MILWAUKEE — Anthony Davis wasn’t set, and Giannis Antetokounmpo wasn’t revving up for one of his zero-to-sixty drives to the basket, as the defending MVP instead raised up from 23 feet and calmly hit his fifth triple of the game.
He turned and winked to the camera, a signal to the nationally televised audience that was supposed to be watching a contest between two juggernauts.
It was more of an announcement, a coronation of sorts, as Antetokounmpo’s Milwaukee Bucks ran away with a convincing 111-104 win Thursday night over LeBron James’ and Davis’ Los Angeles Lakers at Fiserv Forum.
The message from Antetokounmpo was loud and clear: I’m the best player in the game.
Nobody thought it would happen so soon and so suddenly — not with LeBron on his revenge tour and playing on a plateau no other 35-year-olds have reached. But Antetokounmpo has at least made himself a threat from the 3-point line, the one hole in his impressive all-around game, turning into a nuclear weapon that cannot be defended by mere mortals.
Hitting five threes set a career-high, so he certainly won’t be participating in the 3-point contest on All-Star Saturday Night, but his long-range shooting is no longer a weakness that can be exploited. Every time he took a three Thursday night, it felt like it was at a critical juncture — when the Lakers were trying to put possessions together to come back from a 21-point deficit, or an early blow that brought Lakers coach Frank Vogel off the bench to stop the bleeding.
Antetokounmpo has a sense and a feel that came from his time playing point guard for former Bucks coach and current Lakers assistant Jason Kidd — and it was against Kidd’s team he unleashed his full fury.
“The thing we’ve been talking about him is that his confidence is growing, the willingness to take [3-pointers] is the first step,” Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said. “I don’t know what the proper or correct term for him is.”
There’s no official decree, no championship belt switching hands. But when the defending MVP takes his game to another level, it’s more than him just cementing his standing among the elite.
He’s widening the gap between himself and the rest of the field.
That’s what happens when one MVP takes down two MVP-caliber players. It’s what LeBron used to do when he could physically dismantle every opponent on the floor and not have to pick his spots.
It’s no shot at James, no shame on him if what occurred Thursday will indeed hold true for the next several months and years. But it feels like Giannis’ time, and he seems intent on maximizing it for as long as he has full control of his game.
James won’t go quietly into the night. He didn’t Thursday, rebounding from a slow start to finish with a triple-double (21 points, 12 rebounds, 11 assists), but two late turnovers ended the slim chance the Lakers had at making the Bucks do more than sweat.
He’ll have more to say as the season goes on, but will his elevator go to the penthouse as consistently as Antetokounmpo’s at this stage? Antetokounmpo is playing in the perfect system for him, yes, but there’s no equal alongside him.
James needed Davis with him on the Lakers for a reason.
“I’m not supposed to be here. I wasn’t the No. 1 pick. AD was. LeBron was. I’m not even supposed to be here,” Antetokounmpo said. “I’m happy to go through this process and help my team. It gives me joy. Seeing the result at the end of the day. The shots I made today, I made four or five years ago [through practice].”
Antetokounmpo tried to downplay the significance of beating the Lakers, claiming it was just another game that won’t matter at the end of 82. But his play — and the Lakers’ usage of their stars — seemed to signal otherwise.
Davis gamely played on a gimpy ankle and didn’t get a rest in the second half, going 43 minutes. James played 36 minutes and there was plenty of time for Vogel to throw in the towel, considering this was the end of a 10-day Eastern road swing, but he refused.
The matchup was billed as a possible NBA Finals preview and each team treated it as such. It was the first time in the league’s history that both teams had four losses or fewer headed into a matchup at this point in the season.
Neither team had perfect health; the Lakers were without Kyle Kuzma and the Bucks were playing their second game without starting point guard Eric Bledsoe.
But hardly any of that mattered once the game tipped off, and Antetokounmpo seemed intent on ensuring the Bucks didn’t lose a second straight game after falling to Dallas on Monday. He was decisive, definitive and destructive in 32 minutes, scoring 34 with 11 rebounds and seven assists.
The strategy that corralled him just six months ago in the conference finals has been rendered obsolete, and he seized the opening at the top of the NBA with Kevin Durant out for the year, Stephen Curry recovering from a serious injury, and Kawhi Leonard rounding himself into shape.
Despite the evidence and the MVP last season, there was resistance to crowning Antetokounmpo.
Now, there’s confirmation.
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