In the wake of Friday’s tense home win over the Bucks, Lakers coach Frank Vogel was asked (again) about his star player, forward LeBron James. All James had done on the evening was score 37 points with eight rebounds and eight assists—shooting 12-for-21 in the process and 12-for-15 from the free-throw line—while also playing good defense in stretches on defending MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo.
At age 35 and with 48,260 minutes played (ninth-most in league history, plus an all-time best 10,049 playoff minutes), James has established that his basketball IQ is among the best the NBA has ever seen. Vogel knows that well. Seven years ago, when Vogel was coaching the Pacers, James was playing for Miami and averaged 29.0 points on 51.0 percent shooting and 44.1 percent 3-point shooting in a six-game Heat win in the Eastern Conference finals.
When he saw what James did against the Bucks, Vogel could only shrug. “He’s a basketball savant,” the coach said.
James’ output against Milwaukee marked the most points the Bucks have allowed in a loss this season. The previous high had been Indiana’s T.J. Warren, who scored 35 points when the Pacers beat the Bucks just before the All-Star break.
More Lakers Fouls, More Pressure on James
James had to be particularly aggressive in the game because his fellow star forward, Anthony Davis, picked up two quick fouls in the opening minutes of the game. Davis committed a foul on Antetokounmpo with 10:51 to go in the first quarter, on a layup that Antetokounmpo made. Antetokounmpo drew Davis into another foul with 8:10 to go in the opening quarter.
James picked up the load of guarding Antetokounmpo while also carrying the Lakers offensively.
“That’s just him being assertive and he is going to do whatever it takes to win the game,” Vogel said. “What was more impressive to me was his defense on Giannis. You know, starting in the first half, AD was in foul trouble and we needed somebody to step up. And for him to take on that assignment and still do what he did offensively, it was just an incredibly remarkable performance, two-way performance. … He obviously felt like he needed to assert himself offensively with the coverages and he did that.”
LeBron-Giannis MVP Gap Closing
In doing so, James at least began to close the gap between him and Antetokounmpo for this year’s MVP award. James’ candidacy had begun gaining steam in recent weeks but with Antetokounmpo’s Bucks dominating the NBA and with James playing alongside Davis, it still appeared a longshot that James would win the award.
Now, though, the Lakers are only three games behind Milwaukee in the loss column. James is averaging 25.6 points and a league-high 10.7 assists, plus 7.8 rebounds. Antetokounmpo is averaging 29.6 points, 13.7 rebounds and 5.8 assists.
One difference between the two has been the frequency with which Antetokounmpo has gone to the free-throw line—10.0 four shots per game, second in the NBA. James, meanwhile, has gone to the line 5.6 times per game, a career-low. That was not the case on Friday with James’ 15 foul shots.
“They shot 31 free throws,” Antetokounmpo said. “We put them to the line so easily. They were coming down. We were fouling them. We gave them clear path fouls, so they shot 31 free throws. You give them 12 free throws, 14 free throws, now you have a ball game. We just have to do better.”