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  • The Cavs foiled a banner day for the Bucks, but Giannis and company are getting closer than you think.
By Jeremy Woo
November 07, 2017

A common expression you’ll hear is that the NBA is a copycat league. The best teams generate the trends that win, and everyone else follows suit. In much the same way, it’s also a league that has always been shaped by its best player. The NBA has existed in LeBron James’s image ever since he left for Miami, with lineups skewing smaller and faster, oversized playmakers returning to prominence, and superstars dictating where and for whom they play each summer. The latest shift has seen the league’s most talented bigs step out as legitimate perimeter threats. Along that particular vein, when it comes to the next top dog, Giannis Antetokounmpo has begun to broach the conversation.

The two met Tuesday night in Cleveland in a starry matchup that went down amid coincidence. Earlier in the day, Antetokounmpo announced a new, presumably massive shoe contract with Nike, an endorser synonymous with James (perhaps the timing wasn’t a coincidence at all). Even earlier in the morning, the Bucks acquired a worthy sidekick in Eric Bledsoe—a move indicative of a readiness to compete, with a new arena on the horizon and a blossoming superstar in hand. The timing of the Bucks and Cavs’ meeting was, accordingly, tough to avoid.

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The matchup was a welcome main course on a day full of Bucks-centric news, with the Cavs spoiling the party with 124–119 win. Cleveland got a much-needed win and season-highs in points from Kevin Love (32) and J.R. Smith (20), with LeBron casually scraping at another triple-double with 29 points, nine assists and seven rebounds. The outcome was indicative of a complete Cavs offensive showing. If you’d watched with no scoreboard, the big takeaway would still have been Giannis, stealing the thunder as he tends to do.

That’s the 2017 we live in, one where the Greek Freak bends the Matrix to his will and leaves highlights embedded in brains, win or lose. He fouled out late and turned it over eight times, but Antetokounmpo’s 40-point, nine-rebound, four-block effort going head-to-head with James was replete with his usual sort of head-spinning moments. The lasting image was this, which made LeBron look rather mortal and gets more absurd with each replay.

Well, there were also moments like this one.

But what’s that compared to this?

Anyway, you get the point. No two players captivate the eye or the mind with their athletic capabilities quite like this duo, and when they’re both on the court, it’s a treat. Both teams mixed and matched defenders all night, but there were some mano-a-mano moments to whet the palate. 

Antetokounmpo’s overwhelming size and length when draped on the 6’8” James is visceral and bizarre, and his ability to leverage those gifts within the flow of a game calls back to a younger LeBron, still gaining control of his powers. Still just 22 years old, Antetokounmpo has made his game truly positionless, operating as a ball-handler, shot-creator and off-ball cutter at nearly 7’0”, defending both bigs and wings and popping up for a block or dunk when you least expect it. These feats are particularly difficult to place within the framework of guard-forward-center when they all come from the same player. In that sense, there are shades of James to be found in Giannis’s rapid evolution.

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Tuesday marked a small milestone for LeBron, who has now played the exact same number of regular-season games as Michael Jordan (1072). If anything, it underscored James’ learned, casual dominance all night and supreme understanding of picking spots and cultivating looks. Even with Giannis glued to him in the mid-post, James’ well-developed, guileful game was a welcome counter-punch. He generated space with fakes, coaxed his counterpart off the floor and per usual relied on a bag of effective moves when it mattered. When it comes to oohs and aahs, nothing James can do these days quite matches the length and quickness of Antetokounmpo’s strides, but the consistency of his craft is easier to appreciate when he’s no longer the most physically unfair being on the basketball court.

The Cavs and Bucks have both started slow, and remain below the .500 mark. The presence of both stars should diminish any levels of panic. Bledsoe is on the way, Cleveland will get healthy reinforcements over the next few months, and if we’re lucky we might get a playoff meeting between peaking teams. All things considered, Tuesday’s meeting seemed more about the future than the result. And hey…no complaints there.

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