As great as he is, even Giannis Antetokounmpo didn’t anticipate his Milwaukee Bucks being in position to win the Eastern Conference.
LeBron James dominated the conference for so long, it’s been hard to picture an Eastern Conference winner without him.
When James traveled west to the Los Angeles Lakers, it required a shift in thought for Eastern Conference contenders.
Giannis didn’t picture wide open East
It’s a mindset Antetokounmpo told ESPN on Thursday he wasn’t quite ready for.
"I didn't see it as open," Antetokounmpo said of the Eastern Conference. "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."
Bucks arrived ahead of schedule
Antetokounmpo has long been heralded as one of the bright lights of the NBA’s future. But at just 24 years old, not many expected this to be the year that he led his team into contention. The Bucks were the No. 7 seed in the East last year and got bounced in the first round by the Boston Celtics.
When James went West, it was assumed that the Celtics, Raptors and Philadelphia 76ers would compete to fill the void he left behind.
But the Bucks arrived ahead of schedule. And now they have a 1-0 lead over the Raptors in the Eastern Conference finals.
It just so happens that their ascendance coincided with the end of the James era. It’s both a product of good timing and a testament to how much Milwaukee has advanced in just one season.
Giannis seizing chance to inherit the throne
It also lines Antetokounmpo up with a chance to inherit the throne amid a group of strong contenders that include his Eastern Conference finals foe Kawhi Leonard and Joel Embiid of the Philadelphia 76ers.
While Antetokounmpo and the Bucks have earned their place in the East, they’re quick to acknowledge that James being gone changes the game.
“Any time you don't have to go through LeBron James is going to help your odds," Bucks guard Pat Connaughton told ESPN.
This is true.
But it should be of no slight to the Bucks if they are able to make it out of a highly competitive Eastern Conference to contend for an NBA title.
James or no James, the rise of the Bucks is real. There will be no asterisks placed by their names in the NBA record books.
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