LOS ANGELES — It’s not always how many, but when.
And, in the NBA, it’s always about who.
The long-playing saga of LeBron James reached an L.A. peak on Friday night, against the NBA’s best team and against the NBA’s best player, if you believe the MVP odds and the 2019 trophy that Giannis Antetokounmpo holds.
The 37-year-old James asked to guard the 25-year-old Antetokounmpo when Anthony Davis got into foul trouble, and in a third-quarter stretch James got the ball and squared up against the Greek Freak twice in a row, scoring both times, winning the two-man debate as the Staples Center jury celebrated.
The two had similar numbers in the Lakers’ 113-103 win. The difference was that James had two points at the end of the first quarter and finished with 37. Antetokounmpo had 10 in the first six minutes of the game and settled for 32.
And in the third quarter, which the Lakers won by 11 after a halftime tie, James went 5-for-6 and scored 14 points in 8:20. In doing so, he rolled past the 34,000-point mark.
“I think LeBron got the upper hand in this particular matchup,” Lakers coach Frank Vogel said, “but he would tell you that’s not really what motivates him.”
Yeah, James probably would tell you that, but nobody who saw him put this game in Giannis’ face will automatically believe it.
Overall it was a systematic performance by the Lakers (48-13) against the Bucks (53-10). It can’t really serve as a template for the rest of the NBA, because everyone has the same plan: Make Antetokounmpo shoot from outside (he was 1 for 6 from deep on Friday) and, if possible, challenge the other scorers. And, on top of that, figure out a way to score. But there are limited quantities of LeBron James.
“We saw how Miami played them,” Avery Bradley said, “and I feel like they did a good job. We learned from those guys and tried to execute our own defensive game plan.”
Antetokounmpo shot 6-for-18 in that game Monday and scored 13, and could only get to the foul line three times against the Heat. He was 11-for-14 from the line Friday, but the Bucks got a little giddy from downtown, as is their tendency sometimes, and missed 31 of 43.
“It’s a challenge to do those two things,” Lakers guard Alex Caruso said, “to build a wall against him and then get out on their shooters. Early he put his head down and forced his way to the cup, but we did a good job after that.”
But as Vogel said, offense begat defense, particularly foul-line offense. The Bucks only commit 18.9 fouls per game and only give up 20.3 free-throw attempts. Those figures were 32 and 38 on Friday, and the Lakers scored 14 more free-throw points than did Milwaukee. With the pace interrupted, L.A. was able to assemble that defense brick-by-brick. Milwaukee only had 20 points on the run.
“When our defense is set, it’s really good,” Vogel said.
“Early in the game we had to share the ball, get paint touches, and move it,” Caruso said, “but, at the end, we went back to the isolation game, because it was winning time.”
It was indeed.
“I saw that look in LeBron’s eyes,” Bradley said, grinning. “I saw the same look in A.D.’s eyes (Anthony Davis) last game. I’m not saying they don’t get into every single game, but LeBron flipped a switch, pushed a button, whatever it is.
“That was a Defensive Player of the Year performance tonight against Giannis. It’s impressive to see him at that age, it’s unbelievable. I told him after the game, ‘You played like The King tonight.’ We’ve seen it all year. When he leads us, we all follow. He’s our facilitator, he’s our everything.”
But as the Lakers keep on using him, when will they use him up?
James has played in 58 of the Lakers’ 61 games and has averaged 34.7 minutes, 14th most in the NBA. That’s two fewer minutes per game than in 2018, when he played 82 games for Cleveland and got to the NBA Finals. Those are focal minutes, too, since he’s the de facto point guard and preferred defensive stopper.
But it’s hard to get concerned about a tank that’s never been empty.
“You have to be intelligent,” Vogel said. “Certainly we’re not going to ask him, in Year 17, to guard the best player for 48 minutes, or the 36 minutes he played tonight. But he can still give us what’s needed.”
The Clippers, 2-0 against the Lakers this season and healthier than they’ve been, meet the Lakers here Sunday afternoon. That’s one of the few “event” games the Lakers have left, at least until they close out the Clippers series on April 9.
“This was one of 82,” Caruso said, “but one of our mantras was not to lose two in a row and not to lose twice to the same team.”
Back-to-back losses have only happened twice. The Lakers lost at Milwaukee on Dec. 19, part of a four-game streak that ended with the Christmas night loss to the Clippers.
They are now 1-1 with the Bucks. Again, it’s not always about how many.