MILWAUKEE

Eastern Conference Finals Preview: “Load management” key in Bucks-Raptors series

The Milwaukee Bucks and Toronto Raptors kick off their matchup in the Eastern Conference Finals Wednesday night.

Deep down in every NBA fan’s heart, this is the matchup they wanted. Maybe not the one you thought you wanted, but trust me. You want this one.

Flights between Wisconsin and Canada? In May? Jesus the national press core must be PISSED! (Lol, who cares, right?)

The Toronto Raptors have been an Eastern Conference stalwart for the past several seasons. They have won more than 50 games four seasons in a row. Plus, they have won the Atlantic Division 5 of the last 6 seasons. I know, I know; divisions in the NBA don’t “really” matter.

Yet they kind of do. You need to start somewhere and you can’t cheat the process.

In 2016-2017, they finished second in the Atlantic but were coming off their lone trip to the Eastern Conference Finals. I’ll allow the slight dip in their win totals.

We all know the story though — for all of their regular season dominance in the past 6 years, they have constantly run into the 6 foot 8 inch tall wall known as Lebron James.

The “King” is gone. But so is one of their playoff magicians Demar DeRozan. I call him a magician because of his disappearing acts, and unfortunately not the rabbits he has pulled from his proverbial hats.

In his place is Kawhi Leonard, a past NBA Finals MVP and champion. Toronto has never had a player like this on their team. EVER.

Don’t @ me about Vince Carter either.

Standing in the Raptors’ path to their first ever Finals appearance is a hungry Milwaukee Bucks team. They’re the team of the next 5-6 year run, should Kawhi leave for greener pastures. I mean…. well, Los Angeles.

Anyway, after adding Mike Budenholzer as their coach, Giannis Antetokounmpo bulked up, and the Bucks front office brought in several crafty veterans this ain’t the same old Bucks.

This year’s team more resembles those of yore when Lew Alcindor (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, for you uninitiated) and Oscar Robertson.

The 2018-2019 Bucks team was the only team in the NBA to win 60 games this year as they captured the number one overall seed. The Bucks’ franchise hasn’t won 50 games since 2000-2001. The last time they won 60 games, it was the 1980-81 season. Ronald Reagan was president. Think of how long ago that was. Many of you reading this weren’t born.

The hunger of the entire city of Milwaukee and the Bucks organization may only be dwarfed by the hunger of their best player — Giannis, who may also be set to win his first MVP later this summer.

The Bucks learned to defend at a high level. Their length is a huge advantage. They learned to shoot 3’s. The hopes of their fanbase for merely a competitive team have slowly evolved into championship expectations over the course of this season. Giannis and his crew have many thinking back to when Lebron and the Cavs were growing up before our eyes in the late 2000s.

These are truly two giants in the Eastern Conference that are set to clash, beginning Wednesday night. These are the rightful heirs to the Eastern Throne which was vacated by King James last summer.

The Bucks won the season series 3-1, BTW. Both Giannis and Kawhi missed a game.

But the number one key to this series lies in the two most dreaded words in this new NBA: load management.

Hear me out, and if you still want to continue reading.

The Bucks are FRESH. Up and down the roster they have fresh legs. This includes Giannis. Do not mistake their freshness for rust either, as is often the case when fresh legs are flipped into a sudden disadvantage.

The Bucks took a measly 9 games to get to the Conference Finals.

Even though the Raptors have played 12 so far. Don’t mistake this post for the difference of a mere 3 games.

The best teams advance in the playoffs based on the performances of their best players.

Consider this: Giannis has played only a single game in the playoffs where he was on the court for more than 35 minutes. He played 39 minutes in that game.

On the flip side for Toronto, Kawhi has played 8 games where he logged more than 35 minutes in the playoffs. In the second round, the Raptors required THREE 40-plus minute games from Kawhi just to advance past the top-heavy Philadelphia 76ers.

Over this entire season, Kawhi constantly sat a pitter-pattering of games due to “load management.” This term has become the bane of fans’ everywhere and the NBA for that matter.

But it’s become a fact of the modern NBA — dudes need to rest and manage their time on the court.

Don’t believe me that minutes matter?

Leading up to Kevin Durant’s calf injury, he played 10 more games throughout this seasons compared to last, tallied more than 400 more minutes over last year’s regular season, and actually played SIX STRAIGHT games in this year’s playoffs where he logged more than 40 minutes of playing time.

When KD pulled up lame in Game 5 of the Warriors’ second round series, he was already on pace for another 40-minute-plus game.

Every star player makes the jump from their regular season minutes to the playoffs. It’s the nature of the beast, as coaches shorten their rotation and want their best guys taking the most shots.

Some are cut out for it and others aren’t It’s part of Lebron’s brilliance when he would average 40 minutes during the regular season. Ticking up to 45 in a playoff game was nothing.

The Raptors sat Kawhi for more games than Giannis sat this season. But even when the Bucks played with the Greek Freak, they didn’t really need him as he average 2 less minutes per game this season.

In these playoffs, the Bucks needed Giannis even less to get to this point. If you’ve been watching, you saw how the Raptors have relied on Kawhi more and more the deeper they have advanced.

Giannis has played a mere 274 minutes in these playoffs. The Raptors needed 448 of Kawhi to get to the same point.

I mean in their two series, Giannis has not played the most minutes in either of them. Brook Lopez and Khris Middleton both logged more PT in the Detroit series; Middleton played more than Giannis in their 5 game cleanup of Boston.

Unfortunately for Toronto, all five of their starters saw their minutes jump way up from the first to second round. All five starters logged an average of 33 minutes or more per game in the Philly series.

This is why a bench is important. Plus, having a guy like Malcolm Brogdon work back into the Milwaukee rotation is borderline criminal.

The Bucks’ system under Budenholzer has helped minimize Giannis throughout the regular season, and now through the first two rounds of the playoffs too.

Meanwhile, Toronto has leaned harder and harder on Kawhi. Their bench and role players have lost their confidence.

The Bucks believe there is no reason to lean on their star player until absolutely necessary. The Raptors have needed every ounce of Kawhi to get them here.

I’m not saying Kawhi will pull a calf or break in half because he has played nearly four extra games than Giannis.

But I am saying that every player gets tired eventually. Look at James Harden. Maybe he choked in his series against the Warriors. Yet, I tend to think he played nearly 2,900 minutes in the regular season just to get Houston into the 4-seed. Instead of choking, maybe Harden just… was tired? If you have played basketball, you know tired legs lead to missed shots.

And missed shots lead to lost games, lost playoff series, and lost careers.


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