This was the season I felt the Warriors’ biggest challenge would arise from the East (Denver is unproven, the Blazers don’t have defense, and the Rockets are fraudulent). With LeBron James no longer ruling the East with an iron fist, there were many intriguing options for new contenders out there.
I’ve read many a comment here at GSoM fretting about looming threats from Milwaukee, Boston, Philadelphia, and Toronto, with good reason.
Jeff Van Gundy told NBC Sports Bay Area in February:
“In the East, the top five are very good. After that, it thins out dramatically. So depth-wise, it’s not comparable.
”But I do think whoever comes out of the East, if they play the Warriors in The Finals, there will be some interesting matchups. If it’s Toronto, Milwaukee, Boston, whoever does end up coming out of there, they pose some matchup problems. And depth-wise, they’re suited to match up against this great Warriors team.”
The Toronto Raptors indeed survived that regular season and conference playoff gauntlet, and now receive the privilege of battling the two-time defending champion Golden State Warriors at the summit of “Greatness Mountain.” To get there, they knocked off Milwaukee and Philadelphia, two potential juggernauts.
An amazing accomplishment, considering how dangerous the top four teams in the East looked on paper. To appreciate how far the Raptors have come, I started considering the rest of the East, and what kept the also-rans from a date with destiny against the champs.
Milwaukee Bucks: Crowned Too Early Fail
The Bucks won 60 games and seduced many NBA fans into believing they were ready for the big stage.
The Bucks are the best team in the NBA right now - SB Nation, November 9th, 2019
Largest Point Differential Through First 11 Games - NBA Postseason History:— Kirk Goldsberry (@kirkgoldsberry) May 18, 2019
2016-17 Warriors* +182
2000-01 Lakers* +170
>>2018-19 Bucks +168
1970-71 Bucks* +164
1995-96 Bulls* +162
*Won NBA Championship
Giannis Antetokounmpo is ridiculous and the Bucks look absolutely unbeatable - USA Today, May 6th, 2019
A strong contender to be sure. However....
If you blinked your eyes, you might see some chilling similarities to the 2010 Orlando Magic. Both teams were led by tall, muscle bound men with a plethora of shooters on the perimeter. And under the hottest of playoff duress, both Dwight Howard and Giannis Antetokoumpo couldn’t get buy a bucket outside of the paint. They both desperately tried and failed to make enough plays for a bunch of shooters who couldn’t consistently create their own shot.
The Bucks offense has completely disappeared #NBAPlayoffs— Chuck West (@ChuckWestWorld) May 24, 2019
Great job by the Raptors to close down the floor and make Giannis see bodies. Either force a turnover or force the ball out of his hands.— Coach Mac (@BballCoachMac) May 25, 2019
Never want to let a great player like Giannis go 1-on-1 from here. pic.twitter.com/Dzevb0H3fi
Giannis is getting exposed tonight as an MVP favorite whose game is degenerating into awkward, forced, out-of-control drives that result in turnovers, artless misses or missed free throws.— Skip Bayless (@RealSkipBayless) May 24, 2019
Both Dwight and Giannis, two physical freaks of nature and dominant defensive forces, saw their games stall out when their opponents built a wall between them and the basket. At least Howard was a center; what’s the excuse for power forward Giannis’ nonexistent jumpshot and ghastly 58% shooting from the free line?
The scary thing is the Greek Freak might win an MVP this year and take another leap next year. But, as for these Finals? He’ll be on the couch watching.
Boston Celtics: Strength In Numbers Fail
Remember when everybody thought Boston was going to be a juggernaut this season?
Boston has a starting five of Kyrie Irving, Gordon Hayward, Al Horford, Jayson Tatum, and Jaylen Brown. DAMN. Those are all versatile, high IQ hoopers who can score, make plays, and play defense. They were one victory away from meeting the Warriors in the Finals last season without having All-Stars Irving and Hayward for the entirety of the playoffs.
What are they capable of when fully healthy under the wizardry of Coach Stevens? He has turned the Celtics into a (regular season) thorn in the Warriors side since Steve Kerr took over in 2014. The Warriors have a 5-3 record against them in that timespan, with all the games becoming physical, tense, chess-matches that weren’t decided until late.
- Me for GSoM, falling under Boston’s spell, September 2018
This was the year that we learned that it’s possible to have TOO much depth. Coach Stevens was in over his head juggling rotations and egos while Kyrie’s “leadership by passive aggression” failed miserably. A lot of possessions died with horrendous isolation ball.
My favorite Kyrie quote last night (and there were plenty to choose from):— Jeff Goodman (@GoodmanHoops) May 7, 2019
“For me, the 22 shots, I should have shot 30. I’m that great of a shooter."
Love the modesty.
Who knew that adding a bunch of talented players together would be so hard? Coach Steve Kerr makes it look so easy, amirite?
As the final seconds ticked off the clock at TD Garden on Monday night Kyrie Irving marched off the court well ahead of his Celtics teammates after a third straight awful game. It may also have been the last time he walks off that court as a Celtic. https://t.co/VxiGDR4Nnb— Tim Bontemps (@TimBontemps) May 7, 2019
Philadelphia 76ers: 3-1 Joke Fail
I’m sure by now you’ve all viewed GSoM’s video about the Warriors reinventing the 3-1 Curse and destroying the Cleveland Cavaliers?
During the first round of this postseason, Sixers big man Joel Embiid made a 3-1 joke after Philly went up in their series vs Brooklyn.
Joel Embiid calls out the Warriors losing up 3-1, Jimmy was out of there pic.twitter.com/e0FxHu7FhI— Hoop Central (@TheHoopCentral) April 20, 2019
The poor youngster had no idea of the danger of making 3-1 jokes for NBA players; it’s like saying “Candy Man” five times in the mirror.
The basketball gods tortured him with an unforgettable Game 7 disaster of his own to remember for the rest of his life.