Saturday 7 March 2020 11:45, UK
LeBron James has repeatedly insisted he does not care about winning another MVP award. He knows almost nobody outside the Los Angeles Lakers' locker room thinks he will beat Giannis Antetokounmpo for the honour.
When the reigning MVP brought his Milwaukee Bucks to Staples Center on Friday night, James' brilliant performance still demonstrated the debate should not be over just yet.
James had 37 points, eight rebounds and seven assists to win his showdown with his fellow All-Star Game captain, and the Lakers beat Milwaukee 113-103 in a clash of the NBA's conference leaders.
The 35-year-old also scored his 34,000th career point during the game, joining Lakers and Bucks legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Karl Malone - the man he is looking to emulate by winning MVP at 35 years old - as the only players to hit the mark.
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Los Angeles was carried to its 10th win in 11 games overall by James, who scored 14 points in the third quarter and then kept LA ahead down the stretch as the Lakers (48-13) split their season series with the league-leading Bucks (53-10).
Antetokounmpo had 32 points and 11 rebounds for the Bucks, while James' partner-in-crime Anthony Davis scored 14 of his 30 points in the fourth quarter as the three best players on the floor all produced good performances on the night - but it was the elder statesman of the three who made the biggest impact offensively.
James also frequently guarded Antetokounmpo during the middle quarters with consistent success. James capped his night with a one-handed spinning dunk with 27 seconds left, sparking the last of many "M-V-P!" chants for him at Staples Center.
"We know who we are, and this is great competition," James said. "To have the opportunity to compete at a high level, that's fun and exciting. But we know what we're capable of."
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The victory even had a symbolic meaning for James and the Lakers: They formally clinched their first playoff spot since 2013, ending the longest drought in franchise history.
"I came here to put this franchise back where it needed to be," James said. "The league is not what it is if the Lakers are not winning."
James has transformed himself into the NBA's assists leader this season to get the most out of Davis, but he did it without losing any of his own scoring acumen. The Lakers depend on his steady excellence on both ends, and he has rarely been better this season than he was against the Bucks.
"What was more impressive to me was his defense on Giannis," Lakers coach Frank Vogel said. "For him to take on that assignment and still do what he did offensively, just an incredible performance."
The steadily-improving Donte DiVincenzo scored 17 points for Milwaukee, who have lost two of three games for the first time since October but the Bucks' star man was disappointed with the team's naivety on defense.
"We definitely did not play smart," Antetokounmpo said. "We put them at the line so easily. We've just got to do better. Obviously we're going to learn a lot from this game."
Antetokounmpo finished strong with a 12-point fourth quarter after two fairly quiet periods, but Milwaukee just could not catch up to the Lakers in the waning minutes of one of the NBA's marquee regular-season matchups.
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"They were just better," Milwaukee coach Mike Budenholzer said. "They're a very good team. They do a lot of things well. I think it's good for us, though. We'll learn from it, and we'll be better."
Antetokounmpo appeared to be headed for another monster game when he scored 10 points in the first four minutes at Staples Center, but he managed only two more in the first half when Los Angeles tightened up its defense.
The Lakers made an 18-0 run in the third quarter to take their first significant lead at 68-55. James drove the surge with his scoring and playmaking, while James and Danny Green valiantly slowed the bigger Antetokounmpo on defense.