John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports. Pictured: Toronto Raptors forward Kawhi Leonard (2).
- The NBA Conference Finals tip off tonight with Game 1 of Blazers vs. Warriors.
- Matt Moore ranks the top-25 most important players remaining among the final four teams of the NBA Playoffs.
The Conference Finals are here, and here’s a look at the 25 most important players in Bucks-Raptors and Blazers-Warriors. Note: This is not about the best players but the most important for how they will impact these series.
1. Kawhi Leonard
He’s going to have to do everything he did against the Sixers — only better. He has to carry the offense against a better defense. He has to help at least on times on the MVP, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and he has to make constant rotations to shooters. Oh, and he needs to rebound. Oh, and probably pass better because the Bucks may blitz him.
There will be games and long stretches where the Raptors offense just goes away, and in those moments he has to do everything. But he also has to manage it so that the rest of the team doesn’t disengage. It’s a tough road.
In the regular season, when Giannis was on the court, the Bucks were -10.8 in Net Rating with Kawhi on the floor and a +70.5 in the 21 minutes where Leonard sat. Leonard has to be everything.
2. Giannis Antetokounmpo
The Raptors are going to sell out on trying to get him to commit offensive fouls, and for the most part Antetokounmpo has managed to avoid that. If Leonard is on him, Giannis has to watch his handle, which can get loose, and manage to draw fouls on him. If Giannis wins the minutes where Leonard is on him, the Raptors are doomed. If Leonard wins, the Raptors are going to be in position to win.
The Raptors will also switch Marc Gasol on him, and Giannis has destroyed those matchups vs. bigger defenders this year, but he has to keep it up. The big key is that Toronto will likely do what the Celtics did towards the end of their series vs. Milwaukee: sending waves at the perimeter to try and stop Giannis. If he just relentlessly attacks the rim and draws fouls, that gets the Raptors bench in early and it’s over.
Defensively, he has to manage his foul trouble and help on Leonard without sending him to the line.
What’s amazing is that this is an upside selection. The Bucks can win this series if Giannis has a bad series; that’s how good their bench is and how bad Toronto’s is. However, if he has a big series, the Raptors are most likely doomed.