PHILADELPHIA • The signs are all pointing towards Giannis Antetokounmpo picking up his first Most Valuable Player of the Year award.
It has been a stellar season for the "Greek Freak". He captained an All-Star team for the first time in February and is the National Basketball Association's (NBA) No. 3 scorer with 27.7 points per game this term.
And, after scoring 45 points to spur the Milwaukee Bucks to a 128-122 comeback win over the Philadelphia 76ers on Thursday, his monster night "felt like a statement" ahead of the MVP voting, which starts following the end of the regular season next Wednesday.
After clinching the East's No. 1 seed (59-20) for the first time in their history - the last time the Bucks topped their conference was in 1974 in the West - coach Mike Budenholzer hailed his Greek star as "an MVP in our eyes".
He said: "Giannis, that's kind of how he's built - to play against the best and compete and just lay it all on the line. A little something on the line for us with the No. 1 seed.
"Especially what he does defensively with five blocks and 13 rebounds and changes the game. It's been a really special year."
Teammate George Hill, who had 20 points, agreed before warning the rest of the league that he was "only getting better".
The guard told The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: "He's been like that all year - resilient, humble and fun to be around, and he's going to continue to be Giannis throughout his career."
While the Sixers' All-Star centre Joel Embiid recorded his second career triple-double with 34 points, 13 rebounds and 13 assists, the hosts (49-30) failed to secure third seed in the East, something coach Brett Brown attributed to their inability to cope with the offence led by the irrepressible Antetokounmpo.
But the forward was more keen to reflect on how his growth from a raw rookie to marquee player has coincided with a rise in the team's fortunes, insisting he "was just trying to make plays and trying to find the opportunity to attack".
The 24-year-old told the Sentinel post-game: "It's amazing, man. It's a journey, a six-year journey.
"Hopefully, we can keep getting better and we can reach our goals - that is, to win the championship."
Locking down home-court advantage for the rest of the play-offs will certainly give them every chance of making their first trip to the NBA Finals since 1974, the same year Bucks legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar won his third MVP award.
In Los Angeles, DeMarcus Cousins scored 21 points as the Golden State Warriors boosted their chances of securing the top seed in the West by clobbering the Los Angeles Lakers 108-90.
The two-time defending NBA champions, who lead the West, improved to 54-24 with just four regular season games left, two ahead of the second-placed Denver Nuggets.
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS