When Lebron James joined the Los Angeles Lakers, the party really started in the NBA’s Eastern Conference.
No one needed Jeff Van Gundy to tell them the Cleveland Cavaliers had as much chance of defending their title as the New York Knicks did of winning one.
The Toronto Raptors, Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers pounded their chests figuring this was going to be their year. And you know what, it still might be. But they all need to do something first.
That’s right. It’s time to “Fear the Deer.”
The Milwaukee Bucks have arrived. This we know this because on Monday, finally, they completed a first-round sweep of the Detroit Pistons with the kind of 127-104 win that conveyed sincere effort and purpose.
Led by Giannis Anteokounmpo, the Greek Freak, who scored another 41 points, the Bucks wrapped up their first postseason series win in 18 years.
If you don’t remember the 2000-01 Bucks, think Ray Allen, Glenn Robinson and Sam Cassell with George Karl leading the way on the bench. That was a damn good team.
It won 52 games in the regular season and then beat Orlando and Charlotte in the first two rounds before the 76ers knocked them out in seven in the conference finals.
Since then, the Bucks had made the playoffs only eight times and had been eliminated in the first round each time, including last season when they took the Celtics to seven. Remember the 2013-14 season when the Bucks won only 15 games? Bet you do.
As it turns out, that Celtics series was a preview of coming attractions; a young, tenacious Bucks team, led by one of the game’s new and extremely likeable superstars, was beginning to feel it.
“It’s a good night for Milwaukee,” coach Mike Budenholzer said Monday. “It’s a good night for the Bucks.”
The series wrapped up in Detroit and everything was low key. The Bucks, whose only championship was in 1970-71 when they were led by Lew Alcindor (before the world knew him as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar),were joking about the poker game they’d be playing on the flight back to Milwaukee. This was their way of chilling before they open up their second-round series at home against the Celtics, the fourth seed in the conference
“Hopefully I’ll win a poker game and take some of Giannis’ money,” Eric Bledsoe said, giggling. “We know Bud will come with a great game plan, so we will leave it up to Bud to stress over.”
The Bucks were tremendous in their Pistons series. They won every game by double digits and according to ESPN research wrapped up the second-highest point differential in a series sweep in league history.
They also became the second team in postseason history to win their first four postseason games by at least 15. The joined the 1980 Celtics with Larry Bird, Dave Cowens, Tiny Archibald and Cedric Maxwell. Not a bad group to be compared to.
Both the Bucks and Celtics will have a different look this time around. Boston has Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward back and the Bucks now feature guys like George Hill, Nikola Mirotic and Brook Lopez.
“We’re going to enjoy this win tonight,” Bledsoe said, “and worry about them tomorrow.”
As the Bucks move on, their fortunes will be largely in the hands of Antetokounmpo. Until Game 3 of the series, he had scored at least 15 points in every game since January. Guess he made for that on Monday. Along with the 41 points he had nine rebounds, three assists, four blocks, a steal and just one turnover. He drew 16 fouls and shot 20 free throws.
“He’s so tough,” Lopez said. “He just keeps going, takes hits, doesn’t really complain. He’s super professional. He’s just … I mean, it’s Giannis.”
The Freak is just the fifth player in Bucks history to score 40-plus in a playoff game. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar did it three times. Terry Cummings, Ray Allen and Michael Redd each did it once.
“Organizationally, and for a lot of players that have been here for a significant amount of time, to advance, to have the regular season that we’ve had, to now take care of the first round and move on to the second, I think it’s important that we take a second tonight to enjoy it,” Budenholzer said.
“For the players, they’ll probably take a day and enjoy it. And the coaches will kind of move on and start working on Boston tomorrow. Organizationally, our fans, our city, everybody. ”