LOS ANGELES — With all the electricity of a playoff game, the NBA’s Western and Eastern Conference leaders – and their respective leading men – clashed Friday night at Staples Center in what might have been a preview of the NBA Finals.
The case of LeBron James vs. Giannis Antetokounmpo tilted in favor of the home team this time, with James rallying his squad from a nine-point, first-half deficit to a playoff-clinching 113-103 victory at the Milwaukee Bucks’ expense.
Afterward, the Bucks superstar stood facing a media scrum, his lip bloodied, his squad having lost for just the 10th time all season and his mind made up: His knee, which buckled badly in the second half was “good,” he insisted.
The 25-year-old reigning league MVP scored 32 points in the loss, two fewer than he’d scored in the teams’ last meeting, a 111-104 Milwaukee victory in December.
On Friday the 6-foot-11 power forward/point guard/small forward/shooting guard went 10 for 21 from the field and 11 for 14 from the free-throw line, grabbed 11 rebounds and added six assists and a steal – but the Bucks were outscored by 11 points when he was on the floor.
On the other end, James – who was serenaded with “M-V-P” chants by a partisan crowd – asserted himself as if he wanted to spark, or perhaps settle, a debate.
James entered Friday’s affair averaging 25.4 points, 7.8 rebounds and 10.7 assists per game and having led the Lakers back to the precipice of a playoff berth for the first time since 2013.
Antetekounmpo showed up for work Friday averaging 29.6 points and 13.8 rebounds per game, his 3-point shooting having improved to 30.9 percent from 25.6 last season – helped a bit by his career-high five 3-pointers against the Lakers last time.
“He’s lights out, in all ways,” Lakers coach Frank Vogel said pregame of the seventh-year star. “He keeps working on his 3-point shot and his ability to hurt you that way. He … puts a lot of pressure on your defense, (he’s) difficult to guard, great defensively one-on-one, great defensively in weak-side situations.
“He’s been good.”
James, of course, has won three championships in his 17 NBA seasons, and harbors hopes of earning a fourth this season. Antetekounmpo would like this season to earn his first championship – and to thwart James’ desire to do it again.
That bubbling push-and-pull made for compelling theater Friday, even for someone as close to the action as Vogel.
“I enjoy it, all of us coaches, we’re still fans of the game, you know,” Vogel said. “We like to see the best go against the best, and these types of matchups that I’m fortunate to be a part of, get a front-row seat and hopefully can help our superstars beat their superstars.”
Vogel got his wish: His 35-year-old forward/point guard scored 37 points, got to the free-throw line 15 times (making 12 foul shots), grabbed eight rebounds, and recorded seven assists and three steals to lead the Lakers (48-13) past Antetekounmpo’s squad, which was bothered by the Lakers’ length and unable to recover from a 31-17 disparity in free throws.
Even in defeat, Antetekounmpo applauded James’ performance.
“It’s always good playing against one of the best players in the league, like you can feel whenever you bring the ball down, whenever you go against him, you can feel greatness,” said Antetekounmpo, who remained in the game Friday despite his scary fall. “He’s gonna come at you and you gotta be ready to go, gotta be ready to fight against him. … At the end of the day, he’s gonna get his shots up, he’s gonna get his teammates involved. He’s LeBron James, what can you say?”
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