Tuesday’s showdown between the reigning champs and the Milwaukee Bucks gave us a taste of what’s to come.
If you’ve been in hibernation for the past decade, LeBron James has had a death grip over the Eastern Conference for some time now. James has made it to six consecutive Finals and looks poised for a few more Finals runs.
The question is now how much longer will this streak last, and who will be the team to defeat him. While it may not be for awhile, the Milwaukee Bucks showed why they may be the team Tuesday night.
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Everything with the Bucks starts with Giannis Antetokounmpo. How the team plays is molded in his freakishly large hands. Much like James in Cleveland, Antetokounmpo runs his team in a point forward role.
He impacts the game in so many ways, which was captured in his absurd stat line Tuesday night. The man known as the Greek Freek recorded 34 points, 12 rebounds, five assists, five steals and two blocks.
The performance was made even more impressive by the way he attacked James, asserting his will and dominating play.
While James may have been in “chill mode,” it was clear some of that was inspired by the fact it would take more than a regular season effort to try and contain Giannis. The required effort seemed more than he was interested in partaking in.
But the promise of the Bucks goes beyond their lanky star.
Jabari Parker also stood out in a supplementary scoring role on Tuesday. While he didn’t have the most efficient night, finishing with 18 points on 7-of-17 shooting, his buckets came at important times and helped put the game away.
The 118-101 win is made even more impressive when you consider the Bucks were without Khris Middleton. While Antetokounmpo is the face of the franchise, most would probably consider Middleton their best player last season.
Often overlooked when discussing the best shooting guards in the league, Middleton has the ability to dominate a game with a modest usage rate.
Last season Middleton averaged 18.2 points per game and provided 39.6 percent shooting from deep.
At 6-foot-8, Middleton is longer than most shooting guards and, when paired with the length of Antetokounmpo, can have a devastating impact on the perimeter attack of the opposition.
The Cavaliers simply weren’t prepared for the length of the Bucks. The team cruised to an early lead, but once the Bucks adjusted they began to swarm on each of the Cavs’ mistakes.
Lazy passes were converted into transition opportunities, where the Bucks held a 20-14 edge for the game. But where the Bucks really forced the issue was points in the paint.
To this point in the season, no team has tested the Cavaliers interior defense like the Bucks. Milwaukee showed a relentless dedication to force the issue and not settle for pull-up jumpers. By the end of the night, Milwaukee outscored the Cavs 68-34 in points in the paint.
While it was not the typical defensive effort from the Cavs, the Bucks refused to let the Cavs get away with anything less than their best effort. When the Cavs didn’t respond, the rout was on.
There’s still work to do for Milwaukee. The theory of Matthew Dellavedova at the point seemed like it would work, but he has been ineffective to this point. They will also need to make a decision with the offensive-minded Greg Monroe.
Monroe is a talented scorer, but doesn’t fit in with the fast-paced, defensive-minded identity of the Bucks. While he isn’t a fit for every team, he’s still a tremendously talented player that should yield a decent return.
The trio of Antetokounmpo, Parker and Middleton gives the Bucks a strong core. They have nice rotation players in John Henson and Miles Plumlee, as well as an intriguing rookie in Thon Maker.
If they can solidify both their point guard and center positions through internal growth, trade or free agency, this team could become a legitimate force.
Unlike the Boston Celtics, who are seeking players to challenge Cleveland via trade, the Bucks have the foundation of a nightmare matchup in place. We are seeing the foundation of what may be a great rivalry in the future.