Giannis Antetokounmpo has had a remarkable start to the 2017-18 NBA season, leading the league in scoring while also averaging nearly 10 rebounds, five assists and three combined blocks and steals per game. The Greek Freak’s combination of ruthless efficiency, incredible versatility and penchant for producing jaw-dropping feats has even led some to wonder whether, at the tender age of 22, he’s already the NBA’s best player.
The guy who most folks agree currently holds that mantle had something to say about that on Tuesday night. And, as has too infrequently been the case in this young season, he also had a little help from his friends.
One night after sending Basketball Twitter into sleuth mode yet again — on which he doubled back on Tuesday, claiming the Arthur’s Fist meme was an extension of his “mood forever,” and that he used it simply because he likes “Arthur” — LeBron James let his game do the talking. The four-time NBA Most Valuable Player poured in 30 points on 10-for-20 shooting to go with nine assists, eight rebounds, three steals and only one turnover in 37 minutes of work, repeatedly muscling his way through the Milwaukee Bucks’ defense to help propel the Cleveland Cavaliers to a 124-119 win.
The Cavs were able to get back on the right side of the ledger after a disappointing loss to the lowly Atlanta Hawks on Sunday, but the dismal defense that entered Tuesday ranked dead last in the NBA in points allowed per possession still struggled mightily to contain Antetokounmpo. (Not that they’re alone on that front this season.) The Bucks’ ascendant superstar scored a game-high 40 points on blistering 16-for-21 shooting, adding nine rebounds, four blocks and three assists in 40 minutes of work before fouling out with 18 seconds left in the fourth quarter.
The Cavs withstood Giannis’ charge because — for one night, at least — LeBron had plenty of help.
After leaving Sunday’s loss to Atlanta in the third quarter due to an illness that landed him in the hospital, Kevin Love looked none the worse for wear on Tuesday, turning in his best game of the young season. The All-Star big man scored a season- and team-high 32 points despite not taking a single 3-pointer, busting up the Bucks inside on his way to 16 rebounds (eight on the offensive glass) and a 14-for-16 mark at the charity stripe. (For one night, it wasn’t hard to feel the absence of Greg Monroe in the middle for the Bucks.)
Joining James and Love among the ranks of offensive contributors, at long last: J.R. Smith, who sloughed off his dreadful start to the new year long enough to get red hot from deep.
Entreated by head coach Tyronn Lue to get back to gunslinging — seems odd that anyone would need to remind J.R. of that, but a cold start to the season can make even the most unabashed turn a little bashful — Smith came out firing, met with success, and kept going, banging in five of his seven 3-point tries en route to 20 much-needed points. Eight of those came in a lights-out first quarter that saw the Cavs drill the Bucks for 39 points on 68.8 percent shooting, with James, Love and Smith punishing Milwaukee’s defenders time and again, answering the prayers, and the snark, of a reserve corps led by Dwyane Wade.
True to form, though, the Cavs coughed up that early advantage, falling behind late in the second quarter on a 3-pointer by Bucks guard Malcolm Brogdon, who’d finish with 22 points, six assists and five rebounds. The two teams played in a phone booth for the entire third quarter, with neither side able to get more than two possessions of separation.
Cleveland pushed ahead midway through the fourth, riding runners and floaters from Smith, Wade and Iman Shumpert to a double-digit lead midway through the final frame. Milwaukee drew within four on a short half-hook by center John Henson with 1:37 to go, and within five with 44 ticks left on a long-bomb 3-pointer by sideman Khris Middleton (20 points, 11 assists, seven rebounds, three steals in a stellar floor game). Thanks to some clutch free throws from James and Smith, though, the Cavs were able to keep the Bucks at bay, and improve to 5-6 on the year.
The problems that have plagued both teams through the season’s opening weeks, despite the tremendous starts by their respective MVP-caliber forwards, remain glaring. Even in victory, the Cavs allowed the Bucks to shoot 56.6 percent from the floor and knock in 13 3-pointers in 30 tries; Cleveland remains in the basement, ranked 30th in the NBA in defensive efficiency.
The Bucks, however, aren’t all that far above them, sitting 28th, allowing 109.5 points per 100 possessions on the season. For Milwaukee to lose a game where the offense produced like that — where Giannis had a pair of 20-plus-point-scoring partners — says volumes about where the Bucks’ defense is at right now, and helps explain why many fans and observers are wondering whether it’s time for Kidd to dial back the aggressiveness on a scheme that seems to leave more and more open looks on the weak side every night:
Bucks allow a season-low 18 3FGA (yay!) and still manage to give up a season-worst 128.1 DRTG. Year 4 of Kidd era and defensive talent level has never been higher…and results never worse.
— Frank (@fmaddenNBA) November 8, 2017
Whether the issues ailing both clubs will be fully remedied by better attention to detail and through the addition of new and healthy bodies — the eventual debut of Isaiah Thomas and return of Tristan Thompson in Cleveland, the arrival of new trade acquisition Eric Bledsoe and the return of Jabari Parker in Milwaukee — remain to be seen. However things line up, though, put me down for seven games of this come springtime. More LeBron vs. Giannis sounds like an awfully fun way to spend a couple of weeks in April or May.
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