By TIM REYNOLDS
There’s a one-name superstar on either side: Giannis and Kawhi. There’s a Milwaukee franchise that hasn’t been to the NBA Finals in 45 years, opposite a Toronto franchise that has never been to the title round. The Bucks have a coach with an economics degree who wasn’t there last year; the Raptors have a coach with an accounting degree who wasn’t the boss last year.
Similarities abound between Milwaukee and Toronto.
Over the next couple of weeks, one team will separate itself.
The top-seeded Bucks play host to the second-seeded Raptors on Wednesday night in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals. They had the best records in the NBA this season — Milwaukee went 60-22, Toronto went 58-24 — and one of them will have home-court advantage for the NBA Finals starting May 30.
“You can’t get caught up in people’s expectations,” Raptors star Kawhi Leonard said Tuesday. “You’ve got to worry about self-expectations, team expectations, and winning, and that’s what we have to focus on. It doesn’t matter about the one-on-one match-up. This game isn’t a one-on-one basketball game.”
Leonard made the shot that sent Toronto to the conference final, a buzzer-beating corner jumper over Joel Embiid that bounced on the rim four times before dropping. The Bucks, predictably, were impressed.
However, they weren’t rattled. The team with the best regular-season record also has the best record in these playoffs so far at 8-1, and confidence is not in short supply. The Bucks’ only blemish in these playoffs is a Game 1 loss at home against Boston in the second round, a mistake that will be on their minds Wednesday.
“Against Boston, you can go down 1-0 and you’ll still be fine,” Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo said Tuesday. “But against Toronto, it’s hard to be in that spot, to lose the first game in your home.”
Milwaukee coach Mike Budenholzer is acutely aware of all that Leonard brings to the table. He was an assistant in San Antonio when Leonard was getting started there — after the Spurs, somewhat ironically, traded George Hill to Indiana for Leonard’s draft rights. Hill is now the Bucks’ backup point guard.
“He made a great first impression on San Antonio on his teammates, on his coaching staff,” Budenholzer said when asked about his early days with Leonard. “Just the ability to get loose balls, rebounds and all kinds of little things that sometimes go unnoticed. But to think that he was going to evolve to the player he is … I don’t know when that happened.”
Here’s some other things to know going into the Milwaukee-Toronto series:
This is the first East final since 2006 where neither coach was leading his respective team a year earlier. Miami’s Pat Riley faced off against Detroit’s Flip Saunders in 2006; Riley was in the Heat front office the previous year, and Saunders was getting fired by Minnesota. Raptors coach Nick Nurse was an assistant with the Raptors under Dwane Casey last season, and Budenholzer was in the final year of his stint with Atlanta.
The Raptors are still without key reserve OG Anunoby (appendectomy), and Nurse said it likely will be at least another week before the team could pinpoint a possible return date. The Bucks will be without Pau Gasol for the rest of the season with a foot injury — so unlike the West final where Golden State’s Stephen Curry meets Portland’s Seth Curry in a brother-brother matchup, the East final will be played without Raptors center Marc Gasol facing his brother.
This is the first time an East final has paired teams that posted at least 58 regular-season wins since 2011, when Miami (58-24) beat Chicago (62-20). It’s the 33rd time that a No. 1 seed has faced a No. 2 seed since the 16-team format was put into use in 1984; in the East, No. 2 seeds have beaten No. 1 10 of 18 times, and in the West it’s the No. 1 seeds with an 8-6 edge.
Toronto has already tied a franchise record with 66 wins this season, counting both regular season and playoff contests. The 2015-16 Raptors went 66-38 overall; these Raptors are 66-28 so far. The Bucks are up to 68 wins this season, fourth-most in franchise history. The 1970-71 Bucks won 78 games, so Milwaukee’s single-season mark is out of reach, but this season’s team could get to No. 2. The 1973-74 Bucks won 70 games and the 1971-72 Bucks won 69.
The NBA’s playoff pool of bonus money this season is a record $21,676,510, and Milwaukee and Toronto are both assured a significant chunk of that. The Bucks have already claimed $2,516,774 in pool money; the Raptors are up to $1,782,207. The winner of this series is assured $2,543,681 more just for making the NBA Finals — and would get another $1,295,117 for winning the title.