MILWAUKEE -- A few minutes into the fourth quarter, Fiserv Forum was getting restless. Once 21 points, the Milwaukee Bucks' lead over the Los Angeles Lakers had been whittled down to 11, and that was well within striking distance for LeBron James and Anthony Davis. But the Bucks have a superstar of their own.
Taking the ball from Donte DiVincenzo, Giannis Antetokounmpo strolled down the floor in semi-transition and sized up the situation developing in front of him. Davis decided to sit back a few steps inside the 3-point line to cut off any driving lanes, so Giannis pulled up with confidence and drained his fifth 3 of the night to give the Bucks a 98-84 lead and the crowd a reason to erupt.
"I knew off the rebound, I'm gonna shoot it," Giannis said. "Like, I was just coming down, hoping that he would be like two steps back, and I wanted to pull up. That 3, it's a momentum play. I was in foul trouble, I just wanted to be aggressive. Miss or make it doesn't really matter, it's all about the confidence and having the mindset to take that shot."
Confidence in shooting the ball is new for the Greek Freak. It's been the one main weakness in his game throughout his entire time in the league, but he's shooting 33.8 percent from deep this season, and 44.7 percent in December. In general, though, the trait has never been a problem for Giannis. Off the court he keeps it muted, always measured, always saying the right thing. But on the court, it's a different story. He's never shy about letting you know how great he is, and on Thursday night he staked his claim to the throne, both literally and metaphorically.
Running back down the court after that dagger 3, Giannis tapped his head vigorously, placing an imaginary crown on his head. "I wear this s--- now," he appeared to say. He ducked out quickly after the game without addressing that incident, but his message was clear enough. With 34 points, 11 rebounds, seven assists and a career-high five 3-pointers in the Bucks' 111-104 victory over LeBron and the Lakers, he left no doubt that he's the best player in the world.
After the game, LeBron offered only a mimed tip-of-the-cap when asked about the strong shooting from the reigning MVP. A gesture of praise, sure, but after Giannis crowned himself during the game, you couldn't have scripted a better moment than "The King" taking his hat off to him.
"Five 3s against us tonight," Lakers coach Frank Vogel said. "Give him credit, the guy works on his game as hard as anybody. Just a terrific, terrific player, and from what I understand a great person. He was too much for us tonight."
That's been a familiar post-game revelation for just about every team that's played the Bucks this season. After beating the West-leading Lakers, they're now 25-4, have the best record in the league to themselves and are yet to lose consecutive games. But after their failure in the Eastern Conference finals last season, they're not celebrating regular season accomplishments too much anymore.
"It's great that we're the No. 1 team in the NBA right now," Giannis said. "But at the end of the day we might see them at the end of the season, so nobody's gonna remember about this regular season game. Our focus is to take it step by step, game by game, get better, improve as a team and our goal was not to lose two in a row and that's what we did. It wasn't who we were playing -- the Lakers or the Clippers, it doesn't really matter -- we just look at ourselves and how we can improve."
The reason it's easy for the Bucks to take that mindset is because it's the same one their best player has for himself. Sure, he'll crown himself after a big moment, but in between games he's always working, always looking for ways to get better.
"I think the most important thing is to try to stay humble," Giannis said. "When you win MVP, and you win 60 games, it's hard. It's like 'okay, what else?' But at the end of the day I realize, and my family realizes, I'm not supposed to be here. I wasn't the No. 1 pick. AD was, LeBron was. I wasn't supposed to be here, I wasn't supposed to go against these two beasts. I'm just happy that I'm here, that I'm going through the process. I always want to be better, do better for my team, and that's what gives me joy. Winning games, that's one thing. But improving and like seeing the result at the end of the day. Man, like, all the shots I made today, I made these shots like four or five years ago. Seeing them go in tonight, that gives me joy, that makes me want to work on other parts of my game. Then I can make those shots three years from now. That's what fills me up with joy."
As he continues to excel, and the Bucks do the same, improving as a player might not be the only thing Giannis has to rely on for joy by the time this summer rolls around.