MILWAUKEE — When the Toronto Raptors and Philadelphia 76ers faced off Sunday night in Game 7 of their second-round Eastern Conference playoff series, most of the Milwaukee Bucks players and coaches were out celebrating Mother’s Day.
But rest assured they were paying attention, and whether it was live or on replay, everyone saw Kawhi Leonard’s buzzer-beating rim-rocker that clinched a 92-20 victory for the Raptors, setting up a showdown between the East’s top teams when the conference finals begin tonight at Fiserv Forum.
“I was actually out to dinner when I saw that,” Bucks guard George Hill said. “I saw the shot and said, ‘OK, that’s who we’re playing.’”
The Bucks and Raptors established themselves as the teams to beat during the regular season and they have a lot of similarities, starting with offseason coaching changes.
Toronto fired Dwyane Casey after a successful seven-season run in favor of assistant Nick Nurse. The Bucks, after firing Jason Kidd midway through last season, turned to Mike Budenholzer.
Both teams are led by superstars, Giannis Antetokounmpo for the Bucks and Leonard for the Raptors. And both teams have a talented group of players surrounding their superstars, such as Milwaukee’s Eric Bledsoe and Khris Middleton and Toronto’s Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka.
What sets the teams apart, though, is their depth.
The Bucks’ bench has been a force during the postseason, averaging 37.4 points on 48% shooting through nine games. Toronto’s reserves have averaged 21.6 points on 38.9% shooting in 12 postseason games.
Only Antetokounmpo and Middleton have averaged more than 30 minutes per game for Milwaukee during the playoffs and there’s little sign of Budenholzer shortening his rotation against the Raptors.
“I think the guys know how big this moment is,” Hill said. “We have an opportunity to compete and play for something big.”
In the Raptors, the Bucks face an opponent hungry for its own next chapter.
Toronto has won at least 48 games in six straight seasons, at least 50 in each of its last four and has claimed five of the last six Atlantic Division titles.
But for all their regular-season success, the Raptors have only made it past the second round of the playoffs once, losing to LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers in the 2016 Eastern Conference finals.
James and the Cavs brought Toronto’s next two seasons to an end as well, with four-game sweeps in the 2017 and 2018 East semifinal series. When James took his talents west to the Los Angeles Lakers, it looked like the Raptors’ core of DeMar DeRozan and Lowry might finally have a clear path to the NBA Finals.
DeRozan, though, won’t be part of this series, thanks to the blockbuster trade with San Antonio that brought Leonard to Toronto. It was seen as a gamble at the time — Leonard had made it clear that he planned to sign with the Lakers when he became a free agent after this season — but it was a risk Toronto president Masai Ujiri felt he needed to take to get the Raptors over the hump.
“At some point, we can’t keep doing it over and over again. The definition of insanity,” Ujiri said in a September interview with ESPN. “You have to change, you know?”
Ujiri pulled off another blockbuster at the trade deadline by adding veteran center Marc Gasol in a deal with Memphis.
Milwaukee made a big move, too, adding sharpshooting forward Nikola Mirotic to the mix in a deadline deal with New Orleans. Mirotic averaged 11.6 points on 41.5-percent shooting in 14 games before suffering a thumb fracture in late March. He returned for Game 1 of Milwaukee’s first-round series against Detroit and has played in all nine games since, averaging 9.3 points and 4.4 rebounds in 20.8 minutes per game.
Mirotic moved into the starting lineup during the Celtics series and will remain there at least for Game 1. Guard Malcolm Brogdon has returned from a foot injury, and the week off has given him a chance to get back in a regular routine.
“He needs more game minutes, more game action,” Budenholzer said. “I think we’re going to plan to continue to increase Malcolm’s workload and minutes and things like that as appropriate.”
Milwaukee won three of the four regular-season meetings with the Raptors after dropping 15 of 17 meetings dating to the start of the 2013-14 season.