The two MVP candidates stared right at each other; Giannis Antetokounmpo crouched forward in a defensive stance as LeBron James considered how he would attack him.
Staples Center’s star-studded crowd rose to its feet and the cheers became a roar to honor the matchup they’d all come to see. James drove by Antetokounmpo to score, and the crescendo continued.
Little moments like that dotted the Lakers’ game against the Milwaukee Bucks on Friday, a possible precursor to the NBA Finals. The league’s two best teams, the league’s two brightest stars, a final meeting until perhaps June 4.
The Lakers won this time, 113-103, to even their season series. There was no end-of-road-trip malaise for them as there was in Milwaukee in December, and no eruption of three-pointers from Antetokounmpo. Instead James showed why he has a case for the league’s top individual award, and why he means so much to the Lakers.
“What was more impressive to me was his defense on Giannis,” Lakers coach Frank Vogel said. “Starting in the first half … for him to take on that assignment and still do what he did offensively, just an incredibly remarkable two-way performance.”
James finished with 37 points on 12-of-21 shooting, with seven assists and eight rebounds. Anthony Davis added 30 points for the Lakers. Antetokounmpo finished with 32 points, 12 rebounds and six assists.
With the win, the Lakers clinched a playoff berth for the first time in seven seasons.
“I came here to put this team and put this franchise back where they needed to be,” James said. “The league is not what it is if the Lakers are not winning. And that was one of my responsibilities, one of my goals when I came here.”
On his way into the game, James sat in the back of the car he takes from his home in Brentwood to Staples Center reviewing the Bucks’ last two games.
It typically takes him an hour and 15 minutes to get to the arena for games, plenty of time to focus on the film. He watched Antetokounmpo’s tendencies. The Lakers’ plan was not for James to guard the reigning MVP. Davis would be lined up against Antetokounmpo, but plans change so James wanted to be prepared.
It was a good thing, too. Davis picked up two quick fouls in the first four minutes of the game while guarding Antetokounmpo. James then took over.
“When I saw the look on his face on the defensive end, man, that fueled me not to take any possessions off; to give it my all,” Avery Bradley said of James’ play. “Because he was giving his all for us on both ends of the floor.”
Having scored 10 points in the first quarter, Antetokounmpo only managed two in the second.
Though the Lakers trailed for almost the entire first half, they found a way to push ahead late in the second quarter.
Antetokounmpo and James each went into halftime with 12 points, and the score tied at 48. Brook Lopez also contributed 10 first-half points for the Bucks.
Then James decided he wanted to continue guarding Antetokounmpo and let Davis know.
“I didn’t want to pick up a silly one and have four and go sit down again,” Davis said. “That was a great recommendation by him and the coaching staff and it kind of worked, we stuck with it and went on a run.”
At halftime, the Lakers figured out how to score on the league’s best defense.
They scored 39 points in the third quarter, outscoring the Bucks by 11. The Lakers went on an 18-0 run starting two minutes into the third. Bradley took two charges. James scored 14 points and Davis contributed 11. The Lakers made 14 of 23 shots and led by as many as 15 points.
Milwaukee threatened to spoil the Lakers’ night in the fourth quarter. With James on the bench, the Bucks cut the Lakers’ lead to four, but couldn’t get closer.
“We know who we are, we know what we’re capable of,” James said. “But we also can be extremely excited about playing in great atmospheres, and tonight was a great atmosphere.”