Neither LeBron James nor Giannis Antetokounmpo views this as a competition between them.
At least, if they do, they won’t admit it.
“Here we go again. … It’s not about the matchup, me going against LeBron. It’s about our team playing well, playing good basketball and going against the Lakers,” Antetokounmpo said Wednesday in Milwaukee when asked about his most-valuable-player potential.
Their teams will face each other in Milwaukee in a game Thursday unlike any the NBA has had. It is the first time in NBA history that two teams with fewer than five losses have played each other this late in a season. This is only the fifth time that multiple teams have won 24 out of their first 28 games in the same season.
And for both teams, it will be a test of their championship mettle.
“It should be a great fight,” Lakers coach Frank Vogel said.
Each team is 24-4 and each is coming off losses — Milwaukee to the Dallas Mavericks and the Lakers to the Indiana Pacers. And each is led by the two top MVP candidates, who have a healthy appreciation for each other.
“Exceptional talent,” James said about Antetokounmpo. “His ability to rebound, push, pass, score, get downhill. Just puts a lot of pressure on the defense. He’s gotten better every single year that he’s been in the league. They’ve surrounded him with a lot of good pieces to help maximize his talent — more importantly. They’ve done a great job as far as the front office over there of bringing in guys that complement his game.”
The makeup of the Bucks roster was perhaps the only misgiving anyone had about the team heading into the season. They were widely considered favorites to be the Eastern Conference’s representative in the NBA Finals with Kawhi Leonard departing Toronto for the Clippers, but having lost Malcolm Brogdon in free agency, some wondered how that would affect the Bucks.
Milwaukee lost two of its first four games, but has been nearly unstoppable since then. Before losing to the Mavericks, the Bucks had won 18 consecutive games. They swept their season series against the Clippers, and also have victories against the Pacers, the Utah Jazz and the Toronto Raptors.
The Lakers have been extraordinary on the road. They weathered injuries, two rounds of colds permeating the locker room, and the occasional shooting slump, until Tuesday’s loss to Indiana, a game they played without Anthony Davis, who sprained his right ankle Sunday. That loss ended a road winning streak at 14 games. It is the only game the Lakers have lost away from Staples Center.
James has been a big part of that. He hasn’t sat out this season and leads the league in assists. The way he is playing in his 17th season has caused teammates and opponents alike to marvel.
“That’s crazy,” said Antetokounmpo, who turned 25 this month and is almost exactly 10 years younger than James. “It’s crazy. It’s insane. Obviously, for me that’s one of my goals, to be able to play at a high level for the next 10 years, but he’s about to turn 35 this month. He’s moving like that, playing like that. It’s insane. It’s insane what he’s able to do but he’s LeBron James. He’s different, he’s an alien so you expect it from him.”
The Lakers have spent all season insisting their only opponent is themselves, and that’s where their focus needs to be. Similarly, the Bucks spent Wednesday’s practice focusing on themselves.
Neither team is denying the gravity of the game. They both understand there’s more to what they want to accomplish.
“We understand it’s a big game for everybody,” Lakers center Dwight Howard said. “But the championship is not won the next game.”
When: Thursday, 5 p.m. PST
On Air: TV: Spectrum SportsNet, TNT; Radio: 710, 1330
Update: The Bucks will be without guard Eric Bledsoe, who has a fractured fibula. Davis said he plans to play Thursday, offering the caveat that he’d have to see how his ankle feels.