Two days after LeBron James said the MVP award wasn't important to him, he made an emphatic argument for why he deserves it.
In the Lakers' 113-103 win over the Milwaukee Bucks on Friday, James overpowered his way to 37 points on 12-for-21 shooting, eight rebounds and eight assists, outdueling Giannis Antetokounmpo on both ends of the court to tie the teams' season series at 1-1 in their unofficial battle of MVP contenders.
James took over the game in the third quarter after the teams were knotted at halftime, 48-48. He guarded Antetokounmpo while scoring 14 points on five-for-six shooting, leading the Lakers to an 18-0 run over that stretch.
"Just an incredibly remarkable performance, two-way performance," Lakers' coach Frank Vogel said.
James decided to guard Antetokounmpo after Anthony Davis picked up three fouls in the first half.
"He told me at the end of the second when we went to the locker room that I had [Wesley Matthews] starting the half," said Davis, who had 30 points and nine rebounds. "I didn’t want to pick up a silly one and have four and go sit down again. That was a great recommendation by him and the coaching staff and it kind of worked. We stuck with it and went on a run."
James, who is a decade older than Antetokounmpo at 35, smothered him, snatching the ball out of his hands and taking away his lanes. Antetokounmpo had eight points on three-for-five shooting in the third quarter, finishing with 32 points and 11 rebounds in his team's loss.
James said he didn't prepare for Friday's game any differently, even though the Lakers (48-13) were playing against the winningest team (53-10) in the league and its reigning MVP.
"Same prep I do every game," James said. "Watch film of the opposing team. Watched their last two games on the way here. Takes me about an hour 15 to get here on game day. Allowed me to kind of lock in on what they do best. Not any more preparation I do for any ball club or any individual. Just always try to have myself in the position where if the matchup occurs, I’m always ready for it because I’m prepared."
James' performance on both ends of the court excited the crowd at Staples Center. He received "MVP" chants each time he went to the free-throw line in the fourth quarter.
After the game, Magic Johnson tweeted that James "was the best player in Staples Center tonight." Jared Dudley tweeted that "one mans [sic] game did a little more talking tonight," adding a crown emoji.
Vogel seconded that.
"LeBron definitely got the upper hand in tonight’s matchup, but it’s one game out of 82," Vogel said.
Vogel added that the Lakers are going to be judicious about asking so much of James.
"Certainly, we're not going to ask him, in year 17, to guard the other team's best player for 40 minutes, or whatever he played, 36 minutes, and still carry that load offensively," Vogel said. "But he shows he can certainly do it when it's needed."
The Lakers accomplished two big things Friday. They avenged their 111-104 loss to the Bucks in December. And they clinched a playoff spot for the first time since 2013.
It was a big moment for James, who said it "hurt me to my heart" when he sustained a groin injury last Christmas that led to the Lakers missing the playoffs for their sixth-straight season.
"I came here to put this team and put this franchise back where they needed to be," James said. “The league is not what it is if the Lakers are not winning. And that was one of my responsibilities, one of my goals when I came here."