LOS ANGELES — There was something different about this game. STAPLES Center was buzzing 30 minutes before the Lakers and Bucks tipped off.
Jay Z, Michael B. Jordan and Dwyane Wade were among the celebrities in the house to watch not just two of the NBA’s best teams, but two of the league’s biggest superstars square off.
But for the Lakers, this one seemed to mean more. They knew they would clinch a playoff spot with a win, sending them to a place the franchise hasn’t been since the 2012-2013 season.
And even though they are sitting on top of the Western Conference, some look at their record against teams with a winning record and scoff, saying they were more pretenders than contenders.
After reigning NBA MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo scored 10 of Milwaukee’s first 13 points and led his team to an early eight-point lead, it looked like the haters were going to have their way with the Lakers tonight.
Until LeBron James reminded everyone why he is the best player in the world.
The King led the Lakers with 37 points, 8 rebounds and 8 assists in a 113-103 win over the Bucks, and it wasn’t just his offensive production that helped lead the way. He also locked in to help guard MVP frontrunner Giannis Antetokounmpo as well.
“(I was) just taking the challenge, and understanding that if I take the challenge the rest of us will take the challenge as well,” James said of his defensive effort against Antetokounmpo. “We all did that. It wasn’t just me.”
Year 17, Game 58 pic.twitter.com/yQWIVJMLf5— Los Angeles Lakers (@Lakers) March 7, 2020
No one has ever thought of LeBron as the best defender in the world. But, after Anthony Davis picked up three fouls in the first half, James told Davis on the way to the locker room that the Lakers couldn’t afford Davis getting a fourth. He would guard Antetokounmpo.
And in the second half, there he was, guarding and stifling the Greek Freak. We are so used to seeing Antetokounmpo have his way with defenders that it was almost a shock to see LeBron shut him down at every turn.
There were no overpowering moves, thunderous dunks or highlight-reel plays from Antetokounmpo when he was guarded by James. In fact, there was nothing but dead ends. Lakers Head Coach Frank Vogel indicated the game plan didn’t include LeBron guarding Antetokounmpo, but the foul situation called for it. It was a chance James relished, and one his teammate appreciated.
“He took the matchup. I mean I had a couple fouls and he only had one, so he told me at the end of the second,” Davis said. “It worked for us so we stuck with it and we went on a run, and then down the stretch I went back to guard him, and then he went back to guard him.”
The top two teams in the NBA were even at half time, tied up at 49-49. After Antetokounmpo helped the Bucks get out to a 55-50 lead, everything changed. The 35-year-old James did what we have seen him do so many times during his illustrious career: He took over.
James scored or assisted on 17 of the next 20 Lakers points, leading his team on a 20-3 run. They never looked back.
During that run, LeBron was being guarded by Giannis on back-to-back possessions. The second time, as LeBron measured up Antetokounmpo just outside the left block, the crowd got on their feet and began cheering, anticipating another highlight for the home team.
The King did not disappoint. He stormed pass Antetokounmpo and hit a contested layup, reaffirming that this league is still his.
The patience before the attack— Los Angeles Lakers (@Lakers) March 7, 2020
( : @SpectrumSN ) pic.twitter.com/47HQAxtP0O
“Just an incredibly remarkable performance,” Vogel said. “He is a basketball savant, he obviously felt like he needed to assert himself offensively with the coverages, and he did that and was a big part of that stretch.”
The home crowd appreciated the effort they were getting from their King. As LeBron stepped up to the free throw line, the chants of MVP! MVP! were the loudest I’ve heard in this building in a long time.
There could be no questioning the Lakers on this night, where they beat the NBA’s best team. There would be no pundits who can call them, and LeBron, out as pretenders on sports talk shows across the country.
LeBron wouldn’t allow it.
When he spun around Bucks guard Donte DiVincenzo and threw down a left handed dunk to close out the game, he emphatically made his announcement.
With a 113-103 victory over the team with the NBA’s best record making it official, the King will be back where he belongs, looking to further cement his legacy and secure a fourth championship when the NBA Playoffs begin.
“I came here to put this team and put this franchise back where it needed to be,” James said. “The league is not what it is if the Lakers are not winning.”
All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. For more Lakers talk, subscribe to the Silver Screen and Roll podcast feed on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or Google Podcasts. You can follow Jas on Twitter at @jaskang21.