James surges, Giannis sits and a reminder health is the key

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              Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James, right, shoots as Los Angeles center Ivica Zubac defends during the first half of an NBA basketball game Sunday, March 8, 2020, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)
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LeBron James was making a statement on the court when the Milwaukee Bucks had to make one of their own.

Giannis Antetokounmpo had been hurt two nights earlier while losing to James and the Los Angeles Lakers, and on Sunday afternoon they said the reigning MVP had a minor sprain of his left knee and would miss at least two games.

Shortly after, James and the Lakers closed out the Clippers for another big win. Milwaukee lost again later Sunday and dropped a third in a row Monday in Denver while resting other regulars.

It was a reminder that everything in the NBA always comes down to health.

James and the Lakers have it right now, along with suddenly the look of the team to beat.

“I feel like right now I’m just playing some really good basketball,” James said. “Last year obviously started out really well but the injury hurt me a lot physically and mentally as well, having an injury like that.”

That was a groin injury he sustained while the Lakers were blowing out Golden State on Christmas Day. It continued to trouble him until he was shut down for the season in late March.

Now, he’s the Western Conference player of the week, averaging 30.3 points, 10 assists and 8.1 rebounds in his last nine games. The Lakers (49-13) have won 11 of 12 to close in on Milwaukee (53-12) for the league’s best record.

Just a few days earlier, the Bucks were potentially on pace to join the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls and 2015-16 Golden State Warriors as the only teams to win 70 games.

Those Warriors fell short of a title after Stephen Curry hurt his knee in the first round and never appeared to fully regain his rhythm after returning.

So, as long as Antetokounmpo’s injury is indeed minor, the Bucks will be glad it comes in March and not May.

And the Lakers will hopes James looks as good then as he does now.

“For me, I prepare myself, both my body and my mind, to endure anything even at this stage of my career,” the 35-year-old James said. “I know what it needs, what it takes for me to be prepared mentally and physically to go out and perform at a high level and it’s my responsibility to put this team in a position to be successful.”

GAMES TO WATCH THIS WEEK

Utah at Oklahoma City, Wednesday. The Thunder’s surge into fifth place makes this a possible playoff preview.

New Orleans at Sacramento, Wednesday. Time is short for these teams after they began the week four games back of eighth-place Memphis.

Denver at Dallas, Wednesday. Nikola Jokic and Luka Doncic can control games with their scoring or their passing.

Brooklyn at the Clippers, Friday. Both teams made big splashes in July, but only the Clippers have been able to put their duo on the court together.

Memphis at Portland, Thursday. The Trail Blazers can’t really afford to fall another game back of the final playoff spot.

CASEY’S CHALLENGE

March can be a drag for NBA teams that aren’t in a playoff race, playing out a string of 20 or so games before the offseason work begins.

Dwane Casey hasn’t had much of that.

He coached a playoff team his final five years in Toronto and his first season in Detroit, but the Pistons are now near the bottom of the NBA.

Still, Casey said he’s having fun.

“I get frustrated, I get upset because we’re not in the race, but at the same time I enjoy teaching, I enjoy coaching young guys,” Casey said. “I get frustrated with them, but I enjoy it if that makes sense.”

Young guys weren’t supposed to be a focal point for the Pistons this season. The Pistons expected to have a powerful punch up front with Blake Griffin and Andre Drummond, shooting with Luke Kennard and veteran guards who can make it all work with Derrick Rose and Reggie Jackson.

None of them is on the court, and Drummond and Jackson aren’t even on the roster. The Pistons are getting good play from Christian Wood and trying to see if any of their young guards can be their point guard in the future. They have dropped four straight and at 20-45 will be sending Casey to his first time out of the postseason since 2012-13, his first season in Toronto.

“It’s disappointing because our goals were totally different going into the season. We had playoff aspirations of moving up into the playoffs because we made it last year and then Blake goes down, Reggie Jackson goes down, and then Luke goes down and Derrick Rose goes down,” Casey said. “So, the injury bug just depleted us and upstairs made a decision, let’s start playing and developing the young guys and we moved some people.

“So it put the headlights right on the young guys. It’s tough but yet still it needed to be done just to give us a head start, kick-start of building our program, of building our team, our roster with the right pieces.”