The NBA’s Eastern Conference has been dominated by LeBron James for years. The Cleveland Cavaliers superstar has represented the East in the NBA Finals the last seven seasons, and he’s not slowing down. Currently, James is averaging 27.8 points, 8.5 rebounds, and 9.3 assists per game for the Cavaliers. After figuring things out with their new-look roster, the Cavs have suddenly won 18 of their last 20 games, and have leaped into the second seed in the Eastern Conference. Cleveland had their work cut out for them Tuesday night against Giannis Antetokounmpo and the upstart Milwaukee Bucks, though, as they took a narrow defeat. Nonetheless, it was one of the best games of the young NBA season, and it showed a glimpse of how amazing a potential Cleveland-Milwaukee playoff matchup could be down the road.
Cleveland was left for dead, as they were down by 11 at halftime, and to make matters worse, trailed by 20 points with 10:49 to go, according to Cleveland.com‘s Joe Vardon. They were down, but it turned out, even with LeBron on the sideline, they were far from out. With contributions from key bench players, especially Jeff Green and Dwyane Wade, the Cavs got right back in it with a 24-2 run, as per Vardon. Despite James eventually knocking in big three balls down the stretch (and six total in the game), the Bucks would go on to pull out a W behind turnovers forced by Antetokounmpo and company.
Malcolm Brogdon and Eric Bledsoe had their way with shot-making from pull-ups and in transition, which killed Cleveland for much of the game. The two guards combined for 42 points and put in six threes, according to ESPN. It was clear Bledsoe’s new addition to this matchup is especially compelling, and could make for an interesting narrative come the postseason with the eventual arrival of Isaiah Thomas. Regardless, a playoff series between perhaps the East’s two best players would always prove to be the primary focal point.
James and Antetokounmpo are two of the NBA’s brightest stars, as both are in the conversation for the best athletes in the league. Like LeBron, Giannis can do so many things on a basketball court. The Bucks’ “Greek Freak” is averaging 29.8 points, 10.5 rebounds, and 4.5 assists per game. Another way he’s similar to James is that Antetokounmpo is so efficient. According to the NBA website, James leads the league in player efficiency rating, with the Bucks’ rising star a close second.
Both have made their presence against each other this year, too, as James is putting up 31.0 points, 8.0 assists, and 2.3 steals against the Bucks, as per the NBA website. Antetokounmpo has been nothing short of spectacular himself against the Cavaliers, with averages of 33.7 points, 10.3 rebounds, and 6.3 assists. He’s also shooting 68.4 percent, his highest field goal percentage versus any opponent this season, as per the NBA website. In key stretches, both have had their fair share of one-on-ones, and that would likely be more often in the playoffs.
That being said, there’s more than meets the eye in a potential Cavaliers-Bucks playoff series than just the King and the Greek Freak. Kevin Love has been playing very well this season for Cleveland, and held down much of the rebounding for the Cavs with Tristan Thompson hurt. Thompson played a big part in Cleveland’s fourth quarter comeback, though, despite Love having 21 points and five threes. It remains to be seen whether or not Thompson will remain a Cavalier for the long haul, but his rebounding acumen and interior defense could prove to be invaluable against the paint-oriented offense of one of the longest teams in the Association, Milwaukee.
Bucks big man John Henson was able to get a number of high-percentage shots with the Cavs interior defensive rotations being out of sync. One would think Milwaukee would keep attacking the paint with drive-and-kick sets utilizing Brogdon, Khris Middleton, and even rotational point guard Matthew Dellavedova against Cleveland and defensive liability Isaiah Thomas as the season progresses.
Moreover, Cleveland’s versatile bench, highlighted by the playmaking of Wade, hard-driving of Green in transition, and sharpshooting of Korver, could prove to be tough to handle for Milwaukee. Tony Snell and Thon Maker will need to be steady contributors on both ends for the Bucks. Either way, a matchup between the East’s current power and one of its rising teams would be awesome for the league and its fans. It will be intriguing to see how the Eastern Conference takes shape as the season progresses.