Ahead of the Milwaukee Bucks’ highly anticipated clash with the Lakers Thursday night, I spoke to former NBA player and one-time Buck, Caron Butler, about the showdown between the two best teams in the league, as well as other Bucks topics.
Ahead of what is likely to be their biggest regular season game of the 2019-20 season against the Los Angeles Lakers, the Milwaukee Bucks will be under the biggest spotlight the NBA can offer at this point in the league’s calendar.
Yes, their 18-game winning streak may have come to an end earlier this week in their defeat to the Dallas Mavericks, but so did the Lakers’ 14-game road win streak following their nail-biting loss to the Indiana Pacers back on Tuesday night.
Now, the two teams that share the best record in the NBA are preparing to face off against one another and suddenly, the city of Milwaukee is at the epicenter of what is shaping up to be the biggest matchup of the NBA season so far.
On Wednesday afternoon, I had the opportunity to talk to former NBA player, Caron Butler, to preview this highly anticipated affair between the Bucks and Lakers, and Butler looked toward the teams’ respective form and their dynamic duos going into Thursday night:
“I’m excited for many reasons. The duo battle of Khris Middleton and obviously, Giannis [Antetokounmpo], and then you have Anthony Davis and LeBron James on the other side, but also the individual battle of the Greek Freak and LeBron James. Two of the most dominant players on the planet, they’re playing at an all-time high. It’s almost like their games are saying everything that we are saying verbally. You know, every time LeBron goes out and has a triple-double, Giannis comes back with an astronomical performance when you look at the statistics and what he’s doing.
And the teams are streaking in both conferences. You look at the Bucks, they had their first loss after a 18-game winning streak, but it was amazing to watch. And you see what the Lakers are doing, they’re coming off a loss. It’s almost like the stage is set for one of them to right the path and get the ship back in the right direction and it’s a great platform tomorrow night.”
The Lakers surely have been the talk of the league, given how everything has fallen into place and that starts with Davis and James. Butler discussed the power of that partnership, how Davis’ move to Los Angeles from New Orleans has unlocked his play to spectacular level, and how the blistering pace they’re on is far from a surprise:
“You know what, Anthony Davis is the perfect complement to LeBron James. And not only that, he’s coming at the perfect time because he’s learning how to win. He was locked away with the Pelicans for an extended period of time and he was trying to figure out the game. He was always putting up those numbers and no one really knew how good he was.
And now he comes over here and you have two of the top-6 players in all of basketball on the same team that pretty much do the same things. But now they’re doing it on a larger scale and a larger platform and the world is starting to see the greatness in that duo. I knew it was going to be special and I knew they were going to make the playoffs. And also, because it’s the Lakers, one of the most prestigious organizations in all of basketball when you talk about their championship pedigree, they’re the story and the headline all season long, you know what I mean? So it’s like a perfect storm and the perfect marriage.”
Switching gears, I asked Butler about his impressions of this year’s Bucks squad and how they’re eclipsing the high mark they set for themselves last season, in spite of losing a quality player in Indiana Pacers guard Malcolm Brogdon:
“I’m impressed and I’ll tell you why. I was really upset, as a homer — I’m from Wisconsin and I’m going to the game tomorrow. And I played with Giannis and it was always a long-time dream of mine to put on that uniform and I was able to do it. Giannis was my rookie and I spent time with Giannis [on Tuesday] when we did the correctional visit and the entire team came up. I asked him immediately how his body feels and he said this is the best he’s felt in years because the team has played really well. They’re blowing people out, they’re doing it on both ends of the floor and that’s what I was worrying about.
Losing Brogdon, I felt like his versatility really changed the game for Giannis. He helped take the ball out of his hands so he didn’t have to do as much. But other guys have stepped up and the system of play, how they move the basketball, the shot-making ability of the Lopez brothers and the way that they play. Khris coming back, the development of Eric Bledsoe and his usage going up a tad bit, I think all of the guys have bought into being the best version of themselves this season, and the end to last season left a bad taste in their mouths.”
With his arrival to play for the Bucks for the 2013-14 season coinciding with Giannis’ rookie campaign, I had to ask Butler what’s been the most remarkable aspect of Antetokounmpo’s rise, especially after seeing his humble beginnings only a few years ago:
“He changed his body and obviously, his mentality was always there. He changed his frame and he became more vocal. It was always in him, but his leadership is just amazing to watch. And one of the things that stood out to me, and I know that it stood out to a lot of people, true guys that understand the mentality and the disposition you need to have going into every season. It’s like you’re challenging yourself to be better after every year. So if you made an All-Star game, it’s like okay, I got to add my left hand, I got to add a counter, I gotta add this.
Giannis said immediately at his MVP celebration, he said ‘look, after this time where y’all chant MVP, don’t call me that again until I win it again next year. So that was his mentality already in real time after not even 60 days of receiving the award and letting that digest, he’s like ‘okay, now I’m thinking about next season already.’ And that just speaks volumes to his mentality and I think that the leadership he’s possessed and the entire Bucks organization, not just the team, the organization, they follow that leadership and that mentality of their leader, and that’s Giannis.”
Antetokounmpo’s rise into global super stardom has played a huge part in this Bucks renaissance that we’re seeing over these last couple of years, and I asked Butler his thoughts about the Bucks coming back into the picture of relevance within the picture of Wisconsin sports:
“It’s exciting, because whenever you think about Wisconsin, you think about the Badgers, Green Bay Packers, and the discount double check. You’re thinking about Aaron Rodgers and all that, and that’s just the logistics of it. But now you look at it, now you’re thinking of Giannis, Bucks basketball. Like us talking right now and having this conversation, we’re saying NBA Finals preview. Let that sink in, the Bucks and the Lakers, a possible Finals preview, and we’re saying that before Christmas because it’s a realistic thing. It’s crazy. It makes you laugh, right? That lets you know how far the organization has come, but also Giannis and how his growth has come because it’s a realistic goal. And they’re definitely on the shortlist of teams that can realistically win a championship this season.”
Lastly, Butler talked about the experience of the Bucks coming to the Racine Correctional Institution Tuesday for their ‘Play for Justice’ event in Butler’s hometown, and the impact of the team, and the NBA as a whole, giving support in an area that Butler has long been a strong advocate:
“I’ve been tackling this initiative for a long time. I speak for the reformed, mass incarceration, immigration reform and all of those platforms. I serve on the board of the Vera Institute. Just to have the NBA community backing this, support just means everything. And now, the Bucks, Giannis comes down and the inmates loved it. You sit down and have a roundtable discussion and you get in-depth layers on trauma and all types of things they’re dealing with. The players talk about their everyday life and what they’re dealing with and what people don’t understand or recognize. And then, you get out and have fun. What remains is sports are a unifier. Different people from all walks of life just love the game of basketball, the MLB, the NFL, and for that moment, we did not know where we were at, you know what I mean? We had forgotten that we were at a correctional facility because it was all love, energy, and a vibe. And I know that they will remember that for the rest of their lives.”
Again, a huge thank you goes out to Butler for taking the time out of his busy schedule to talk a little Bucks basketball, as well other things ahead of what is obviously a pivotal game on Thursday night. Stream the game on Fubo.tv.
Caron Butler is an NBA analyst for TNT. You can catch the Bucks’ clash with the Lakers on TNT Thursday night when it tips off at 7pm central time from Fiserv Forum. On the call will be Kevin Harlan and Reggie Miller, while Allie LaForce will handle sideline duties.
Expanded coverage will begin an hour earlier with a one-hour edition of Inside the NBA where the crew of Ernie Johnson, Kenny Smith, Charles Barkley and Shaquille O’Neal will be joined by actor Adam Sandler in studio. The Bucks’ meeting with the Lakers will be followed by another tantalizing matchup between the Houston Rockets and the L.A. Clippers.