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Bucks, Raptors look like favorites to emerge from Eastern Conference

If we’re lucky, we’ll get to see the Bucks and Raptors play seven times in May to determine who wins the Eastern Conference.

On Thursday, we got to see the squads battle for the top seed in the conference in a 105-92 Milwaukee win in Toronto.

The first quarter was even. It was the fourth contest between the teams this season, and neither led by more than five points during those opening 12 minutes.

Giannis Antetokounmpo had four points in the frame and Kawhi Leonard had only two. This game was going to be about way more than each team’s MVP candidate. This was going to be about role players and the two coaches in their first years with their respective team just as much as the two All-Star starters who took the floor.

The Bucks struck first in the second quarter.

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Mike Budenholzer’s effort to turn this team into an elite three-point shooting bunch paid off as they connected on seven of their 11 looks from deep to win the quarter by 12 points.

It put the pressure on Toronto going into the second half and gave the Bucks a sense they could go for a knockout on the road.

Then came the third quarter runs.

The Bucks tried to end things early as they used their length to keep the Raptors’ offense off balance and on edge by forcing turnovers and getting on the fast break.

The Bucks had seven steals in the quarter and used a 22-7 run early to build a 24-point advantage.

It looked like it was going to get ugly and the Bucks were going to cruise to an important victory. Not only is it a sweep of the Raptors in Toronto for the season (2-0), but it locks up the season series and a potential tiebreak situation as they moved to 3-1 against the team with the second-best record in the East.

Then Toronto’s 22-9 run came.

Pascal Siakam helped lead a charge to get the home crowd rejuvenated as the Raptors showed just what they were made of, knocking down timely threes and attacking the rim at will to get back in the game.

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Still trailing by double digits at the start of the fourth, Siakim ripped off five quick points and forced a Bucks timeout as the lead was now at just six.

It looked as if Toronto was going to find a way to flip everything. Antetokounmpo was on the bench, having just picked up his fifth foul, and the Raptors rallied on everybody but their two All-Stars (Leonard and Kyle Lowry) to lead the comeback.

Then the Bucks showed why they are at the top of the conference and hold the NBA’s best record.

From Khris Middleton to Eric Bledsoe to Malcolm Brogdon to Brook Lopez to D.J. Wilson, Milwaukee had answers for the home team’s charge. The Raptors never got closer than six and the Bucks kept them at least an arm’s length away throughout a low-scoring fourth quarter.

Milwaukee improved to 15-9 on the road for the season. Only the Warriors have a better record (18-8).

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Even with no playoff success among their top players, the Bucks have placed themselves at the top of the East hierarchy. They are 6-3 against the other top five teams in the East while the Raptors dropped to 6-7 against those same teams.

For right now, the Bucks are in charge out East. But the Raptors will most definitely make a run to claim that crown.

But no matter what happens, we’ll be the real winners in the end.

ViaSportsillustrated