Giannis Is Coming, But LeBron Showed Friday He Isn’t Ready To Cede His Crown Just Yet
MILWAUKEE — The Eastern Conference has been the domain of LeBron James for the better part of a decade. Whether in Cleveland or Miami, James has reached the NBA Finals in each of the last seven seasons, and in that time there have been contenders that have come and gone and stars that have looked to usurp his crown. After the exodus of stars like Paul George (once James’ top competitor in the East), Jimmy Butler, and Carmelo Anthony to the Western Conference this summer, James found himself with only one player that appeared ready to potentially challenge him.
Giannis Antetokounmpo made the proverbial leap last year, tapping into his seemingly endless potential to become an All-Star and lead the Bucks to a playoff appearance. The 22-year-old from Greece entered the league with the promise of greatness, with the understanding that it would take some incredible development to get there from his raw talents. Over the first three years of his career, Antetokounmpo made the necessary strides, and after averaging 22.9 points, 8.8 rebounds, and 5.4 assists per game a year ago, there were many that considered the Bucks’ young star as a legitimate candidate to break through into the MVP conversation in 2017-18.
Antetokounmpo made his presence known in the Bucks’ season opener, dropping 37 points and 13 rebounds on the Celtics in a win to set up a showdown with LeBron in Milwaukee. It was hardly the first time Giannis and LeBron met on the court, but this matchup carried more anticipation as it was the first time Antetokounmpo was going into the head-to-head matchup as an established star considered to be a potential peer of James, rather than a player with the potential to get to that point.
The duel didn’t produce a thrilling finish to the game, with the Cavs running away in a 116-97 win, but the two stars certainly lived up to their billing. Antetokounmpo backed up his opening night performance with 34 points, eight rebounds, eight assists, and three steals, doing a little bit of everything in what turned out to be a futile effort to keep the Bucks in contact with the Cavs. His eight assists were made even more impressive considering the rest of the Bucks shot 38.3 percent from the field, while he went 15-of-22 (68.2 percent).
Watching Antetokounmpo play now compared to where he was when he started his career is startling. His physical transformation is obvious, as the once scrawny kid now has the appearance of a Greek god to go along with his otherworldly talents. He’s also learned how to maximize his incredible ability to cover ground with his long strides while also playing under control. Giannis, like so many young players, had to learn to change pace rather than playing all out all the time, and he’s become a master of it.
In the second quarter, Antetkounmpo drew Jae Crowder in a one-on-one situation and drove to the rim. As Crowder looked to cut off his angle, Giannis gave him a hesitation and a shake like he was headed to an inside spin move — where LeBron was waiting — before going back to the baseline. That hesitation gave him the chance to get inside Crowder’s shoulder and then he used that newfound strength to bump Crowder off and throw down a dunk.