As we began the first Eastern Conference Finals since 2010 not featuring LeBron James, I wondered if there would feel like something was missing. LeBron is the best player of his generation, a centralizing and inescapable presence. He had been to eight straight conference finals series in the East, and led his team to victory in each of them. What would a series with a shot to represent the East in the NBA Finals feel like without him?
Amazing, it turns out.
The Bucks won a thrilling Game 1 108-100 over the Raptors. Toronto led most of the night and got an amazing performance out of Kyle Lowry. Kawhi Leonard went uncharacteristically cold late, and Brook Lopez exploded into flames. How each defense keyed on the two superstars in the series, Kawhi and Giannis Antetokounmpo, was fascinating -- even though they didn’t match up on each other, they were central to everything. Great game, great finish, should be a great series.
LeBron, meanwhile, is nowhere to be seen, having moved West last summer. It’s clear that neither of these contenders will be considered a junior challenger when one of them makes the Finals: these squads are both title-worthy. In fact, it makes you wonder if LeBron’s East crown run would have ended in 2019 even if he would have remained with the Cavaliers. The Bucks and Raptors just look that good this season.