The two-time defending NBA champion Golden State Warriors head into the All-Star Break as the clear-cut favorite to bring Oakland a third consecutive title.
But unlike the previous two seasons, these Warriors are not heads and shoulders above the pack. In an amazing turnaround, the Eastern Conference actually boasts the stiffest competition to the Warriors’ hopes of three-peating.
It’s in this that we check in on the top teams back east and how they potentially match up against the Warriors in a hypothetical Finals setting.
Milwaukee Bucks: Giannis Antetokounmpo is the difference maker.
- It goes without saying that the Greek Freak is right up there with James Harden as the league’s top MVP candidate. The plays he makes on a consistent basis display just how dominant of a force Giannis is.
- Still only 24 years, old Antetokounmpo is averaging 27.0 points, 12.5 rebounds and 5.8 assists per game. He’s shooting 64 percent from inside the three-point line.
- There’s not a single member of the Warriors who can contain Antetokounmpo on a one-on-one basis. He’s too athletic and strong for Kevin Durant. Draymond Green doesn’t boast the athleticism. Meanwhile, Giannis would put DeMarcus Cousins in a blender out on the perimeter.
Milwaukee Bucks: Adding Nikola Mirotic was specifically to match up with the Warriors.
- Once Mirotic returns from injury and makes his Bucks debut, this big man is going to add all sorts of problems for opposing teams.
- The 6-foot-10 power forward is a career 36 percent shooter from distance. It’s that stretch four position that Milwaukee was missing before the trade deadline.
- Last season saw Mirotic shoot 61 percent from the field and 56 percent from distance in two games against the Warriors. He was also a combined plus-24 when on the court.
Milwaukee Bucks: Don’t sleep on stud point guard Eric Bledsoe.
- It’s not a huge surprise that Bledsoe is putting up one heck of a contract year performance. He’s been waiting for this opportunity dating back to his time in Phoenix.
- While not on the level of Stephen Curry, this point guard certainly wouldn’t act as a liability against the Warriors.
- Bledsoe, 29, is averaging 14.8 points, 4.5 rebounds and 5.4 assists per game. He’s also shooting a ridiculous 60 percent from two-point range. That mid-range ability would come up huge against Golden State.
Toronto Raptors: Kawhi Leonard is a Warriors killer.
- It was just a couple short years ago that Leonard acted the part of a Warriors killer. If it weren’t for the injury he suffered in Game 1 of the 2017 Western Conference Finals, Leonard would’ve have likely led San Antonio to the Finals.
- That season saw Leonard average 27.0 points in two games against Golden State. Career-wise, he’s a .500 shooter in 19 games against the Warriors.
- Leonard’s defensive prowess would come up absolutely huge against two-time reigning NBA Finals MVP Kevin Durant — limiting KD’s impact on the game.
Toronto Raptors: Addition of Marc Gasol will open things up offensively.
- Toronto’s deadline addition of this three-time All-Star couldn’t have represented a better fit. Here’s a guy that’s put up four-plus assists in each of the past four seasons. He’s also added the three-point game to his arsenal in recent years.
- Having someone like Gasol who can hit the mid-range shot and pass from the low block will open things up for Kawhi Leonard and Kyle Lowry out on the parameter.
Philadelphia 76ers: Style of play does well against the Warriors.
- As we saw with Philadelphia’s win over the Warriors in Oakland earlier this season, the Sixers match up well against Golden State.
- Whether it’s Ben Simmons in the back court or Joel Embiid in the front court, Philadelphia creates a ton of mismatches.
- More than anything, Simmons forces Kevin Durant on to him. That opens up the likes of JJ Redick and Tobias Harris to go up against lesser defenders, especially if Klay Thompson is tasked with defending Jimmy Butler.
Philadelphia 76ers: Tobias Harris could be the X-factor.
- One of the best deadline additions, Harris was enjoying a career season with the Clippers prior to being dealt to Philadelphia.
- The 6-foot-9 combo forward is averaging 20.8 points and 7.8 rebounds while shooting at a stellar 50 percent from the field on the season.
- Harris causes a mismatch in that his perimeter offense will be tough for Golden State to defend with the likes of Draymond Green and Kevon Looney up front. With KD on Simmons, this could be an issue.
Philadelphia 76ers: Joel Embiid’s reputation precedes him.
- The good news here for Golden State is the healthy return of DeMarcus Cousins from the Achilles injury he suffered as a member of the Pelicans last season.
- Cousins is pretty much the only center in the NBA outside of Anthony Davis who can body with the massive Embiid inside.
- But as we saw in Philly’s win over Golden State in February, Cousins can’t do it all himself. Once Looney replaced Cousins, Embiid started dominating. This means Kerr will have to match up Cousins against Embiid 90-100 percent of the time.
Boston Celtics: Kyrie Irving has already beaten the Warriors.
- After defeating Golden State in the 2016 NBA Finals, Irving is not going to be intimidated should his Celtics earn a spot in the championship round this year.
- Irving is a specifically difficult matchup for Stephen Curry. It’s led the Warriors to putting plus-level defender Klay Thompson on Irving in the past.
- Exhausting a ton of energy taking on a play-making Irving on defense, this could very well impact Thompson’s performance on offense.
Boston Celtics: Length can kill the Warriors.
- The presence of Jaylen Brown should not be lost on us. Brown stands at 6-foot-7 and plays the two-guard position most of the time. Given Thompson’s wingspan, he’s created issues against two-guards in the past. That won’t be a problem for Brown.
- The same thing can pretty much be said about Jayson Tatum at the three. Sure the young 6-foot-8 Tatum can’t match up with Durant from a height perspective. But he has the bulk and athleticism to cause issues for the two-time reigning NBA Finals MVP.