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Defining Moments of the NBA Season: Giannis Wears the Crown Against LeBron

In a midseason clash between the game’s two biggest stars, Antetokounmpo announced he isn’t waiting for James to pass the torch—he’s grabbing it instead

AP Images/Ringer illustration

The NBA is on hold for the foreseeable future. To help fill the void, we’re looking back at the defining moments of the 65-ish games of the 2019-20 season so far.

It very quickly became crystal clear that Giannis Antetokounmpo wasn’t going to rest on his laurels. After a breakthrough 2018-19 that confirmed he’d reached the rarefied air reserved for the world’s very best basketball players—All-NBA first team, All-Defense first team, and his first Most Valuable Player trophy—Antetokounmpo somehow opened the 2019-20 season looking even better, topping his incredible MVP numbers and leading the Bucks to the league’s best record through the season’s first two months.

Sprinting stride for stride with the Bucks were the Lakers, who raced to the top of the West behind stellar starts from newly arrived megastar Anthony Davis and incumbent cornerstone LeBron James. James responded to a long summer of questions about whether his best days were behind him by averaging 26 points per game at age 34 and leading the league in assists for the first time. The Lakers’ December 19 visit to Milwaukee was one of the most anticipated games of the season. Not only were the teams no. 1 and 2 in net rating, but the Bucks were bouncing back from the end of their league-best 18-game winning streak, and the Lakers had gone 17-2 in the same stretch. It was a historically rare showdown of two teams so dominant that deep into the season.

It was also a nationally televised clash of the titans—the kind of game when you could make a real statement. So Giannis made one.

It wasn’t just the sheer tonnage of Giannis’s production that made noise; he has, at this point, made stat lines like “34 points, 11 rebounds, seven assists, a steal, and a block in just 32 minutes” feel downright mundane. No, it was how Antetokounmpo took what the Lakers defense gave him—pull-up 3-pointers, the kind he’d clanged time and again in the previous six seasons, the Greek Freak’s Achilles’ heel—and how he made them pay for it. With just over nine minutes to go in the fourth quarter and Milwaukee up by 11, he took an outlet pass from Donte DiVincenzo, strolled across the timeline, stepped up to the arc on the left wing, and drilled a long ball over a late-contesting Davis; it was his fifth 3-pointer of the night, a new career high, and it forced a Laker timeout.

And that’s when the MVP, just like Terminator X, spoke with his hands.

As he headed off the court, Giannis reached up, made what appeared to be a circle with his thumbs and index fingers, and mimed pulling something down on top of his head. After the game, Giannis “declin[ed] to confirm the intention of the gesture,” according to Eric Nehm of The Athletic. Apparently, though, it looked in the arena just like it looked on TNT: “‘I wear the crown now,’ he seemed to say toward the Bucks bench,” wrote Matt Velazquez of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

After the Bucks finished off a 111-104 win, Antetokounmpo didn’t talk about dethroning the King. Instead, he discussed the importance of “trying to stay humble,” and remembering that he “wasn’t the no. 1 pick like AD was, like LeBron was,” and never losing sight of the fact that someone from where he’s from is “not supposed to be here.” (James, for his part, just quietly tipped his cap to his counterpart for hitting all those 3s. What else can you do, right?)

All of that is perfectly lovely. I don’t doubt that Giannis has the purest respect for his competitors—well, outside of James Harden, maybe—or that he feels eternally grateful for the bounty that life has provided him, or that, even after moving closer to establishing himself as the beating heart of the NBA, he will keep behaving as if he’s still that mystery-man, mid-first-round pick who has to prove himself over and over and over. That’s all fine. Admirable, even!

The pantomimed crowning—the act itself, an overt physical statement far beyond the garden-variety post-dunk flex or mean mug we’re more accustomed to seeing from Giannis—spoke louder than any canned platitude tossed off in a postgame scrum ever could. And what it said mattered.

It matters that Giannis wants the no. 1 spot so bad he can taste it, and that he was so hyped up in that moment—over just how close he might be to reaching his goal—that he couldn’t help himself. We want that unbridled emotion, that pot-boiling passion, that unquenchable desire to be the best. This is a competition; it’s OK to actually be competitive, and to show the rush of blood you’re feeling in the process.

Maybe that sort of celebration is a bit premature in December, but fuck it: At least it’s honest. Giannis didn’t have to tell us what he was thinking after the game. We knew. It was clear.

With apologies to that delightfully tight All-Star Game between Team LeBron and Team Giannis, it took three months for a proper rematch between the league’s two biggest stars. And when the Bucks entered Staples Center on March 6, it was LeBron’s turn to make a statement. He did so, loudly, to the tune of 37 points in 37 minutes to go with eight rebounds, eight assists, and three steals in a 10-point Lakers win:

Two days later, James authored an equally impressive encore—28-8-9 against Kawhi Leonard in a win over the rival Clippers—to cap a monster week in which the four-time MVP appeared to be shifting into a higher gear to make his bid at a fifth. After sticking a dagger into the Clips with an and-1 in the final minute, LeBron checked out of the game and headed to the Lakers bench … where teammate turned valet Kyle Kuzma was waiting, king hat in hand:

“Sometimes the greats need motivation, and I think LeBron does a good job of putting his foot down,” Lakers forward Jared Dudley said after the win. “[Other stars] are the next faces of the league, not the faces of it. It’s still him.”

“Narrative” gets a bad rap in sports coverage and conversation these days, chiefly because a lot of people have taken great pain to distort the term to mean “some dumb bullshit that everybody says, but isn’t true.” But a narrative, in and of itself, has no malevolent valence. A narrative is just a string of events, collected and told. It’s just a story. That’s all it is. That’s all it ever was.

“Player felled by flaws works to transform weakness into strength” … “new generation rises up to square off against its elders” ... “challenger stakes claim against champion” ... “all-time great summons new resolve to fend off dangerous adversary and reestablish the hierarchy” … these are all just stories. Compelling ones, too; they must be, to stand the test of time the way they have and become such archetypal forms of organizing the way shit happens. I lost track, somewhere between the beginning of March and the warp-speed arrival of Real Life, of what Giannis vs. LeBron was supposed to mean—what deeper truth it was supposed to reveal about history or the future, what it told us about the league and ourselves, what it signaled about why fans who think one or the other are unbearable sheep, or whatever. Thank heaven for small mercies.

With the benefit of a little distance, it seems clear that what we actually got—one all-time talent brashly announcing he’d arrived at the top of the mountain, another forcefully replying that he wasn’t ready to give up the high ground just yet—was a pretty cool story. Here’s hoping that, before too long, we get another chapter.