LOS ANGELES – NBA fans witnessed the matchup they had wanted to see: The Lakers vs. Bucks.
Milwaukee Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo marked James immediately at the elbow. Then, James stared down Antetokounmpo. James then drove right toward the basket and used his 6-foot-9, 250-pound frame to muscle his way past both Antetokounmpo and Bucks guard Marvin Williams for the right-handed layup.
The third-quarter sequence technically represented only one play. Yet, it captured what made the James-Antetokounmpo matchup so captivating.
James helped the Lakers to a 113-103 win over the Bucks on Friday at Staples Center, which did more than just rectify a seven-point loss in Milwaukee nearly three months ago. By eclipsing Antetokounmpo in points (37-32) and efficiency (12-of-12, 10-of-21), James added another staple to his resume for regular-season MVP consideration. By defending Antetokounmpo in the second half after Lakers star Anthony Davis became plagued with foul trouble, the 35-year-old James showed he has the athleticism, speed and durability to limit an NBA star nearly 10 years younger than him. And by helping the Lakers (48-13) further cement a 5 ½ game lead for the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference, James offered a glimpse of what an NBA Finals matchup against Antetokounmpo might look like.
“LeBron definitely got the upper hand in tonight’s matchup,” Lakers coach Frank Vogel said. “But it’s one game out of 82 and I think that LeBron would tell you himself that that’s not really anything that motivates him. It was about beating the Bucks tonight and we’ll let the fans or you nice people talk about MVP comparisons.”
Sure, fans greeted James with “M-V-P” chants when he went to the free-throw line. Sure, reporters peppered James with questions about the regular-season MVP award following Thursday’s practice. But James’ teammates seemed just as intrigued.
After the game, Lakers forward Avery Bradley told James that “you played like ‘The King’ tonight’ for improving the Lakers’ record to 20-0 when he scores at least 30 points. Lakers forward Jared Dudley also tweeted that James has the edge over the regular-season MVP race over Antetokounmpo because of Friday’s performance. Earlier this week, Dudley told USA TODAY Sports that “Giannis is in the lead, but it’s by a small margin.”
James hardly sounded intrigued with these dynamics. He stressed that “regular-season MVP has never motivated (him)” despite winning that award four times. Yet, James added “to be the best to ever play in the game has motivated me.”
So to be at his best, James considered it a priority to go against Antetokounmpo. James reasoned he did not have a point to prove. He just became concerned that Davis collected three fouls in the first half. So when they entered the locker room at halftime, James told Davis to guard Wesley Mathews while he would defend Antetokounmpo.
“Just taking the challenge and understanding that if I take the challenge, then the rest of us will take the challenge as well,” James said. “It wasn’t just me.”
Yet, it was mostly James. Antetokounmpo still finished with 20 points on 6-of-12 in the second half. According to NBA.com’s tracking data, though, Antetokounmpo went only 2-of-10 from the field on the times that James defended him. On one fourth-quarter play, James even stripped the ball from Antetokounmpo out of his hands.
And that is only what James did on defense. On offense, James looked just as aggressive. He opened the third quarter with nine unanswered points and threw a lob to Davis. James stressed, “I never predetermine what I’m going to do.” But when Antetokounmpo defended James, he usually punished him.
James drove past Antetokounmpo and finished with a goal-tending call on one play and with a layup on another. James launched a 3-pointer over Antetokounmpo at the top of the key. During these plays, James ducked underneath Antetokounmpo and moved around him. As James noted, “If i have a one on one matchup, I try to exploit that and be aggressive.”
“That’s just him being assertive,” Vogel said. “He’s going to do whatever takes, whatever is needed to win the game.”
James also did whatever it took to show he has a good chance at supplanting Antetokounmpo as the NBA’s regular-season MVP.