In LeBron James’ first season with the Los Angeles Lakers, Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks have taken the Eastern Conference by storm, winning 60 games and currently holding a 1-0 series lead over the Toronto Raptors in the Eastern Conference Finals.
When James first left for Los Angeles, it immediately meant the Eastern Conference would have a new representative in the NBA Finals for the first time since 2010.
James made the Finals for eight straight years out of the Eastern Conference from 2011-2014 with the Miami Heat and 2015-2018 with the Cleveland Cavaliers. It was because of this that many people felt James wouldn’t leave the conference.
When James actually did, top-level teams in the Eastern Conference rejoiced. Indiana Pacers head coach Nate McMillan said that James going West gave ‘renewed optimism’ to the East.
However, Antetokounmpo didn’t see it that way until just recently when it became clear the Bucks would have a legitimate shot at reaching the 2019 NBA Finals, according to Malika Andrews of ESPN:
“I didn’t see it as open,” Antetokounmpo said Thursday. “But now that I look back and see how everything went, it’s definitely open, not having LeBron in the East and not trying to go through him.”
Antetokounmpo is obviously taking advantage of a James-less East, something he didn’t believe was possible at the beginning of the 2018-19 NBA season.
James and Antetokounmpo — who were the 2019 NBA All-Star Game captains — have developed a strong relationship which seemed to grow when the former left for the Lakers, which surprised the latter. The 24-year-old expressed this sentiment earlier in the season:
“I didn’t expect myself to be getting that close and tight with LeBron James because he’s (expletive) LeBron, (expletive) LeBron James, man,” Antetokounmpo said. “Coming into the league, I never saw myself as one of the best players in the league and being that LeBron type of player. That’s the truth. I could say, ‘Yes, I always thought I could be like LeBron James or better or whatever,’ but that’s not the truth.”
It seems that with the Bucks on their way to winning the Eastern Conference, the torch has officially been passed from James to Antetokounmpo. Now, it’s up to him to finish the job and perhaps be a strong challenger to the Golden State Warriors, who currently sit 2-0 in the Western Conference Finals against the Portland Trail Blazers — despite not having Kevin Durant (straight right calf).