When LeBron James moved to the Los Angeles Lakers this offseason, he created a vacuum of power in the Eastern Conference. James had led his teams to the NBA Finals out of the East for eight consecutive years — four with Miami, and then four with Cleveland. His departure meant that teams like the Toronto Raptors and the Boston Celtics, who had each been bounced by James multiple times during his Eastern reign of terror, finally had a chance to break through.
One team that James never faced in the Eastern Conference playoffs was the Milwaukee Bucks, led by MVP favorite Giannis Antetokounmpo. As a result, Antetokounmpo didn’t really think it was a big deal that James wasn’t around when the season started, but his tune has changed.
Before Game 2 of the Eastern Conference Finals against the Raptors, Antetokounmpo told ESPN:
“I didn’t see it as open. 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.”
Even though Antetokounmpo hasn’t had to face LeBron James in the playoffs, that doesn’t mean other members of his team aren’t acutely familiar with the pain of losing to the King.
Head coach Mike Budenholzer, who coached the Atlanta Hawks from 2013-2018, was swept unceremoniously by James’ Cavaliers two consecutive seasons, one in which the Hawks had homecourt advantage. As a result, Budenholzer somewhat unfairly earned a reputation for being unable to make adjustments in the postseason, even when there’s no real adjustment to make when DeMarre Carroll has to guard LeBron.
Milwaukee center Brook Lopez lost to James and the Miami Heat in 2014, while Ersan Ilyasova was swept by the Heat in 2013. George Hill also lost to James three straight years in the playoffs while with the Indiana Pacers, and didn’t even get to enjoy being James’ teammate last year after bricking a free throw that could have given the Cavaliers a Game 1 victory in the NBA Finals.
Suffice it to say that even though Antetokounmpo is personally unfamiliar with Playoff LeBron, his teammates have helped him appreciate his fellow All-Star captain’s absence, all while Giannis becomes a similarly destructive force in the postseason.
While Milwaukee is enjoying clear passage to the finals, what no one expected was that the path to the Western Conference Finals would also be LeBron-free this season. The Lakers are working towards fixing that next year and can only hope that the Los Angeles edition of Playoff LeBron is equally formidable in 2020.