);
Los Angeles Clippers

Giannis Antetokounmpo vs Kawhi Leonard is the NBA's next great rivalry

kawhi-giannis-ftr
Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kawhi Leonard [NBA.com Illustrations]

While red confetti fell and the streets outside Scotiabank Arena became delirious with joy, Kawhi Leonard and Giannis Antetokounmpo came together at mid-court, surrounded by photographers and media to share a quiet congratulatory word.

In the space of seven months, the questions surrounding their names vanished as they went toe-to-toe in an enthralling battle to see who would move on to what would be a historic NBA Finals appearance for their respective franchise.

For Leonard, the questions entering the season would follow his every footstep, as doubt lingered as to whether he would again reach his Finals MVP level play of 2014 after appearing just nine times in a tumultuous final season in San Antonio.

For Antetokounmpo, many publicly questioned if he was the type of superstar to carry a Milwaukee franchise beyond the first-round of the playoffs for the just the second time in 30 years.

MORE: Are we taking Giannis for granted?

The regular season would follow a distinctly different path for Leonard and Antetokounmpo, as the Raptors carefully managed their prized asset through 60 appearances, refraining from exposing him to the grind of back-to-back games. Leonard would be selected as an All-Star for the third time, averaging 26.6 points and 7.3 rebounds.

While in Milwaukee, Antetokounmpo would launch a full season long tour of destruction, dunking on every human that dared step in his path.

The 273 total dunks he threw down in the regular season and the restricted area dominance that accompanied those dunks drew comparisons to prime Shaquille O'Neal from...well, Shaq himself.

The Bucks would take two of the three matchups where both All-Stars would suit up, whetting the appetite for a collision course in the playoffs for the Eastern Conferences two best teams.

Eastern Conference Finals

In a moment that will be forever etched in NBA Playoff folklore, Leonard's miracle bounce on the fading three from the right corner with Joel Embiid right in his airspace allowed this matchup to take place.

The raw power, force and emotion of Antetokounmpo met the calculating, methodical, silent assassin in Leonard.

The Raptors would ultimately triumph in six games, stunning the Bucks to win four-straight after failing into a 2-0 hole to begin the series.

In a battle that ebbed and flowed, filled with highlight reel plays from both superstars, it was Leonard who put the exclamation point on the series with a thunderous dunk over the outreached hand of Antetokounmpo in Game 6.

Antetokounmpo was immense in the Conference Finals, as Nick Nurse and the Raptors continuously threw three and four bodies in his direction, asking the other Milwaukee players to beat his squad.

Eastern Conference Finals counting statistics

PPG RPG APG FG% 3P%
Antetokounmpo 22.7 13.5 5.5 44.8 33.3
Leonard 28.5 9.8 4.3 43.0 34.0

The defensive tactics on Antetokounmpo paid dividends, as the Bucks perimeter assault - so long a staple of the Bucks offence - crumbled, with Eric Bledsoe, Brook Lopez, Nikola Mirotic and Ersan Ilyasova combining to shoot 26-for-110 (23.6%).

While the Bucks' role players floundered, the Raptors' thrived, with Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet scorching the nets to bury 36 of their 71 (50.7%) attempts from beyond the arc.

While those critical storylines may have played as big of a part of in the result as any, they will always be overshadowed by the main event: Kawhi v Giannis.

The effect of Kawhi-Giannis heading to the bench

Minutes On Minutes Off Off Rtg On/Off Def Rtg On/Off Net Rtg On Net Rtg Off
Antetokounmpo 231 67 104.9/100.0 102.3/110.3 +2.5 -10.3
Leonard 248 50 108.8/94.3 106.0/103.9 +2.8 -9.5

When it was all said and done, the point differential at the conclusion of the series was just +6 in favour of the Raptors, it was that close.

This becomes even more painstaking for Milwaukee when you take into account the free-throw differential between the two. Leonard attempted 61 free-throws for the series, while Antetokounmpo took 60, however, Leonard was +19 in makes.

Looking back, what transpired in Toronto and Milwaukee was epic. It was the true beginning of the NBA's newest individual rivalry, and one you suspect will have many more chapters to play out.

A candid Antetokounmpo spoke with Eric Nehm of The Athletic at Milwaukee exit interviews just two days after elimination, though this was one of the more mouth-watering excerpts for basketball fans.

"I learned a lot of things watching Kawhi while the game was going on. Like his patience, from the way he operates."

Of course, it is easy to forget that Antetokounmpo is just 24 years old, still learning the game and mind-boggling still years from his physical prime.

As the Clippers arrive in Milwaukee to meet the Bucks, the narrative of 'championships trump everything' rings louder than ever.

Leonard and the Raptors went on to win a historic championship and after just 12-months north of the border, he moved home to sunny California, forever a Canadian sporting hero.

Meanwhile, Antetokounmpo, the 2019 MVP remains unfulfilled, with the allure of the Larry O'Brien trophy driving him to greater heights.

Leonard missed the first meeting with Milwaukee this season, though the winner of that game wouldn't matter.

For two superstars with their eyes on the ultimate prize, nothing matters until June.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA or its clubs.

More from NBA.com

kawhi-leonard-121219-ftr-getty.jpg
Kawhi's return sets ratings record
Scott Rafferty
#celt76ers
Is 76ers/Celtics the NBA's best rivalry?
Carlan Gay
Kevin-Love-120719-ftr-getty.jpg
Trade destinations for Kevin Love
Scott Rafferty
anthony-ftr.jpg
What kind of impact has Melo had?
Kyle Irving
kawhi-leonard-121219-ftr-getty.jpg
Ring ceremony 'meant a lot' to Kawhi
Scott Rafferty
siakam-kawhi-121219-ftr-getty.jpg
Kawhi not surprised by Siakam's growth
Scott Rafferty
More News