Just seconds after Giannis Antetokounmpo was introduced at home for the first time in the 2017-18 season, and with the last few sparks still raining down from the pregame pyrotechnic show, the crowd at the Bradley Center on Friday night chanted in unison: M-V-P! M-V-P! M-V-P!
That, whether he likes it or not, has become the benchmark for the Antetokounmpo this season. Over the summer, Kobe Bryant the award, and just a few weeks ago Kevin Durant declared that he could become the the game.
Against LeBron James and the visiting Cleveland Cavaliers, the Greek Freak showed he was up to the challenge. Antetokounmpo was all over the place right from the opening tip, registering five points, two rebounds, and an assist in the first couple of minutes. When the final buzzer sounded, he had an astounding line of 34 points (on a highly efficient 15-of-22 from the field), eight rebounds, eight assists, and three steals. For much of the night, he was the best player on the floor.
Following the game, Cavs coach Tyronn Lue had nothing but praise for the All-Star forward, saying, “The thing about Giannis, he never settles. You can back up, he’s still gonna continue to attack. If you get up on him, he’s gonna drive by you. When he gets in the paint, he’s stronger than people give him credit for. He moves guys out of the way, and he’s a great finisher around the basket. I thought we did a good job on him, and you look up he still had 34.”
But for as impressive as Antetokounmpo was, when the game was on the line, James and the Cavs asserted their dominance and proved once again that they sit on the Eastern Conference throne.
Antetokounmpo and the Bucks figure to be strong challengers, and soon. Perhaps even this season. With the injury to Gordon Hayward damaging the Boston Celtics‘ hopes of going deep in the playoffs, the Bucks could be the team to step up and take their place. But for now, the Eastern Conference belongs to the Cavaliers.
Nothing emphasized that more than one possession midway through the fourth quarter. Taking an outlet pass, Antetokounmpo surged into the open floor ahead of him. Fittingly, only one player was back for the Cavs: James. Unsurprisingly, the young Buck went straight at The King, and appeared for a second to have him beat, but LeBron rose to swat the ball forcefully off the glass. It wasn’t the chase-down block he’s famous for, but the effect was just the same.
A few seconds later, James strolled up to the 3-point line, buried a shot that put the Cavs up 101-86, and sealed the game. Six minutes and 20 seconds later, it was officially over, the Cavs winning 116-97 behind 24 points, eight assists, and five rebounds from LeBron.
“It’s a reminder,” Antetokounmpo said about the loss, that the Cavs are still the best team in the East. “We’re getting there, we’re getting there. We’re improving on a daily basis. But we gotta take a lotta steps forward to achieve our goals. We still gotta keep working hard.”
Despite losing Friday night, going up against the Celtics and the Cavs in the first two games was a good way to start the season, Antetokounmpo believes. “It’s really good,” he said, about the experience. “We gotta know where we are. For my opinion, Cavs are one of the best teams in the East… are the best team in the East. We lost, so we gotta improve. It’s simple. Next time we play them, hopefully we can be better and get it done. Cause that’s our goal.”
One day they’ll reach that goal, and one day too Antetokounmpo will be MVP. But not now. As he put it simply: “I’m just Giannis and trying to do whatever it takes to get the team to win.”