NBA regular season

LeBron remains the superior MVP to Giannis

Naveen Ganglani
LeBron remains the superior MVP to Giannis

BLOCKBUSTER. LeBron James defends Giannis Antetokounmpo in the much anticipated Lakers-Bucks showdown.

Photo by Nick Monroe/USA TODAY Sports/Reuters

One has mastered all parts of the basketball game. The other remains a work in progress

The Milwaukee Bucks and Los Angeles Lakers entered their highly anticipated affair with millions of eyes watching. It was an important matchup early in the NBA season to gauge where two of basketball’s superior squads stand in the hierarchy of elites. 

It also had an appetizing side story to accompany the main draw. 

LeBron James has not been happy about being snubbed in recent MVP ballots; that award currently belonging to two-time winner Giannis Antetokounmpo. Although James is widely considered the superior player – with the rings to back him up – it’s still become puzzling as to why the actual hardware belongs in Milwaukee and not Los Angeles.

Especially given how incredibly one-sided this James-Antetokounmpo duel would turn out to be.

James displayed a performance that will one day be included in his mixtape as a nominee for the greatest of all time. He scored an efficient 34 points with 6 three-pointers plus 8 assists and 6 rebounds. For the 38 minutes he was on the court, the Lakers were a +15. But words don’t do justice to how masterful he was in this game, and still is, even at the age of 36. 

This was The King’s Gambit.

As for Antetokounmpo, the stats curtain his actual impact. He finished with a solid 25 points on 11-of-17 shooting and 12 rebounds but turned the ball over 9 times and fouled out of the game. The Lakers’ defensive philosophy was to expose Giannis’ weakness because doing so remains the most efficient way to defeat this flawed Milwaukee team.

There’s the question of why Giannis continues to attempt jump shot when he clearly struggles at it and because he’s better at attacking the rim.

It’s simple: he can’t do it all the time, even if he wants to. If you position a bunch of defenders to block his driving path, he becomes limited as a basketball superstar. If you have smart defenders, which the Lakers do, they will stick to their original assignments but always remain aware of when they must help on a Giannis drive, often just one step away. 

And if the reigning MVP forces the action, there are going to be a lot of offensive fouls called, which was the case here.

“Whenever I drive the ball or whenever I spin… it just makes it tougher,” Giannis said of LA’s defensive pressure. 

The Bucks built a workable lead in the 2nd quarter powered by the stellar play of Jrue Holiday, the man LeBron would call an “All-Star” and who the Bucks paid a handsome ransom for to be a game-changer in a confrontation of this magnitude. 

He was spectacular in the first half, scoring on outside shots and turnarounds, playing tough defense on James, and finding open teammates. Khris Middleton was good, not great, while Giannis provided early impact but found himself coughing up the basketball and crashing on the chests of defenders. 

Somewhere, Montrezl Harrell is still icing his chin after being on the receiving end of a Greek Freak-sized elbow which was assessed a flagrant foul.

But the Lakers, with the experience and savviness of back-to-back defending champions, turned the flow of the game to their favor and would not look back. Disappointed by their second-half collapse at home against Golden State this week, James, his sidekick Anthony Davis, and the rest of the team used that as motivation to secure another big road W instead of focusing on MVP-related misgivings. 

“It’s never been about individual. It’s all about team success and it’s all that matters. I can care less about that. I just try to play well, help our team, and that’s what it’s all about,” LeBron said post-game.

Giannis, unsurprisingly, missed a jump shot which led to a Davis layup on the break which was actually tipped in by Holiday. The reigning MVP then turned the ball over and committed another foul, leading to a Dennis Schroder layup for the lead. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope would close the first half making a pair of threes, stealing momentum for his team. 

LA stayed on top and pushed its lead up to 11 before facing some danger when the Bucks cut their advantage to 2 with 3 minutes to go.

“How things have turned!” play-by-play man Marv Albert said.

Well, not for long.

Here’s what happened next:

Holiday, who struggled mightily in the second half, gambled on a steal and that allowed LeBron to attack, drawing in 3 Bucks defenders in the paint. He passed the ball to Davis, who swung it to KCP, who had enough time to order a pizza before letting the ball fly. No defender was in sight. 3 points.

Giannis would get fouled and, of course, missed one of two. This is the same player who the other day went a ghastly 1-of-10 from the foul line. 

James got the ball to Davis in the post after getting the switch on the pick. With the smaller Holiday on AD, 3 Bucks were forced to provide help defense in the paint. The result? Another open 3 in the corner, this time from Alex Caruso. Swish. He was Giannis’ assignment.

Giannis answered by faking a three-pointer which Davis for some reason fell for. In the ensuing possession, LeBron rotated his fingers, signaling that he wanted to run the same play again. The Bucks didn’t learn their lesson from the prior possessions. James got the switch with the bigger Brook Lopez on him. This time Davis handed him the ball and LeBron calmly sunk the final dagger. 

Could the Bucks have made a comeback? Sure, except Giannis was called for another charge on a lob. Middleton hit a 3 for a puncher’s chance but then Antetokounmpo was called for another foul, taking him out of the game. Afterwards, LeBron had a dunk to seal the end of competition. 

And another note: how Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer has two NBA Coach of the Year awards while both Frank Vogel and Erik Spoelstra have none will always confound me. He continues to get exposed in big encounters. 

While LeBron struggled in his first year with the Lakers, Giannis was ascending and expected to take over the torch as the new MVP in town. 

Years later, James has another title while Antetokounmpo has not gotten closer to winning his first ring. Just when it seemed like the gap between the two had narrowed, it ended up expanding, and their first head-to-head battle of the season is another indication why.

One has mastered all parts of the basketball game. The other remains a work in progress.

“To be respected by a guy in our league who has been so dominant over the last few years, obviously representing the MVP trophy the last couple of years and just what he does both on the floor and off the floor, it’s very well-received and very humbling as well,” LeBron said about Giannis’ admiration for him.

“That guy is damn good himself,” James added.

Yes, he is. 

But LeBron is much better. 

For Giannis to get what he wants, that has to eventually change.

So far, no good. – 

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