What do Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks need to do to force a Game 7 and potentially advance to the next round? What’s the key for Toronto in Saturday’s Game 6? Does Kawhi Leonard have any real competition as the best player in these playoffs?
Our NBA experts dive into the big questions, including postseason MVPs, who has the most at stake and predictions for this series.
1. What are you watching most closely in Game 6?
Kevin Arnovitz: How Giannis Antetokounmpo reacts to Toronto’s defense. How does he respond to the double-teams? How well is he reading the help (where, when and whom)? What is the quality of his decision-making with the ball? The extent to which Antetokounmpo performs these tasks decisively and intelligently will largely influence whether this series returns to Milwaukee.
Tim Bontemps: The role players on both sides. At this point it should be safe to assume Kawhi Leonard and Antetokounmpo are going to play well and produce numbers. As in the other five games in this series, who wins Game 6 will come down to which supporting cast is better. For the past three games, that edge has gone to Toronto. If it remains that way Saturday, the Raptors will be going to the NBA Finals.
André Snellings: The Raptors’ 3-point shooting and their ability to get to the rim to draw fouls. Those things are related, and they’ve been the hallmarks to Toronto’s success against Milwaukee this season. In the Bucks’ five wins, the Raptors have shot only 29.5 percent from downtown and have averaged about one free throw per six field goal attempts. Meanwhile, in the Raptors’ four wins, they have shot significantly better from deep (39.4 percent) and drawn twice as many fouls.
Malika Andrews: Antetokounmpo. For the most part, Antetokounmpo has been good — not great — in this series. The Bucks will be tested in Game 6 in a way they have yet to be this season. If the Bucks want the series to return to Milwaukee for Game 7, like Antetokounmpo said would happen after the Game 5 loss, Antetokounmpo must be exceptional. Yes, he will need help from Milwaukee’s shooters to space the floor, but Antetokounmpo will set the tone for his team. Also, he tweaked his ankle in Game 5. His health will be of interest.
Kevin Pelton: Whether the Bucks can get the stops necessary to get out in transition. Teams generally score better after a defensive rebound, but Milwaukee’s offense has been stuck in the mud after Toronto makes. Per Inpredictable.com, the Bucks have averaged 1.14 points per possession after a defensive rebound and just 0.96 after a made shot. (Leaguewide during the regular season, those averages were 1.09 and 1.06, respectively.) So Milwaukee needs to get stops and run. The Bucks are 9-0 in the playoffs when the pace exceeds 100 possessions per 48 minutes (using Basketball-Reference.com’s definition) and 1-4 in their five slowest-paced games.
2. What has been the biggest surprise in this series?
Snellings: Either the Raptors’ ability to find another gear or the Bucks’ inability to adjust. The Bucks won five of the first six matchups against the Raptors this season by beating them at their own game, with Antetokounmpo having his way inside despite the dominant Raptors defensive frontcourt. In the past three games, the Raptors have tightened the screws on Antetokounmpo, which should have opened up opportunities for the other Bucks — but they haven’t been able to take advantage. If head coach Mike Budenholzer can’t find the right counter for Milwaukee, this series will end Saturday.
Andrews: Fred VanVleet‘s Game 5 performance. As incredible as Leonard was in the fourth quarter of Thursday’s game, it is hard to imagine a scenario where the Raptors win without VanVleet’s clutch 3-pointers. Time after time, he hit the deep shot that Toronto needed to maintain its edge. That sort of performance is expected from Kyle Lowry or Leonard. But, as Nick Nurse said before Game 5, what separates the good teams from the great teams is how the “non-superstars” play.
Pelton: Antetokounmpo’s sudden inability to make free throws. Since making 75 percent of his foul shots in Games 1 and 2, both Milwaukee wins, Antetokounmpo is 12-of-26 (46 percent) in the past three games. That has made it difficult for him to score efficiently against a Toronto defense allowing nothing easy, and those points are crucial in games that have mostly been close.
Arnovitz: The inability of the Bucks to find consistent offense. By no means is it a surprise that the Raptors are executing their defensive game plan, but the Bucks typically demonstrate the spacing, penetration and flow to unlock the half court. Not so in this series. Milwaukee has been thwarted at the point of attack, and its offense has lacked the order and rhythm we’ve been accustomed to seeing all season.
Bontemps: The sudden reemergence of VanVleet. It’s hard to overstate how dramatic his turnaround has been. In the 10 games from the start of the conference semifinals through Game 3 against the Bucks, VanVleet shot 7-of-44 from the field and 3-of-25 from 3. Over the past two games, VanVleet is now 12-of-19 from the field — including an absurd 10-of-12 from deep. If the Raptors continue to get production from VanVleet and Norman Powell off the bench in Game 6, they’ll feel great about their chances of advancing to the NBA Finals.
3. Fact or fiction: Kawhi Leonard is the postseason MVP so far
Bontemps: Fact. At this point, I’m not sure how anyone could argue otherwise. Leonard has been a one-man wrecking crew in these playoffs, following up on his historic output against the 76ers in the Eastern Conference semifinals with a stellar showing against Antetokounmpo in this series. Anyone who forgot just how great Leonard was in San Antonio, or thought he couldn’t reach those heights again after his lost season a year ago, has been given a crystal-clear reminder of just how good he has been.
Snellings: Fact. This should be unanimous. Leonard has put together a storybook run so far. He’s the leading scorer among all conference finals players (31.4 PPG), he has the iconic moment with the immortalized crouch in the corner and his defensive play on Antetokounmpo has helped swing this series.
Andrews: Fact — but the Finals reveal all.
Arnovitz: Fact. All postseason long, the Raptors have been variable in their shot-making with one exception: Leonard. Whether he’s rattling in one of the more historic shots in recent league history to close out Philadelphia, or embracing the assignment of Antetokounmpo, he has been both the most reliable and most memorable performer across both conferences. The individual numbers are astounding: 31.4 points, 8.4 rebounds and 3.6 assists, with a true shooting percentage of 63.1 — and that’s before you factor in his defensive work.
Pelton: Fact. I don’t think it’s particularly close. Long-eliminated Nikola Jokic is the only player within one win above replacement (WARP) of Leonard in the postseason by my metric. Antetokounmpo and Leonard rate relatively similarly on a per-minute basis, but given how much more the Raptors have needed from Leonard — averaging 38.5 minutes in the playoffs to Antetokounmpo’s 33.8 — and his Game 7 heroics against Philadelphia, this seems like an easy choice.
4. Who has the most at stake on Saturday?
Pelton: It has to be the Raptors, who with a loss would flip from heavy favorites to huge underdogs to reach the NBA Finals for the first time given the importance of home court in a Game 7. The Bucks can’t take additional opportunities for granted, but with Leonard, Kyrie Irving and two 76ers starters all free agents, the East could be less challenging next season. It might be now or never for Toronto.
Snellings: Obviously, it’s Drake. But among the actual entities on the court, the Raptors have the most at stake for two key reasons. First, this is their moment after years of heartbreak. But, more importantly, there is Leonard’s looming free agency. A win Saturday night and a trip to the Finals could seemingly go a long way toward convincing him to stay this offseason.
Bontemps: The Raptors, on several levels. This is their chance to close out the series. If they do, they go to the NBA Finals for the first time and become the first international team to do so. President of basketball operations Masai Ujiri will be given even more vindication for his decision to trade for Leonard last summer — and probably will have a better chance of retaining him as a free agent this summer. For veterans like Lowry and Marc Gasol, this presents the best chance of their careers to reach the league’s championship round.
Sure, Toronto could still win this series if it loses Game 6. But with a home game and a chance to close out this series, the Raptors cannot afford to let it slip away.
Arnovitz: The Raptors. Nobody knows the precise criteria Leonard will apply when determining whether he will make Toronto his long-term home. But it’s fair to say the probability of his staying North increases if the Raptors are playing in June. The Bucks will be crestfallen if they lose, and though it will impact a busy offseason, we can expect them to be contenders for the foreseeable future.
5. Who wins the series and advances to the NBA Finals?
Andrews: I predicted the Bucks would win in six games before the series started. There is no scenario now that allows the Bucks to fulfill that prediction. Although teams that win Game 5 in an even series go on to win the series 82 percent of the time, according to ESPN Stats & Information, I will be consistent and stick with the Bucks. For that to happen, Milwaukee needs its bench to step up the way it did in Games 1 and 2. Also, Eric Bledsoe must play at least as well as he did in Game 5.
Arnovitz: Toronto, because it is far easier to win once than win twice.
Snellings: At this point, the Raptors have to be the favorites. They’ve won three straight and been the better team for the majority of the series. They’re playing at home and this is their window to win. With that said, I picked the Bucks at the start of the series because if Antetokounmpo is in MVP form, and his supporting cast plays to its level, they have the higher upside. So if Toronto doesn’t win Saturday, the Bucks become the favorites again moving into Game 7.
Bontemps: Toronto. I thought coming into the series the Raptors were the better team, and throughout the majority of the first five games they’ve proved that. With home-court advantage, an edge in experience and having Leonard on their side, the Raptors should win Game 6.
Pelton: Toronto in 6 is now the most likely outcome given home court, followed by Milwaukee in 7 with Toronto in 7 the least likely remaining result.