Two men, one trophy.
The two best players in the NBA, squaring up, staring down, fighting across the floor on a nail-biting night in March, a loud passion accompanying their every move.
LeBron drives ... crowd screams. Giannis dives ... crowd groans. Giannis dunks ... crowd boos. LeBron flies ... crowd roars.
The commotion at Staples Center on Friday night wasn’t only about the West-leading Lakers versus the East-leading Milwaukee Bucks.
It was about the fame within the game, LeBron James versus Giannis Antetokounmpo for the most valuable MVP award in American sports.
The Lakers fans were jeering a full 30 minutes before tipoff. Dwight Howard was leading cheers during introductions. James snarled at his teammates in the pregame huddle.
Then it was on, the battle between basketball’s two most famous first names.
First quarter, Giannis owns it.
Giannis drives through four Lakers and lays the ball in while being fouled by Anthony Davis for a three-point play. Giannis dunks. Giannis drives and scores and is fouled by Davis again. Giannis scores the Bucks’ first seven points, and 10 of the first 13 points.
LeBron passes. LeBron turns down shots. LeBron struggles. LeBron is called for a cheap charging foul.
With 6:35 left in the first quarter, Giannis has outscored LeBron 10-0. By the end of the quarter, the margin is 10-2.
Second quarter, LeBron owns it.
LeBron hits a layup. LeBron drives the baseline and dunks. LeBron throws a wrap-around pass to JaVale McGee for a dunk. James drive around Wesley Matthews for a dunk.
In the final minute of the quarter, LeBron steals the ball from Giannis and throws it down the court, where Kyle Kuzma drains a trey to land the game in a halftime tie at 48.
Meanwhile, with Davis picking up two fouls, LeBron begins guarding Giannis in the second quarter and holds him to one basket in the period.
Third quarter, LeBron is still owning it.
LeBron hits Davis on an alley-oop. James sinks a three-pointer directly in Giannis’ face. LeBron sinks a fade-away jumper from the corner and screams at Jay-Z sitting courtside. LeBron has a perfect assist to a wide-open Danny Green for a trey. LeBron drives into two Bucks and scores on Giannis’ goaltending. LeBron drives around Giannis for a layup, and here come the MVP chants. The Lakers outscore the Bucks by 11 in the quarter, and James’ fire is a big reason why.
Fourth quarter, LeBron seals it.
LeBron steals under the Bucks’ basket. LeBron hits a driving layup. LeBron hits another driving layup and is fouled. He dances in front of the Lakers’ bench, and here come those three letters again, loud and unanimous.
The game ends with LeBron spinning and dunking on Donte DiVincenzo, then hitting a free throw to give the Lakers a 113-103 victory and make a huge statement about a potential title rematch with the rough-and-tumble presumptive NBA favorites.
The Lakers can defend these guys. The Lakers can rebound with these guys. The Lakers can handle these guys.
“That’s what playoff games feel like,” Lakers coach Frank Vogel said.
Meanwhile, the individual battle ends with LeBron outscoring Giannis 37-32, with LeBron recording one more assist and Giannis grabbing four more rebounds.
Plus, there was LeBron’s great defense, hounding and holding down Giannis while guarding him for much longer than planned.
“My sidekick picked up a couple of early fouls ... it was my opportunity to take the challenge,” James said afterward. “Just taking the challenge, taking the responsibility.”
His teammates watched with their usual awe.
“It’s unbelievable,” guard Avery Bradley said. “I told him after the game, ‘You played like the king tonight.’ He did it all at both ends of the floor.”
The other guy was just as impressed.
“Whenever you bring the ball down, whenever you go against him, you can feel greatness,” Giannis said.
And, with about 20 games remaining, for many the question still looms: Who should be the MVP?
Is it Giannis, 25, last season’s MVP, the incumbent who is in the top four in the league in scoring and rebounding while ranking first in player efficiency rating?
Or is it LeBron, 10 years older, four-time MVP who amazingly hasn’t won the award in six years, leads the league in assists — assists! — while ranking 12th in scoring and averaging five more minutes a game than Giannis.
Even before Friday night, people were arguing, influential people, convincing people, staunchly taking both sides of the issue.
“Oh, it’s Giannis by a landslide,” said analyst and former MVP Charles Barkley to The Times’ Brad Turner.
Not so fast.
“I’m just amazed they talk about anybody other than [James] for MVP,” said New Orleans coach Alvin Gentry to reporters last weekend.
It turns out, both men are right.
Barkley is correct that the voting should be a landslide. But Gentry is correct that the landslide should be for LeBron.
LeBron is the MVP. He deserves it more. He’s accomplished more. He should have already clinched it. If folks can see through the clutter of numbers to the clarity of the situation, he has to win it.
This is coming from a columnist who ripped him as much as anyone last season, publicly scolding him for being uninterested and disengaged. This is coming from a LeBron skeptic who, after his first winter as a Laker, couldn’t understand all the fuss.
I understand now.
I’ve seen it now. I’ve witnessed how James has lifted the Lakers from embarrassment to powerhouse under conditions ranging from troublesome to horrific.
I’ve watched Kirk Gibson carry the Dodgers in 1988, and this is it. I lived through Shaquille O’Neal lifting the Lakers in 2000, and this is that.
“I’m not sure what the definition of MVP is,” Gentry told reporters in exasperation.
This season, James hasn’t only earned it, he’s redefined it.
An MVP is someone who bonds and leads and often carries a basically brand-new lineup from 37 wins to the second-best record in the league. That lineup added the great Davis, yet Davis arrived here without consistent durability or winning credentials. Under LeBron, he has since shown both. The renewal of the entire Lakers team, from Dwight Howard to Alex Caruso, has exceeded all expectations, and LeBron has enabled it.
An MVP is someone who, by his play on the court, settles a potential nightmare on the bench. Remember last summer’s front-office meltdown? Remember how it ended with the hiring of little-known Frank Vogel as coach? There were jokes, there was immediate talk of mutiny, it could have been ugly. Yet by both his empowering actions and his open praise, LeBron gave Vogel the credibility necessary to implement his smart and savvy game plan. LeBron not only leads the league in assists on the court, but off the court as well.
An MVP is someone who holds the team together during tragedy. Since the Jan. 26 death of Kobe Bryant, the grieving Lakers have somehow managed keep playing hard and focused through the pain. In the first game after Bryant’s passing, LeBron gave a remarkable pregame speech. He promised the mourning Staples Center fans that the Lakers would honor Bryant with their play. They have done just that.
Giannis has better stats than LeBron, but he has achieved them under far less difficult circumstances.
Granted, he stars for a team with the NBA’s best record, but that team won 60 games last season. The Bucks were supposed to be this good. He doesn’t need to extend himself every night like James. While LeBron has clawed, Giannis has cruised.
Granted, he’s not playing with the someone like Davis; his top supporting actor is Khris Middleton, but the bulk of his lineup was together last season. He didn’t have to worry about a learning curve. He didn’t have to break in a new coach. He could just play.
The chants continued deep into Friday night, the question that will circle the league for the rest of the season already answered by many of 19,000 witnesses of this dramatic title fight.