Can anyone beat the Milwaukee Bucks?
That's the question looming large over every other Eastern Conference team with under a month left until the season resumes in Orlando, Florida.
Unlike the Western Conference where there is no clear-cut favourite, the Bucks will enter the bubble as massive favourites to advance to the NBA Finals. That comes with the Spaceship Earth-sized caveat that unprecedented circumstances could introduce any number of unforeseen variables that threatens to shake up the status quo.
While I'm not prepared to write off anyone inside the top 6 as a threat to come out of the East, any conversation about taking out Giannis and Company starts with the Toronto Raptors and Boston Celtics.
The playoffs are all about leveraging matchups, exploiting weaknesses and limiting strengths.
So which team matches up the best with the Bucks? Here are five specific questions to help shed light on whether the Celtics or Raptors are more likely to play spoiler.
Who can slow down Giannis?
Nobody can stop the Greek Freak.
Back in March, I wrote about how he's quite literally been the most dominant player over the last three decades against good teams. There's no reason to think that won't be the case once again in the bubble.
This is the one area where the Raptors have a decisive advantage.
Yes, it's true that Kawhi Leonard isn't walking through that door. And though Leonard took on the task of guarding Antetokounmpo over the final four games of last year's Eastern Conference Finals, the Raptors unleashed a swarming help concept by building a wall, packing the paint and smartly rotating extra help defenders time and again. Help defence isn't sexy but Nick Nurse and the Raptors taught a masterclass in it against Antetokounmpo.
MORE: Milwaukee's quest to be the greatest D... ever?
Be it Pascal Siakam, OG Anunoby, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Marc Gasol or Serge Ibaka, the Raptors have a number of viable options to throw at the MVP and make him work - and think - each time down the floor.
Boston has its own steady stream of switchy big perimeter wings but doesn't have anywhere remotely close to the frontcourt length that worked wonders in building that wall. Even when the Celtics had Al Horford, Antetokounmpo torched them in last year's playoffs as he averaged just shy of three million free throw attempts per game in their first-round series.
Daniel Theis is nice but umm… well, he's not Horford and he's certainly not Gasol or Ibaka.
Who can beat the Bucks from downtown Disney?
The Bucks have the NBA's top-rated defence but have built it from the inside-out, relying on a menacing interior defence that features a pair of Defensive Player of the Year candidates in Antetokounmpo and Brook Lopez. It's next to impossible to score on the Bucks inside as they are holding teams to just 50.7 percent on shots inside of six feet. The gap between them and the 2nd-best interior D (the Raptors!) is the same as the gap between the 2nd-best and 27th-best (the bite-sized Houston Rockets).
MORE: Will Brook Lopez win Defensive Player of the Year?
If you're going to beat the Bucks, it's not going to be inside.
Where they are vulnerable is from the outside as the Bucks give up more 3-point attempts than any other team in the entire league.
On the surface, this plays into the hands of the Raptors who rank fourth in made 3s and generate 37% of their points from beyond the arc, the latter of which ranks behind only the Mavericks and Rockets. The Celtics, meanwhile, rank 12th and 15th in those categories, respectively.
But it's more than just about overall attempts. The Bucks give up a ton of above the break and pull-up 3s, two shots the Celtics feast on. Most importantly? It's two shots that Boston's best players feast on.
The Celtics rank second in the NBA in makes, attempts and percentage on pull-up 3s with both Kemba Walker and Jayson Tatum ranking among the eight most prolific in total makes. Even Marcus Smart, never known as a dangerous shot maker from the perimeter, has drained over 40% of his pull-up 3s which ranks fourth among the top 80 across the league in attempts.
Toronto has an unassailable squadron of catch-and-shoot options and can spread anyone out with five shooters at a moment's notice even if they lack Boston's off-the-bounce bombing from beyond the arc.
One other thing worth monitoring? How each team relies on inside scoring. While that would typically be good as an indicator of generating high quality shots, the Raptors and Celtics rank third and 12th, respectively, in total attempts inside of five feet. The Bucks will be more than happy to invite interior confrontations, which is all the more reason why making them pay from the outside remains vitally important.
Both are equally capable - though in very different ways - of making Milwaukee pay for the manner in which it defends.
Who can keep the Bucks from running?
The Bucks like to get up and down the floor more than any team in the league. Not only do they rank first in overall pace, they are opportunistic and actively hunt transition opportunities wherever they arise. If you miss against Milwaukee, you better sprint back or they won't hesitate to put anyone on their heels.
According to the invaluable pbpstats.com, which breaks down how teams play off of makes, misses, free throws, out of timeouts and a whole host of other situations, the Bucks are by far the quickest team immediately following a miss, averaging just 9.8 seconds per possession. They turn that stout interior defence into an offensive weapon as the Bucks force teams into more jumpers than any other team while then running after a miss more than anyone.
|After any miss||9.8||1st|
|After missed 3-point attempt||10.2||1st|
|After missed mid-range attempt||10.1||1st|
|After missed attempt at rim||9.2||5th|
|After made FG||16.5||3rd|
Both Boston (9th) and Toronto (6th) are among the league's best at getting back in transition off of misses and in particular following a missed 3 (both rank inside the top 5).
The Raptors allow fewer points per play in transition while the Celtics allow fewer transition points on the whole.
That last point gets at a stylistic flaw that could come back to bite the Raptors should they run into the Bucks. While Giannis and Co. run with abandon, the Raptors like to get out in the open floor themselves as they actually rank first in the NBA in fastbreak scoring. With the loss of their top half-court scorer in Kawhi Leonard, the Raptors make up for that by running more often with Kyle Lowry consistently pushing the issue and Pascal Siakam among the best in the game at leaking out and filling the lanes. They do it out of necessity as Toronto ranks just 12th in offensive rating, a figure that drops substantially when removing those easy fastbreak opportunities. For a team that struggles at times to score, needing to run plays right into the hands of the Bucks.
MORE: Raptors championship D on full display in these seven seconds
Boston, on the other hand, sports a top-five offence while simultaneously playing at a slower than league average pace. Especially with the emergence of Jayson Tatum as a half-court menace, the Celtics are more than happy to take the air out of the ball. Case in point? Only one team in the entire league forces opponents into more shots late in the shot clock than the Celtics.
As the game slows down in the playoffs and teams look to eliminate strengths, Boston is more readily equipped to force the Bucks into a half-court game.
Can anyone go toe-to-toe with Giannis?
The reigning MVP is rampaging towards a second straight MVP behind a historic offensive season. Though we don't perhaps think of him as a high volume bucket getter in the traditional sense, the Greek Freak is currently averaging the third-most points per 36 minutes by any player in any season in NBA history.
It's reasonable to expect his minutes to spike come playoff time, which should translate into some truly eye-popping performances.
This is where Tatum's evolution matters the most.
From January 11 onwards - when he erupted for 41 points against the New Orleans Pelicans - the third-year forward poured in 27.9 points per game on 48.8 percent shooting, which included standout duels against Kawhi Leonard, LeBron James and James Harden, among others. He's unequivocally evolved into a flamethrower that can heat up to match anyone.
MORE: Tatum takes the torch for a hisoric franchise
The Raptors have... Pascal Siakam? Kyle Lowry?
I've written before about Siakam's struggles against elite competition, which could be magnified down in the Orlando bubble. Both are great players, but neither is the type you'd expect to single-handedly carry an offence for long stretches during the most crucial moments of a playoff game against the presumptive back-to-back MVP.
Conclusion: Boston > Toronto
When it comes to threatening the Bucks, it's the Celtics which pose the bigger threat. While the Raptors have the higher floor and will almost assuredly put forth a valiant championship defence in Orlando, the Celtics simply have more firepower to trade blows with the Eastern Conference heavyweight.
Oddsmakers agree as the Celtics have better odds to come out of the East than do the Raptors.
Ultimately, it's splitting hairs. Because no matter which why you slice it, when it comes to talking title favourites in the Eastern Conference, it's the Bucks and then its everyone else.
The views expressed here do not represent those of the NBA or its clubs.