The Toronto Raptors could have their most talented team ever as they begin a quest to reach the NBA Finals for the first time in franchise history by opening the best-of-7 Eastern Conference Quarterfinals against the Milwaukee Bucks on Saturday. The Raptors will host Games 1, 2, 5 and 7, with the last two if necessary. Toronto is a sizable series betting favourite on Sports Interaction’s NBA odds.
Milwaukee Bucks at Toronto Raptors, Game 1
The Bucks (42-40) finished sixth in the Eastern Conference. A pretty solid accomplishment considering they lost one of their best players, forward Jabari Parker, to a season-ending torn ACL on Feb. 8. He was averaging 20.1 points and 6.2 rebounds and finally looked 100 percent healthy after also tearing his ACL in his 2014-15 rookie season.
Milwaukee goes as superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo goes. The “Greek Freak” is revolutionizing basketball in a way because at nearly 7-foot tall, he’s the team’s point guard. He leads the team in points (22.9), rebounds (8.8), assists, (5.4), steals (1.6) and blocks (1.9). That’s ridiculous. He became the first player in league history to rank among the Top 20 in each of those categories in an entire season. The Freak has six games this season 17 with at least 20 points, 10 boards, five assists, two steals and two blocks, the most in the NBA. He was an All-Star starter for the first time this year and should be for several years to come. He might win NBA Most Improved Player.
What made Parker’s injury especially cruel was that it came on the night that probably the team’s second-best player, Khris Middleton, made his season debut off a hamstring injury suffered back in September. The Bucks are not a great perimeter shooting team, and that’s what Middleton provides. He’s averaging 14.7 points and hitting an excellent 43.3 percent from 3-point range. The Bucks are a below-average offensive team and terrible in rebounding but ninth defensively in allowing 103.8 ppg. They are a long, athletic bunch.
Milwaukee and Toronto have never played in the postseason, but Bucks coach Jason Kidd is 2-0 vs. the Raptors in his playoff career. He was a player for the New Jersey Nets when they beat Toronto in 2007 and the coach of the Brooklyn Nets when they upset the Raptors in seven games in 2014.
The Bucks are +4000 to win the East.
Toronto (51-31) had won the Atlantic Division the past three seasons, but the Boston Celtics stole that title this year and are the East’s top-seeded team. The Raptors are the third seed and could be looking at a 2016 East Finals rematch with the Cleveland in the next round after the Cavaliers essentially conceded the conference’s No. 1 spot to Boston.
While the Raptors came up short of last year’s 56 regular-season wins, this team looks better on paper with the midseason trade acquisitions of Serge Ibaka and P.J. Tucker, two excellent defensive players who were brought in to guard guys like the Freak and LeBron James. This could be a make-or-break postseason for this franchise because Kyle Lowry, Ibaka and Patrick Patterson are all set to become unrestricted free agents.
The big question for Toronto is how All-Stars DeMar DeRozan and Lowry will play. They comprise one of the NBA’s best backcourts during the regular season, but both struggled from the field in the 2016 playoffs, a big reason why the Raptors were extended to seven games by Indiana and six by Miami, two clearly inferior teams. DeRozan shot just 39.4 percent in last year’s postseason overall and 15.4 percent from long range. Lowry was at 39.7 and 30.4 percent, respectively. The Bucks will absolutely focus on those two and force the other Raptors to beat them.
The Raptors were 3-1 vs. Milwaukee this season. Toronto won the first three but lost the most recent 101-94 in Wisconsin on March 4. Middleton scored 24 points as the Bucks ended a seven-game losing streak in the series. DeRozan was 5-for-13 for 11 points.
On the season, Lowry averaged 23.0 points and 6.3 assists vs. Milwaukee, missing the lone loss. DeRozan averaged 22.3 points. Jonas Valanciunas put up 11.0 points and 9.3 rebounds per game. Antetokounmpo averaged 24.8 points, 7.8 rebounds, 7.0 assists, 1.3 steals and 1.0 blocks in the four. He didn’t have to deal with Ibaka or Tucker in three of those. Parker averaged 20.7 points before missing the last game, which is the only one Middleton played.
Toronto is a +600 third-favourite to win the East.
Bucks vs. Raptors Predictions
Antetokounmpo, Middleton, Matthew Dellavedova, Tony Snell and rookie Malcolm Brogdon are all good perimeter defenders and could cause problems for DeRozan and Lowry. On the interior, this looks to be a mismatch in Toronto’s favour. Valanciunas and Ibaka could dominate — and should on the boards, at a minimum. Toronto wins in six (covers Game 1) to advance and face the defending NBA champion Cavaliers.