LOS ANGELES (AFP, REUTERS) - Giannis Antetokounmpo scored 34 points as the Milwaukee Bucks defeated LeBron James' Los Angeles Lakers 111-104 to claim the best record in the National Basketball Association on Thursday (Dec 19).
In a pulsating duel between the leaders of the Eastern and Western Conferences, it was Milwaukee who claimed early bragging rights in a potential match-up of NBA Finals contenders.
Antetokounmpo added 11 rebounds and seven assists for an impressive night's work, while George Hill had 21 off the bench. Khris Middleton scored 15 points with Wesley Matthews adding 13 and Brook Lopez 10.
The victory left Milwaukee five games clear at the top of the Eastern Conference with 25 wins against four defeats.
Antetokounmpo praised the Bucks' team effort for setting up the win - but played down the significance of the result.
"It wasn't a special game," he told reporters. "It's great that we're the No. 1 team in the NBA right now, but we might end up playing them at the end of the season. No one's going to remember this regular season game then."
James, meanwhile, completed a triple double of 21 points, 12 rebounds and 11 assists while Anthony Davis led the Lakers' scoring with 36 points and 10 rebounds at Milwaukee's Fiserv Forum.
The Lakers were always chasing the game after a devastating burst of scoring from the Bucks in the second quarter, when they pulled clear of the visitors to gain a decisive advantage.
The Lakers, aiming to avoid a second straight defeat on the road, had stayed in touch early on, trailing only by 23-17 at the end of the first quarter. The 17-point total was the lowest Lakers first-quarter score of the season.
The Bucks soon went 12 points clear at 29-17 in the second quarter, and with 5:30 left in the half, had moved into a 21-point advantage at 49-28.
By half-time the Bucks were 65-46 ahead, firmly in control after a 42-point second quarter.
The Lakers rallied hard after the restart, finding greater shooting accuracy from the floor to cut the Milwaukee lead to 89-81 at the start of the fourth quarter.
Milwaukee, however, always managed to find a three-pointer when it mattered, with Matthews delivering a hammer blow in the final minutes with a three-pointer that put Milwaukee 106-94 ahead after James had missed a three-point attempt that could have put the Lakers within six points.
That 12-point deficit proved too great for the Lakers, who remain on top of the Western Conference despite the defeat, with a record of 24-5.
Strong third quarter helps Rockets beat Clippers
In Thursday's other heavyweight NBA showdown, Russell Westbrook delivered a 40-point masterclass as the Houston Rockets scored a 122-117 win over the Los Angeles Clippers at the Staples Centre.
The Clippers looked to be heading for an emphatic victory after a dominant first-half display, opening up a 15-point cushion to lead 69-54 at half-time.
But Westbrook raised the tempo in the third quarter and was virtually unplayable as the Rockets outscored the Clippers 36-18 to take a 90-87 lead into the final quarter.
Although Kawhi Leonard and Paul George battled back to help the Clippers take a 113-107 lead with 4:29 remaining, the Rockets finished strongly to close out the win.
Westbrook finished with 40 points, 10 rebounds and five assists while teammate James Harden had 28 points and 10 assists.
George led the scoring for the Clippers with 34 points while Leonard finished with 25 points and nine rebounds.
The Rockets improved to 19-9 with the victory, leaving them fourth in the Western Conference.
The Clippers remain in second place with 21 wins and nine defeats, 3.5 games behind the Lakers.
In another game, Donovan Mitchell scored 30 points, including a reverse lay-up that put Utah ahead down the stretch en route to beating hosts Atlanta 111-106. The win was the fourth straight for the Jazz while the Hawks suffered their sixth straight loss.
Mitchell was 12-for 22 from the field, only one of them a three-pointer, and added five rebounds and five assists. The Jazz also got 20 points and 13 rebounds from Rudy Gobert. Bojan Bogdanovic added 19 points and nine rebounds and Joe Ingles scored 14.
Atlanta got 30 points from Trae Young, who was playing with a right thigh contusion and went 9-for-28 from the field, but added eight assists. Jabari Parker scored 23 points, 11 in the first period, and had nine rebounds.
Meanwhile, Patty Mills scored a season-high 27 points off the bench and led rallies at the end of the third and fourth quarters, as hosts San Antonio roared from behind to beat Brooklyn 118-105.
Mills scored 11 points over the final three minutes of the third quarter to shoot the Spurs into the lead and then nailed a pair of three-pointers and two free throws in the game's last 4:08 to allow San Antonio to hold on for the win. He was 7 of 10 from beyond the arc in the game.
LaMarcus Aldridge added 20 points and 10 rebounds in the victory for the Spurs, with Derrick White and Dejounte Murray scoring 13 points each, DeMar DeRozan hitting for 12, and Marco Belinelli contributing 11 points for San Antonio.