LOS ANGELES (AFP) - LeBron James wants to honor Kobe Bryant by making the Los Angeles Lakers an NBA champion again as Giannis Antetokounmpo tries to lead the Milwaukee Bucks to the top for the first time since 1971.
The superstars are on a collision course as the league season resumes Thursday (Friday in PH) following the NBA All-Star Game break, with the Los Angeles Clippers and defending champion Toronto Raptors hot on the heels of the two conference leaders.
There’s an extra hunger for the Lakers in the wake of Bryant’s shocking death last month in a helicopter crash that killed eight others.
“I promise you I’ll continue your legacy,” James wrote in an Instagram posting on the day after Bryant’s death.
James left Cleveland to win his first NBA titles with Miami in 2012 and 2013 then returned to the Cavaliers and fulfilled his vow to make his home-region club a champion in 2016 before departing in 2018 for the Lakers.
Together with powerful center Anthony Davis, James has sparked the Lakers to a 41-12 start and the Western Conference lead by four games over Denver and five over the Clippers.
James is averaging 25.0 points, 7.8 rebounds and a league-high 10.8 assists a game.
Kawhi Leonard, who led Toronto to last season’s NBA crown, has combined with Paul George to lift the Clippers into contention. They have beaten the Lakers twice and played them twice more this season.
Greek star Antetokounmpo has the Bucks hungry to make history as well. They were two games from reaching the NBA Finals for the first time since 1974 before dropping four straight to the Raptors last May.
Antetokounmpo won the NBA Most Valuable Player Award but missing out on the trip to the finals spoiled a 60-win campaign.
At a league-best 46-8, the Bucks would need to win their final 28 games to break Golden State’s greatest one-season record mark of 73-9, but a 70-win campaign is well within reach and another chance at the NBA Finals could be in Milwaukee’s grasp as well.
The Bucks won their only crown in 1971 when Lew Alcindor, the eventual all-time NBA scoring leader who would later change his name to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, won the season and NBA Finals MVP awards in only his second season in the league.
Antetokounmpo ranks second in NBA scoring at 30.0 points a game and fifth in rebounding with 13.5 boards per contest.
The Bucks will be at Detroit on Thursday when the NBA season resumes.
Plenty of other NBA stars will try and lift their teams into the championship hunt.
NBA scoring leader James Harden, seeking a third consecutive season points crown, is averaging 35.3 for the Houston Rockets, who rank fifth in the West at 34-20 with Oklahoma City and Dallas hot on their heels.
Memphis is fighting to keep the eighth and last West playoff spot with guard Ja Morant boasting solid NBA Rookie of the Year credentials with 17.6 points and 7.1 assists a game.
The New Orleans Pelicans, 5.5 games behind Memphis, figure to make a run at a playoff berth behind newcomer Zion Williamson, who missed 44 games with a knee injury but has made an impressive start to his league career.
The Raptors, sparked by Cameroon star Pascal Siakam, won 15 of 16 starts before the All-Star break and will face the Bucks three more times in the final two months of the season.
Boston, Miami, Philadelphia and Indiana are all fighting for playoff positions while Brooklyn and Orlando cling to the final East playoff positions.