LOS ANGELES — Before the Staples Center crowd had their beers and had settled into their seats, Giannis Antetokounmpo tried to take over the game. From the opening tip he was aggressive, playing downhill, getting up a head of steam then getting to the rim. He opened the game shooting 3-of-4, and he racked up 10 fast points.
Plus Antetokounmpo drew two early fouls on Anthony Davis.
That is when the game changed — LeBron James switched over Antetokounmpo on defense.
“My sidekick here, he picked up a couple of early fouls,” LeBron said, pointing at Davis. “So that was my opportunity to pick up the challenge. I didn’t want him to get another one.”
“What was more impressive (than his 37 points) to me was his defense on Giannis,” Laker coach Frank Vogel said after the game. “Starting in the first half, when AD got in foul trouble, we needed someone to step up. For him to take on that assignment and still do what he did offensively, it’s just an incredibly remarkable performance, a two way performance.”
That switch meant fans got what they wanted — LeBron vs. Antetokounmpo going head-to-head. At points, the Staples Center crowd stood and cheered as the two leading MVP candidates went at each other.
Friday night, LeBron and the Lakers got the best of the battle.
The Lakers used an 18-0 run and a 14-point third quarter from LeBron to pull away, then they held on for the 113-103 win.
It was a game played with late-May playoff intensity but officiated in an early March style — the constant sound of whistles sucked the flow out of much of the game.
That worked for the Lakers, who were able to slow the Bucks tempo down — the Lakers are not a great transition defense but have an elite halfcourt defense, one that frustrated the Bucks.
“We were playing slow… We were playing against LeBron, AD, and (JaVale) McGee in the half court, so it’s kind of hard,” Antetokounmpo said.
Antetokounmpo finished with 32 points on 21 shots, plus 11 rebounds. He also went down late in the fourth quarter on a foul, yelling and grabbing his left knee. Antetokounmpo got back up, walked it off and finished the game, however, after the game he spent extra time in the training room and was walking with a slight limp. When asked how his knee was, all he said, “good.”
Antetokounmpo was less concerned with his knee and more concerned with how his team got taken out of their game against the Lakers. And he didn’t like all the fouls the Bucks committed.
“We definitely did not play smart,” Antetokounmpo said. “We obviously tried our best, we fight every game, we try to stay in every game, but we gave them 31 free throws. We put them at the line so easily.”
Those calls got in the Bucks’ heads at a point during the decisive third quarter, resulting in an 18-0 Lakers run. That spurt took the Lakers from down five to up 13 midway through the quarter.
The Bucks showed resolve and got back within four late, but Davis made a defensive play that kept the Lakers in front.
5:17 left on ESPN pic.twitter.com/i1TiGLwvb3
— NBA (@NBA) March 7, 2020
Donte DiVincenzo had a breakout game with 17 highlight-worthy points for the Bucks.
The Lakers got 30 points and 11 rebounds from Davis backing up LeBron. The Lakers also got 50 points in the paint, way more than the league-best 38.6 Milwaukee traditionally gives up. The Lakers were the aggressors and it showed.
Finals series are not decided in March, but this game laid out the blueprint for a potential Finals matchup should it happen.
And it should give the Lakers a boost of confidence — they had the best player on the floor Friday night.