LOS ANGELES — Carrying the main card billing of an NBA Finals preview and perhaps the decisive showdown between the league’s top MVP front-runners, Friday’s heavyweight bout between the Los Angeles Lakers and Milwaukee Bucks possessed the sort of stakes offered in June, not March.
And from the opening tip in an electric but on edge Staples Center, the game itself took on a playoff-like intensity. Possessions transformed into grinding battles, regular-season whistles were put on hold while physicality reigned, and points were hard-won. The season-long dominance of both teams against most everyone else dissipated against each other, and a grinding battle ensued, befitting the caliber of two equally-matched contenders.
In the end, the Lakers clinched a playoff berth by defeating the Bucks 113-103. It marked the final regular-season matchup, and foreshadowed what might unfold should these teams meet again in June, when a championship will be on the line.
Until that potential reunion, here are the key moments, observations and takeaways:
All-Star power forward showcase takes a backseat
On a night where the Bucks played against the team with the second-best record in the NBA, and Giannis Antetokounmpo faced off against another MVP frontrunner in LeBron James, Antetokounmpo was focused on another player in his pregame warm up: Anthony Davis.
It is two hours before tipoff and Antetokounmpo after 15 minutes of work on mid-range shots, three-pointers and free throws, Antetokounmpo is ready for a simulation. He needs Schuyler Rimmer, who works in the Bucks’ video room, to stretch taller, get longer and spread his fingers wider. Antetokounmpo is pushing Rimmer to become a makeshift Anthony Davis. The 2019 MVP positioned Rimmer’s body the way he has seen Davis guard him on tape. He instructs Rimmer to fan out his arms.
Opposing coaches often say that Antetokounmpo’s menacing style of play demands to be guarded by committee. In the Lakers game, Davis would be the Lakers’ primary Greek Freak stopper and Antetokounmpo wanted to be prepared… to start.
Ultimately, Davis defended Antetokounmpo only ten times Friday night, according to Second Spectrum. Six of those matchups were in the first quarter, but Davis drew two early fouls and ceded the matchup to LeBron James, who matched up with Antetokonmpo 35 times in the game.
On the other end, Antetokounmpo guarded Davis 37 times in the halfcourt, yielding 12 points in those matchups, according to Second Spectrum. Antetokounmpo was preparing for moments like late in the third quarter, when Davis steamrolled towards the basket. Antetokounmpo set his feet and forced Davis to commit and offensive foul. As he ran down the court, Antetokounmpo wagged his left finger in Dikembe Mutombo style.
In the end, Antetokounmpo had to watch Davis often. The Lakers had the luxury of freeing Davis up on the other end. –Malika Andrews
Bucks not supporting Antetokounmpo
During their December duel in Milwaukee, the Bucks’ reserves out-scored the Lakers’ backups by a whopping 34-4 margin throughout a game the Bucks often led by double digits. (Even wilder: Bucks reserve guard Kyle Korver out-scored the Lakers bench by himself in that game — 6 to 4.) It was the kind of performance that proved the Bucks’ balance, and that they were far more than just Giannis Antetokounmpo.
In the rematch, the Lakers’ bench more than rebounded, scoring 33 points to the Bucks’ 32. But the more worrisome aspect for Milwaukee was the lack of production that they received from anyone outside of their reigning MVP, who didn’t even have his best performance as it was.
Starting small forward Khris Middleton, who was on pace to become the ninth different player in NBA history to shoot at least 50% from the field, 40% on three-pointers and 90% from the free throw line, was off-target for most of the night. The All-Star scored just 12 points on 5-of-19 shooting.
Starting shooting guard Wesley Matthews, who is often a reliable weapon from 3-point range, tallied just three points on 1-of-6 shooting from beyond the arc. Starting point guard Eric Bledsoe scored just 11 and struggled with foul trouble. And off the bench, the Bucks received little relief beyond 17 points from Donte DiVincenzo.
And when the Bucks found themselves clanking shots off the iron too often, they predictably turned to the Greek Freak to stop the bleeding. With the pressure ratcheted up, the Lakers surrounded him, making life even more difficult. That’s not to say the Bucks’ supporting cast is a question mark; indeed, the team has had few weaknesses at all during its 69-win pace.
But on Friday’s primetime stage, the Bucks appeared unbalanced, with far too many players coming up short outside their star. — Baxter Holmes
The decisive quarter
The league’s best team featuring the league’s reigning MVP were on the road and leading 55-50 shortly after halftime when LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers went on the type of run that made you wonder which side deserves those superlatives.
Los Angeles busted out an 18-0 run — the largest by any team against the Milwaukee Bucks this year, according to the Elias Sports Bureau — and James’ fingerprints were all over it:
There was the alley-oop he threw to Anthony Davis,
The 26-foot stepback 3 he tossed in with ease,
Another assist to Davis,
A pass over the top to Danny Green for 3,
And a few free throws.
When the extended spurt had subsided, James kept pouring it on — scoring on consecutive possessions with Giannis Antetokounmpo guarding him, the first one that Antetokounmpo goaltended and the second on a brilliant sweeping drive to the hoop with seemingly the entire arena standing in anticipation of what the King would do against the Greek Freak.
For the quarter, James had 14 points on 5-for-6 shooting to go with three assists and the Lakers outscored the Bucks by 11 points in the eight minutes and 20 seconds he played. And by the start of the fourth quarter, the prevailing thought about the league’s best team and MVP shifted to some degree from Milwaukee to Los Angeles. –Dave McMenamin
The Lakers didn’t shoot well and still won
Anthony Davis had a feeling this was going to be a low-scoring, physical kind of game with two of the top four defenses on the floor.
But was the messy, low-scoring first quarter because of great defense or bad shooting?
The Lakers and Bucks combined to hit just 3-of-25 3-pointers, the third-worst 3-point shooting first quarter in the last 20 seasons.
“Playoff nerves?” Lakers coach Frank Vogel said of the messy, but intense first half, in which both teams struggled to find any kind of rhythm.
“It definitely felt like two teams feeling each other out.”
Eventually, the Lakers did feel the Bucks out. Or rather, they made the Bucks feel them — beating Milwaukee with physicality and dominating in the paint in ways the Giannis Antetokounmpo and Bucks usually do.
Milwaukee leads the league in defending the paint, allowing just 38.8 points a game inside. Friday night, the Lakers scored 50 points in the paint, led by LeBron James’ 18.
That offset an atrocious shooting night from outside as the Lakers hit just 6-of-32 3-pointers. The Lakers won shooting 41.8% from the field (second-worst in a win), making six total 3s (tied for second-worst in any game), and 18.8% 3s (second-worst in any game).
The key: The Lakers made 31 free throws, second-most this season (made 33 in 29-point October home win vs. the Grizzlies). James and Davis combined to make 22 free throws despite missing 10-of-11 3s. The Bucks … made 17-of-23 free throws as a team (Antetokounmpo: 11-of-14).
Those six 3s the Lakers made also ties a season-low against a Bucks opponent. The Oklahoma City Thunder were also the only team to shoot a worst 3% against the Bucks than the Lakers shot tonight. The Bucks allowed six 3s when they beat the Thunder by 47 points a week ago. The Bucks lost by 10 tonight.
Tonight was also tied for the most fouls the Bucks were called for this season (32) and tied for most free throws allowed (31) by Bucks this season. –Ramona Shelburne
Antetokounmpo x James MVP race
With under five minutes to go in the third quarter, a buzz started circulating throughout Staples Center.
A star-studded crowd that included Jay-Z and Michael B. Jordan was about to get what it came to see: the main attraction MVP showdown between Giannis Antetokounmpo and LeBron James.
On three consecutive possessions, the two best players on the court went back and forth, like an old-school one-on-one superstar isolation duel from back in the day. On one possession, James backed in Antetokounmpo on the right block, drove in, pump-faked before scoring after Antetokounmpo was called for a goaltend on a block attempt.
The reigning MVP came back and answered with a 3-pointer. Then James had Antetokounmpo one-on-one again, this time on the left block. The arena was buzzing again as James faced up Antetokounmpo, drove into the paint and scored.
Three days after Super Tuesday, James began a pivotal weekend that could propel his own campaign and make this MVP race a hotly-contested debate. On Friday, he faced the favorite to win MVP again in Antetokounmpo before a rematch with Kawhi Leonard and the LA Clippers on Sunday.
Two wins over teams the Lakers hadn’t beaten this season would certainly bolster James’ 2019-20 MVP resume and shorten the gap between himself and Antetokounmpo.
At 35, James has had an incredible season, keeping the pedal to the metal and playing every game like he’s on a mission.
James finished with 37 points, eight rebounds and seven assists. Antetokounmpo went for 32 points, 12 rebounds and six assists.
Did we learn anything from this latest matchup between the two MVP juggernauts? Besides home-court advantage being nice to have, having two superstars compared to one was a clear edge on this night.
When James needed a rest in the fourth, Anthony Davis attacked Antetokounmpo before finishing with 30 points and nine rebounds after early foul trouble. Meanwhile, the Bucks superstar only got 12 points and 5-for-19 shooting from his All-Star teammate, Khris Middleton.
In the previous meeting between these two teams back on Dec. 19 in Milwaukee, the Bucks beat the Lakers giving Antetokounmpo more support.
James had 21 points, 12 rebounds, 11 assists while Davis went for 36 points, 10 rebounds and three blocks in that loss.
Antetokounmpo had 34 points, 11 rebounds, seven assists and sank five 3-pointers but the Milwaukee bench outscored the Lakers’ reserves, 34-4, in that 111-104 win.
Both teams were 24-4 entering that game but the Lakers went 23-9 since that meeting entering Friday night. The Bucks only lost five times after that first encounter with the Lakers. Actually, make it six now as James added the Lakers’ most impressive win of the season.
At the end with 20.3 seconds left, the Staples Center crowd serenaded James with a smattering of MVP chants. –Ohm Youngmisuk
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