Like fire and ice, the matchup between Giannis Antetokounmpo and Kawhi Leonard is one NBA fans have been yearning for ever since the bracket on this side of the conference was filled up.
With LeBron James’ post-season greatness firmly in the rearview, the battle for the title of ‘NBA’s best player’ is approaching its climax. One of Leonard or Antetokounmpo will advance to take on — in all likelihood — Kevin Durant and the Golden State Warriors in the Finals. It seems as inevitable as Thanos.
For now, though, it is the two juggernauts of the Toronto Raptors and Milwaukee Bucks who are engaged in battle, and so I will look break down the key aspects of their performances from each game of the Eastern Conference Finals to determine an individual winner that may not necessarily be tied to the team that emerges from the series.
Entering the game, Leonard had an individual offensive rating of 113.2 points per-100 possessions to Antetokounmpo’s 112.1. While both players are highly efficient in transition, the Greek Freak’s offence accounts for about 10 percent more than Leonard’s on the break. They’re virtually identical in terms of production in isolation but a major difference is Leonard as a pick-and-roll ball handler where almost 25 percent more of his offence stems from.
In this game, neither was truly spectacular, with the Raptors — Pascal Siakam in particular — defending Antetokounmpo exceedingly well in the first half and keeping him without a single free-throw attempt. Leonard was uncharacteristically inefficient, and the manner in which the Bucks bottled him up in the fourth quarter showed that the ‘Anyone but Kawhi’ approach defensively is certainly worth going to when looking to break up the Raptors’ rhythm.
Kawhi Leonard had his shot blocked 5 times in game 1. That has never happened before in his career (regular season and playoffs)
Pascal Siakam also had his shot blocked 5 times in game 1. That has also never happened before in his career.
— Darryl Blackport (@bballport) May 16, 2019
There were moments where both players forced the issue, but with Bucks head coach Mike Budenholzer being afforded the luxury of giving his franchise player just a bit more rest and Leonard coming off a seven-game series including the emotion of that monumental series-winner, Antetokounmpo seemed to have more left in the tank to help his team close out the game with a 10-0 run.
He had passes that led to critical Brook Lopez threes in the fourth quarter and those were ultimately the difference.
What makes these two players so special is their ability to have a huge impact on both ends of the floor. While they spend very little time guarding each other, the impact they made on their defensive assignments was clear as day.
Antetokounmpo was Siakam’s primary defender in Game 1 ( a trend that will likely continue) and the Cameroonian shot 1-of-6 from two-point range and 2-for-8 from beyond the arc with Milwaukee’s leader on the court. Antetokounmpo was happy test Siakam’s ability to shoot from the outside and shift over to the middle of the defence to operate as more of a free safety, and with this year’s likely ‘Most Improved Player’ award winner struggling to make shots from the corners, the plan worked to perfection.
Siakam had six points on 3-of-6 shooting in the 10 minutes he played with Antetokounmpo off the court.
Khris Middleton’s shooting numbers of 3-of-6 shooting inside the arc and 1-of-3 from beyond it look fine in 29 minutes when Leonard was on the court, but, unlike Antetokounmpo against Siakam, so much of Leonard’s effectiveness lies in the fact that he was able deter Middleton from getting up shots at all. That ball denial also contributed to Middleton’s four turnovers but it must be said that he found other ways to impact the game with 10 rebounds and four assists.
Middleton was scoreless in six minutes with Leonard off the court on 0-for-3 shooting.
When you look back on the big moments of Game 1, it’s Antetokounmpo’s ability to spark the turnaround with his relentless attacking of the rim in the third quarter for 10 free-throw attempts, and his playmaking in the fourth quarter that win out over Leonard’s fourth-quarter struggles and some decision making that left you asking for more.
The Raptors certainly needed all of Leonard’s 14 third-quarter points as they shot just 2-for-9 from three in the quarter, but they seemed to lose the pace and flow they had in the first half and struggled to find it in the fourth quarter.
Game 1 verdict: Antetokounmpo takes control in Game 1 as the best player in the east, and Leonard has his work cut out for him to ensure his team doesn’t fall into an 0-2 hole in the series.
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