MILWAUKEE — The NBA playoff series many fans have been anticipating most of the season finally has arrived.
The Milwaukee Bucks and Toronto Raptors – who had the best records in the league – meet Wednesday night (8:30 p.m. ET, TNT) at Fiserv Foum in the Eastern Conference Finals. They were the league's last unbeatens and never wavered on their push to the playoffs.
There's no shortage of star power, either. The marquee matchup features a pair of superstars in Milwaukee's Giannis Antetokounmpo and Toronto's Kawhi Leonard, who have been among the best performers this postseason. There's plenty of spotlight remaining for all-stars Khris Middleton and Kyle Lowry, not to mention players such as Eric Bledsoe and Pascal Siakam, who were in the conversation for all-star berths.
When it comes to this series, those front-line players will certainly have a major role. But those usually out of the spotlight – the bench players on both teams – could make a difference in deciding the series.
The Bucks have leaned heavily on their bench in the postseason, getting significant minutes and contributions from their reserves. Meanwhile, the Raptors have ridden their starters more while getting relatively little production off the bench
"We don’t doubt our bench, not one bit coming into this game" Bledsoe said following practice Monday.
The Bucks have used their bench more during the postseason than any of the remaining teams in the playoffs. Coach Mike Budenholzer has had good reason to spread minutes around. The players he has gone to off the bench have been productive. In fact, with Antetokounmpo, Middleton and Bledsoe on the sideline during the third quarter of Game 4 in Boston, a unit made up mostly of bench players gave the Bucks the breathing room they needed.
George Hill (62.7 percent) and Pat Connaughton (57.0 percent) have the best effective field goal percentages among Bucks rotation players while combining on more than 15 field-goal attempts per game. Hill's 12.4 points per game rank fourth on the team, while Connaughton is third on the team in minutes played this postseason at 28.2.
Add the contributions of Ersan Ilyasova, five games off the bench from Nikola Mirotic, four from Sterling Brown and Malcolm Brogdon's lone appearance and the Bucks have had the best bench unit in the playoffs. According to NBA.com, Milwaukee's bench has accounted for 39.8 percent of the team's minutes per game this postseason, recording a collective plus-minus of plus-4.5, the best among all playoff teams.
In those minutes, the Bucks reserves are averaging 37.4 points on 48.1 percent shooting. Those numbers didn't all come in the first round, either, as Bucks reserves averaged 37.8 points on 47.4 percent shooting with a plus-minus of plus-3.0 against the Celtics.
Those numbers are all up from the regular season when the Bucks ranked in the bottom third in the league in bench shooting and scoring while sitting near the league average in bench usage. Milwaukee's bench did finish tied with the Indiana Pacers for the best plus-minus, though, at plus-1.8.
“I think that’s one of the many things that people have underestimated about us through the season is the depth that we have," Connaughton said. "If you look at the roster, one through 15, everyone has provided some sort of meaningful minutes and impact throughout the entire season. That doesn’t often happen in the NBA.”
Toronto's bench has been at the other end of the spectrum. The Raptors' reserves have accounted for less than 30 percent of the team's overall minutes this postseason, including just 24.8 percent over seven games against the Philadelphia 76ers in the second round. In Game 7 on Sunday, the Raptors used just two bench players for 44 total minutes.
After proving themselves as one of the deeper teams in the NBA during the regular season, the Raptors haven't gotten much production to show for it in the playoffs. They've missed OG Anunoby, who had an emergency appendectomy at the end of the regular season, but haven't gotten enough out of the rest of their bench. Through 12 playoff games, Toronto's reserves have accounted for 21.6 points per game while shooting 38.9 percent overall and 25.8 percent from three-point range.
The difference between the benches has meant much more wear and tear for Toronto's starting five, who have all logged over 31 minutes per game in the postseason led by Leonard and Lowry averaging 37.3 minutes per game. Only one bench player, Serge Ibaka, is logging more than 20 minutes per game, with Fred VanVleet close behind at 19.4.
The Bucks, meanwhile, have followed their season-long trend of spreading minutes out and keeping everyone's workload reasonable. Milwaukee regularly goes nine or 10 players deep, with only Middleton (32.8) and Antetokounmpo (31.4) averaging more than 30 minutes per game.
While most other teams shorten their rotations, Budenholzer is doing the opposite. He's continuing to cycle through his rotation, betting that depth can be an advantage.
“In this atmosphere and environment, it takes a lot of energy and effort to be great defensively," Budenholzer said. "We’re similar offensively – we want to play fast, we want to get out and run and move.
"All of those things do require an amount of effort and exertion and all those things, so if we can have more people to throw at the process, more people to throw at our opponent and keep us in a good place, it’s an advantage hopefully we can use for … however many games we have.”
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