MILWAUKEE -- The season is only two weeks old. Champions and MVPs are crowned when leaves are blooming, not when they’re falling. And the notion that anything in October means much in the Eastern Conference has been a quaint one for, oh, about eight years now.
But LeBron James vacated the East, there’s an air of openness to the conference now and the oh-so-early clash between the NBA’s two remaining unbeaten teams Monday night carries a bit of buzz.
It’s the Toronto Raptors vs. the Milwaukee Bucks in the latter’s new Fiserv Forum tonight (8 ET, NBA League Pass). As much as folks in Boston or Philadelphia might want you to believe otherwise, this isn’t merely a JV game. It’s early, sure, but it’s a clash that could get dusted off and referred to prominently when the East finals begin in May.
Only one of the two will wake up Tuesday with an unblemished record, reason enough to pay attention. Seven games -- they’re both 6-0 now -- out of 82 is equivalent to a 2.25 mile marker in a marathon. And neither has spent much time punching in its proper weight class; the Raptors’ and Bucks’ opponents sport a combined 27-47 record to this point.
Still, a dozen of those defeats have come against the East aspirants who will meet for the first of four times, with a rematch in Toronto Dec. 9 and two more in January.
Toronto, of course, has reached these heights before. It has finished first (four times) or second (once) in the Atlantic Division for five straight seasons and was No. 1 overall in the East last season. The Raptors have a new coach, but it’s a fellow -- Nick Nurse -- who was on the staff last season when they revamped their offense. They swapped out one all-NBA player, DeMar DeRozan, for another in Kawhi Leonard. (Leonard will miss tonight's game for rest reasons.)
Milwaukee? Not so much. The Bucks cracked .500 the past two seasons but are 60 games under .500 over the last five seasons. Last season was a wasted year instead of the big, bold step forward the franchise craved.
It is the team with a new coach and staff, Mike Budenholzer bringing an unabashed commitment to the 3-point game from Atlanta. It has several new faces to aid in that transformation, including Ersan Ilyasova, Brook Lopez and rookie Donte DiVincenzo. Returnees such as Khris Middleton and even John Henson are shooting with the arc in mind, too.
Then there’s Giannis Antetokounmpo, whose fast start and burgeoning game should render the flashy new arena as one of Milwaukee’s subplots, not needed for any honeymoon effect. (Unfortunately, he also will miss this game as he was placed in the NBA's concussion protocol Monday.)
“New arena, new practice facility, new coach,” Antetokounmpo said after an opening-week victory over Indiana. “This is the right time to be a Buck.”
It’s a pretty swell time to be a “Greek Freak” freak, too. Antetokounmpo’s energized start -- he’s averaging 25 points, 14.2 rebounds and 5.7 assists per game -- is most notable because he’s doing it in 30.7 minutes per game. The Bucks needed only a strong initial push against the fractured Timberwolves in Minneapolis Friday, then had to settle Saturday for just 19:23 of Giannis as he dealt with the reverberations of an Aaron Gordon elbow in the first quarter against Orlando. Milwaukee won the games by 30 and 22 points, respectively.
Per 36 minutes, Antetokounmpo’s numbers are career bests -- 29.3 ppg, 16.6 rpg, 6.7 apg and two bpg -- and his usage rate (36.7 percent) tops the league. (James Harden’s was 36.1 when he won Kia MVP honors last season.)
Antetokounmpo leads the league with 30 turnovers and he is 1-for-16 himself on 3-point attempts. But he’s not backing off on the latter, having worked on his long-distance shooting all summer, and he likely will clean up the former as he masters the spots where Milwaukee’s shooters like to launch their own.
If Antetokounmpo with reliable 3-point accuracy is the rest of the NBA’s greatest nightmare, having him surrounded with four other deep threats is a close second.
The team’s defensive improvement under Budenholzer has been profound -- from a 109.1 rating last year (18th in NBA) to today’s 97.8 (2nd in NBA). But the stretching of Milwaukee’s offense has been gaudier. Last season, the Bucks took 29.7 percent of their shots from behind the arc. So far this season? They’ve launched 43.6 percent from back there, second only to Houston’s 44.6 percent. They’re on pace to shoot 3,266 3-pointers, a year-over-year increase of 61.3 percent.
They let fly with 47 of them against the Pacers and outscored their guests by 33 points on 3-pointers. They’ve made 90 so far to the other guys’ 63. And the greatest beneficiary of the opened offense has been Antetokounmpo, the man who invades the paint either to attack at the rim himself or to wheel and deal, kicking out to one of multiple options.
“One man can’t stop him all by himself,” said Indiana’s Victor Oladipo. “We need to load to him. … Once he finds his rhythm he starts finding guys.”
Said Pacers reserve Doug McDermott: “It’s a five-man job. ... We weren’t plugging the gaps and that’s what you have to do against him. You have to pick your poison a bit though, because they have a lot of shooters now.”
Milwaukee has weapons, Toronto has experience and new looks, neither of them has a defeat and folks in the East have some new alphas to watch.