LeBron James outduels Giannis Antetokounmpo, leads Lakers to signature win

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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.

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.

Block or charge: Alperen Sengun dunks on Zach Collins


To borrow the catchphrase of the great Rex Chapman:

Block or charge?

The Rockets’ Alperen Sengun caught a body and threw one down on the Spurs’ Zach Collins but was called for the offensive foul.

NBA Twitter went nuts.

Rockets coach Stephen Silas challenged the call, but it was upheld (from my perspective, the replay officials are always looking to back the in-game officials if they at all can).

By the time Collins slid over and jumped, Sengun was already in the air — if anything that was a block. What the officials called was Sengun using his off-arm to create space.

I hate the call — that’s a dunk and an and-one. Not because it’s a great dunk — although it is that, too — but because Collins literally jumped into the path of an already airborne Sengun, Collins created all the contact. It’s on him. Under the spirit of the rules, Sengun’s off-arm is moot at that point — Collins illegally jumped in Sengun’s way and caused the collision.

Terrible call by the officials.

It was a good night for the Spurs, overall. San Antonio played its best defense in a while and Keldon Johnson — one of the few bright spots in a dark Spurs season — hit his first nine shots on his way to a 32-point night that sparked a 118-109 San Antonio win over Houston, snapping the Spurs 11-game losing streak.

Three things to know: Watch Jamal Murray drain game-winning 3 to beat Blazers


Three Things is NBC’s five-days-a-week wrap-up of the night before in the NBA. Check out NBCSports.com every weekday morning to catch up on what you missed the night before plus the rumors, drama, and dunks that make the NBA must-watch.

1) Watch Jamal Murray drain game-winning 3 to beat Blazers

This game felt like a 2019 playoff time capsule, with Damian Lillard and Jamal Murray trading blows in a dramatic game.

Lillard landed more of them, he finished with 40 points — and his final three were vintage Dame Time.

But Murray had the final word.

The final minutes of this game were insane.

It was a needed win for a Denver team that some nights look like they can compete with the best in the league, then turn around 48 hours later and mail in a loss to a tanking team. Nikola Jokic scored 33 against Portland (with 10 boards and nine assists) — he is again putting up numbers that will have him in the MVP conversation (even if it’s a longshot he wins it). However, the Nuggets’ bottom-five defense makes them inconsistent night to night.

Portland revamped their roster to get younger and more athletic around Lillard this past offseason, but one of the results of that is the inconsistency of youth. The Blazers don’t bring the same level of execution every night. If they don’t learn that lesson, they may be different in makeup but the results will be the same as many Portland teams of the last decade — an early playoff exit.

2) Brittney Griner is home on U.S.soil

After spending 10 months in Russian jails — including being convicted and sent to a penal colony — on trumped-up drug charges that made her a political pawn in a massive geo-political battle, Brittney Griner is finally home on U.S. soil, her plane landed in Texas overnight.

The Biden administration worked out a prisoner exchange with Russia that brings Griner home to be with her wife, family and friends — that is something to be celebrated.

Of course, there was some pushback online/in the media from people who care only about trying to score political points for their selfish ends. Fortunately, we had the family of Paul Whelan — a Michigan corporate security executive who has been behind bars in Russia since December 2018 on trumped-up espionage charges — who praised the president for bringing Griner home and making “the deal that was possible, rather than waiting for one that wasn’t going to happen.”

An American citizen is home. She happens to be a WNBA star and a two-time Olympic gold medalist, but those things are not what matters most, and are secondary to her family who are just happy to hug her and tell her they love her again. We all hope that day comes soon for American political prisoners held around the globe (including Whelan), but we should celebrate the big victory of Griner being back on U.S. soil.

3) Spurs snap 11-game losing streak behind 32 from Johnson

Keldon Johnson — one of the few bright spots in a dark Spurs season — hit his first nine shots on his way to a 32-point night that sparked a 118-109 San Antonio win over Houston, snapping the Spurs’ 11-game losing streak.

“This has been the first game in a while where we were clicking defensively,” Johnson told the Associated Press after the game. “You can tell when we get stops, get out and run and be able to get out front. If we can keep that mindset of defense first, get stops and we let the offense take care of itself, we’ll be in great shape.”

All of that is interesting, but the real debate of the night: Was this an offensive foul by Alperen Sengun, or a block by Zach Collins?

Sengun was in the air when Collins came over, but he also used his off hand to create space for the dunk. This is a bang-bang call and the challenge of the block/charge call — I think that’s a block by Collins, but that’s not how the referee or many others have seen it. How would you have called it?

Knicks’ Obi Toppin out at least 2-3 weeks with knee fracture


Obi Toppin is a fan favorite and Knicks faithful were hoping to see more of him as the season progresses.

However, they are not going to see any of him for at least the next 2-3 weeks due to a fractured knee, the team announced.

Toppin suffered the injury in New York’s win Wednesday over Atlanta, the same game that saw Dejounte Murray sprain his ankle leading him to be out for a few weeks.

Toppin — the reigning All-Star Weekend Slam Dunk contest champion — is averaging 7.7 points in 25 games off the bench. With him out, coach Tom Thibodeau suggested he could lean more on RJ Barrett, asking him to play up at the four.

Report: Bulls’ Zach LaVine not available via trade


Front offices of potential contenders from Los Angeles to Philadelphia have their eyes on the Chicago Bulls — will the struggling Bulls pivot to chase Victor Wembanyama and the top of the lottery, making them sellers at the trade deadline? Teams have interest in Chicago’s three stars: Zach LaVine, DeMar DeRozan, and Nikola Vucevic.

Except just-extended LaVine isn’t currently available, ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski said Wednesday on his network’s pregame show discussing the Knicks.

“The Knicks will be watching Chicago. Is Zach LaVine a player who before the deadline possibly can become available? He certainly isn’t now.”

Chicago is not yet ready to pivot to tanking, so none of its stars are truly available. That said, the Bulls don’t look like a playoff team, they miss Lonzo Ball, and even if things do come together where do they stand in the East hierarchy? If the Bulls do become sellers, they aren’t going to tear this team down to the studs, it would likely be trading just one star. Possibly a second if the offer was strong enough.

LaVine — who signed a five-year, $215 million extension this past summer — is the least likely to be available, league sources have told NBC Sports. The expectation is that Vucevic would be the Bull first made available if the Bulls decide to start seriously listening to offers. And that remains an “if.”

That said, front offices around the league have their eyes trained on Chicago.