The last time the Milwaukee Bucks played the Los Angeles Lakers, Giannis Antetokounmpo delivered an unforgettable message to LeBron James in the debate over who is currently the best player in the world. As Antetokounmpo drained a pull-up three-pointer in the fourth quarter to help the Bucks pull away in their eventual victory, the young Milwaukee star formed a crown with his hands and placed it on top of his own head, appearing to mouth ‘I wear this now.’
Antetokounmpo is likely to win his second straight MVP this season as he’s led the Bucks to the best record in the NBA. He might even win Defensive Player of the Year, too. Antetokounmpo has been the most productive player in the NBA all season, but the title of the best in the world ultimately feels like it shouldn’t be passed during the regular season.
James will still have something to say about who wears the crown before this year is over. James didn’t need any outward symbolism to deliver his own message on the debate Friday night as the Bucks and Lakers played again. He let his play do the talking.
James was dominant on both ends of the floor during the Lakers’ 113-103 win Friday, finishing with 37 points, eight rebounds, and eight assists. This was a forceful reminder that, on any given night, James can still wear the crown as the game’s best player that he’s held for so long.
Before the game, James said winning regular season MVP isn’t what motivates him. Rather, he’s motivated by being the best player in the world and the best player of all-time. At age 35, he is still building a convincing case in both arguments.
James’ play in the win over the Bucks was another example that he’s still capable of overpowering the top players in the game in individual matchups. That’s what he did against Antetokounmpo.
Antetokounmpo was spectacular at times to finish with 32 points, 11 rebounds, and six assists, but couldn’t shake James in the second half moments that decided the game.
James’ defense can still decide a championship
James was a force defensively during his prime with the Miami Heat, but he’s earned a reputation for coasting defensively during the regular season in recent years. James has been better defensively for most of this season than he was in Cleveland — the Lakers have the No. 3 defense in the NBA — and he’s still able to turn it up in the biggest moments.
That’s exactly what he did against Antetokounmpo. James repeatedly matched up with Antetokounmpo during the second half, and consistently stopped him from scoring:
MEAN MUG BRON— ESPN (@espn) March 7, 2020
LeBron has been up to the challenge tonight against Giannis. pic.twitter.com/366y8Tsxqn
Lakers head coach Frank Vogel credited James’ defense for the win after the game:
“What was more impressive to me was his defense on Giannis,” Vogel said. “For him to take on that assignment and still do what he did offensively, just an incredible performance.”
Antetokounmpo might be taller, longer, and faster than James, but the latter’s savvy and strength defensively remains a game-changer. When James needs to dial up his defense, he can still do it as well as just about anyone alive.
James may still be the best in the world
Antetokounmpo deserves to win MVP once again. He has been the best player in the NBA so far this season.
That doesn’t necessarily mean he will be the king come playoff time. James will still have something to say about it. Kawhi Leonard will, too. It’s fair to say that in James’ greatest moments on the biggest stages, he still has the potential to play better than anyone. The playoffs this year will be the ultimate test.
Antetokounmpo will get the hardware, but he doesn’t wear the crown quite yet. James reminded us of that.