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Raptors survived gauntlet of super hyped teams in the LeBron-less East

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Milwaukee, Boston, and Philly were all in the mix, but the Raptors proved to be the only team worthy of facing the Golden Empire.

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

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.

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.

Who knew that adding a bunch of talented players together would be so hard? Coach Steve Kerr makes it look so easy, amirite?

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.

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.