G1 – Raptors at Bucks

Predictions | Conference Finals Odds | Playoff Results

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Eastern Conference Finals – Game 1
No. 2 Toronto at No. 1 Milwaukee (-6/217.5), TNT, 8:30 p.m. ET
Jan. 31 – Bucks (+2.5) 105 at Raptors 92 (Under 232)
Jan. 5 – Raptors (+5.5) 123 at Bucks 116 (Over 227)
Dec. 9 – Bucks (+5) 104 at Raptors 99 (Under 229.5)
Oct. 29 – Bucks (+2) 124 vs. Raptors 109 (Over 222.5)

When the season began, the Bucks were a 14-to-1 choice to win the Eastern Conference per Westgate, while the Raptors were the second choice at 2-to-1, just behind the favored Celtics (4-to-5).

See, the NBA isn’t entirely predictable.

Milwaukee was 60-to-1 to win it all when the regular season began but was down to just 5-to-1 when the playoffs opened. They were 4-to-5 to win the East while the Raptors were 3-to-1 to win the conference and 14-to-1 to win a title.

Boston and Philadelphia have been defeated, leaving the top seeds in the East to vie for the right to try and spoil Golden State’s threepeat bid.

If you’re holding one of those Bucks futures’ from October, you’re counting on the continued blossoming of likely MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo, who will be tasked with helping deny Toronto its first NBA Finals appearance by slowing down Kawhi Leonard.

With Warriors star Kevin Durant on the mend for at least another few days, the top forwards remaining in the playoffs will square off to decide a champion in the Eastern Conference in the type of duel we haven’t seen since Durant denied LeBron James a second title with Cleveland before leaving for L.A. James has faced off with Leonard and Paul George, while Durant has also tangled with Anthony Davis. This playoff matchup between the “Greek Freak” and Leonard, who is coming off authoring the first series-clinching buzzer-beater in a Game 7 in NBA history, is on that level.

Two of the best basketball players who have ever lived, Hall of Fame types who are still writing their story, are about to treat us to a show. They won’t directly be defending one another for 40-plus minutes, but they should be in the picture coming over to help, be it to shade or blitz, and their length and defensive IQ will make for intense interactions.

Antetokounmpo and his supporting cast, which also features All-Star Khris Middleton and point guard Eric Bledsoe, comes in as a -330 favorite over Toronto, which will get you +260 if you want to party with the underdog. Leonard has been incredible this postseason, averaging 31.8 points, but it remains to be seen if he can get enough help from Pascal Siakam, Kyle Lowry, Marc Gasol and Danny Green after narrowly surviving the younger, banged-up 76ers despite minimal contributions from the bench.

With Malcolm Brogdon back in the mix after missing most of the past few months due to a plantar fascia tear in his right foot, the Bucks have a much deeper group, homecourt advantage and the edge in coaching given the work Mike Budenholzer has done in his first season in Milwaukee. Nick Nurse, an assistant with past Raptors teams in his first season in the head seat, may be overmatched here. Not being able to rely on Fred VanVleet to be productive and going barely seven-deep in his rotation ties his hands significantly.

Riding Raptors’ futures for value’s sake carries the risk that they’ll be unable to steal a game at the new Fiserv Forum after such a physical, taxing series against the 76ers, which means you would be better off waiting until they get back home for a Game 3 since the odds would be even better if they’re down 2-0. The Bucks have been off since eliminating the Celtics last Tuesday after a 116-91 rout, their seventh double-digit win this postseason. The team that led the league in wins, points per game and margin of victory should have fresh legs in addition to a homecourt edge giving them a significant Game 1 advantage.

“Backing the Bucks in the playoffs has been easy money with Milwaukee covering the spread in all eight of its victories, “ said VegasInsider.com NBA expert Kevin Rogers. “Only one of those wins came by less than 10 points, which was Game 3 of the Boston series, 123-116. The Raptors haven’t been listed as an underdog many times this season, as Toronto has cashed in 10 of 16 opportunities when receiving points. Toronto won at Golden State as 7 ½-point underdogs in in mid-December, 113-93, but Leonard didn’t suit up in losses in the 6 to 6 ½-point ‘dog range at Indiana and Philadelphia.”

The Bucks’ lone playoff loss to date came at home in the series opener against the Celtics, but they’re looking to avoid a repeat since they’ve been a united chorus over the past few days preaching the importance of capturing Game 1 because rallying against Toronto would be far more difficutt than it was against Boston. Milwaukee is providing no bulletin board material, going the extra mile in buttering up the competition. Bledsoe hinted Lowry would be a future Hall-of-Famer. Budenholzer is doing whatever he can to drill it into his Bucks that they must capture these early home games to snuff out confidence and avoid going into a difficult venue tied, having surrendered the homecourt advantage they worked so hard to get during a 60-win regular season.

That includes winning the head-to-head series 3-1. Milwaukee outscored the Raptors by an average of 112.3-105.8 and held it to just 42 percent shooting while knocking down 47 percent of its shots. The Bucks won twice in Toronto, which is especially impressive since the Raptors finished 32-9 at Scotiabank Arena, the third-best home mark behind the Nuggets (34-7) and the Bucks (33-8). Being able to take care of business in front of the paying customers will go a long way in deciding this series.

Antetokonmpo averaged 27 points, 15 rebounds and five assists while shooting 58.5 percent from the field in three games against Toronto this season. Leonard shot just 42.6 percent from the field in his three games against the Bucks, averaging 22 points, 7.7 boards and four assists. Lowry struggled mightily in his three matchups with the Bucks, shooting just 23.3 percent from the field while averaging 6.3 points and 8.3 assists. The Raptors were much better when he looked in sync against the 76ers, so his ability to effectively deal with Bledsoe and Brogdon, physical defenders who have a size advantage, will go a long way in dictating how effective Toronto can be as an underdog.

The total for Game 1 opened at 218 and the number has been pushed down to 217 as of Wednesday. VegasInsider.com totals expert Chris David offered up his thoughts on the number and his top wager.

“During the regular season, we saw the total results finish in a 2-2 stalemate between the pair but the two games played in Milwaukee went ‘over’ while the ‘under’ was 2-0 in the games played at Scotiabank Arena. Surprisingly, the Raptors offense was much better away from home versus the Bucks as they averaged 116 PPG in two trips to Wisconsin,” David said. “Expecting the Raptors to get near that number in this series could be wishful thinking based on what we’ve seen from their offense (100.4 PPG) in five road playoff games. The ‘under’ went 4-1 in those games and the lone ‘over’ barely connected in Game 6 at Philadelphia.

“For Game 1, it’s apparent that the oddsmakers are expecting less offense knowing that the four regular season games had totals ranging from 222 ½ to 232. It’s hard to argue with the opening total knowing that Toronto’s defense has been lights out in the playoffs (96 PPG), but this will easily be its toughest test. Milwaukee led the league in scoring (118 PPG) and its numbers at home (119.2 PPG) have been off the charts, plus Budenholzer’s squad hasn’t been slowed down in the postseason. In five playoff games at home, the Bucks have averaged 120 PPG in their four wins and were held to 90 points in the Game 1 loss to the Celtics in the conference semifinals and you could argue that the effort versus Boston was due to a six-day layoff. I believe Milwaukee will be ready to go on Wednesday and my strongest lean for Game 1 would be on the Bucks Team Total Over (111 ½).”

Nikola Mirotic is expected to remain in Milwaukee’s starting lineup in order to help spread the floor, but that could leave the Bucks vulnerable on the defensive end. Middleton slumped late in the Bucks series but is shooting nearly 47 percent from 3-point range in these playoffs. With Brogdon back, George Hill producing and the Raps’ depth being issue, operating at a faster pace may benefit host Milwaukee in this opener. Backing the first-quarter to go ‘over’ 54 is highly recommended. The Bucks should be at full strength. Toronto has multiple guys hurting, but it could get a boost towards the end of this series with talented, versatile forward OG Anunoby nearing a return from an emergency appendectomy.

Game 2 will be played Thursday night in downtown Milwaukee.

Follow Tony Mejia on Twitter at @TonyMejiaNBA or e-mail him at mejia@vegasinsider.com