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Toronto vs. Milwaukee: Five things to watch in the Eastern Conference Finals

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Last offseason, both the Toronto Raptors and Milwaukee Bucks each made one big move — and that’s why they are here, ready to face off in the Eastern Conference Finals starting Wednesday night.

The Milwaukee Bucks fired coach Jason Kidd — now an assistant with the Lakers — to hire Mike Budenholzer and asked him to bring the team into the modern era. He got buy-in from Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton then did just that — the result was Bucks finished with the best defense and fourth best offense in the league in the regular season. The Bucks are long and rotate quickly on defense, with an emphasis on protecting the paint. On offense, they space the floor with shooters and let Antetokounmpo go to work. The result is a title contender.

The Toronto Raptors traded fan favorite and franchise icon DeMar DeRozan and brought back Kawhi Leonard with the idea he was the guy who could get them over the hump in the playoffs. Leonard was impressive in the regular season, but come the playoffs has been everything the Raptors hoped — he has been the best player in the East. Leonard has been methodical in getting to his spots and hitting his shots on offense, while reminding everyone he is the best perimeter defender in the game. If you have any doubts about how he’s playing, go ask Philadelphia.

Which move pays off with the trip to the Finals? How will the outcome of this series impact the summer free agencies of Leonard and Middleton? Those questions will be answered starting Wednesday night in Milwaukee, here are five things to watch during this series.

1) Can the Bucks slow Kawhi Leonard? Can the Raptors slow Giannis Antetokounmpo? Both Leonard and the Greek Freak are going to get their points. They are too good not to. The question is simply, can they be slowed, made a little less efficient? Doing so would be a big step toward winning the series.

Don’t expect to see Antetokounmpo and Leonard matched up on each other much, except during crunch time late in a close game. They matched up little when these teams met in the regular season, and that makes sense on a few levels, starting with the physical toll of running the offense then defending an elite player on the other end. It would just wear guys out.

In the regular season meetings between these teams, the Bucks had some success on Leonard. Middleton was the primary defender and Leonard shot just 40.7 percent against him (using NBA tracking data). However, the Raptors’ offense was still close to its average efficiency because of free throws and other guys stepping up. The Bucks have been a better defensive team in the playoffs than the regular season (where they were the best in the NBA), the role players may struggle to find space to shoot, Leonard needs to get them rolling and be more of a playmaker than just pure scorer. But he needs to get buckets, too.

Toronto struggled to slow Antetokounmpo. Pascal Siakam got the assignment most of the time, but the Greek Freak averaged 27 points per game in the meetings with a 66 true shooting percentage, plus he grabbed 15.3 rebounds a game. Numbers right at his season averages. Leonard did do a good job getting Antetokounmpo to give the ball up when he was on him in limited minutes, something the Raptors could try for key stretches late.

2) Which team’s “others” will step up and make plays? The stars are going to get theirs, but which one of them will get the most help?

Antetokounmpo got plenty of help in the second round — five other Bucks averaged double-digit points. Middleton averaged 19.2, but the big boost was George Hill giving the team 14.2 points per game off the bench. Another huge key is that Middleton and Hill both shot a little better than 47 percent from three — the Bucks offense is about transition and spacing, but to make that work the threes have to fall. They did against Boston.

One Buck who could have a bigger impact this series is Malcolm Brogdon, who returned from a plantar fascia issue midway through the Boston series. He was a critical starter for them in the regular season, he will open this series coming off the bench (Nikola Mirotic will still start) but should play a significant role.

The bigger question is will Leonard get help? He did not consistently against a good Sixers defense — in Game 7 Leonard took 39 shots because he was the only one willing to consistently pull the trigger.

That can’t happen this series, a hesitant Toronto shooter will find a long Milwaukee defender in his face fast. The Bucks had the best defense in the NBA this season and have allowed 6.7 fewer points per 100 possessions in the playoffs. The Bucks have shut down teams that tried to isolate against them these playoffs, something Leonard and the Raptors like to do. Toronto needs to find a varied offense.

All season — led by Marc Gasol and Kyle Lowry — the Raptors have been unselfish and have passed up good shots to try to get great ones. Do that against the quick and long Bucks and that shooting window goes away. The Bucks defensive scheme leaves Brook Lopez and Antetokounmpo back more to protect the paint, and with that they give up a lot of above-the-break threes — Gasol has to take those when he gets them. And hit them. Same with Lowry. And Danny Green. And every other Raptor. The windows to shoot will be small and the Raptors need to take them, hesitate and all will be lost.

It appears OG Anunoby will be out for most if not all of this series as he recovers from an appendectomy. That’s a blow, he’s the kind of “3&D” wing Toronto could really use.

3) Watch the pace: Faster is better for Milwaukee. In Game 1 of their second-round matchup, Boston was able to grind Milwaukee down. The game had 99 possessions, and the bottled-up Bucks scored just 90 points on their way to a 22-point loss (pace stats via Cleaning the Glass).

The rest of the series was played at an almost 106 possessions per game pace and the Bucks swept them all.

Milwaukee thrives in transition. When Antetokounmpo gets up a head of steam any defender is helpless. The Greek Freak is averaging 7.4 fast break points per game these playoffs, the most of any player. Toronto can play with some pace (they were 15th in pace during the season, middle of the pack, but very efficient in their transition offense) however, they have been five possessions a game slower in the playoffs and that needs to continue. In this series, the Raptors need to slow the game down and grind it out. Toronto just showed it can win that kind of series beating Philadelphia, and Leonard is at his best in the halfcourt.

That means Toronto needs to make its shots more often, not turn the ball over, and get back in transition defense. Slow the game down, take away the easy buckets. Sounds easy enough, but go ask the Celtics how easy it is to execute against the Bucks.

4) Kyle Lowry vs. Eric Bledsoe. This may be the bellwether matchup and tell us about how the “others” are performing. These two players are the spark plug point guards who can help set the tone for their teams on both ends of the floor. Both teams need their top three to outperform the other’s top three, and this is the head-to-head matchup in that group.

Based on the regular season, that could be good for Milwaukee. Lowry shot 23.3 percent and was 1-of-20 from three against the Bucks this past season, plus he sat out the one meeting between the sides where Toronto won. Bledsoe, in particular, was a good defender on Lowry and held him scoreless when matched up this season.

Lowry simply has to do better or this series will be short.

5) Does experience on this stage matter? The Bucks have not shown any signs of the playoffs being too big a stage for them yet, but now the pressure mounts. Will it show?

The Raptors hope so.

The experienced Raptors — with Leonard, Gasol, Lowry — have players who have taken part in 116 Conference Finals games. They know what this level feels like, how to handle the pressure and execute.

The only Buck to go this far is George Hill, from his time with the Spurs and Pacers. That’s it. This is all new to Milwaukee.

The question is, will it matter?

Warriors two-way guard Damion Lee breaks bone in right hand

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SAN FRANCISCO (AP) Yet another member of the Golden State Warriors is injured, with two-way guard Damion Lee now out because of a broken right hand.

The injury occurred during Golden State’s 122-108 home loss to the Jazz on Monday night. Lee underwent an MRI exam Tuesday morning that revealed a nondisplaced fracture of the fourth metacarpal. The team said he will be reevaluated in two weeks.

“Hopefully just a few weeks,” coach Steve Kerr said before the team flew to Los Angeles, where the Warriors play the Lakers on Wednesday night.

Lee joins a long list of injured players on the depleted Warriors, who are 2-9 following five straight trips to the NBA Finals.

Stephen Curry had surgery on his broken left hand, which he injured Oct. 30, and will need another procedure next month to have pins removed. He said Monday that he expects to be playing again come spring.

The two-time MVP joins Klay Thompson, who is recovering from a July 2 surgery on a torn ACL in his left knee suffered during Game 6 of the NBA Finals. Thompson could miss the entire season.

Kevon Looney, who is dealing with a nerve issue that has kept him out since a brief appearance in the season opener, is going through more extensive workouts but is still not ready to return, while guard Jacob Evans III is still dealing with a strained inner thigh muscle and also will miss Wednesday’s game. Kerr said he is likely still at least a couple of weeks from playing again.

Backup center Omari Spellman was listed as doubtful to face the Lakers because of a sprained left ankle and already sat out Monday’s loss to the Jazz.

Kerr, who took over coaching the Warriors in 2014-15 and immediately won an NBA championship, has never had this short a bench with so few healthy bodies to mix and match rotations.

“We’ll just see how it plays out,” Kerr said. “We’ll figure out who’s ready to go and we’ll go from there. It’s challenging. It’s been kind of the theme so far. It’s not exactly ideal but it’s the reality. You don’t spend a whole lot of time lamenting anything. You just keep going.”

Bulls big man Cristiano Felicio out 4-8 weeks with broken wrist

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This is not going to impact the Bulls’ rotations — Cristiano Felicio has yet to touch the court for the Bulls this season — but it’s a setback for a player trying to prove he belongs in the NBA.

Felicio fractured his wrist during the Bulls practice Monday and will be out at least a month, reports K.C. Johnson of NBC Sports Chicago.

Cristiano Felicio, who has yet to land on the active roster this season, broke his right wrist after falling in Monday’s practice, according to coach Jim Boylen. The Bulls’ coach said Felicio will miss four to eight weeks with the injury.

“We had the X-ray. It did not show up on the X-ray. Then we had the CT scan and it showed up on the CT scan,” Boylen said. “We’re going to do an MRI (Wednesday) just to let them give us a little more certainty on maybe how much separation there is in there and how much time it will be.”

The Bulls gambled on Felicio a couple of years ago and signed him to a four-year, $32 million contract. That roll of the dice has come up snake eyes so far, with Felicio playing a limited role the first two seasons — and this season no role at all.

It is expected the Bulls will try to use Felicio’s salary in any trade packages they put together closer to the deadline, this injury would not impact that.

Asked about getting stabbed in back, Chris Paul says trade from Rockets

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Chris Paul has gotten traded three times in his career.

New Orleans sent him to the Clippers – but only after David Stern nixed a deal with the Lakers – in 2011. In 2017, Paul engineered a trade to the Rockets by opting in. Then, in an unprecedented star swap, Houston dealt Paul to the Thunder for Russell Westbrook last summer.

Paul recently discussed trades with comedian Kevin Hart.

Hart:

Why is it always such a crazy time when it comes to these trades and whether they’re happening. You’ve been part of some big conversations. Is it at a point where it’s just business, or is it becoming personal?

Paul:

Every situation is different. But the team is going to do whatever they want to do. They’ll tell you one thing and do a smooth nother thing.

Hart:

That’s the business side.

Paul:

Exactly.

Hart:

Do you feel like there’s been times where, “Damn, that’s a little eye-opening. I got stabbed in the back”?

Paul:

Absolutely. This last situation was one of them. The GM there in Houston, he don’t owe me nothing. You know what I mean? He may tell me one thing but do another thing. But you just understand that that’s what it is.

Rockets general manager Daryl Morey is an easy target right now. Many people around the NBA resent him tweeting support for Hong Kong protesters (who are trying to maintain and expand their freedoms) and costing the league significant revenue in China.

But, in this case, Morey brought it upon himself. He said in June he wouldn’t trade Paul then did so, anyway.

Maybe that was to protect Paul’s feelings if he stayed in Houston. In that case, Morey could tell Paul he believed in him all along. There’d be no way to know Morey was fibbing. Now that Paul is gone, Paul being upset is someone else’s problem. It’s a common tactic by executives.

Paul reportedly requested a trade from the Rockets, but he denied it. I don’t necessarily believe Paul. There was plenty of evidence of tension between him and Harden. It’d be pretty conniving to request a trade then throw Morey under the bus for making the trade.

But Paul’s denial of a trade request is on the record. So is Morey’s declaration that he wouldn’t trade Paul.

Morey must own that.

Report: Rockets have lost about $7M in China revenue this season, $20M overall

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Rockets general manager Daryl Morey’s tweet supporting Hong Kong protesters, who are trying to maintain and expand their freedoms, has cost the NBA and its players a lot of money in China.

Probably no team has been harder hit than Houston.

Early estimates pegged the Rockets’ potential lost revenue at $25 million. It apparently hasn’t been quite that bad yet, but it’s already close. And the effects are trickling down to Houston star James Harden.

Kevin Arnovitz of ESPN:

League sources say the franchise has lost more than $7 million in revenue this season from cancelled Chinese sponsorship agreements and nearly $20 million overall when terminated multiyear deals are calculated.

For their superstar James Harden, the losses could be considerable if no resolution is reached. A source says Harden’s endorsement agreement with Shanghai’s SPD Bank Credit Card is imperiled.

This is why NBA teams are preparing for a lower-than-projected salary cap. It’s also why the union is planning to better educate its players on global issues.

The money involved is significant.