But after the Lakers finished with a 113-106 win over the Bucks on Thursday, James sounded apathetic over winning the head-to-head scoring matchup over Antetokounmpo (34-25).
“I can care less about that,” James said. “I try to play well and help our team win against any team.”
Los Angeles Lakers forward Anthony Davis expressed annoyance last season that Antetokounmpo won the NBA’s defensive player of the year award at his expense. Yet, Davis hardly wanted to gloat about playing a role in Antetokounmpo committing nine turnovers.
“It’s team defense,” Davis said. “It’s not just the guy on the ball guarding him.”
These banal quotes capture more than just James and Davis showing their inner “Bull Durham” and remaining painfully disciplined with not offering any juicy material to flood the television, radio and social media airwaves. They also showcase why the Lakers have always tried to keep a big-picture perspective with both their successes and failures.
They correctly did not make a big deal when the Bucks defeated them in a head-to head matchup last season in December. They knew they had a whole season to discover and improve their identity. They hardly made a big deal about their signature win against Milwaukee on Thursday. They know four more months of regular-season basketball await and then the playoffs. And they certainly do not make a big deal about chasing matchups because they know it bodes little playoff implications.
“Honestly no one had brought that up or talked about it. Our motivation was not losing two in a row tonight,” Davis said. “We were able to get that accomplished. He’s a great player. Great player on both sides of the ball. He deserves it. But for us, we try to go out there and win basketball games.”
Therefore, the most significant part of the Lakers’ latest win pointed to something else. The Lakers have completed the first month of the NBA’s regular season with mostly encouraging signs about their quest to defend their NBA championship and potential hiccups that could disrupt that goal.
The Lakers (12-4) have a half-game cushion over the Clippers (11-4) for first place in the Western Conference amid varying moving parts.
The Lakers have enjoyed talent and continuity with James and Davis, and both players have threaded the needle between avoiding both load management and burnout.
By replacing Rajon Rondo, Dwight Howard, JaVale McGee, Danny Green with Dennis Schröder, Marc Gasol, Montrezl Harrell and Wesley Matthews, the Lakers have boosted their secondary scoring while not offering as much consistent rim protection. But what they lack on defense, the Lakers have made up for in 3-point shooting. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, who once became derided for his inconsistent play, has since become one of the team’s key outside shooters.
While they have felt the strain with starting a season just over two months after winning an NBA title, the Lakers have not been seriously affected yet with any COVID-19 tests and contact tracing.
“I just wanted to see how we were going to play and then get the new guys acclimating to what we do as a culture on and off the floor,” James said. “I would say we’re doing some good things. We just want to continue to build off of that.”
The consistency might not be as ideal. The Lakers have won all eight of their road games, and have gone only 4-4 at home. They have coasted against lottery teams, including the Houston Rockets, San Antonio Spurs, Memphis Grizzlies and the Oklahoma City Thunder. But before Thursday’s win over the Bucks, the Lakers struggled against some of the Western Conference’s potential threats in the Clippers, Dallas Portland Trail Blazers and Golden State Warriors.
Yet, some of those hiccups have more to do with regular-season complacency than any deeply rooted issues. Though NBA teams all are leery of skipping steps during the regular season, the Lakers have remained self-motivated enough to avoid a losing streak thus far. Since last season, the Lakers have pledged never to lose consecutive games and managed to experience that only three times.
The Lakers surely don’t have the same rim protection and defensive chemistry as they did last season. But the Lakers don’t appear to lack in that area because of effort. It appears they have because of the new pieces. In the meantime, they have leaned on James and Davis’ brilliance as well as their scoring depth to compensate for those defensive shortcomings.
“I honestly had no idea what to expect coming in off a short offseason and coming in after having won a championship,” Lakers coach Frank Vogel said. “I really thought it could be a wide range of ways that it could play out. I’m happy with where we’re at. There’s some areas we need to continue to get better at. And we’ve shown early on we can be great at — just disciplined things with the habits we build with more repetition and more time together.”
In other words, the Lakers expect their identity to evolve with more on-court experience. But they are also aware of the challenges ahead with COVID-cases, fatigue and opposing team’s best shot remaining major speed bumps.
So while the Lakers have enjoyed collecting a signature win and having success against Antetokounmpo, they hardly think much of it. Greater goals and challenges await.