NBA Conference finals: Curry brothers face off as Antetokounmpo waits

Hunter Felt
The Guardian

After Sunday’s two tightly contested Game 7s, the NBA Conference finals are finally set. The well-rested Milwaukee Bucks will face off against the Toronto Raptors in the East while, in the West, the Portland Trail Blazers have the difficult task of attempting to prevent the Golden State Warriors from appearing in yet another finals. Here’s our preview of the penultimate round of the NBA postseason.

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Western Conference finals: Portland Trail Blazers v Golden State Warriors

What the Trail Blazers need to do: First, the Trail Blazers have to hope that an injured Kevin Durant remains off the court with his calf strain, or is ineffective when he does return. Even if they luck out on that end, they will still need superstar efforts from both Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum to pull off one of the biggest upsets in recent NBA history. The conventional wisdom was that the Houston Rockets had the best chance of preventing Golden State from pulling off a three-peat this year … and they managed to last just six games.

What the Warriors need to do: If Steph Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green play with the same chemistry that they did during the old days, they won’t even need Durant against the Blazers. That’s the advantage when you start five All-Stars: you can lose two of them (Durant and DeMarcus Cousins) and still have enough firepower to knock off the other team with relative ease. If the Warriors don’t have any other serious injuries and don’t get too complacent, (SPOILER ALERT) they almost certainly will win this series.

Related: NBA playoffs: Kawhi Leonard's buzzer beater wins Game 7 for Raptors over 76ers

Key player for the Trail Blazers: Damian Lillard, PG. CJ McCollum is also an acceptable answer here, and he was the biggest reason his team beat the Denver Nuggets in Game 7, but Dame is always going to be Portland’s go-to guy in the postseason. He’s the only player who can really go toe-for-toe with Curry when it comes to long-distance bombing. This could be a series for the ages if he’s at his best, as opposed to a series that goes four or five games, which it will be if his shot is off.

Key player for the Warriors: Steph Curry, PG. It would be Kevin Durant, who was the best player in the playoffs until his injury, but we don’t know what we’ll be getting from him in this upcoming series. Instead, this will become an opportunity for the two-time MVP to prove what diehard Golden State fans will always believe in their hearts: the Warriors are Curry’s team. Already perhaps the greatest three-point shooter in NBA history, the two-time MVP is completely unguardable in every sense of the term.

Unexpected player to watch for: Seth Curry, G, Trail Blazers. Hey, it’s the first two brothers to face off against each other in the Conference finals, so why not see what Steph’s unheralded younger brother can do? The funny thing is that the younger Curry actually finished above Steph in three-point percentage during the regular season. That’s a fun little statistic but the best possible way that Seth can get family bragging rights is to have a phenomenal game up against his brother. (Maybe knocking down three threes in a row for a second time during these playoffs will help.)

Series prediction: Warriors in four.

Eastern Conference Finals: Toronto Raptors v Milwaukee Bucks

What the Raptors need to do: Get a bounce back series from Kyle Lowry. Kawhi Leonard is going to be on the top of his game, the Raptors can count on him. They aren’t going to get past Milwaukee on his back alone though. Lowry, Toronto’s long-time point guard, has a history of playoff struggles, and his offense, in particular, was inconsistent throughout their series against the Philadelphia 76ers. If Lowry can take some of the pressure off Leonard on a regular basis, the Raptors will have a genuine chance to knock off the NBA’s top overall seed.

What the Bucks need to do: Keep up the defensive intensity. There’s a reason why Milwaukee have lost just one game so far during this postseason and it’s been preventing the other team, whether it’s the Detroit Pistons or the Boston Celtics, from finding any sort of offensive rhythm. They were the top-ranked defense in the regular season and they only turned up the temperature against Boston, where they effectively transformed the dangerous Kyrie Irving into late-career Carmelo Anthony during the second round.

Key player for the Raptors: Kawhi Leonard, F. When the Raptors traded DeMar DeRozan to the San Antonio Spurs for Leonard, it felt like a roll of the dice. Not that he wasn’t a top five player in the league – not to mention the best two-way player in the game – just that there was no guarantee that he would return in free agency during the upcoming offseason. Well, after his iconic series-winning buzzer beater in Game 7, it’s hard not to argue that the trade has already paid off, even if he does head to a different team over the summer.

Key player for the Bucks: Giannis Antetokounmpo, F. Is there any other acceptable answer here than the probable league MVP? After averaging 27.7 points and 12.5 rebounds per game in the regular season, Antetokounmpo seemed to be even more unstoppable in the playoffs. The Boston Celtics couldn’t find any way to prevent him from doing damage other than trying to force him to shoot three-pointers and by playing a smothering defense that ended up putting him on the free-throw line more often than not. It looked like the Eastern Conference was going to open up after LeBron James left for LA but Giannis may have already slammed the door shut.

Unexpected player to watch: Khris Middleton, F, Bucks. The eternal question with the Bucks is who is their No2 option after Antetokounmpo? For Celtics fans, the answer was abundantly clear as Middleton absolutely torched Boston, averaging 24.7 points per game. While he doesn’t have the name recognition of some of his teammates, the swingman has quietly become Milwaukee’s second-leading scorer and a key rebounder. It’s safe to say that while the casual fan might not expect him to be so dangerous, the Raptors need him to make an impact.

Series prediction: Bucks in six

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