Bucks’ Giannis Antetokounmpo applauds LeBron James’ performance

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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Lakers, Clippers take center stage as NBA season tips off

The dress rehearsals are over. Tuesday night, one of the most anticipated seasons in recent NBA history tips off, and the Lakers and Clippers, intracity rivals who underwent headline-grabbing offseason changes, find themselves on the short list of contenders for the 2019-20 championship going into their season opener at Staples Center.

Neither side will be at full strength on Tuesday, the Clippers without All-Star forward Paul George and the Lakers without rising young star Kyle Kuzma, but it’s still a game that should give each side an early indication of how they might measure up and how they might go about countering certain matchups.

Having landed two-time NBA Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard and George in one stunning July night, the Clippers open the season as the prohibitive favorite to win their first league title, both according to oddsmakers in Las Vegas and the annual poll of NBA general managers. When George returns, they’ll become a team with frightening potential on defense, especially on the perimeter.

The Lakers got four-time league MVP LeBron James the elite running mate he wanted, shipping away a slew of players and draft picks to unite him with big man Anthony Davis amid the hope that their mutual desire to play together results in unbeatable chemistry on the court. Even if it takes them some time to gel, a refreshed James knows it’s all about positioning themselves to be at their best in April, May and June.

SCNG beat reporters Kyle Goon and Mirjam Swanson have been covering both teams since before those seismic roster changes, and they’ve spent the months since writing about a variety of topics, giving our readers a chance to get to know some of the personalities who will take center stage this season, and the challenges both sides might face along the way.

Before that first jump ball is tossed, here’s another chance to catch up on some of what you might have missed:

LAKERS

• United with the teammate they both publicly wished for, LeBron James and Anthony Davis are expected to have each other’s backs as Lakers teammates, sharing the workload while holding each other accountable.

• Father Time, as the saying goes, is undefeated. The question for LeBron James – and for a Lakers franchise hoping his championship window is still open – is how long can he stave off the inevitable?

• How Coach Frank Vogel’s “sabbatical” year spent visiting college and NBA coaches around the nation rejuvenated him for the Lakers job

• Entering his third season, ambitious young Lakers forward Kyle Kuzma has switched agencies, signed a shoe deal and is looking out for additional business opportunities.

• With both teams in demand for national TV appearances, the NBA and Staples Center had a tougher time than ever mapping out the schedules for the Lakers and Clippers

Lakers play down rivalry angles going into opener against Clippers

• In his second stint with the Lakers, Dwight Howard promises more accountability

• Veteran guard Avery Bradley is eager to prove himself, ready to “show the world that I’m the best perimeter defender in the NBA.”

• LeBron James and the Lakers have been doing their best to make Anthony Davis feel comfortable and in control going into a critical season

• The Lakers have plenty of competition in their guard rotation

• Anthony Davis, Lakers believe having multiple shot-blockers will aid their identity

• A closer look at the Lakers’ projected roster, including two-way contract players

CLIPPERS

• In Kawhi Leonard, the Clippers have added a self-made superstar who keeps getting better

• Can the Clippers seize their moment and challenge the Lakers for L.A.’s basketball soul?

• The Lakers and Clippers in contention at the same time has the eyes of the league on L.A.

• Against the Clippers’ defense this season, the drive to Staples Center might be the easy part

• Is there any reason to doubt, L.A.’s clearly a basketball town?

• Given their decades of futility and mismanagement, it’s hard for some to fathom … the Clippers favored to win a championship?

• When three-time NBA Sixth Man of the Year Lou Williams speaks, his words carry weight

• Clippers hope a “brotherhood” built through group texts, fishing trips and paintball outings will prepare them for whatever adversity comes their way

• Clippers rookie Terance Mann is soaking up his time around Kawhi Leonard, Paul George

• Patrick Beverley wants you to know: Kawhi Leonard is cool but he’s “not quiet”

• The Clippers plan to retain the gritty team persona that helped attract a pair of All-Stars

• Patrick Beverley is the face of a new Clippers ticket initiative that will give between 50 and 200 fans an opportunity to purchase $10 tickets for all 41 of the team’s home games this season.

• A closer look at the Clippers’ projected roster, including two-way contract players

AROUND THE LEAGUE

STACKED OUT WEST: Beyond the Lakers and Clippers, Houston reunited James Harden with Russell Westbrook. Denver and Utah bring back strong cores, Portland might have the league’s best backcourt, and Golden State doesn’t sound ready to go away, even if the Warriors will have to wait a while to get Klay Thompson back. Here’s a team-by-team preview of the Western Conference.

TWO-TEAM RACE IN EAST? Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks were a couple wins from beating Toronto. The Philadelphia 76ers were perhaps a couple bounces from doing it one round earlier. Neither team was good enough to finish the job last season, but both think this is their time after Leonard returned to the Western Conference. They look like the favorites to represent the East in the NBA Finals – where they might have to deal with Leonard again. Here’s a team-by-team preview of the Eastern Conference.

CRACKING DOWN ON FAN BEHAVIOR: After high-profile incidents involving Russell Westbrook, DeMarcus Cousins, Kyle Lowry and others last season – including ones involving racist taunts – zero tolerance for abusive or hateful behavior is now to become the NBA’s policy going forward. The league is changing and toughening its code of conduct for fans, especially putting those in closest proximity to the players and the court on alert that anything over the line will lead to ejections and possibly more.

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Video: JuJu Smith-Schuster is excited for LeBron James to play for the Los Angeles Lakers

JuJu Smith-Schuster, a former Long Beach Poly and USC football player, is ready to become a Los Angeles Lakers’ season ticket holder after sharing his excitement about the acquisition of LeBron James.

The Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver also shared his love for video games and comments on his Madden rating at the NFL Sunday Ticket Party in Los Angeles.

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(Video also features a cameo from WWE’s Lana.)

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