HOUSTON — A dominant all-around performance in the Milwaukee Bucks’ 116-109 road win over reigning MVP James Harden’s Rockets on Wednesday could have provided Giannis Antetokounmpo a massive platform to begin campaigning for the NBA’s most prestigious individual honor.
Antetokounmpo, however, dismissed the early MVP discussion like he so often sidesteps defenders with his long-legged Euro step.
“All I care about is winning, to be honest with you,” Antetokounmpo said after scoring 27 points, grabbing a career-high 21 rebounds and dishing out 5 assists for the East-leading Bucks in the win. “I know by winning — doing whatever it takes out there, helping your teammates and just leaving it everything on the floor — everything will take care of itself.”
If Antetokounmpo needs a campaign manager, Milwaukee big man Brook Lopez seems up to the task.
“I definitely think it’s our belief inside this locker room, and a lot just around the league, that we have the best player in the league right here,” Lopez said. “He does it in so many ways. He makes so many of his players better. He’s all over the court constantly. It’s so impressive to watch every night.”
Harden, who has repeatedly and adamantly declared recently that he expects to win MVP, did nothing to diminish his odds despite an outstanding defensive effort by the Bucks, who frequently forced Harden to drive to his right and into Milwaukee’s big men. Harden had 42 points, 11 rebounds and 6 assists but was 13-of-30 from the floor and committed 9 turnovers.
Harden’s brilliance in the fourth quarter allowed the Rockets to slash a 15-point deficit to three with 2:37 remaining, when he hit a tough floater. But Harden missed his final four shots, including a pair of potential tying 3-pointers on the possession following his floater.
Antetokounmpo scored the dagger points in a fitting manner, flying in from the wing for a tip-in that put the Bucks up six points with 39.1 seconds to play.
“He just does everything,” Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said. “He has a huge impact on winning.”
Antetokounmpo has put himself in the conversation about the league’s best players by efficiently averaging 26.6 points, 12.8 rebounds and 6.0 assists and playing dominant defense for a Milwaukee team that has the NBA’s best winning percentage (29-11, .725). The Greek Freak is a unique talent capable of protecting the rim defensively and creating off the dribble offensively — often his own spectacular slam dunks.
“He’s not normal,” Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni said. “I mean, that guy is 7 feet and has the [body] control, and all that he does. The guy is a great, great player, so he’s in the [MVP] conversation, because they’re playing so well. And he should be, but we’ve got a lot of basketball left.
“We’re only halfway there. He and James are up there with a couple of other guys, and it’ll sort itself out.”
Harden, whose league-leading scoring average is up to 33.9 points per game after his franchise-record-tying 12th 40-point performance of the season, acknowledged that Antetokounmpo has earned his way into the discussion about who is the best player in the league.
“He’s up there,” Harden said. “He’s definitely [elite], just the way he impacts the game.”
Antetokounmpo didn’t want any part of a discussion about how the MVP race was shaping up as the NBA season’s midway point nears. He called the nationally televised win over Harden’s Rockets “just another game,” acknowledging it was fun playing in that kind of spotlight but emphasizing that the Bucks winning was important, not his individual statistics.
Informed that Lopez declared that the Bucks believe he’s the league’s best player, Antetokounmpo smiled and joked that the big man is “my No. 1 fan.” But Antetokounmpo admitted that such status ranks high among his goals.
“To be honest with you, all I care about right now is getting better, helping my team win,” Antetokounmpo said. “And [becoming the league’s best player is] going to take care of itself. I know that one day it might happen. I don’t know if I’m there yet, but I’m going to do whatever it takes to get there, because that’s what I want to be.”