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  • Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks head into the All-Star break at a 61-win pace, and look like the favorites in the Eastern Conference.
By Michael Shapiro
February 13, 2019

Is there anything else you could ask from Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks heading into the All-Star break? Milwaukee is at a 61-win pace following Wednesday’s 106-97 win over Indiana, 1.5 games ahead of Toronto for the top seed in the Eastern Conference. Mike Budenholzer's squad ranks fourth in offensive rating and first in defensive rating. Giannis entered Wednesday night averaging 27.1 points and 12.6 rebounds per game, then closed his pre-All-Star run with a 33-point, 19-rebound triple-double against the Pacers. The Bucks enter the break with a top-two MVP candidate and the East’s best record. Life is good at the Fiserv Forum.

It’s fair to hit the brakes on Milwaukee, especially in relation to a potential Finals appearance. The Raptors cruised to the one seed with 59 wins last year. The Budenholzer-coached Hawks’ notched 60 wins before LeBron James swept them in 2015. And even with James now out West, the Sixers and Celtics are viewed by many as conference favorites, while Toronto lurks with Kawhi Leonard and the emerging Pascal Siakam. Declaring Milwaukee the prohibitive favorite is premature, though the doubt continues to fade as Antetokounmpo dunks all over the NBA.

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There’s also the personal stakes to consider for Antetokounmpo. He’s currently embroiled in an increasingly-competitive MVP race, with 25 games left to steal the crown from James Harden. The Beard’s offensive explosion through December and January seemed to steer the conversation toward a repeat winner. And for good reason. Harden averaged 41.6 points per game between Dec. 8 and Jan. 29, a 26-game stretch in which the Rockets went 18-8. Twenty six of those games came without Chris Paul. February, though, has brought a new twist. Houston is 4–4 in its last eight, while Milwaukee has won eight-straight with Antetokounmpo in the lineup. Harden is still the likely favorite (and Paul George has a small group of acolytes), but Antetokounmpo has placed himself in position to bring Milwaukee its first MVP since 1974.

Giannis is gunning for the award, but the MVP would be a welcome sacrifice in exchange for a championship. So do the Bucks have what it takes to follow LeBron as the king of the East? The outline of an East champion is there. Antetokounmpo has been the best player in his conference. Joe Prunty has been replaced by Budenholzer, a top Coach of the Year candidate. The Bucks are letting it fly from deep, with Brook Lopez banging home a preposterous 138 threes. Khris Middleton is flying toward a summer payday, and Eric Bledsoe was considered by some an All-Star snub. Milwaukee is on a 61-pace for a reason.

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We could look back in May with Golden State breezing past Toronto, or holding off Boston and Kyrie Irving. Embiid in Golden State would be a treat. Who knows if the Warriors will be tested? The Bucks could be another Eastern Conference cautionary tale, a one-seed dethroned sooner than expected. But allow yourself to indulge in the Bucks hype as we approach All-Star weekend. Giannis is ascending at a rapid pace, and the Bucks could very well head to Oracle Arena in early June.

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