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Breaking down the Lakers’ and Clippers’ biggest competition for the NBA championship

Milwaukee Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo tries to drive past Lakers star LeBron James during the NBA All-Star game on Sunday.
Milwaukee Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo tries to drive past Lakers star LeBron James during the NBA All-Star game on Sunday.
(Jonathan Daniel / Getty Images)

Sometime in the second quarter Sunday, Giannis Antetokounmpo started to play harder than the other nine players on the court, pushing toward the basket and playing with more defensive effort than the NBA All-Star game typically requires.

By the end of the game, that intensity was all over the court, a fuse igniting explosive play, thanks in part, to Antetokounmpo striking a match.

A night earlier, he left his mark on All-Star weekend in a more complementary role — a 6-foot-11 obstacle for his Milwaukee Bucks teammate Pat Connaughton to leap over in the dunk contest.

He was a star in both roles, a nice reminder that whatever happens as the season enters its final lap, Antetokounmpo probably will be in the middle of things.

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Maybe it’s because the NBA’s reigning most valuable player goes to work in Wisconsin, or maybe because the Bucks stumbled so dramatically in the Eastern Conference finals last spring, but Milwaukee’s star and team are better than they’ve ever been. Add in another All-Star, forward Khris Middleton, and the Bucks are primed to hit the finish-line tape stronger than ever.

Kobe Bryant was everywhere during the NBA’s All-Star weekend in Chicago, from hats and jerseys to tributes on and off the court.

With fewer than 30 games remaining in the regular season, the Bucks aren’t so much a well-kept secret as they are an inevitability. Thanks to Antetokounmpo having another MVP-type season, the Bucks have the best record in the NBA (46-8) and the most credible chance at beating either the Lakers or Clippers if they meet in the Finals.

“We want to win as many games as possible, but our goal is to win the whole thing,” Antetokounmpo said, and added that “if you win every game, that would be great. But we cannot lose focus. We can’t lose track of our actual goal, which is get better every day, keep learning every day, and win the whole thing.”

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Statistically, the Bucks are unmatched. They trail only Dallas and the Lakers for the NBA’s most efficient offense — and they’re behind the Lakers by only a fraction. And the Bucks’ defense is the league’s fiercest, allowing only 101.7 points per 100 possessions.

The gap between the league-leading Bucks and second-place Toronto (105.1) is wider than the gap between the Raptors and the 13th-place Chicago Bulls.

The teams chasing the Bucks — the defending champion Raptors and the Boston Celtics — both have issues. Toronto’s been a revelation, the hottest team at the break despite injuries and the loss of Kawhi Leonard, but the Raptors don’t have the firepower of the Bucks.

LeBron James, Anthony Davis and Kawhi Leonard were all wearing the same uniform, Frank Vogel coaching on the sidelines and thought of what might have been.

Boston’s more balanced and talented than Toronto — seemingly more stable with Kemba Walker, and Jayson Tatum’s play earned a lot of praise over the break — with a top-five offense and defense. The Bucks and the Lakers are the only other teams ranked in the top five of both (the Clippers are sixth in offense and defense). But scouts wonder if the Celtics have the interior presence to slow a force like Antetokounmpo.

There are other challengers in the East — Miami added Andre Iguodala at the trade deadline and has a roster of players who continue to improve, like All-Star Bam Adebayo and three-point contestant Duncan Robinson. Philadelphia is still as top-tier talented as anyone, though questions about how those players fit still persist.

The projected picture in the West is a little more cluttered. While the Lakers and the Clippers remain the favorites, Houston’s funky lineups, Denver’s continuity and Utah’s toughness all project to be handfuls.

Maybe it’s the Bucks — the team that hasn’t made the splashy acquisitions like the Clippers, that isn’t as publicized as the Lakers — that have the cleanest path forward.

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They’ve been close before, and if last weekend taught us anything, it’s that Antetokounmpo doesn’t like to miss the biggest moments.

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