Milwaukee
Thursday 16th May 1:30am
Playoff Picture: How things stand
Who has made it through to the Conference Finals?
Milwaukee Bucks (1) vs Toronto Raptors (2)
- Game 1: Raptors @ Bucks, May 16, 1:30am
- Game 2: Raptors @ Bucks, May 18, 1:30am
- Game 3: Bucks @ Raptors, May 20, 12am
- Game 4: Bucks @ Raptors, May 22, 1:30am
- Game 5 if necessary: Raptors @ Bucks, May 24, 1:30am
- Game 6 if necessary: Bucks @ Raptors, May 26, 1:30am
- Game 7 if necessary: Raptors @ Bucks, May 28, 1:30am
- All games broadcast live on Sky Sports Arena
The Eastern Conference Finals feature two teams whose hopes rely extremely heavily, if not exclusively, on the play of one star performer.
The Toronto Raptors will go as far as Kawhi Leonard takes them, while the Milwaukee Bucks have quite simply been built around Giannis Antetokounmpo.
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There are a number of similarities between the pair; they are perhaps the two best two-way players in the league, contributing consistently elite output at both ends of the floor.
Both picked 15th in the first round of the draft (Leonard in 2011 and Antetokounmpo 2013), neither was forecast to become a superstar.
Kawhi Leonard sent the Toronto Raptors to the Eastern Conference final with a historic game-winner
Leonard, 27, gradually added a devastating array of offensive skills to the defensive talent he appeared more naturally blessed with. His three-point shooting is matched by an ability to produce thunderous finishes at the rim.
After his performance in the Eastern Conference semi-finals against the Philadelphia 76ers, during which he averaged 34.7 points per game and hit the NBA’s first ever game-winning buzzer-beater in a Game 7, the only appropriate description for Leonard is ‘unstoppable’.
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That is the same word many had used to describe the 23-year-old Antetokounmpo as he terrorised opposing defenses throughout the regular season, averaging 27.7 points, 12.5 rebounds and 5.9 assists per game to establish himself as the only rival to James Harden for this campaign’s MVP Award.
Always blessed with other-worldly athleticism, the ‘Greek Freak’ has gradually added the finesse required to make him near unplayable at both ends.
Watch MVP favourite Giannis Antetokounmpo’s best plays of the 2018/19 regular season
Apart from a tough Game 1 in which the Boston Celtics defensive system appeared to frazzle him, Antetokounmpo has lived up to expectations, with that game being the Bucks’ only defeat to this point. The smoothness of their passage could be a crucial advantage going into what is sure to be another physically-testing series.
Regardless of what has gone before, both players will face their biggest challenge of the playoffs so far when they come up against each other. It remains to be seen whether the pair will begin the series guarding each other, but their paths are sure to cross at some point, most likely when one is deemed to be scoring too easily.
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Antetokounmpo’s freakish length can provide Leonard with a barrier he has quite simply never faced in the postseason, but the same can be said at the other end. Leonard is perhaps the best one-on-one stopper in the NBA, with his enormous hands a constant threat to his opponent’s dribble.
There were four regular-season meetings between the two teams, but neither of the star duo played in the first. Looking at the other three, the Bucks won two with Antetokounmpo delivering numbers very similar to his regular season averages. However, he was limited to just three shots on 31 possessions when being guarded by Leonard, a shockingly-low number.
Highlights of the Toronto Raptors’ visit to the Milwaukee Bucks in week 12 of the NBA
Against the Bucks, Leonard was a noticeable 4.6 points per game down on his regular season average, but one must be careful reading too much into these meetings. With the two teams clear at the top of the Eastern Conference for much of the season, they would have been aware of the possibility of meeting at this stage of the postseason and would have been careful not to show their hand in terms of defensive schemes.
In truth, there may not be so much nuance to the adjustments, with the most obvious ploy for both to switch their best defender onto the opposition’s main threat. Who will triumph on the court in such a battle is tough to predict, but there is no doubting basketball fans will be winners.
Despite their high standing in the game, neither player embraces the media spotlight – column inches documenting the duo’s careers have been almost exclusively reserved for on-court activity, barring one notable exception, Leonard’s departure from the San Antonio Spurs.
Kawhi Leonard notches 39 points and adds 14 rebounds in the Toronto Raptors’ Game 4 win over the Philadelphia 76ers to level the series
Having been groomed by Gregg Popovich to inherit leadership of the Spurs dynasty from Tim Duncan, Leonard shocked the league by requesting a trade last summer after a dispute over the handling of an injury to his left quadriceps, that saw him miss most of the 2017-18 season, escalated to the point of no return.
The handling of the injury was the official line on why Leonard wanted to depart, but other factors such as the Spurs’ highly team-orientated culture, could have been a factor. While Leonard excelled, winning the 2014 Finals MVP as the Spurs won a championship, his brand was not on the same level as other stars, who his game certainly rivalled.
His introverted personality led most to assume he would be fine with the relative lack of attention, but if that was a factor, the adulation which has followed his postseason heroics for the Raptors has gone some way to justifying it.
Giannis Antetokounmpo is guarded by Kawhi Leonard
However, even that might not be enough to keep Leonard in Toronto. He is reported to be keen on playing in his hometown of Los Angeles and will almost certainly be offered a max contract by the Clippers, among others, this summer. The Raptors hope the way they have managed Leonard this season, along with their postseason performance, will convince him to stay, which adds even further weight to this series for them.
The Bucks have no reason for immediate concern over Antetokounmpo’s future. Unlike with the Spurs, where Leonard was eased into an already-successful team, the Bucks have built a championship-contending team around Antetokounmpo, with no doubt over who the main man is.
Giannis Antetokounmpo finished off a masterful 39-point performance with an emphatic one-handed throw-down as the Bucks beat the Celtics in Game 4
Much like Leonard, Antetokounmpo’s focus on his craft is unquestioned and he certainly does not chase the limelight, but his constant highlight-reel dunks have ensured plenty of attention, with many declaring him the heir to LeBron James as the face of the league.
Most assume Antetokounmpo will pledge his future to the Bucks at some point before his contract expires in 2021, but the same could have been said about Leonard, with three years remaining on his contract.
Whether Leonard remains in Toronto beyond the end of the season or not, it’s hard to imagine this will be the only chapter of a potentially iconic playoff rivalry between two players who could dominate the league for years to come.
The Raptors face the Bucks in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals in the early hours of Thursday morning (1:30am), live on Sky Sports Arena.
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