MILWAUKEE — Any basketball fan would have appreciated the display two of the best young talents in the world put on Monday night.
Giannis Antetokounmpo and Anthony Davis took turns wowing the 12,218 at the BMO Harris Bradley Center. While both finished with career nights, it was the Pelicans superstar who stole the show.
Davis matched his career high with 43 points and added 10 rebounds, six assists and two blocks to lead New Orleans to a 114-103 victory over Milwaukee in a game much closer than the final score indicated.
"Down the stretch I think we had a chance, but AD finished it out for them," Bucks center John Henson said. "That’s why he’s the man there. We couldn’t stop him tonight and that ultimately lost us the game.
"We’re not the first team to see it and won’t be the last."
Despite the Pelicans shooting 61.4 percent through three quarters, the Bucks hung around thanks to making 14 of their 15 free throw attempts in the third quarter.
Milwaukee took a 101-100 lead on a jumper by Antetokounmpo with 3:35 to play, but Davis responded with eight straight points to start what was a 14-2 run by New Orleans to close out the game.
"I just knew what position we are in," Davis said. "We’ve got to win games. I wasn’t trying to lose tonight. That was my mindset. Especially once Tyreke (Evans) went down (with a left ankle injury), I knew guys were going to lean on me more. I just tried not to let the team lose."
It was clear from the start the Bucks were going to have a tough time slowing Davis. The MVP candidate hit six of his first seven field-goal attempts and had 14 points after the first quarter.
Davis, who turns 22 years old on Wednesday, was scoring every way possible, including hitting contested jump shots from various distances, displaying unfair versatility for a 6-foot-10 power forward.
The Bucks tried three different defenders on Davis, but there wasn’t much anybody could do to slow the All-Star.
"He had (14) in the first quarter and it was coming effortlessly," Pelicans guard Norris Cole said. "His midrange jumper is so pure. Once he gets that rolling it is pretty tough to stop him. Then you have to close out on him and he’s agile enough to go around you. Plus he rebounds and makes free throws. Once he gets going like that, you are going to be in for a long night."
It would have been a much longer night for the Bucks without Antetokounmpo. Guarded by Davis for most of the game, Antetokounmpo scored a career-high 29 points on 11-of-16 shooting.
Antetokounmpo admitted afterwards he was motivated to play against Davis. It was as if a flip was switched for the 20-year-old, who really struggled Saturday in Milwaukee’s win over Washington.
"He just wasn’t hesitating," Bucks coach Jason Kidd said of Antetokounmpo. "I think he was being aggressive. He was giving the bump and not waiting for them to bump him. He got some great looks and he knocked them down. We’ve got to build on this.
"When he gets a small on him, we want him to be aggressive and be a playmaker. If a big comes, he has the ability to find open guys. Tonight he was getting to the basket and getting to the free throw line.
Milwaukee paraded to the foul line in the third quarter thanks to Antetokounmpo and Michael Carter-Williams, as each scored 13 points and combined to make 12 of 13 free-throw attempts.
The Pelicans were up 92-88 with 9:57 to play when Davis went to the bench. Milwaukee was unable to capitalize while he was out, as New Orleans grew its lead by two points during the two minutes, five seconds it played without its superstar.
However, a 9-2 run capped by two straight buckets by Antetokounmpo gave the Bucks a 101-100 lead with 3:36 left.
Davis answered 20 seconds later by hitting a contested 20-foot jumper to give New Orleans the lead back for good. After a missed 3-point attempt by Carter-Williams, Davis connected on a fall-away baseline jumper to extend his team’s lead to 104-101.
A missed jump shot and a turnover by Carter-Williams led to four more points by Davis, who iced the game with another long jump shot with 50.9 seconds on the clock.
"We look for him to do that," Pelicans coach Monty Williams said. "We don’t take it for granted. We feel like he has the capability to not just take over games on offense but on defense as well.
"He felt a lot of remorse and felt bad about the way they were scoring in the third and that a couple of them were on him. So he takes that stuff to heart and we look for him to bring us through in moments like that."
Davis is averaging 33.5 points, 11.8 rebounds, 4.5 blocks and 2.8 assists in the four games since he returned from a five-game absence due to a sprained right shoulder.
The Pelicans have won eight of their last 10, including three of four since Davis came back, to move to within 1/2 game of Oklahoma City for the final playoff spot in the Western Conference.
While Golden State’s Stephen Curry and Houston’s James Harden are certainly deserving, Davis has to at least be in the discussion for MVP.
"You have to appreciate it," Cole said of how rare of a talent Davis is. "He makes our job a lot easier out there, offensively and defensively. That’s what makes him special. He doesn’t do it on one end. He does it on both ends. He plays with a high motor. When he has it going like that you keep feeding him."
Meanwhile, the Bucks lost for the fifth time in six games to fall to 33-30. There were positive signs Monday, especially offensively. Carter-Williams seems to be catching on to Kidd’s system, while Antetokounmpo broke out of a mini-funk.
With 19 games to play, Milwaukee is holding onto the sixth seed in the Eastern Conference by 4 1/2 games over Charlotte and Indiana, while the Bucks are in the playoffs by five games.
"We’re going to get better with time as you can see," Henson said.