The Milwaukee Bucks entered the 2019-20 NBA regular season with redemption in their minds.
Following a painful exit against eventual champions Toronto Raptors in last year’s Eastern Conference Finals, head coach Mike Budenholzer’s wards played like men on a mission since opening night.
Powered by another herculean showing from reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo, the Bucks raced to an NBA best 53-12 record prior to the suspension of the season last March. The Wisconsin-based franchise even accumulated a better record than the two powerhouse Los Angeles teams in the Western Conference.
While the entire Bucks squad is indeed formidable, the jury is still out if they will finally emerge out of the East this year. Their fellow conference contenders, after all, also re-tooled and showcased massive improvements.
Milwaukee will still be the East favorites heading into Orlando, but they are no way untouchable. The team even figured in a three-game slide — their worst this year — before the unprecedented hiatus.
While Bucks fans are probably already looking ahead at either the Lakers or the Clippers in a potential Finals match-up, the team must still prove that they are indeed the kings of the East.
With that being said, here are three dark horse teams from the East that could give Milwaukee a run for its money.
1. Toronto Raptors
Although they are no longer the same team as last year, the defending champs still somehow hold a psychological advantage over Giannis and Co. Toronto, after all, came back from a 2-0 deficit and swept the next four games of the 2019 ECF at the Bucks’ expense.
Obviously, the glaring hole here is that last year’s Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard is no longer with the team. Still, the Raptors proved a lot of naysayers wrong this season, amassing a 46-16 slate (second in the East).
Pascal Siakam assumed the throne vacated by Leonard’s departure. He made the first of possibly many All-Star teams last February after posting stellar numbers of 23.6 points, 7.5 rebounds, 3.6 assists and 1.0 steal.
The biggest hurdle for teams against the Bucks is that nobody can match with The Greek Freak’s physical gifts. Siakam, who developed into a two-way star, has the size and length to keep up with Giannis.
Apart from Leonard, the Raptors also pretty much kept their championship core intact. Nick Nurse has also done a phenomenal job this season and should be considered for the Coach of the Year award.
Milwaukee, however, got the better of Toronto in their first two meetings of this season. They are scheduled to meet for a third time on August 8.
2. Miami Heat
The Bucks only tasted defeat 12 times this season, and two of those losses came at the hands of the Heat. Like the Raptors, the South Beach-based squad also turned a lot of heads, as the acquisition of Jimmy Butler pushed the team back to the upper echelon of the conference.
They bested the Bucks in OT, 131-126, back in October, then demolished them, 105-89, last March. While those two are indeed impressive victories, winning in a seven-game series is a whole different ball game.
The best thing that the Heat have going for them is their depth. Head coach Erik Spoelstra does a magnificent job shuffling his line-ups based on opponents’ strengths. He also has multiple guys who can shadow Giannis, as Butler, Andre Iguodala and Jae Crowder are all accomplished stoppers.
The Bucks and Heat are scheduled to go at it again on August 7, and we’ll see if Miami continues its streak.
3. Boston Celtics
The young Sixers squad is also in consideration to beat the Bucks, but it would be hard for them considering their struggles on the road.
The Celtics, on the other hand, have been consistent so far, as Jayson Tatum finally took that leap to stardom.
While some would argue that the Celtics should not be considered as a “dark horse” team, it is worth noting that they are relatively young. They are also coming off a disastrous season, so there are a lot of uncertainties for them.
The Bucks and Celtics split their first two games and looks evenly match roster-wise. The Cs have enough length and athleticism in their wings to try and slow down Giannis and chase Khris Middleton around. Tatum, Jaylen Brown, and Gordon Hayward are all capable defenders.
Despite the massive size discrepancy, we all know the scrappy Marcus Smart would also not back down against the MVP. But perhaps Boston’s trump card against Milwaukee lies on the point guard match-up. While Eric Bledsoe has been the Bucks’ third-best player, Kemba Walker has been spectacular in his first year in Beantown.
Celtics’ head coach Brad Stevens is one of the most innovative tacticians, and he’ll definitely have a lot of tricks up his sleeve for coach Bud.