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NBA Conference Finals Preview: Blazers can let rip as Durant doubts shake Golden State

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Durant durability in question

Pressure off Portland

For Portland, they’re playing with house money now. Of course, there have been expectations for them in recent years. You can practically set your watch to their kicking into gear after Christmas. Equally reliable has been their playoff letdown come the postseason.

Making it to the Conference Finals represents a big step for the team. The last two seasons have seen 4-0 first round exits. The three before those saw two conference semi-finals exits and another first-round defeat. All three of those exits came in a 4-1 beating. This is the furthest the franchise has gone in 20 years.

And they can try to enjoy it now because no one expects them to beat the Warriors. There’s a case to be made that they’ve greater depth than Golden State, especially with Durant and Cousins out. Rodney Hood, Evan Turner, Seth Curry (yes, brother to Steph), these are all useful options from the bench to support Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum and the starting five.

In addition, Enes Kanter, deputising for the absent Jusuf Nurkic, doesn’t have to contend with anyone like Nikola Jokic in this series. He can take control of the boards in this series and that could keep them competitive, but I’d doubt they’ll be able to take more than a game in this series.

Golden State have won 13 of 14 at home against the Blazers and are 9-2 against all opponents in the last 11. Portland ground out a series win over the second seed Nuggets, but their strength may have been overstated by their seeding given the murky form they closed the season with. Assuming the Warriors home form holds up, a single road win would be enough to bring in a 4-1 series win at 11/2. The teams split four games evenly this campaign, both winning home and away, but this is the playoffs and the GSW’s championship quality should see them take the series.

Kawhi’s champion class

Milwaukee Bucks v Toronto Raptors
Game 1 – Thursday, May 16, 01:30
Live on Betfair Video and Sky Sports

It’s been more straightforward in the East, with first meeting second, though without the freakish bounce of Kawhi Leonard’s clutch buzzer-beater in game seven of their semi-final with the Sixers it could’ve easily been Philly in this series.

@kawhileonard‘s #TissotBuzzerBeater as heard around the world thread! #ThisIsYourTime

Korean – SPOTV pic.twitter.com/VB7rstkKEw

? NBA (@NBA) May 13, 2019

As it is, the Raptors get a shot at taking down the team with the best record in the league. Just like previous series, they’ll be relying on Kawhi Leonard to even up the playing field against a team that looks stronger on paper.

In previous rounds, the former Finals MVP hasn’t had to face Giannis Antetokounmpo, though Joel Embiid was a good warm-up. Throughout the seven-game series, Philadelphia were +91 points when he was on the floor. In the decider, he played 45 of 48 minutes and they were +10 in those 45 minutes. They still lost, 92-90, meaning they allowed Toronto 4 points more per minute when the Cameroonian sat.

And he wasn’t even fully healthy.

Giannis will be an even greater test for Nick Nurse’s team. His combination of size and speed makes him a problem with and without the ball. Pascal Siakam and Leonard will likely attempt to match-up with him, but there’s only so much he can do. He’s averaging 27 points, 11 rebounds and 4 assists per game through the playoffs so far, and if the Raptors try to double-team him, it opens up three-point shots for his supporting cast – they shot the second most three-attempts in the league this season.

Whatever plan Toronto come up with needs to work if they’re to move on to the next stage.

Bucks in unfamiliar territory

At the start of the last series against the Celtics, Milwaukee were caught cold and lost heavily at home. It sparked them into reeling off four straight wins, bringing their postseason record to 8-1 this year.

The Raptors are another step up from that dysfunctional Celtics team, but this is rarefied air for a Bucks franchise that hasn’t been this deep into the playoffs since 2001.

There’s not a huge amount of late-round experience on the roster either, so you’d wonder whether Giannis and his supporting cast of outside shooters can seize the moment. This is the time when the likely-MVP can roar into the minds of sports fans outside of the NBA’s regular audience.

He’s 24, looks very happy in Milwaukee and LeBron’s imminent decline will leave a void that the Greek phenomenon can fill. But does he have to experience some playoff heartbreak before going on to collect his rings? And are the Raptors the team to deliver it?

If they are, it’ll be through the work of Leonard, who is elevating his team beyond the disappointments of recent seasons with his Jordanesque play. I’d give the Raptors a chance in this series because of him, but the Bucks have the stronger record over them in recent times for a reason.

Kawhi will carry this team so far, but in the end the ball won’t always bounce in their favour. The Bucks have won four of the last five games between these teams, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see this series over in five too, but I’ll give Toronto a bit more credit because of their new-found winning mentality with a champion in their line-up and think this will end 4-2 to Milwaukee at 4/1.

Source: US Sports

    

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