There is a prevailing sense that the 2019 Eastern Conference finals between the Milwaukee Bucks and Toronto Raptors carries a sort of clinical air. In the United States, the series is broadcast exclusively on TNT, a network that prides itself on knowing drama when it sees it. But the series has, for the most part, run smoothly; it was still light out in Los Angeles by the time Tuesday’s Game 4 wrapped. The biggest controversy of the series has nothing to do with the players, but with Drake’s hands. The Bucks and Raptors have been the East’s two best teams the entire season, playing in two cities with fan bases starved for widespread acknowledgment. Six points separate the two teams after four games. The narrative through lines aren’t nearly as apparent as they would have been had either team faced a messier foe—both Milwaukee and Toronto would have served as black lights to the nastiness hidden from the public against either Boston or Philadelphia—but that doesn’t mean they aren’t there.
The weight of the series didn’t click for me until there was about three minutes remaining in the second quarter of Game 4. Giannis corralled an uncontested defensive rebound, setting up a most familiar situation: He would take the ball up the floor himself and split two defenders right at the top of the key, positioning the ball high above his head and allowing his impossibly lengthy, gathering stride to guide him past the teeth of the defense for an easy at-rim finish. The endpoint was never in doubt: Antetokounmpo nailed 73.7 percent of his attempts in the restricted area during the regular season, the best mark of the 35 players who took at least 400 shots from that zone. It’s arguably the most recognizably Giannis play there is, fit to be memorialized in a flip-book.
But on that play, he missed. At this point in his career, Antetokounmpo’s biggest strength lies in how he leverages his physical superiority over the rest of the league. He combines battering-ram strength with lithe, elusive strides; he detonates before opponents realize they’re out of position to stop him. Unfortunately, he was being guarded by Kawhi Leonard, who was in lockstep with Giannis’s movements. At this point in his career, Kawhi’s biggest strength on defense is always being in the right position, even if his opponent doesn’t realize it. It was a play that brought me back to the 2014 NBA Finals, when Kawhi had become fully emergent on the world’s stage, defending one of the biggest physical anomalies in league history. After cutting your teeth in the league learning how to lock down LeBron James in the NBA Finals, even a task like containing Antetokounmpo on one leg can seem par for the course.
In the clash between the two best players in the conference, perhaps lived experience becomes the biggest differentiator. Despite being drafted only two years earlier, Leonard has a ring and a Finals MVP trophy that will turn five years old next month; Antetokounmpo won a playoff series for the first time last month. In a way, the next phase of Giannis’s career is beginning now, when expectation has finally met reality, and his own career expands beyond his own season-by-season comparisons and begins connecting with the legacies in the annals of NBA history. Postseason reputations are built on adversity. Antetokounmpo hadn’t found much in his first two playoff series wins. He’s up against it now. For the first time since Game 1 of the Celtics series, Giannis has left traces of doubt. Kendrick Perkins, on FS1, thinks he’s “getting exposed” by Kawhi. Leonard has been the primary defender on Antetokounmpo for 94 possessions thus far in the series (mostly in games 3 and 4, when Raptors coach Nick Nurse made the adjustment to stick Kawhi on Giannis full time). He has held Giannis to 7-for-23 shooting (30.4 percent) from the field in those instances.
Giannis has rightfully been billed as the new LeBron-size existential question for the Eastern Conference to figure out, but what, exactly, does that mean to Kawhi? Leonard is one of less than a handful of present-day stars who have defeated LeBron James in a playoff series—and all the others play for the Golden State Warriors. In Kawhi, Giannis has found his first true postseason rival; one who, through no effort of his own, has given Antetokounmpo’s arc a bit more clarity. To be LeBron, Giannis will have to overcome a player who’s beaten him. All the while, we’ll be waiting for his playoff moment; the Bucks returning to form and winning the next two games convincingly could be enough, but a magisterial Game 7 performance would be legend-making.
That play late in the second wasn’t the only time the two met at the summit in Game 4; it wasn’t even the most consequential. With just under 11 minutes remaining in the third quarter, Leonard posterized Antetokounmpo on a dunk off a cut down the middle of the lane. He landed with all the weight on his right leg, the same leg that underwent extensive rehabilitation in the past two years. He landed, and rigidly attempted to regain his balance; a more flamboyant soul might have tried to play it off as a Ric Flair strut.
Kawhi is not that soul. No, Leonard was in serious pain. And I wonder if the physical toll of this series might finally make sense of (or, at least validate) this micro-era of Leonard’s career, which has seemingly been in limbo over the past two seasons as we wait and see where his whims finally take him in the offseason. Kawhi says he’s fine; Nurse can only parrot that sentiment. Danny Green, his longtime teammate, spoke candidly about the pain Leonard is playing through. Given all that Kawhi has already accomplished in his career, what he’s done in the past two games has essentially resolved the biggest doubt left about him: His capacity to play through it all. But unlike some of the greats of the past who have pushed toward greatness against the backdrop of their own grueling physical punishment, there is hardly any iconography in his laboring. This isn’t the Flu Game; this isn’t Kobe pulling his own Achilles tendon up by the bootstraps; this isn’t Allen Iverson crumpled on the floor after being knocked down hard on an aerial maneuver, only to spring back up a few seconds later. Leonard runs gingerly, but without complaint; his lateral mobility is shot, but he still manages to get to his spots, on both ends of the floor. Unadorned, but unmistakably productive; hobbled, but unassailable. They say you become more like your parents the older you get; after years of being groomed and touted in similar fashion, Kawhi is now officially the closest thing to Tim Duncan we’ve seen in the present day.
It might not have looked like it from the jump, but Leonard and Antetokounmpo serve as perfect foils for the furtherment of their respective arcs moving forward, and their matchup has created a great deal of poetry in a staid series. Dispatching the Bucks in the state he’s in would bolster Leonard’s bona fides as a one-man wrecking crew; cracking Kawhi’s code would be a warning call to the rest of the league in terms of just how quickly the Greek Freak can adapt to his surroundings. Giannis would be the first superstar other than LeBron to challenge the Warriors dynasty at the Finals level. And as for Kawhi, wouldn’t it be fitting if he limped his way into the Finals against the Warriors? It’d be as though he’d turned the hand of time back to 2017, and altered the severity of the Zaza Pachulia foul from one that sent his entire career spiraling into a morass of uncertainty for a year and a half to one that just gave him an inconvenient hitch in his gait. What would Kawhi do if he were given that opportunity? What would Giannis do if given his? The Eastern Conference finals is tied up at 2-2. Play resumes Thursday night. I can’t wait to find out.